Behind the Spotlight - Kelly Schmidt

Published: September 12, 2023

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When the lights go up at the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center, lighting production manager Kelly Schmidt is at the helm, setting aglow each performance with an expertly balanced orchestration of light and color.

Ironically, it was Schmidt who recently found herself under the spotlight as an award recipient at the 2023 International Association of Venue Manager’s (IAVM) 30 Under 30 conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“I am very passionate about the work that I do,” Schmidt says, discussing her career and her recent IAVM award while sitting in the Gogue Center green room on a Wednesday morning.

Schmidt, 27, joined the Gogue Center production team in November 2021. Her happy, go-getting demeanor reflects the passion and drive that flows into all facets of her life. Ambitious and always thinking ahead, Schmidt acknowledges that the IAVM award has been on her radar since she her days as an undergraduate at Butler University.

“It’s been a long-standing goal of mine since I started my career in the performing arts in college,” she says.

IAVM’s 30 Under 30 program recognizes emerging leaders whose talents are accelerating the performance venue industry and carrying it toward an even brighter future. The award covers a broad range of venues—arts centers, arenas, stadiums and convention centers. Potential recipients include everyone from directors of security to marketing managers, front of house managers, and, of course, production managers.

“It’s a very broad sort of recognition. They really pull from every area of the industry,” Schmidt says. “It was an incredible honor for me to be included this year.”

Making it up

Schmidt’s day-to-day experience at the Gogue Center is anything but predictable, from the hours to the work itself.

“That’s one of my favorite parts about the job. I’m a little distractable, but the duties of my work are so varied that it really keeps me locked in.”

Early mornings, late evenings and weekends are always possible, and often a necessity. On show days, Schmidt arrives before 8 a.m. to assist with the unloading of tech equipment before moving on to the business of setting up her lighting board and to prepare for the evening’s performance—and often with a degree of improvisation.

“A lot of our shows are rock ‘n’ roll-esque,” Schmidt says. “If we don’t have a dedicated set list, and I’m not sure exactly what songs they’re going to play or when they’ll break to talk, I use an approach called ‘busking.’”

Busking, also known as “punting,” is a theatrical production term that describes controlling lighting for a live show in response to the show itself rather than relying on predefined ideas and fully recorded scenes.

“I’ll build a lighting sequence ahead of time. I’ll do research on the artists a couple of weeks in advance,” Schmidt says. “For example, I’ll know they have this one song that’s really big. Chances are they’re going to do it. And I anticipate a lighting sequence in my head for what will happen during the chorus, or whenever it happens.”

Schmidt assembles these lighting sequences, which she calls “building blocks,” before the show, in anticipation of how best to accentuate the onstage activity at any given moment. The idea is to give the audience the impression that the lighting is always preplanned, even though much of the time it isn’t.

“A lot of it is me just sort of making it up,” she laughs. “The lights and the show all work together as one big performance piece—my role is to amplify what’s happening in a visual sense.”

The sweet spot

Schmidt appreciates the unique space that the Gogue Center occupies in the performing arts industry, able to attract both marquee names as well as rising stars with whom most audiences are still unacquainted.

“We sit in this sweet spot as an arts center, where we’re shiny and cool enough that we get some fairly big, well-known acts that come in with their entirely own production crew,” she explains. “But we’re still small enough as a space in terms of our capacity that we get some smaller, lesser-known acts where I get to be really involved and the lighting design is all done by me, from start to finish.”

One of the privileges of Schmidt’s job is getting to interact with the many immensely talented, world-renowned artists that visit the Gogue Center. Schmidt collaborates with each artist to coordinate sound and lighting cues during soundcheck.

“If there are any red flags, they can let me know ahead of time,” she says.

Although, these collaborations can come with their awkward moments, as was the case with jazz superstar Kenny G’s performance at the Gogue Center in March 2022.

“During walkthrough, Kenny G stopped between the first two songs, looked at me and yelled, ‘Where is my light? No one can see me!’” Schmidt recalls. “I yelled back that I couldn’t hit him there with the spotlights and that I didn’t know what he wanted me to do. The really wild part was that sitting directly next to me during all of this was his tour manager who had approved the fact that we couldn’t hit that location with the spotlights—but instead of intervening, he just put his head down and pretended like nothing was happening.”

But while exchanges with talent can sometimes produce cringey, albeit humorous interludes, they can also result in truly inspirational moments.

When actor and singer Lauren Patten performed at the Gogue Center the following month, she was coming off her recent breakout role as Jo in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Jagged Little Pill. Performing a solo show in a larger capacity, state-of-the-art venue like the Gogue Center’s Walter Stanley and Virginia Katharyne Evans Woltosz Theatre marked a relatively new level of success for the then 28-year-old artist, and standing on the stage filled her with a genuine sense of awe and gratitude.

“That morning, she walked on the stage and actually burst into tears because of how beautiful it was and how she felt knowing she would be performing there that evening,” Schmidt recalls.

