Lighting technician breaks stereotypes

Amid blue lights casting their glow from the window and yellow lights flooding in from the lamp in the corner of her quaint office, Cathy Sipe, master electrician of the Jordan College of the Arts describes the power of light placement in theater.

Butler University’s only master electrician, Sipe manages all of the lighting details for theater performances, including hanging and routing lights to best showcase the talent on the stage.  For some shows, Sipe becomes both the artist and the electrician by creatively designing the light show and mechanically turning it into a reality in the scaffolding above the stage.

Sipe said working as a light electrician is a very diverse, action-packed job.

“I come in and do what most people do,” she said. “I check my email, organize for the day and just get my head in order.  Then it could really go anywhere from there.  It’s something different every day, and I love it.”

Butler is a very different work environment than what most light electricians are used to.  Many people don’t take time to understand the work of a light electrician who works backstage behind the action and simply deem the work as a blue-collar job.  Sipe said that in the field of lighting, it is very easy to go unappreciated.

“A lot of people don’t know or care what technicians do, but at Butler, if you explain it to the other professors and faculty, they are open to understand,” Sipe said.

Sipe said Butler also provides a different work dynamic on the basis of gender treatment.  Other than on a college campus, the lighting industry is very gender-biased and dominated by males.  Sipe said she felt the need to prove herself as a female lighting electrician in every city she ever worked.

Although there isn’t nearly as much gender bias on a college campus, Sipe said there is still an acceptable and an unacceptable way to act.

“If you let people think you are a little girl, they’re going to treat you like that,” Sipe said.  “If you do your job, ask for help when you need it and be gracious to people, then people will treat you like a professional.”

Sipe has worked at Butler for four years, and the university has given her the opportunity to teach an introductory lighting class.  She teaches theater students the basics of lighting design and mechanics.

Sophomore theater major Katie Cooprider took Sipe’s introductory class as a first-semester freshman.  Since then, Cooprider has worked closely with Sipe in the field of lighting.

“My focus is backstage work, so I especially look up to Cathy,” Cooprider said. “She’s taken the role as my mentor.”

As a woman looking to break into the theater electrician business, Cooprider said Sipe provides unparalleled advice about how to present oneself in the male-dominated trade.

“Being a girl is never an excuse for Cathy,” Cooprider said. “She taught me that the important factor isn’t your gender but your level of professionalism.”

Junior theater major Shane Tarplee works as a shop assistant in the theater department under Sipe.  Like Cooprider, he also got to know Sipe during the introductory lighting class.  Ever since discovering a fondness for lighting during Sipe’s class, Tarplee has worked closely with Sipe backstage and said he views the professor as a mentor.

“I already can learn something new everyday from her, but I wish she taught more classes,” Tarplee said.

Not only has Sipe taught Tarplee the tricks of the lighting trade, but she has taught him how to act in the business as well.

“Cathy’s the toughest person I know,” he said. “She knows where she has to be and what she has to do, and she always gets it done.  I have great respect for that.”

Tarplee said his favorite thing about Sipe is her passion for the lighting industry.  Even though the professionals who work backstage rarely receive recognition, Tarplee said Sipe accepts the anonymity of the job and simply does what she loves to do.

Sipe said the only way to know if the lighting of a show is effective and natural is to listen to the audience feedback.  Actors hope for applause, while lighting technicians hope to go unnoticed, she said.

“If no one talks about it,” she said, “You did your job.”