Christian Soto was an ace trumpeter in high school, raised in a family that delights in musical theater. Whenever the school show came around, he loved playing in it — “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” one year, “Hairspray” the next.
But by his senior year at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, with “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the horizon, he was itching to indulge an interest that had been growing in him since junior high: Instead of being in the orchestra, he wanted to do the lighting. So he ran the idea by a teacher he respected.
“He told me, ‘You’re a moth, not a cockroach,’” Mr. Soto, 24, said. Translation: You belong in the light, not backstage in the dark. Wounded, he returned to his trumpet, played in the orchestra and had a good time anyway. Still, the teacher’s scorn rankled. Part of the appeal of Broadway shows for him, then as now, was trying to figure out how the lighting technology worked.
Skip ahead to fall of 2016, when his little sister, Natalie — like him, a longtime theater geek, but drawn to audio rather than to lighting — started in a new three-year technical theater training program at Roundabout Theater Company.
Dedicated to shepherding young New York City residents into backstage careers, the Theatrical Workforce Development Program aims to diversify a branch of the industry that historically has been heavily white and male. The Sotos have Puerto Rican roots. In partnership with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the stagehands’ union, the initiative is meant to open up a path to a solid livelihood that doesn’t require a college degree, and to get the fellows paying work while they learn. (Not union work, though. Joining takes time.)
Last fall, after listening to exuberant daily reports from his sister — and occasionally texting questions for her to ask the teaching artists on his behalf — Mr. Soto entered the program. Ms. Soto, 22, is the bubbly, extroverted one; her brother is a little shy. But for both of them, it seemed a way to realize their professional dreams. Well, theirs and maybe their older brother’s, too: A drag artist, Jonathan is the performer in the family.
“I have this theory,” Ms. Soto joked, “that he’s put the idea of theater into our heads so that we can be his crew when he tours.”
There’s no quick way to get from Westerleigh, the Staten Island neighborhood where the Sotos’ parents bought a house several years ago, to Midtown Manhattan. Their two-hour route: a brief walk down their quiet street to the bus stop; a 40-minute ride to the ferry terminal (where a sniffer dog may take a whiff of their bags before they stand around and wait); 25 minutes on the Staten Island Ferry to Lower Manhattan; and finally a subway ride uptown on the local 1 train.
They always build in a cushion of time. The program has drilled into them and the other fellows, many of whom also have long slogs into Manhattan, a rigorous punctuality. If the subway is a disaster, that’s no excuse for being late, whether to class or a work call. It’s a version of the tenet that the show must go on.
Unusual in the theater industry, the program is a combination of training, networking and job placement, with life-skills instruction for things like budgeting. It’s also quietly radical in its makeup, deliberately welcoming to people from low-income backgrounds. Both groups of fellows so far have been majority minority members, and Ms. Soto’s was mostly female. When she sees other women lugging equipment backstage, she likes to cheer them on just for being there. For pressures both macro and micro, the program’s built-in support system comes in handy.
Of the 12 people in her group, Ms. Soto was the only one to choose a second-year job with a commercial show over a more stable one with a company. She said yes when a designer she had worked with on “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” offered her a gig with “Curvy Widow.” (Other fellows went to places that include the Public Theater, Abrons Arts Center, Atlantic Theater Company, Playwrights Horizons, St. Ann’s Warehouse and Roundabout.)
When “Curvy Widow” announced last fall that it would close in November, the first person Ms. Soto texted was Karen Loftus, the Roundabout program manager who wrangles the fellows with tenacity and good-humored devotion. Ms. Loftus — who promised to help her find more work — was also the person Ms. Soto called from jury duty when she needed to prove that “freelance technician” wasn’t the same as “unemployed.”
Ms. Soto has no such problem now, by the way. In May, fresh off a backstage gig on the hit play “Dance Nation” at Playwrights Horizons, where she also had a walk-on role, she left for a summer in the mountains, taking an audio-video job at the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theater. When she returns to New York, she’ll have a week at home before she goes to Red Bank, N.J., to spend the year at Two River Theater.
Sitting in the mezzanine at Studio 54 in January, the Sotos were watching John Leguizamo’s “Latin History for Morons.” They were excited to see a Broadway show with a Latino star, talking about the heritage they share. And it did resonate with them, strongly.
But when the lights came up afterward, what they wanted to talk about was the blip of a lighting cue that went astray and the microphone that was taped down improperly.
That’s what they’re like: inquisitive, impassioned, attentive to the tiniest technical details. In an interview in March in Chelsea, at a cafe that adjusts its ambience as afternoon turns to evening, the conversation shifted exclusively to lighting as the illumination in the room changed. They both tried to detect the hidden source of a mysterious soft glow.
A few weeks later, after Ms. Soto had started on “Dance Nation,” Mr. Soto was eagle-eyed in the Broadway audience of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and he wasn’t just tracking the complex effects. “Here comes the haze,” he said before Part 2, as it floated in high upstage. Then he checked the timing on his watch: 15 minutes before curtain.
Though he has known for a long time that stage lighting was something he wanted to do for a living, theater isn’t where Ms. Soto thought she would spend her career. As a teenager, she imagined she would go to college to study forensic science or genetics. Wanting a break after high school, in 2015, she got a retail job for a year.
But she also spent part of that time commuting to Brooklyn, where her best friend’s mother had hired her to operate the soundboard for a production at a community theater. Grateful for the experience, she didn’t mind earning just $75 for two months’ work. She took it as a clue about her passions.
Then again, while she comes from a union family — her father, Michael, works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and her mother, Brenda, for the city’s Education Department — she didn’t realize until she got to Roundabout that there was such a thing as a stagehands’ union, or that it was possible to be paid reasonably to do what she loves. Now both she and her brother see union membership as a goal.
When Mr. Soto applied to the program, he was studying part time at the College of Staten Island and taking care of their other brother, Mikey, who has autism. He’d also been eyeing a transfer to Brooklyn College to study technical theater.
But the graduation he recently celebrated was from Roundabout. One Saturday morning this month, deep beneath West 46th Street, Mr. Soto and the 15 others in his group gathered in Roundabout’s Black Box Theater for a ceremony to mark the end of their classroom training. There were no caps and gowns; these graduates were putting on a show, and except for the brief segment when they’d cross the stage to pick up their certificates, they’d be running it, too. Dressed neatly but casually, they wore stagehand black. Mr. Soto stood in the back, operating a follow spot — the same job he’ll have starting this week at Atlantic Theater Company, working on the musical “This Ain’t No Disco,” his first choice for a summer internship.
When Jennifer Halpern, the education outreach coordinator for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, stepped onstage to speak to the graduates, she mentioned the need for New York theater’s behind-the-scenes work force to reflect the population. She quoted Tina Fey explaining how diversity around the table in the writers’ room at “Saturday Night Live” — “not just cast and writers, but crew members, too,” Ms. Halpern said — changed the dynamic of that room.
“I invite you to take what you’ve learned this year,” she told the graduates, “to bring your enthusiasm and your perspective, and join us at the table.”
The Sotos plan to take her up on that.
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