After working on hundreds of stage productions over an illustrious 42-year career at UC Berkeley, theater supervisor Eugene Palmer has retired from the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies (TDPS).
"I’d like to thank the many students I’ve had the privilege of working with for being bright, fun, curious, helpful, and generally terrific to spend time with,” Palmer said. “It has been an incredible experience seeing and engaging with student growth from freshman year to graduation. It has been great to have been able to breathe in some of that energy and use it in my own life."
Palmer began working backstage in the seventh grade over 50 years ago. After studying lighting design at SUNY Purchase, he moved to Syracuse, NY to serve as the resident lighting designer for the Salt City Playhouse and worked with Syracuse Ballet, Cortland Repertory Theater, and the Contemporary Theater of Syracuse. Traveling west, doing a bit of street and beach theater, he landed in Berkeley and started working with Cal Performances in 1980. Taking the reins as head electrician and theater supervisor in 1983, he worked to improve the lighting and sound systems at Wheeler and Zellerbach Auditoriums as well as the Greek Theater while mounting world-class productions. He transferred to TDPS in 2004 and dedicated himself to educating students as they built and ran productions.
Palmer's work as a professional stagehand in Oakland venues earned him journeyman status as a member of IATSE Local 107 in 1986. He became the eleventh person in the country to gain ETCP certifications as an entertainment electrician, portable power distribution technician, theater rigger, and arena rigger.
Palmer lives in Marin with his wife and two boys. He enjoys a good, hard week of hiking in the mountains in the summer.
In the Q&A below, Palmer shares a few insights from his long career at UC Berkeley. (Responses have been edited for length and clarity.)
What have been some highlights in your work with TDPS?
I got to know the “heartbeat” of Zellerbach Hall relative to the many events, artists, and production needs between Cal Performances and TDPS. I made it a point to improve our joint tenancy in the building with better communication, trust, cooperation, and integrating work policies and practices.
It has been a pleasure to work with our production staff (past and present), including Kate Mattson, Wil Leggett, Jamila Cobham, David Elliott, Jack Carpenter, Ray Oppenheimer, and the entire production team of costumes, scenery, and properties over the years.
Along with Kate, I am proud to have been a part of the refit of both the lighting system in 2008 and the counterweight rigging in 2012 for the Playhouse. Durham Studio Theater, Z170, and Room 7 lighting systems have also had major upgrades during my time with the department. Wil was instrumental in upgrading the department's audio with awesome Meyer Sound for all of our venues.
Which productions have been the most memorable for you?
I have often been asked if I like or don’t like a show and I always say, “I’m not here to critique or evaluate the productions, their directing, acting, scenery, or anything else. I’m here to help produce, to the best of my ability, the vision of the production team.”
The years of shows kind of blend together, but it’s the people I’ve worked with that I remember. Our production team, faculty, guests, as well as student directors and designers, have been the greatest experiences and held memories.
Do you have any advice for our students?
I feel fortunate that I started in technical theater at a remarkably young age, and I’ve never felt like I should do anything else. For me, theater has always been challenging, reasonably lucrative, and most always rewarding. Here at UC Berkeley, I have been able to work intensely through the production seasons and take time off for myself in the High Sierra or other vacations during the off-season as well as have a stable family life. I have greatly enjoyed the work-life balance that has been invaluable over the last 42 years as it allowed me to “recharge” between busy semesters. Finding a vocation that you enjoy on a daily basis while still being able to have friends and family time is a wonderful goal.