That evening Patten, inspired by the incomparable acoustics of the Woltosz Theatre, chose to improvise her finale.

“She kind of called an audible on me,” Schmidt says. “The Woltosz Theatre is so acoustically pristine that the noise floor is really low. At the end of the show, she said she wanted to sing off-mic in the theatre, because the acoustics were so beautiful to her. I was in a rush to power-off everything in the control booth so she could have a perfectly acoustic, finale song. Her voice is just gorgeous.”

Patten’s song brought down the house—with a little assistance from Schmidt.

Finding her way to the performing arts

When asked how she found her way into the industry, Schmidt chuckles.

“Chance, luck,” she laughs. “I’ve always really been into the arts, music specifically.”

After matriculating at Butler, Schmidt first found her way into arts administration and non-profit management. At the time, a fully hands-on career in theatre production seemed unlikely to her. But after finding work in a recording studio, she began dabbling in sound engineering and mixing.

“That eventually led me to live sound,” she says. “I became a student working in a hall similar to the Gogue Center at Butler University—the Schrott Center for the Arts.”

By that point, Schmidt had been absolutely bitten by the bug and knew that working in theatrical production and design was her destination.

Post COVID, Schmidt pondered next steps. Not seeing much opportunity for upward mobility at Butler, Schmidt and her partner, current Gogue Center production manager Bram Sheckels, sought work where they could find it, in Auburn.

“It was a little bit of a leap of faith when we moved here,” she says. “I had resigned myself to the belief that the theatre thing was fun, but it might not work out for me in the future.”

At the time there were no other theatre jobs open, so Schmidt got a part-time gig working as a production assistant at WRBL, the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Georgia. She did everything from running graphics, to audio, to the cameras.

Soon, Schmidt began moonlighting at the Gogue Center as a temporary employee before becoming a full-time member of the production team.

The pace of life at the Gogue Center has been ideal for Schmidt, and she recognizes her rare good fortune.

“It allows for a really great work-life balance that a production manager wouldn’t often see in a lot of other venues,” Schmidt says. “It lets me do some really great things like pursue my M.B.A.”

Schmidt anticipates graduating from Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business M.B.A. program in spring of 2024.

“Part of the reason we made a leap into the unknown was that we viewed working for the Gogue Center, working for Auburn, as an ideal job opportunity.”

Working for Auburn has allowed Schmidt the flexibility to take all the classes she needs to pursue an M.B.A. while still enjoying a fulfilling career at the Gogue Center.

“It’s allowed me to invest in myself in a way that’s been ideal for me,” she says.

A phenomenal environment

While most aspects of theatre production have historically been male-dominated, Schmidt doesn’t see why it needs to remain that way in the future.

“It’s one of the things I try to impress upon the student workers that I get to interface with,” she says.

For Schmidt, attending the IAVM conference meant getting the chance to network with other women who have found success in the field.

“I got to know other women who started journeys similar to mine,” Schmidt says. “Maybe they began as assistant production managers but then ultimately wound up as executive directors, CEOs or presidents.”

To be able to meet women who embodied the entire career trajectory, and interact with them, was particularly inspirational for her.

“Previous to this conference, I had really only ever been familiar with males holding those positions of power,” Schmidt says.

In her line of work as a lighting designer, often full of literal heavy-lifting, technical know-how and sometimes demanding physical stunts, a sense of gruffness and macho behavior can be self-perpetuating. Schmidt acknowledges that she, at times in the past, has had to contend with the negative side of some of these stereotypes—but she sees that as changing, and finds her current working environment to be extremely progressive and supportive.

“I don’t think that I ever experienced anything like that since working at the Gogue Center,” Schmidt says. “It’s been a phenomenal environment, and I’ve felt very much at ease knowing that I am supported by a team that would always go to bat for me.”

Making the magic happen

In truth, the unpredictable, high-wire aspect of life in the performing arts is a large part of what draws Schmidt to her job.

“We sort of joke that it’s a little bit like a drug that you get addicted to,” she says. “The high of a show, especially when I’m busking, to a certain extent all eyes are on my work, the lighting, which becomes an extension of myself.”

In particular, Schmidt says she feels the greatest payoff from working on the Gogue Center’s K–12 School Performances Series and Family Series performances.

“Watching the shift in the students, watching the magic wash over them throughout the course of the performance—seeing so many young children so awestruck and amazed and having a role in making that happen—that is probably the most profoundly positive thing I experience in my job.”

For Schmidt, her greatest sense of achievement may come from simply having a creative role in an artistic realm that can be so emotionally affecting, and in some cases, transformational.

“I like building the experience for the audience,” Schmidt says. “Nothing is more rewarding than making the magic happen.”

Submitted by: John Seitz

Kelly Schmidt

Kelly Schmidt is one of the Jay and Susie Gogue Performing Arts Center's star staffers.