Backstage in spotlight

Behind every theater production at Wheaton is stagecraft and lighting mastermind Colin McNamee ’04.

The alum, who majored in studio art at Wheaton, graduated more than 10 years ago, but after working in various theaters and venues, he has found his way back on campus as an instructor and technical director.

“After working at a few other institutions—including several academic ones—I find that Wheaton stands out as a kind and generous place. I don’t know of any other place like it,” McNamee said.

As a student, McNamee secured a federal work-study position under former theater manager and technical director Jeffrey Mailhot. “This is where I got most of my technical training, up through graduation,” McNamee said.

In this role, he worked in the shop to build sets like a massive staircase that filled the whole stage for the production Antigone and a two-story house for the play Tartuffe.

Jane Stein, former associate professor of theater, said McNamee executed the sets she designed in a professional way, and that his work on lighting for the shows always helped bring out the best in productions.

“He was a very competent student, so much so that when my friend at Peterborough Players [in New Hampshire] contacted me about possible students for the summer stock season, Colin was the first to come to mind. I knew he would fit in, with his low-key personality and his ability in the scene shop, to do the job,” recalled Stein.

In addition to his technical work at Peterborough Players, McNamee has worked as master carpenter at Stoneham Theater in Stoneham, Mass., and technical director at Stockbridge Theater in Derry, N.H.

He returned to Wheaton as interim technical director, and ended up staying for three years. He went back to school to earn his graduate degree in painting from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and eventually circled back to Wheaton in 2013.

As technical director, McNamee works in scenic production for Wheaton’s four main-stage productions, and assists with the student-directed 10-Minute Plays and New Plays Festival.

He also teaches stagecraft and lighting design, and supervises three students in his back-stage shop. “It’s very hands-on. We practice projects, and then they are off and running with designs in hand and they are expected to build them,” he said.

Theater facilities are highly configurable. For example, with lighting, there are about 130 light fixtures that are all individually controlled by dimmers, he said.

“We start with a blank space, and we do whatever we need to do with it for a particular production. Every show is something new,” McNamee said.

Stage and lighting crafts ultimately reflect the vision of the director. McNamee tells his students that they should find some kind of secret of theirs in their design work that motivates them and makes it fun.

“Like any other job, there are times when the day’s task doesn’t excite you, but you need to push through. But in art we can’t often get away with merely pushing through. There’s no sparkle in that, and the audience can tell. It helps to have something in your back pocket to sustain you through those times, so you can continue to be generous to your audience,” he added.

McNamee’s artistic eye and technical know-how enable him to deliver successful productions, said Professor of Theater David Fox.

“Theater can sometimes be chaotic. In the midst of this hurly-burly, Colin, as professor, designer and technician, is a calming and reassuring presence. Not a lot of noise—just creative, efficient, magnificent work,” Fox said.