Girls aren't supposed to do this sort of thing." said Charity Harrison, "but it's more of the challenge than acting."
She's 18, and she is learning to be a stage crew technician in a remarkable program run by Compared To What Inc. (CTW), a D.C. based nonprofit arts-and-education coalition.
Though she started as a photography major at Duke Ellington School for the Arts, she has branched out into stage lighting, sound reinforcement, stage management and engineering, has learned how to wire speakers and build cabinet and wants to study electronics.
This fall she may be one of two apprentices to go to Los Angeles and work for the rock group Earth, Wind and Fire. If that pilot program works, two more student will be added. Compared To What is raising money to help pay the students' living expenses. Three of the four candidates, by the way, are women.
"I want to be a sound engineer in a recording studio," said Chairty Harrison. "But there are other possibilities too. I may get into administration. I may go to Howard and study engineering and communications."
Meanwhile, one student, Leonard (Bernie) Walden, 21, already has been hired by Earth, Wind and Fire as a full-time $18,000-a-year studio technician. He will go to Hollywood in December. A student of business and management at the University of Maryland, he has also student led electronics and engineering and has worked with audiovisual equipment for years.
His hiring, needless to say, has vastly encouraged the program leaders.
The idea was born in the belief that "there is no recession in the entertainment business," as CTW director Gerald Scott put it. "There are jobs to be had in the business. Just one show. The Wiz,' must have generated $10 million in New York City: I'm talking about restaurant business, parking lots, lighting, staging, props, costumes, ticketing, sound crews and other sources."
He and his collegues had been struck by the fact that trained people are anxiously sought in the business, while unemployment among Washington's under 25 is approaching 50 percent.
"There are few places a person can learn stagecraft," he said. "The usual way is to start working summers, for free, hanging around backstage. But this doesn't work for the disadvantaged kid who hasn't been to college, has to work for a living, has no contacts. Where is this person supposed to get the experience and the schoolroom work for it?"
Crew members with a rock group often make more than the performers, outside of the stars, he added. "The fact is, it's a technical medium, and those technical skills are rewarded."
Obtaining the use of work space at Carter Barron, CTW began holding regular workshops plus three weekly class sessions for the studens, who now number eight. They learned eventually to set up a concert stage show and to operate the lighting and sound equipment.They can handle box-office management. They have developed light-show designs.
One show they ran was the Jesse Winchester extravaganza at the Warner Theater. Once they spent days arranging an elaborate rock show at RKK Stadium, setting it up and then taking it down.
A CTW spinoff, the Burg Music Co., which boasts that it is the only black-owned-and-operated sound firm in the country, used student crews in its work, covering the whole East Coast. Burg was the contact that brought the apprentice program to Carter Barron.
Burg has all the work it can do and would love to expand, according to Michael Johns, program director of Technical Arts Apprenticeship Program. With a $70,000 sound system and $25,000 light system available for rental, it is talking of building a second system -- if only it could find trained technicians.
Burg would also love help from the city. It has no government contracts, and this is a sore point with Gerald Scott: "There are five federally aided theaters in the District -- the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, Carter Barron, Ford's and the National -- and not one of them has an apprentice program.We are doing this whole thing ourselves, mostly with volunteer help."
Most arts programs for students provide nothing more than a nice emotional outlet and a hobby, he added, but his people are interested in jobs.
CTW has had funding from the National Endownment for the Arts for the past seven years, and gets some money from the D.C. Commission for the Arts plus private grants. Scott looks for CETA to help with the apprentice training. "We have faith in CETA despite its problems," he said, "just as we have faith in D.C. despite its problems. Our program is going where the people are, and helping them to help themselves."
For the past eight years CTW has run the enormously successful Summer Hut activities, mostly at Anscostia Park. Though Scott admits that the CTW sponsored Human Kingness Day debacle of 1975 hurt the group badly, he cites other massive events here that have succeeded without violence or trouble.
"We don't do any more of the big crowd stuff," he said, "but we'd like to. Meanwhile, we have the dance contests and other activities. As a volunteer group, we suffer from the same problems as most arts organizations: we go from dream to dream, with never enough money."
But sooner or later, he added, crossing his fingers, the money people will notices the stage crew training program and will help it to grow.
As Charity Harrison said, "I just got interested in how things work and there was this intern program, and now I'm really involved. I don't want the spotlight, I like to be behind it, controlling it.";