Theater professor and student travel to New York City for professional experience

From the classroom to the stage, one lucky student has been given the opportunity to help design an off-Broadway production and work with entertainment stars Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally.

This semester, the Theatre Arts and Dance Department officials can boast of having a professor and student travel to New York to work on an off-Broadway production.

Formerly from Virginia, Taylor Cullen, a theatre major, was chosen for the opportunity by Theatre Arts Department Chair Michael Gend, who would accompany her to the production of “Annapurna.”

The show premiered in Los Angeles in 2013, starring Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson in the television series Parks and Recreation, and Megan Mullally, one of the stars of Will and Grace.

Gend worked on the show where the well-known theater and television actors made it a hit in Los Angeles. After its premiere a producer asked if they wanted to go to New York.

“I got hired to design a production off-Broadway as the lighting designer,” Gend said. “As part of the package I got to pick people that I wanted to work with and then I asked them to give Taylor a student internship position as the assistant lighting designer on the show.”

Cullen, who has worked with Gend before on campus productions such as “The Fantasticks” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” hopes to become a stage manager and believes this opportunity will further her goals.

“Taylor’s been one of my best students so when I was negotiating the contract on this off-Broadway play, I had her in the back of my mind in addition to a couple of other students and ultimately settled on her,” Gend said. “It’s a unique opportunity as far as I know.”

While there, they explained, Cullen kept a prompt script for lighting cues that would be transferred to a spreadsheet for lighting operators, detailing when lighting would change depending on how Gend would set the show.

As a lighting designer, Gend framed shots for a stage the way a cinematographer would frame a scene for a camera.

Lighting choices were made to convey movement, day-to-night scenes, location, mood and “to keep the audience looking where we want them to look and then make expressionistic, subtle artistic choices about how we interpret the world of the play,” he said.

Cullen and Gend were in New York for the first few weeks of April, Taylor staying through Spring Break and Michael a week later. “Annapurna” opened April 21 and has been running regularly.

“Designers set the show and then we fly away and go work on other things after the show is put together,” Gend said.

Cullen was also able to fill in as a stage manager one day, staying “on book” for the actors.

“She participated in that process as well, with Nick and Megan, for rehearsal one afternoon, which is a great experience for a student to have because you’ve got celebrity actors on stage, very accomplished performers, and you get to work with them as if you were a peer,” Gend said.

Both opportunities are valuable resume builders for the theater major, as off-Broadway productions are the second tier of American theater, according to Gend, housing smaller, more intimate pieces like the two-actor play.

“Working on ‘Annapurna’ really helped my understanding of stage lighting and I believe a SM should have a good deal of knowledge about every aspect of the show,” Cullen said. “Eventually, I’d like to work here in LA starting out at smaller theaters and working my way up to bigger ones.”

Having transferred from California State University, Northridge after her first year in California, she decided that the University of Southern California was the program that would best further those goals, and transferred to Pierce to save money while she worked toward them.

“My serious goal is to one day be an in-house SM for Center Theatre Group, which works in the Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion,” Cullen said.

Many of the jobs she’s had to do while on the east coast have taught her about the duties of a stage manager, such as writing performance reports on each rehearsal and performance, placing the cues, and working on lighting.

“I learned a great deal about how to properly light a show, how a professional stage manager schedules a full cast and crew, and most of all how unreliable taxis are when you’re trying to get to work at 10 in the morning,” Cullen said.

Robert Cucuzza, a former adjunct instructor in the department, collaborated with Cullen and Gend on other campus productions and praised their work.

“I met both of them when I was hired to direct ‘The Fantasticks’ at Pierce College in the fall of 2013. Michael was my scenic designer and Taylor was my stage manager,” Cucuzza said. “The show was a wonderful success, in many ways, because of them.”

“I was a student here up until I was 21 and the grandest scope of a project I got to work on was at a community theater in the Woodland Hills area,” Gend said. “So that’s really rare for a student at a community college to work on something of that scale. In terms of the whole country, New York is basically the theater capital.”

Cullen says the production gave her valuable skills that will benefit her in both her scholastic and professional life.

“In my time working in NYC, I gained a lot of insight as to how a professional production is run,” Cullen said. “Here at school we try to recreate that professional environment as much as possible, though at the end of the day many of us, as students, are still learning.”