Gabi Lourigan at Work

Senior productions studies in performing arts major Gabriella Lourigan at work as an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera.
Image Credit: Paul Horpedahl

CLEMSON — Senior performing arts major Gabriella Lourigan (2016) traveled to the American West this summer for a “life-changing” summer as a carpentry apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.

Lourigan’s journey began in January, when she submitted her application for one of two carpentry apprenticeship positions. She then attended the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where theater professionals can audition and interview for jobs. Santa Fe’s technical director, Eric Moore, interviewed Lourigan and the two hit it off immediately. A few days later, Lourigan received a phone interview and shortly thereafter she was hired.

“A big part of earning an apprenticeship is your personality and how you’re going to fit in,” said Lourigan, who is from Irmo. “That’s part of what makes the experience so fantastic. There wasn’t a single person I met this summer with whom I didn’t get along and have a great time. Everyone was friendly and it was great.”

The Santa Fe Opera was established in 1957 and its outdoor theater seats more than 2,100 patrons.

Santa Fe at Sunset

Santa Fe at sunset.

Its total annual attendance surpasses the population of the city of Santa Fe, with more than half of those patrons traveling from out of state. Five repertory productions are presented each summer (all five run simultaneously) and Lourigan arrived in August during construction work on the second.

Work began in the shop each morning at 7 a.m. and lasted until 5:30 or 6 p.m. She was paired with a staff carpenter and for the first five weeks assisted other staff carpenters.

“At first, they’re holding on to you, making sure you can walk on your own,” Lourigan said. “Once they saw our skill set and trusted us, they gave us more autonomy.”

Lourigan had the opportunity to work on all five productions and helped build most of the set for the world-premiere operatic adaptation of the novel “Cold Mountain.” She received a stack of drawings of the set and was told to create a full-scale version from steel and plywood. For “Rigoletto,” she built a dozen 14-foot-tall door units.

“I became an incredibly experienced welder,” she said.

Because of the repertory set-up, nearly everything was constructed with steel infrastructure and wood façades for durability.

“At the Brooks Center, it is much less practical to use steel because it’s expensive and we can’t reuse it. In Santa Fe, I welded for a total of 250 hours, at least. There were maybe two weeks where I did nothing but welding for 10 hours a day, six days a week. So that was a great experience.”

The demanding assignments were made less difficult by full-time staff members eager to help.

“As a carpenter apprentice, I felt comfortable walking up to the master carpenter or the technical director, and saying, ‘I’m having an issue with this, do you mind taking a minute and looking at it?’ They would drop anything to come explain it and help figure out the problem.”

This gracious attitude permeated the entire organization, which, in an industry of constant turnover, has managed to retain many of its employees for decades. Executive Director Charles McKay learned the names of all 600 people in the opera’s company, including cast, crew and seasonal apprentices, over the span of two or three weeks. At company gatherings, Lourigan said, he was able to identify almost every company member by sight.

Rather than being made to feel she was on the bottom rung as an apprentice, Lourigan was encouraged to explore her talents.

“Everyone wanted you to learn as much as you wanted to learn,” she said.

Working with different carpenters and attending workshops on special topics, Lourigan absorbed new methods of set construction. The crew “slowed down” to eight-hour workdays near the end of the summer, allowing time for lectures on different shop skills, such as AutoCAD (a blueprint-creation software), TIG welding (using electricity to fuse metals) and foam molding (shaping Styrofoam for use in sets).

She also spent time working with carbon fiber, a light, strong material used to reinforce sets.

“There are lots and lots of ways to work. I see the craft of building in a new way now,” Lourigan said.

At the end of the summer, Lourigan was awarded the Agnes M. Canning Apprentice Award, given to her by the man who hired her, Eric Moore, out of approximately 100 eligible recipients. It was another indication that Lourigan chose the right career path.

“I know that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “I’d never built for that long a period of time. I was nervous because I didn’t know if I’d like it. Building for 10 hours a day is a long time! Six days a week? It’s intimidating. I put three years into this career path, so I was thinking, ‘I really hope I like this.’ And I do. So that was a nice takeaway. And a little taste of the real world. The concept of working and building all day, and being able to be a part of the process, I really look forward to getting into that.”