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Theatre Department bids goodbye to longtime tech manager

James Knapp, who is retiring as theatre technology manager, at the Thurber Theater sound board at Ohio State. Photo credit: Samantha Wilson

Ohio State’s Theatre Department is about to lose a key cog in its education of students.

James Knapp, the theatre technology manager in the department, is retiring this month from the position he has held for the past 28 years.

“The countdown has begun, but it’s not because I want to leave OSU. I don’t. I just don’t have the stamina to do it anymore,” Knapp said. “I’m going to miss the department, I’m going to miss this process. I’m just getting too old to keep up the pace.”

Knapp started working at Ohio State in a temporary replacement position not long after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a master’s of fine arts degree in technical direction. He started at Ohio State in September of 1990 and has been working with the theater department ever since.

“I think someone lost the paperwork,” Knapp said. “They just kept asking me to come back.”

He is an educator and technician that has focused his career with Ohio State wholeheartedly on his students. He helps run the technical side of the department’s productions and teaches classes on design. Knapp said he puts the students first and describes the students he has gotten to work with as the highlight of his Ohio State career.

“That’s one of the things that kept me here: the quality of the students and the ability to work so closely with them,” Knapp said. “We’ve got students all over the world, literally. And it’s so exciting to be part of that.”

He described the job of educators in theater as existing on a spectrum. On one end is a focus on the students and what they can get out of the experience of a production, even if their learning process causes the show itself to suffer. At the other end is the success of the production and furthering one’s own theatrical career, where the students act more as set pieces.

He puts himself firmly on the side of the students’ education.

“I hope to see them go out and be successful, even if they don’t do theater,” Knapp said. “They may never do theater again. But they’ve learned thought processes, they’ve learned ways of thinking about the real world and how to get from point A to point Z, without having to stumble too much along the way.”

Knapp approaches the task of preparing students for their future careers, and future coworkers, by aiming to explain not just the facts, but the theory. He wants students to know “why” just as much as, if not more than, they know the “what.”

Beyond his passion for education, Knapp’s career has been about innovating and adapting. Technology has changed a lot since he first started his career at Ohio State, and he has been adapting right along with it.

Knapp said when he first started, the department used reel-to-reel players and cassette players, “and that was high tech for the time.”

“Now, our audio systems are fully networked, it’s all digital; we’re using computers, digital mixers, digital distribution systems,” Knapp said. “Those kinds of changes are so exciting to see.”

The students he has taught and worked with said he has taught them more than just the material needed to pass his class.

Curtis Myers, a fourth-year in theater, said Knapp was his professor for intro to design, and that it was through that class Myers was interested in learning more about sound design.

“You could tell that he was really excited about what he was talking about,” Myers said. “He loves what he does, and that’s infectious.”

The students Knapp has worked with said he is leaving a hole in the department that won’t easily be filled.

According to students, even people who have never worked with Knapp or taken a class with him are feeling the loss.

“I’ve talked to people in my class about it, and they’re just as upset as I am about it, and they don’t even work with him every day,” Hailey Donatelli, a second-year in architecture and theater, said. “I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about him.”

Even though he will be missed in the department, the impact he has had on students will continue after him, especially for Hailey Donatelli, who has worked closely with Knapp as a sound technician.

“I was not interested in sound at all, and now I’ve been working as a sound technician for a year,” Donatelli said. “Last year I was just an architecture major with a theater minor, and he’s the reason I’m a double major now.

Knapp said that even though he’s retiring, he won’t be staying completely out of show business. He plans on continuing to volunteer with theater departments and local productions for as long as possible.

His office is covered in photos and drawings from past and current students, and he considers the memories he’s had with students to be the most important thing he will take forward with him into his next stage of life. He hopes that the education he’s provided to students will go with them into the next stage of theirs.

“I hope they feel like they learned something. If they feel like they’ve learned something of value that they can take forward with them, then my job is done,” Knapp said.

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