Neidig in the production booth at the Laird Performing Arts Center at the Tatnall School, where he has taught for the past seven years.
By Richard L. Gaw
It is the morning of June 16 at the
Laird Performing Arts Center at the Tatnall School in Greenville,
exactly one day before the opening of Delaware All-State Theatre's
production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,
and Tatnall's technical director Rick Neidig is the coolest cat in
In nearly every theatrical production -- whether it is Broadway, community theater or the school cafeteria -- there is a block of time that is reserved for the technical crew to synchronize sound and lighting cues. While other techies scurry around the theater in an attempt to finish a theatrical punch-list, Neidig's focus is that of comfort and control. Standing at a console in the darkened control room, he flicks levers and presses buttons as if they are an extension of his hands, and down below, past the empty 525 seats of the cavernous performance space on the stage, the young actors are suddenly and magically lifted by a spectrum of lights.
There it is, right there -- the kaleidoscope of light that Neidig has created in his mind for this musical, becoming a nearly-complete canvas -- the precious moment when the creative and the technical play in the schoolyard and discover that there really are no boundaries to their imagination. They want to do more, create more, and burst open the seams to a reality that is better than the one defined as accepted convention.
He's worked at more than 160 theaters and concert halls around the world, from a 2,500-seat Roman amphitheater to the Bob Hope Theater in Palm Springs, Calif., to community theater productions in Newark and Wilmington, to touring with George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers all over the United States. He has been the full-time technical director at the school for the past seven years, following 18 years as the lighting director and director of production at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington. Rick Neidig has been defying accepted convention for more than 30 years.
With every concert, play or musical -- he's created stage lighting and sound for 32 Showcase productions at Tatnall -- Neidig approaches his work by attempting to define the various tonalities of it.
"I always approach my work from the standpoint of what the customer wants," Neidig said during a break in the musical's technical production. "In the case of a play, for instance, I read the script and begin to form ideas. In some productions, it's the theatrical aspect, while in others, the focus is on the word. I also consider the time of day the production is set in, as well as its mood and its vibe and its colors.
"Very often, I never feel like a show that I design is ever complete," he said. "I'm never satisfied and I'm never done and there's always more that I could do."
It's part of a restless and creative spirit that has followed Neidig around like a companion since he first became involved in theater when he was a student at the Air Base High School in Dover.
"I had no idea what I was doing," he said. "I was building sets in the school cafeteria, and when someone said they wanted a yellow wall, I thought they were asking for a real yellow wall, not just particle board painted yellow."
After beginning as an architecture major at the University of Texas at Austin, Neidig transferred to Penn State and then back to Texas, before eventually transferring to the University of Delaware in his sophomore year.
"I was living off campus with three other guys and I was ready to quit school, and my adviser pointed to some core classes that he suggested I take," he said. " I saw that there was a lighting class, taught by Tom Watson. I took the class and at the end of the semester, Tom asked me, 'Are you a theater major?' I told him that I wasn't. He said, 'Let me talk to your parents about this.' He brought them to campus, had dinner with them, and invited them to a show that we were involved in called Hot L Baltimore.
"I then became a theater major."
Neidig received 44 acceptances to graduate schools and 11 full-scholarship offers to study theater production, and weeded down his choices to Yale University, Purdue University and Missouri Repertory Theater. A friend of his told him that the rock star George Thorogood needed someone to drive his stage gear to begin the start of his tour in New Hampshire.
A week before the tour, Thorogood's roadie invited Neidig to join the tour. College would have to wait. He remained on the road with the band for the next year -- hitting city after American city -- and then joined The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater production team for the next three years.
After four solid years of touring around the world, first with Thorogood and then with Alvin Ailey, Neidig was anxious to get off the road. It all came to a halt one day when he was with the dance company in Dubai, India.
"I was physically tired just from flying, so here I was, dressed in a silk Madison Square Garden jacket and Syrian scarf, and I asked the flight manager at the Dubai airport, just for fun, 'By the way, how much would the Concorde cost to get back to the U.S. from France?' I paid for the flight with my frequent-flier miles, on a flight from Paris to New York."
Soon after he returned to Delaware, Neidig was hired as the lighting director at the Grand Opera House, and eventually became the director of production. He remained there for the next 18 years, working on hundreds of shows. During that time, he was also instrumental in developing the Baby Grand theater next door to the Grand Opera House.
Opened in 2007, the 23,000-square-foot Laird Performing Arts Center features a 40-foot proscenium with a 38-foot deep stage (from the curtain), dressing rooms, full scene shop, multipurpose room and the following technical capabilities. It also includes 288 dimmers, 236 light fixtures, 54 front of house lighting positions, 120 onstage overhead electric positions, 64 stage level electric positions, clear-com communication to all technical positions, several light and sound booths, an acoustically designed wall configuration, a state-of-the-art sound system with ten channels of wireless microphones, and a video projection capabilities with computer and video interface.
In short, the theater is fully jacked, and if Neidig knows every last bell and whistle to the place, it is because he helped design it -- even before he began full-time at the school.
"I wanted the theater to be capable enough to allow for a full ballet company to come in here and do a full production on this stage," he said. "I wanted no cabling on the ground, but rather, have it placed in the ceiling, so that no one would ever trip backstage.
"I sat in at all meetings to make sure that they did the right things. I would crank out my mechanical engineering training and provide them with metric calculations. 'So you do know what you're doing,' they'd say. I'd tell them. 'I'm not just an arty-farty dude who likes to play in the theater.'"
Neidig looks at the technical aspects of a theater production as more than just some people pulling levers from a dark and distant booth -- but almost as another character in the production itself. When he created the lighting design for Sam Shepard's True West the Chapel Street Theater in Newark, Neidig, a fan of the playwright, noted that the play takes place in the Mojave Desert.
I purposely created the lighting tonality to an acidic, green-yellow tone that bathed the actors and the stage," he said. "I wanted the audience to feel thirsty and hot by the end of the play. If you know what you're doing with frequencies in sound and in tones of lighting, you can influence that which creeps into the audience member's mind and makes them feel something, and contributes to a visceral reaction."
At the core of Neidig's position at Tatnall is his role as a teacher. In every one of the 32 theater showcases he has done at Tatnall, he works side-by-side with his students for as long as three weeks prior to each production -- and then stands back to let the students operate all technical aspects of a production. For several of his past students, they've taken their theater bug and made it a part of their present and potentially their future; many have gone on to major in theatrical production and stage management in college.
Among the many lessons Neidig imparts to his students, perhaps his most honest one comes from the background of his own experiences -- that while the making of theater is often a thrilling ride, it is also a transient one.
"I get to go through the catharsis of design, but then I get to go through the catharsis of ripping it all down," Neidig said. "I've always tell people that my favorite time on a stage has been eight o'clock in the morning -- because at that point of the day, it's all about possibilities -- and one o'clock at night -- after it all gets torn down and moves on.
"When I see students get freaked out when they tear down a set because they've worked so hard on it for two months, I tell them that this is part of the process. For the ones who are most reluctant, I tell them, 'Here's a hammer. Smash something.' The whole point of theater is to do the work, and then move on. You make your memories and you move on. You take what you have learned from this small piece of your life, and you move on."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.