Incoming USITT president and newly inducted USITT Fellow, Dan Culhane, is no stranger to the live entertainment industry.
In fact, being president is one of many hats Dan wears daily. In addition to working for Wenger/J.R. Clancy as a Senior Mechanical Engineer, Dan continues to raise his two children with his wife, Production Stage Manager for the Guthrie Theater, Tree O’Halloran.
Prior to his current position, he spent 16 years at SECOA as the Engineering Manager and Technical Business Development Manager, responsible for converting architectural drawings and consultant’s specifications into manufacturing drawings as well as facilitating the design of specific solutions to venue-specific problems.
He spent 15 years as a technical director working for theaters across the country including the Guthrie Theater, The Children’s Theatre Company, both in Minneapolis, StageWest, Springfield, Mass, and Great Lakes Theatre Festival.
He serves on the ESTA Technical Standards Program, where he is co-chair of the Stage Lift Working Group and is also a member of the Rigging Working Group. He is a member of the UL Standards Technical Panel for Fire Doors (STP 10) and serves as an alternate committee member to the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Doors and Windows.
USITT welcomes Dan as the incoming president. To kick off his new role, we sat down and got to know him on a more personal level.
How did you get your start in the live entertainment industry?
I walked into it in grade school and then followed through in high school. I was walking outside the gym on the street and saw these colored lights through the windows and I said, “I wonder what’s going on there,” and basically walked in and people said, “Hey we’re doing this. Want to help?” And I said, “Sure.”
Did you learn your skills from schooling or on the job training?
What I know now? Both. I learned a lot in undergraduate school. I learned a whole lot about the practicality of things. Then I went to grad school to learn more about the book end of things. I went to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale for undergrad and then went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate school.
Where did your career start?
Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland, Ohio. I got that job through my network at UWM because the designer, John Ezell, was also the designer out there and he asked, “What are you doing this summer?” and I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Why don’t you apply at Great Lakes?” I wound up at that theatre and I have friends from that job who I keep in regular contact with.
What is your favorite show you’ve worked on?
In undergraduate, we did a great Christmas Carol. It was a lot of work and it really was a very nice piece when it was done.
Who are your mentors and biggest influences?
We are a conglomeration of who taught us. In high school, Mike Neilson, who was fantastic as far as giving kids basically no bounds. It’s phenomenal the amount of stuff I was doing in high school including fixing electronic dimmers. In college, it was a guy by the name of Lang Reynolds. He was the lighting designer/technical director, and Darwin Payne who was the scene designer.
Any lessons that have stuck with you?
Don’t be afraid to say no to things. Don’t let school work get in the way of your education. I knew from high school on that I wanted to be a technical director and then you get to be a technical director and sit there wondering what’s next. So, don’t say no to things. You’ll be amazed at where you wind up in life.
How did you start with USITT?
I had heard about it in high school and then in college, Dennis Dorn was my professor and mentor in graduate school and he came up to me and said, “This is an organization you need to get involved with.” I supposed part of getting involved is showing up and continuing to show up.
What pushed you to join the USITT Board?
It’s all about getting involved and staying involved. Show up and continue to show up because it means something. It really does.
What was your first Conference like?
My first Conference was down in Orlando. I was an undergraduate and my parents said, “You really need to go to this.” They footed my bill and I was in a hotel room with six other students. We were crammed in there and it was a place to crash. That was a lot of fun.
How has the Conference changed for you from then to now?
I’m not sleeping six people to a hotel room anymore. I’m amazed that when you first start getting involved, you want to see what you’re looking at — what’s on the surface.
Now when I sit there and come to a Conference, I see a lot more aspects of what’s going on. I see the tradeshow floor being much bigger and more professional. I see our presentations being more professional and higher quality. We’re getting more and more professionals involved, which is important. What I’ve always loved about USITT is that people will stop and help.
A friend of mine said USITT is more like family; that’s great. It’s being able to stop to talk to somebody and not being afraid to as a student seek out people to talk to. Whether it be another student, a professor, or a luminary like Richard Pilbrow, pretty much everybody at the Conference is approachable.
That’s one of the things that I love about USITT: It’s a network. The good thing about networking is that ally networks are going to get you a job. Building a resume is part of that, but even before that it’s the network that’s going to alert you to the job or somebody is going to seek you out because of your network. That is huge for somebody coming into this industry and wanting to get a job.
It’s all about connections.
It is, and that goes back to showing up and stay showing up.
In your new role as president, what are you most looking forward to?
Promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion because it is figuring prominently in our industry.
How would you describe USITT to a non-member?
My soapbox speech would be networking, learning skills, but learning in other areas while also not being afraid to walk into and expose yourself to other things. I’ve always been a curious guy as far as trying to figure stuff out. Not being afraid to walk into a session on motor or lighting control to figure out what it is and how it works.
As the industry gets larger, it’s harder to be a generalist, but you still need that generalist base and be able to know what’s happening on the other side of the fence in order to make a better product. Don’t be afraid to reach out, reach across, and educate yourself in other areas. You always have to expand that. As I tell my children, “Homework doesn’t end when you get out of school. You have to continue to learn and expand your knowledge.”