Artist As Leader: Aaron Gonzalez & Jenny Beth Snyder
In 2019, Jenny Beth Snyder and Aaron Gonzalez, both young, multitalented theater artists who were committed to making a living in New York theater, joined forces to found Tech Without Tears, a full-service production management and technical direction company that proudly states, “Creative problem-solving is our jam.” In just one year, Tech Without Tears has garnered a roster of impressive clients, including the highly respected companies Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and Clubbed Thumb.
In this interview with Corey Madden, Jenny Beth and Aaron discuss how they came to realize they could tap their innate and learned skillsets to fill an unmet need. They also reveal the joys and anxieties of running a fledgling arts business as both a professional and romantic couple.
- Tell us about your artistic background and training. How did that lead you to founding Tech Without Tears?
- How do you guys interact as leaders? How do you balance your two impulses as leaders?
- How do you collaborate with others when you’re working as the Tech Without Tears team these days?
- What made you decide to start a company? And how do you feed your entrepreneurial energy?
- In a dream world, what kind of mentorship or support would you like to see offered to you and your company?
- What advice do you wish you’d received in your training to help you become a better artist leader?
Jenny Beth Snyder: I went to college as a director or focusing on directing. It’s funny. I remember talking to the interviewer, and they were like, “What do you want to do?” I auditioned as an actor, which is hysterical to me now. And I was like, “I don’t know. I just know I want to be in the industry.” And I think part of that has continued forward as learning how to be a storyteller, how visual imagery and text and language and music and all the above come together to tell a singular story.
I also work with another developmental company, Fresh Ground Pepper, where we try and help craft stories and help developing artists. It became this melding of figuring out how those skillsets work together.
Oh, and I went to New York University, the Playwrights Horizons Theater School, which still actually plays a pretty big part in our current company.
[I] had a hard realization of what it is that I actually like doing versus what I thought my definition of success was going to be as a teenager or as an undergrad.
Aaron Gonzalez: I went to North Carolina school of the Arts, and I was in the drama school and started as an actor. Midway through, I was given the opportunity to join the directing program, where I studied under Gerald Freedman. A large part of the curriculum there was learning about every discipline. We’d have to go see dance shows, music shows; we’d have to go to museums and choose our pieces and then write papers on all of them. We’d also have to take beginning-level courses in set design, costume design, lighting design.
And a part of that training, I think when I got to New York, I decided to focus more on just picking up work in the theater community in any way that I could. Having had that experience at School of the Arts, I was able to just find little bits and ways to scrape together a career and learn on the job in basically every aspect.
I did a few things that were more directorial. I was on the road with “Billy Elliot” as the resident director for the final year of the national tour. When I got back to the city, I didn’t really feel my personality naturally gravitated toward the process of getting work as a director. So I think I leaned more on the side of the technical theater and had a hard realization of what it is that I actually like doing versus what I thought my definition of success was going to be as a teenager or as an undergrad.
Jenny Beth: It’s funny because in my department, you also had to design/implement design for all of your colleagues. So we had to do everything also. And then I, on the other hand, still work my catering job but more as a floor manager now, so running an event and making sure that it all flows together and creating and producing a theater work seem to be the same skillset, just with different players.
Then Fresh Ground Pepper got hired to go to Bonnaroo, and something I discovered was, I could spend half of my time on a computer, doing Excel sheets and sorting that all out while I’m scheduling, and I could also spend and I needed to spend half of my time on-site and working with people and making stuff happen on the ground floor. It’s these two skillsets where we fell backwards into... . I ended up production-managing — I thought I was producing but I was production-managing — a show that was next to Madison Square Garden. This one company had a writer who was a part of Fresh Ground Pepper’s play group and decided to produce one of these plays. They were known for finding found spaces and my —
Aaron: It was a loading dock at MSG, right?
Jenny Beth: Yeah. It was a loading dock next to Madison Square Garden. My friend Andrew Neisler was going to direct it. I said, “You have to bring someone on to manage this because this is going to be a huge situation.” We brought in 55,000 pounds worth of sand, and electricians, and we had to bring in trashcans, and they had a shoe check, and we had food ... all sorts of stuff. I had never done this before!
I was just like, “Yeah, it’s going to be fine.” And it was! It was a wonderful and awful experience for a week. But that led me to becoming known in our community as a production manager. And then the show in which Aaron and I met was because I was hired to stand in for the production manager to bring in a scaffolding into a church that had uninsurable, irreplaceable stained glass windows and they needed to build scaffolding on a rake.
My friend gave me Aaron’s name as someone who would build scaffolding. I was lost on how to actually do this, and he came in as a “TD type” to help build the scaffolding in this church. Then it kept becoming more and more of a nightmare in that we got a generator outside and the neighbor was mad about it, so they had to build a box around the generator, and then something else went wrong. So I kept being like, “Hey, can you come back? Hey, can you come back?” So how we met is, I hired him.
