Back in 1984, the Theatre program at SMSU purchased a new light board. Its base price was $38,000. With dimmers and some other bells and whistles - including installation - its final cost was about $78,000.
Fast forward to 2007 - five years ago. A different light board, this one used, was purchased. "I got it from a former student, Heath Hansum, a professor now at Bucknell University. He charged me $400. It cost me more than that to have it shipped here," said Ray Oster, associate professor of Theatre at SMSU.
Oster is in his 32nd year at SMSU, and works as the set designer and technical director for The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, which opened two nights ago. It is his final production before he retires. It will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today in the Fine Arts Theatre, as well as at 7:30 p.m. next Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Nov. 4.
Oster is a New Jersey native who received his undergraduate degree from Southampton College in New York. He later went to work there in the theatre department. "It was a staff position, not a faculty position," he explained. "My wife (Jane) was from the Midwest, and I had gone to graduate school in Superior, Wis. We saw (the SMSU) position advertised, and said that if it's in Minnesota, it must look like Duluth," he said with a chuckle.
In his office is a 16-foot bulletin board, attached to which are the programs of the numerous plays he's been a part of at SMSU. "I remember students based on what shows they worked on. It's how my memory works. I get years screwed up. It's a long bulletin board, and there's three full rows of programs on it, and I'm halfway through the fourth row," he said.
His favorite? "Taking Steps," he said. "It was written by Alan Ayckbourn, who writes weird plays. The set was three stories of an old house, but the three were all on stage, on one level. That was quite a challenge."
Technology has not always been Oster's friend. "What the theatre department needs is a younger person who knows technology," he said. "The changes in lighting and sound are phenomenal. I was trained on a reel-to-reel tape recorder for sound. Computer lighting now has taken off, it's computer controlled now - where (actors) move and the light follows them, you program patterns - it's phenomenal. They've developed a new job in theatre now, a lighting programmer, and it's very much in demand."
As for sound, "It's moved to being computerized, there's all sorts of programs. Eric Harp, our lighting designer for this show (senior, New London) is really savvy. He is running the sound on his laptop computer and downloaded it to his iPhone, and has been playing sound cues by touching his iPhone. It lets him pick speakers, adjust volume, all of it, from his phone. I'm a dinosaur. I bought an iPhone, but basically to make calls."
He calls his career "interesting" and enjoys keeping in touch with former students who have gone on to successful careers in theatre. Some have helped him with technology advice over the years - the student becomes the teacher.
He dearly misses his old friend, theatre professor Charles Autry. "I was on sabbatical when he died. We'd get together after dress rehearsals back at his place. He'd have a martini and he had a bottle of Jack for me. We'd commiserate over our woes and that was fun. I miss Charley. He was a good friend."
Oster lives just outside of town on an acreage that has "chickens and horses and dogs and cats. We were told this is a great place to raise kids, and that's true." Oster and his wife, Jane, have a daughter, Hayley, an SMSU alumna. His mother, Pauline, is 101 and lives in Boulder Estates. "She's doing well, she gets out and about," said Oster. "We have a tea cart in this show that is hers. We thanked her in the program."
What's next? "My plans are open. I love to drive and my wife hates to fly. My wife stopped working a year ago in August, so this past summer was the first one where we were both at home together, so it was a primer. I didn't like it," he joked.
He's especially happy his brother Paul drove to Marshall from New Jersey on Wednesday to see his final show. "He missed the snow," he said.
"For me, it's always been the students. They had the talent in them, and we had the pleasure of working with them.