When the credits roll at the end of a movie, the names of the actors and actresses are followed by a much longer list of names. These are the people who work off-camera to create the set, costumes and more. They plan, design and assemble integral aspects of the production. Without them, the show could not exist.
Cal Poly is lucky enough to have one such behind-the-scenes man. He is many things: a carpenter, welder, engineer, architect, electrician, staff member and informal teacher. To call him “a man of many talents” would be an understatement.
As technical director of Cal Poly’s theatre and dance department and lighting designer for Orchesis Dance Company, 36-year-old Clint Bryson’s passion for theatre production paved the way for an unusually multifaceted lifestyle.
Bryson’s main domain is Cal Poly’s scene shop. He punches in a code and opens the door, as he does every day. The room beyond is surprisingly large. A high ceiling towers above. Scraps of wood lay in heaps in bins. Intimidating power tools scatter through the space. The dry, earthy smell of wood lingers in the air, and with the spring show already completed, the scene shop is unusually clean — hardly a speck of sawdust is visible on the floor.
One of Bryson’s favorite tools, a table saw, sits in the center of the room, waiting to be brought to life. One of the most recent additions to the shop is a cold cut metal saw, which still looks shiny and new.
Bryson turns on the machine, which immediately emits a buzzing roar, and liquid erupts from the top of the tool.
“It uses a cooling fluid to reduce the friction and make it so there’s no sparks,” Bryson explained.
Working in tandem with his fondness for power tools is Bryson’s love of theatre — theatre production, to be precise. Bryson has had a passion for theatre since childhood, but he didn’t know about technical theatre until college. While acting at the University of Arizona, he was exposed to the technical side of the industry and loved it.
“I found I could work in theatre and do something that, for me, was very theatrical — still telling stories, still working in that environment with those people, but I (could) get paid to do it,” Bryson said.
Bryson also discovered that working behind the scenes gave him the same exhilaration and adrenaline rush as acting on stage before an audience. He had found his true niche.
As the scene shop supervisor, Bryson designs sets for Cal Poly productions and also helps facilitate the stagecraft class, doing a type of informal co-teaching as a staff member with the faculty professor. Bryson’s job is a balance of management and technical abilities.
“It’s a weird conglomeration of a lot of skills,” he said. “I’m a jack of many trades. I’d like to think I’m master of a few.”
Bryson said a set is a like a real breathing thing: It must exist visually but also be functional.
“It’s got to be (created) in a way that can be utilized that helps tell the story, because even though we’re building artistic things, we’re not making art pieces,” Bryson said. “We’re making a set, an environment that actors then have to interact with.”
But in the fast-paced world of theatre and production, perfection is rarely an option.
“There’s good, fast and cheap,” Bryson said. “Pick two.”
Missing deadlines is not an option when you have a paying audience, so time is typically the biggest enemy. Especially in the quarter system, where the first five weeks of the stagecraft class are dedicated to building the show and the following weeks help shift the production into the theatre, Bryson and the students must work quickly and efficiently to complete their projects in time.
In the shop, Bryson’s main priorities are safety and student confidence in their own abilities, because many of them have never touched a power tool in their lives, let alone built something with one.
“It can be frustrating for someone who’s never used a screw gun to screw something together,” Bryson said. “There’s ways that I can help them be more successful at it, both from talking them through it but also setting them up with the right tools and the right methods to be successful.”
Bryson is a mentor to junior theatre arts major Nathan Norris, who’s continually inspired by Bryson to pursue technical directing. One of the biggest things Norris learned from two years of work with Bryson was welding. Though the process was difficult at first, Norris was struck by Bryson’s unrelenting patience.
“I would weld for a while until it was just this ugly mess and then he would go through and talk about each one and what had gone right and what had gone wrong,” Norris said.
By gently pushing people’s boundaries, Bryson promotes improvement by slowly increasing their comfort level little by little.
“He’s good at finding exactly where people’s comfort stops and then having them work right about there until they’re more comfortable,” Norris said. “A lot of people have gone into the class not wanting to do any power tools and come out of it having a really good time.”
Bryson sincerely enjoys teaching, so interacting with inexperienced students isn’t an onerous task — instead, it’s a fun challenge. The most rewarding part of the process for him is seeing the students’ progress.
“Especially seeing students who have never worked with power tools, who have never built something, to see them stand back and go, ‘Wow, I just made that. That’s a real thing and that’s kind of cool,’ is a lot of fun,” he said.
Fortunately, Bryson has never been part of a production that’s suffered any major disasters, but there have been a few funny moments. While working at a theatre complex for a past job, he was in his office one day during a biblical play when the show’s director came frantically running in asking for help.
The production’s Joseph was a no-show and they needed a last-minute replacement.
“I was like, ‘Joseph doesn’t wear jeans,’” Bryson said. But, of course, he threw on a robe, took off his shoes and walked onstage to fill the role.
Before coming to Cal Poly, Bryson worked for seven years as a scene shop foreman in high school in Tuscon, Arizona. There, he created some of his most memorable pieces. He made his own unique model of the infamous barbershop chair for the high school’s production of “Sweeney Todd,” complete with springs and levers so it actually functioned as it should.
After studying and working in theatre production over the years, Bryson’s way of observing performances has changed. His inexhaustible passion has escaped the professional domain and permeated the rest of his life.
“I can’t watch a show and just enjoy it anymore,” he said. “I’m looking at what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, where that light’s coming from.”
Unsurprisingly, Bryson is well-loved in the theatre and dance department.
“Everybody likes Clint,” Norris said. “Clint is fantastic both because he’s super nice and great and good at his job, but also because he just gets things done.”
But it’s not just about completing a project — it’s also about the process of that creation. And Bryson tries to make the scene shop as fun as possible while still being conducive to learning.
“I’ll throw down some Jay Z in the shop,” he said, smiling but serious.
Josh Machamer, chair of the theatre and dance department, has noticed that people gravitate toward Bryson.
“He has a natural tenacity to draw people in because of a genuineness that he offers,” Machamer said. “I know what I’m going to get every day. There’s no surprises and I think that’s really refreshing.”
Theatre can be a high-stress place when you mix passionate people with different personalities and different deadlines, but Machamer said Bryson is “a stable entity we can rely on.”
When Bryson is not at work or catching up on the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” he’s spending time with his family: a wife, a 10-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.
“I’m a very simple person in a lot of ways,” he said. “I have theatre and family. I try not to clutter my life with much else.”
If there’s a job to do, whether it be designing a set or coaching his son’s futsal team, Bryson finds a way and does it well.
As they say, the show must go on, and Clint Bryson is there to make sure it does.