Guiding Light

Ella Hamlin transitions into the professional world of technical theater
Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the
building, Greg Kendall said.
Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.
Mac Huffman
Listen to this article

Fastening bolts into place with a crescent wrench, senior Ella Hamlin is elevated by an aerial lift, meeting the newly-installed spotlights at eye level. Gradually, she tightens C-clamps for Ladue High School’s spring musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” On Feb. 21, 2024, she will sit in the technical booth and instruct her fellow crew members as they run the lights for their first dress rehearsal. After moving to the balcony in the Performing Arts Center, Hamlin flips a switch on her lighting board and a spotlight pours light into one fixed area. Then, she flashes a thumbs-up to the production’s director through the sound-proof glass. This can only mean one thing: it’s showtime.

In the Booth

Hamlin first forged an interest in theater after attending the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” in 2018. From there, she joined the festival’s Shakespeare Squadron, which gave her the opportunity to perform before each mainstage show. However, at school, she preferred to work behind the scenes, serving as the head of stage crew for Ladue Middle School’s production of “Hairspray” in 2019.

The first show Hamlin designed the lighting for was Ladue High School’s spring musical, “Mamma Mia,” in 2022. Since then, Hamlin has served as the lighting designer for nine different shows, including various Ladue productions. Most recently, she has designed lighting for “Puffs” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

“You’re working with angles, color and texture, and it’s not a super common art medium to work with,” Hamlin said. “So, you have to start thinking differently about how you can make art onstage with this new [creative outlet].”

Hamlin has worked with numerous performing arts directors over the course of her high school career, including Stephen Howard and Kurt Knoedelseder. As of her senior year, she is studying under Jessica Winingham, head of Ladue’s drama department.

“Ella is like working with a professional, so it’s really nice for me because I can speak to her like an adult about tech theater,” Winingham said. “Specifically, she is incredibly knowledgeable. She’s also very calm. She’s fast. She’s considerate. ”

Outside of theatrical productions, Hamlin has run the lights for various schoolwide functions, such as faculty-lead presentations and band concerts. For these types of events, she reports to Activities Coordinator Greg Kendall.

“She is very passionate about making sure that the things that she’s responsible for are done perfectly,” Kendall said. “I think that she is dogged in her pursuit of perfection.” 

Stage Business

In the summer of 2023, Hamlin was hired as a deck electrician at STAGES St. Louis, a local performing arts center, for their production of “Aida.”

“I wanted to do more theater over the summer going into my summer after junior year,” Hamlin said. “I had done ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ with [the Gateway Center for Performing Arts] as a spotlight operator the previous fall and had a lot of fun, but [I] was looking for somewhere where I would get more lighting-focused experience and a slightly higher professional level.”

During “Aida’s” run, Hamlin’s primary role was to prepare the Asteria tubes, or large LED staffs that the actors portraying palace guards used as weapons. After “Aida” performed their final show, she requested that her contract be extended and was hired as a swing technician for their production of “Clue.”

“I just rotated through [shadowing crew members] until someone needed me,” Hamlin said. “One of our [assistant stage managers] got sick for three days, [so] I went and did her job for three days. Then, one of the electricians ended up having to go back to college early, so then I filled in for him for the last week of ‘Clue.’”

At 18 years old, Hamlin was the youngest person working at STAGES over the summer. In the early phases of her career, she worried that it would be difficu

lt for her to forge connections with her co-workers due to their difference in ages.

“All my friends were about to graduate college or had been out of college for a few years,” Hamlin said. “I was a little nervous [about] how that would turn out, but we ended up being really great friends and we hung out all the time outside of work.”

Fortunately for Hamlin, the tight-knit community of technicians working at STAGES welcomed her with open arms. For her, help and support from her co-workers were a highlight of the experience.

“Being such good friends [with my fellow crew members] made the work 10 times more fun,” Hamlin said. “I was learning so much about lighting and electrics, but I was learning it from these people who I really loved and I considered my friends.”

More Than Wigs and Makeup

Although Hamlin’s knowledge of lighting design and technicality is expansive, she isn’t always taken as seriously as her male co-workers with an equally broad skillset.

“I have worked with male directors who absolutely underestimated me and did not believe that I had the technical skills that I did,” Hamlin said. “[They] were really rude about that, and disrespectful, and didn’t want me to do my job because they thought that I couldn’t do it.”

In many professional theater settings, lighting and set crews are composed of predominantly male engineers. As one of two girls on the electrics team at STAGES, Hamlin was initially concerned that she would receive the same demeaning treatment from her male co-workers that she is so often used to.

“Especially going into [lighting design and engineering] at my age, it was definitely a little nerve wracking to show up to STAGES [on] my first day, knowing that most of the electrics team was going to be [composed of] men and I was going to have to prove myself as an 18 year old girl who was still in high school,” Hamlin said.

At STAGES, Hamlin initially felt misunderstood, since she was a young woman working on a professional stage crew.

“I had [undergone] multiple times when I was first starting at STAGES [where] people asked me, once they found out that I was in high school, ‘Do you [work with] costumes or makeup?’” Hamlin said. “I was like, ‘No, I do lighting. I’ve done the lighting design for the past few shows.’ People automatically make the assumption that you’re in one of those fields if they don’t know [that you aren’t].”

