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5 Questions with Loren Liepold: UND’s man behind the curtain

Loren Liepold
Digital technology has made tremendous changes to how sound effects are created for UND Theatre productions. Photo by Richard Larson.

Loren Liepold has served as technical director and sound designer for UND Theatre Arts since 1990, but he’s been working his stagecraft for much longer than that.

The most recent production that he’s helped build resumes its run on Thursday, Nov. 17, at UND’s Burtness Theatre. The play, A Man of No Importance, runs until Saturday, Nov. 19, beginning at 7:30 p.m., each night.

A native of Heron Lake, Minn., he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in theatre from Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn. He worked in theatre in Rochester, Minn., before coming to UND.

At UND, Liepold has been active in University affairs, including the Staff Senate, and has assisted with numerous UND and Grand Forks events. He’s the unofficial historian of University theatre, which can be traced as far back as 1902. Many things have changed in theatre production over his 26 years here, but one thing has remained constant: the satisfaction of working with enthusiastic and imaginative students.

UND Today’s Richard Larson recently got a chance to ask Liepold  5 Questions on the life of a Theatre Tech who creates magic from the behind the scenes. 

What is the most challenging effect you have accomplished in a production?

Shows that need rain or water (or any kind of plumbing) are a particular challenge. Rain and water on stage are wonderful, but water will go where it wants to go. A seemingly inconsequential low spot can become a major problem. 

Probably my favorite challenging effect was designing the hanging of Charles Guiteau (played by Tyler Rood) from “Assassins,” mostly because it was as close to pure collaboration with my artistic partners as I have ever experienced. Brad Reissig designed the set, but left the details of the hanging device to me. I like to research, and did a lot on the equipment used for an actual hanging. There was a lot of close work between Emily Cherry, the director, Lighting and especially with Michelle Davidson, the costume designer. Over the course of several weeks, we designed the effect, and worked through all the safety protocols. We did the first live test. I remember standing on the platform next to Tyler, and when the gallows doors opened, Tyler dropped about 6-8 inches and then just hung there exactly as designed. He ended up doing a sort of soft shoe dance while hanging in the middle of the air. It was simultaneously one of the most rewarding and most terrifying moments of my career.

Loren Liepold
Loren Liepold reviews safety procedures on use of the table saw for students Amanda Voelker (left) and Alexis Hofstetter. Photo by Richard Larson

The most satisfying production that I’ve worked on had to be “Metamorphoses” (2005). The show is a retelling of the Ovid poems and takes place in and around a swimming pool. We built a 10-foot by 20-foot pool in the Lab Theatre, with a 24-inch deep end and 4-inch shallow end, complete with filtration and a heater. This was in February, and between the cedar deck and the warm water, there was perfect humidity in Burtness Theatre. My favorite moment from that show was the shipwreck scene, when about a half dozen actors went from being oarsmen to writhing and splashing in the water, creating whitecaps. The actors all slipped below the water, then, as the water settled, slowly rose from the water as the dead. It was an absolutely amazing moment of live theatre.

Do you have a particular show you’ve always wanted to stage?

“The Drowsy Chaperone.” I was envious when the Empire did it last summer. Also, “Macbeth.” I did the show about 20 years ago, but it is a favorite. I would love to do it with the technology that we have today. “West Side Story” — I’ve done the show twice, but great music, great plot, wonderful settings.

In your quarter-century here, what has changed the most in tech production?

When I started as an undergrad in 1979, sound was designed with multiple reel-to-reel machines and cassette players. Editing was done by physically cutting recording tape in a control room with a knife. Performance sound required a sound board operator to adjust every level during the show. Today, I can create entire soundtracks on my laptop, transfer them to our playback computer and run complex soundtracks with (literally) a single “GO” button. 

I do remind our shop students from time to time that, though construction materials have changed, one can look at documents from the 1500s and see that construction has basically remained the same. Theatre can be directly traced for more than 2,500 years, and though sophistication of the technology changes, the basic tools are universal. That is reassuring to me.

Who are some of the notable alumni who have come out of UND Theatre Tech?

Many come to mind, but here are a few: Brad Brown, who graduated when I first got here, is electrical crew chief for Bruce Springsteen. Jessica Vidden worked for many years as a lighting crew head for a number of worldwide tours of Broadway productions and today works for Electronic Theatre Controls, a leader in lighting gear. Joel Svendsen has been with Rosco Labs for many years. Dave Jungck does event and specialty design in Seattle. C.J. Johnson is a systems engineer with HB Sound here in Grand Forks. We also have a good number of students who are working in non-theatre roles but are applying what they learned at UND.

What’s your best measure of success?

For my work as a technical director and a sound designer, the very best compliment is to receive none: Everything seemed right, it all worked within the confines of the production, and there were no problems.

Compiled by Richard Larson, UND Today writer and editor