And then from then on, well, we started dating. And then in a risky measure, I would get hired as a production manager and say — we did not disclose that we were dating at the time — “I would like to hire this technical director that I work with often.” And we started working together.
Aaron: Also, I’d never built scaffolding before. But I had an erector set growing up. I can figure it out, it’s not that complicated. You make it level, you put it together so it all fits. If it doesn’t fit, then you know it’s wrong. It’s pretty standard. Anyway —
Jenny Beth: [Laughing] I’m really glad I didn’t know that at the time because, well, the whole cast was on that scaffolding.
Aaron: Yeah. I had to build it, so I knew it was stable. It wasn’t going anywhere.
Aaron: I think it’s very much, the best idea wins. And I was scared, like most men going into a relationship are, of the notion of radical honesty. If you keep it inside, if you don’t say it, without communication at all, the relationship’s doomed. But that also helps with this partnership of production management and technical direction. What we do is we streamline that communication between someone who’s big-picture, budget, management, schedule, and someone who’s technically minded, looking at all the ins and outs and the details and trying to find where the hiccups are going to be ahead of time.
That level of streamlined communication is something you don’t find, surprisingly, ever. It’s always two different minds, and they only meet at meetings, and so there’s a lot of stuff that falls through the cracks and then just gets swept up at load-in or at tech, when you don’t have the time or resources to head things off at the pass.
Jenny Beth: I also think it’s mutual respect. I know that I don’t know how to build scaffolding, right? But I do know that I know the best timing to do stuff, the budget that’s required and the 15 other things that surround the scaffolding build. So we just defer to each other based on who has the best idea but also just a general respect for what the other specializes in.
Aaron: Or learning together. Also being able to say, “I don’t know,” and then phoning a friend.
Jenny Beth: And we 100% fight.
Aaron: All the time.
Jenny Beth: [Laughing] But it just works out because the project takes precedence. It’s like, “Even if I’m grumpy at you for being right, we’re still going to do the thing that is better for a project.”
Corey: Are you able to turn it off when you go home? Do you have some boundaries when work ends?
Aaron: “Madam Secretary”
Jenny Beth: The TV show.
Aaron: When “Madam Secretary” is on …
Jenny Beth: We’ve also got a Bermuda light that’s a neon sign. One time I was starting to talk about work, and he goes, “The Bermuda sign is on. That means we’re done!”
I would say that our best form of collaboration is when we have a mutual understanding and gratitude between the designers we work with and ourselves.
Jenny Beth Snyder
Aaron: Nonstop. From the jump. I know a little bit about everything, but not everything. We tend to work with people who specialize in things, like Joe D’Emilio, our master electrician. When I’ve reached a certain threshold, I’m like, “OK, now it’s Joe. It’s his world. We need to know how many feet of cable we’re going to need in order to accomplish set goal.” The specific disciplines are really important, I think. It’s not to say that we could do it all.
Corey: No, you actually know where your expertise ends and how to cast people effectively on a team.
Aaron: Exactly. We say this too a lot: The hang is almost just as important. We like to socialize and enjoy working with people who enjoy working with us. There’s a level of communication that happens when everyone’s had a moment to take a breath and debrief and air their grievances, and then we’re all just friendly at the moment. And then, there are great ideas; there’s some really creative problem-solving. There are things that you wouldn’t think of if you were just, say, doing a gig.
Jenny Beth: I would say that our best form of collaboration is when we have a mutual understanding and gratitude between the designers we work with and ourselves. Because if they let us in, it goes back to that building block of storytelling or what’s the biggest point. Then we can all work towards the greater goal as opposed to maintaining those lines in the sand of, “You just go make what I want.” When we can have those fuller conversations with the designers to know what their dreams are, then we can have this holistic approach to what is tangible construction versus what is the dream versus how do we deal with that within our budget.
Aaron: It’s still a current goal of ours to get in early enough. Because in addition to manifesting the designs and dreams of the director and designers on any given project, the next step up is also manifesting the dreams and desires for the theater company as a whole through the artistic director’s vision.
There are a lot of companies that we work with consistently. With every project, we’re discussing the project earlier and earlier, being a part of that as more of a cohesive company through the vision of the artistic director. With that level of communication at that stage, then we can effectively help facilitate casting the designers and directors who go best with the project based on the physical realities and limitations of what the project is going to be.
Jenny Beth: This is a story. There was one show where the space had a really hard line about aisle lights, and most of the show was in the dark. The director’s artistic vision was, you’re supposed to sit in the dark and experience darkness. And meanwhile you have these aisle lights for safety, obviously. They are shining onto the stage. And as a production manager but also a director, I went to bat to find a different solution, so that way the artistic people could have the moment in the play and the artistic director in the space could have the safety that was needed.
That’s where I think the storytelling, in terms of leadership, comes from, which is to say, “Let us all as a team get on board with what is the goal, and then we’ll help you work backwards from the goal to figure out how to accomplish it.” Which is why we try to encourage people to let us in on that vision, because maybe your original solve for that vision isn’t possible but we can come with an arsenal of 15 other possible solutions that can probably tell the story in the same way.