However, to Hamlin’s delight, she was generally treated with the same amount of respect as her male co-workers.

“I never once really felt doubted or undermined because of my identity and being a woman [at STAGES],” Hamlin said. “But, that is to say that my experience does not speak for everyone. I’ve heard many, many, many stories of other women in the field having that doubt placed upon them just for being a woman. So, I do assume that I will encounter that in my future.”

Despite the profound lack of women pursuing male-dominated fields in technical theater, Hamlin is hopeful that, in the future, more girls will be eager to take on jobs that are similar to her own.

“There’s definitely been improvements in the last few years to get women into those fields, especially lighting, sound and technical direction,” Hamlin said. “So, I think we’re on an upward trend of women getting involved.”

Final Bow

Since her freshman year, Hamlin was commonly regarded as the backbone of Ladue’s technical theater program. 

“Before this year, I was [engineering and designing lighting for] shows by myself,” Hamlin said. “I was [stripping] everything and rehanging lighting fixtures, focusing and programming an entire show by myself. So, it took a lot longer, but it was also just hard because I didn’t have people to help move stuff.”

Preparing to graduate high school, Hamlin prioritized building up Ladue’s technical theater program. It was important to her that her fellow students learned how to run tech for the spring musical, which would prepare them for the following year, during which she will not be present.

“I actually was not at [‘The Drowsy Chaperone’s’] closing show,” Hamlin said. “[The lighting crew] ran the whole thing and did a fantastic job. I’m incredibly proud of them.”

In January of 2024, Hamlin was one of three students to be awarded a technical theater scholarship at the annual Missouri State Thespian Conference, which took place in Kansas City. The scholarship was granted to her after her portfolio was examined and reviewed by members of the Educational Theatre Association.

“When I won the [scholarship], it felt like all of the work that I put in, especially in the last few years, and all of the time that I spent on my portfolio — compiling photos [and] gluing photos into my giant portfolio notebook — all of that had really paid off,” Hamlin said. “It validates that this is what I should be doing. I’m having fun, but [I’m] also going to be so successful [pursuing my] passion.”

The scholarship will be particularly helpful as Hamlin goes through the process of applying for colleges. Ideally winding up at a conservatory, she plans to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in lighting design.

“A conservatory program is essentially just more hardcore than other programs,” Hamlin said. “So, you’re spending more hours in the theater and more hours in theater focused classes. A lot of your classes are either work time to work on shows, or will eventually become independent study time to work on your own work.”

While it’s no secret that Hamlin has left a lasting impression on Ladue’s performing arts department, the time for her to pursue working with professional productions is on the horizon. Although “The Drowsy Chaperone” may have been the last show she designed lighting for in high school, it’s safe to say that Hamlin has a bright future ahead of her.

“[Hamlin] makes sure that she’s an expert as much as she can be for every lighting component.” Winingham said. “It’s a huge strength. If something comes up, she will always find the answer.”

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
  • Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.

  • Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.

  • Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.

  • Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.

  • Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.

  • Senior Ella Hamlin hangs lights during her technical theater class. Hamlin first enrolled in an independent study in order to further her knowledge of engineering and design. “She knows the sound system and the lighting system in the theater better than anyone in the building,” Greg Kendall said.

  • The cast of “Puffs” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” act under Ella Hamlin’s multicolored lights. During her final year of high school, Hamlin took on two of her most ambitious projects yet, which have since become highlights in her portfolio. “[I had the most fun honing my] technical skills with ‘Puffs’ overall,” Hamlin said.

  • The cast of “Puffs” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” act under Ella Hamlin’s multicolored lights. During her final year of high school, Hamlin took on two of her most ambitious projects yet, which have since become highlights in her portfolio. “[I had the most fun honing my] technical skills with ‘Puffs’ overall,” Hamlin said.

  • The cast of “Puffs” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” act under Ella Hamlin’s multicolored lights. During her final year of high school, Hamlin took on two of her most ambitious projects yet, which have since become highlights in her portfolio. “[I had the most fun honing my] technical skills with ‘Puffs’ overall,” Hamlin said.

  • The cast of “Puffs” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” act under Ella Hamlin’s multicolored lights. During her final year of high school, Hamlin took on two of her most ambitious projects yet, which have since become highlights in her portfolio. “[I had the most fun honing my] technical skills with ‘Puffs’ overall,” Hamlin said.

Navigate Left
Navigate Right
Leave a Comment
More to Discover
About the Contributors
Ella Braig
Ella Braig, Staff
Junior Ella Braig is a first-year staffer on Panorama. Outside of writing for the school newspaper, Ella is a student board officer for Ladue's thespian troupe. Additionally, she enjoys playing guitar and watching Hallmark Christmas movies.
Mac Huffman
Mac Huffman, ID Editor in Chief
Chronic mispeller, usually outdoors, photo obsessed and founding ID Editor in Chief. When Mac's not editing, they're typically designing infographics or writing stories about identity, food and harm reduction. This is their 3rd year and final year on publications staff.
Donate to Ladue Publications
$0
$1000
Contributed
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All Ladue Publications Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *