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Duke Award winner Dudley sets the stage for College theatre

  • Backstage
    Backstage  David Dudley has been building sets -- and friends -- at William & Mary since 1977.  Stephen Salpukas
  • Memories
    Memories  Technical Director David Dudley has worked with more students in his 35 years at the College than he can count.  Stephen Salpukas
  • Where in the world is Dave?
    Where in the world is Dave?  Dudley's job as technical director for W&M's Theatre, Speech and Dance department keeps him in a constant search for set materials.  Stephen Salpukas
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Nestled above the door to a nearly impossible-to-find cubicle inside Phi Beta kappa Hall is a long, thick, black-encased scroll labeled Showboat. Across the “room,” hanging limply from a nail, are boxing gloves.

Beneath the gloves sits a drafting table, home to the curiously entitled book “Technical Theatre for Non-Technical People.” On another wall rests a crimson plaque that offers “101 Ways to Say No!”

Scattered around other parts of this glorified telephone booth is a fluorescent plastic green snake tagged an “animal noisemaker.” Next to it is a box of English Afternoon tea. There’s a white hard hat with WMT splashed across the front, nicely complementing an assortment of baseball caps. Nearby are cans of silica spray, WD40, Liquid Gold, Kimball Midwest and other household accessories.

This is David Dudley’s world, a curiosity shop from which he has helped bring theatrical glory to the College of William & Mary since 1977 as assistant technical director and, since 1986, technical director in the Theatre, Speech and Dance department. There may be just enough wall space left for Dudley ’75 to hang the 2012 Charles and Virginia Duke Award, which he will receive on May 7 in recognition for individual accomplishment and exemplary service to the College.

The Charles and Virginia Duke Award, established in 1997, is presented each year to a staff member for his or her outstanding service and dedication to the College. Awardees receive $5,000 with the award as well as recognition during the College’s annual Commencement ceremony.

“I am very honored by it; it’s quite a prestigious award and I feel that it shows a great deal of support by the people in the department and the College,” he said. “There are a lot of people like me who plug away every day and it’s kind of like ‘Good job, see you tomorrow. Here’s the list of stuff to do.’  So having the Duke Award is great.”

It is the roughest of estimates, but Dudley figures he has worked with nearly 1,700 students since returning to the College to become assistant technical director in 1977. Many have used the experience of working under him to fuel their own careers.

“We have a lot of students in the business, but making it is like being an athlete,” he says, citing long odds. “We have people in New York working regularly. We have lighting designers, set designers; you name it. The students we have coming in here are brilliant, even though some come from very sophisticated high school programs and some have no experience at all before they get here.”

Job responsibilities for technical directors vary from location to location. At William & Mary, Dudley receives set designs from a scenic designer and supervises its construction.

“The analogy is the scene designer is the architect and I’m the general contractor,” he said. “I arrange for materials, the labor to get it built. I decide how that scenery is to be built, how to execute the designer’s design and I follow through with the students.”

There are occasions, he allows with a booming, deep laugh, when he questions the sanity of the person handing him their vision.

“That’s pretty much every show,” he said, roaring. “We have a fairly limited budget in that the department only has the money we raise from our ticket sales. We don’t get student fee money, but the materials we have to pay for and the shows are often very big shows.

“They go ‘Here,’ and I say, ‘How do I build that for $1,800?’ There’s some give and take and most people understand when I say, ‘We just can’t do that.’ ”

The Showboat schematics perched above his door serve as a reminder that theatre is hardly an exact science, particularly when a guest designer is late with the plans.

“Most challenging show we ever did,” he said of the October 1996 production. “It requires a showboat and we had one about 65 feet long and ended up having to use the scene shop as part of the stage space and pulling it onto the stage. It was a huge thing to make do. Musicals are always challenging because they’re big and there are lots of sets.”

Dudley left the College with a degree in business and a goal of getting strictly into the business management side of theatre. Then came jobs with Common Glory, an outdoor drama that took place at the amphitheatre, at Busch Gardens, then back to William & Mary as assistant technical director.

“Turns out I enjoyed the management of putting a production together, all of the problems that come from dealing with putting all the different people together,” he said. “Every show is very different, though there are some similar things. That appealed to me greatly as well.”

Dudley has witnessed hundreds of performances upon the Phi Beta Kappa stage, especially when you factor in his work with the annual summer Shakespeare Festival. He has a simple -- yet elusive -- criteria for success.

“When it all comes together, it becomes magical out there,” he says, nodding toward the stage. “The key for me is when I’m looking at this setting, inside this theatre that I’ve been in for 40 years, and all of a sudden I’m not in that theatre. I’m in another place, somewhere I can be removed from reality. Every once in while that happens, even today.”