Jenny Beth: That’s a constant debate. [Jenny Beth and Aaron laugh.] Just in the sense of running a company, I recently found it really difficult to be an active production manager while simultaneously trying to be a general manager of just our books and insurance. You can get bogged down in all that. We’re still working out the nitty-gritty in that.
However, coming at it as a company, we do feel, “United we stand, divided we fall,” so to speak. As a company building a reputation and, if we could get larger, knowing that that’s the atmosphere we bring, we have a little more clout to dictate the kind of working environment we believe we want to see in the world.
One artistic director once said, “How can you expect somebody to bring their hand to a project and not their heart? Or their head and not their feet?” If we all are artists and we all are makers and we all are doers, how do we respectfully and still with some structure — because that’s how things get done — use the whole person? It’s why we decided to keep the company alive, because we can keep bringing that idea and those people together.
This is something that people would like to have: a place or a home (or someone or somebodies) that they can trust and work with who are going to keep in mind the fact that they are also artists and not just technicians.
Aaron: And we didn’t see, at least not on the technical or the production side of things, anyone else who was fulfilling that need. And it was clear from talking with our colleagues that were in these roles that this is something that people would like to have: a place or a home (or someone or somebodies) that they can trust and work with who are going to keep in mind the fact that they are also artists and not just technicians.
Jenny Beth: I also think something that I think is really true of leadership is that — particularly because we were new and young starting out in it, but I will stick to it — I’m not afraid to grab things out of a truck, nor is Aaron. We go first. We’re willing to do it if you guys are willing to do it. I think that we’ve built up a trust amongst our friends that if I hire you for a gig, I’m going to protect from whatever company. I’m going to negotiate your fees; I’m going to make sure your time is appreciated.
It’s a way to be able to stand in the gap. If you keep working for us and with us, then you know what kind of job you’re going to get, and you’re going to trust that if something’s going haywire, we’re able to stand up for the people that we work for. If it becomes that kind of situation. Hopefully we’re never there anymore. But it’s that part, where it’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to ask you to do a lot and do some crazy nonsense, but we’ll be there with you and buy the beer afterwards.”
Aaron: Tax accountants.
Jenny Beth: Management.
Jenny Beth: The business side.
Aaron: Yeah. The business side of anything. Any of the learn-it-yourself tracks are geared toward a very specific, capitalistic, different kind of business. It’s harder to find a teaching moment or a learning moment that’s geared toward this style, specifically in the theater. It’s almost like the business of theater is a naughty secret.
Jenny Beth: Or it’s looked down on, right? Because we’re all doing it for the dreams and for the art, and it’s like, “No, these are jobs!” I know that people don’t pay for theater in the way that they should, and that’s definitely a problem.
And then one of our biggest hurdles as a small company asking people to climb on ladders and use saws is workers’ comp. So then how do you develop your own payroll if it’s $22,000 a year? Those kinds of hurdles that are just truly practical hurdles are ones we’re willing to tackle, but I’m afraid we’ve messed it all up. [They both laugh.]
It’s OK if not everybody likes you. To just stand your ground on ideas and not feel the need to be a chameleon.
Jenny Beth Snyder
Aaron: I don’t know why I keep coming back to the same point, but I wish that someone had told me not to be afraid of an ever-evolving definition of success. Because I held so hard onto the idea of what I thought I wanted to be as a 17-year-old, the idea that sent me to art school. Then out of art school it changed, but I was still hesitant to change with it. I really just wish that I had evolved skills earlier, things that were itching, things that were poking at me to pay attention to them. Things about myself, about my personal truths, about my artistic truths, my natural ways of being that didn’t fit with this outside influence of what I should be doing and what success should look like.
Jenny Beth: I think mine would simply be — and it’s something that I knew then, but it could have been hit home more —that it’s OK if not everybody likes you. [She laughs.] To just stand your ground on ideas and not feel the need to be a chameleon. A lot of my nature’s having to make decisions and have strong opinions. Being raised as a girl in the South, that’s not as much encouraged. So I wish I would have learned that earlier.
We get a look into the window of true partnership by seeing how these two artist leaders work and live together. Collaborative ideas from our conversation with Jenny Beth and Aaron include:
- Be flexible. Go where your career takes you and follow your interests and passions.
- Model behaviors. Set the example by stepping up first and rolling up your sleeves. It’s the best way to signal to others you are fully invested.
- Embrace partnership cornerstones. Listen for and follow the best idea, maintain mutual respect, always learn together and be jointly committed to a project’s success.
- Play to people’s strengths. Let your team be artists, not just employees.
- Fight for your people. It builds trust and buy-in.
- Redefine limiting beliefs. As Aaron said, “I wish that someone had told me not to be afraid of an ever-evolving definition of success.”