Humans of CPS: Mitchell O
Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Interview by Celia L-D and Nora W
Nora: What do you like to do outside of the teaching and drama-tech realm?
Mitchell: You know, in terms of new hobbies— it’s interesting, because when Covid hit, a lot of the software and hardware makers in the industry I work in made everything free for the time being because they knew that no one really had anything to do but to work on skills. I was trying to take advantage of that and get better at using some of those. In terms of actual hobbies, I’ve been experimenting with cooking more, which is something I’ve always loved to do. I’ve been trying different things, especially now that I’m in the Bay Area where there’s a lot more access to interesting grocery stores. Not to say that middle-of-nowhere Indiana didn’t have those, but now I have some more options. I kind of challenged myself to really explore new books and music. I’ve been picking artists and really exploring their whole catalogue of music, starting from their first album and just going all the way through. That’s actually been a lot of fun to do, and I’ve learned a lot about them and their music. Some songs I didn’t know before have actually turned into my favorite songs. I’m in the middle right now of going through Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. I don’t know, I try to be outdoors when I can, especially when the world’s not on fire, or the sky’s not on fire. I enjoy bike riding and have always been into that. I’m loving the Bay Area for all the hikes that are available. I like to do trivia contests. That’s a lot of fun. What else do I do? The world is so weird right now— it’s hard to think about what I do outside.
Celia: What drew you to the Bay Area and to College Prep?
Mitchell: The short answer is the job posting that I saw. I hadn’t heard of College Prep before, and I had only been to the Bay Area twice, once when I was eight years old, and once about a year ago for a job where I wasn’t even here for 24 hours. But it’s always something I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to end up warm at some point, or at least somewhere without snow. I always knew I wanted a palm tree outside my window, which luckily I have now. So when I saw the posting for the position, I did some research and really started to like it because of what past students had said and because of what was available on the website. That’s what really intrigued me. So it was a move out here for the position, but I’m so glad I did it.
Nora: Do you have a favorite aspect or component of tech, like set design, lighting, sound, or costumes?
Mitchell: I don’t necessarily have a favorite. I got into it through costumes because I learned how to sew when I was really young. My mom was a seamstress, or still is; she makes all her own clothes, so she taught me when I was four or five how to sew. That’s how I got into it, but I would be backstage and see people on the ladders, building stuff and getting to climb really high on the ladders, and I thought that looked more fun. I guess if I had to pick, I tend to gravitate more towards the scenic side, but one of the nice things about the industry these days is you can really do a little of everything. On one show you can do lighting, on the next sound, the next scenery, so I gravitate more towards the scenic side— but that’s also where the jobs are, or at least where I’ve tended to find them.
Celia: Do you have a favorite production you have done tech for in the past?
Mitchell: Ooh my favorite production. This is a hard one. It was one that I did recently that was just so much fun (and it has a special place in my heart). It was the last one I did before lockdown started. I did a show where we had done it several times before in New York, at the National Black Theater Festival and at a theater in Florida. It’s about a basketball team, so we always turned the theater into a basketball court in whatever way we could, but we were invited to go to Arizona State University in February to actually perform it on a basketball court in their actual stadium. We brought in all the lights and projectors and actually did it on that, and it was really incredible. Quite an experience. And it was for a lot of people who had never actually been to the theater; we did it for the Athletic Department, and it was such a great experience because people were not treating it like when you go to do a show and everyone’s like Okay, now I’m going to be quiet and sit in my seat. People were actually cheering along the performers, both to the athletic parts and the story. It was an incredible experience and one that I really enjoyed. Yeah, I’m going to go with that as my current favorite.
Nora: What would be your dream production that you haven’t put on yet?
Mitchell: There are so many. I’m going to narrow it down to two that I would love to design with an infinite budget. One would be Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer, and the other would be a production called Throne of Blood. There was a film version, which was an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and then an author named Ping Chong turned it into a stage version. I saw that a few years ago and it was incredible. I just remember thinking, I want to do this. I just have so many ideas for how I could do it differently, not to say that theirs wasn’t brilliant, but it sparked a lot. So I would say that. And then there’s one that I want to do again because we did it once, and we didn’t do it right. Ugh— we were so close. It’s a play called Hapgood, by Tom Stoppard, and it’s an amazing play. It’s about cold war espionage and quantum mechanics and soccer and every other weird thing you think could get thrown into a play. We did it once as a small production and we were so close to getting it right, so I want a second chance at that.
Celia: Did you always know you wanted to do drama tech and be a drama tech teacher?
Mitchell: Not in the slightest. I never really thought I would do this as a profession. It was something I did as a hobby in high school; here’s the little story I love to share is: I was applying to colleges undecided because I really had no idea. I was never able to answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The only answer I could give is, “I don’t want to wear a suit.” While I was applying to colleges, my high school theater teacher was doing a show in Chicago, and he said, “Would you like to come help me?” I thought I was just kinda doing it as a favor and for fun, but as I’m leaving, he hands me the paperwork and says, “I need your social security number,” and I was like, “For what?” and he said, “Well, do you want to get paid?” And it was that, “Wait— you can get paid to do this?”
It was a bit of a lightbulb moment, so I started looking into what the reality was of doing this as a profession. So I did switch my major to theater after I applied to schools. I’ve been very lucky that it’s what I’ve been able to do. A lot of people in my profession, especially the freelance route, they have to take what we call “survival jobs,” where it’s something outside your field, but it’s something to pay rent. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to support myself doing this, but no, I never in high school, or really college, thought that this was what I was going to do. I knew I enjoyed it, but I never really thought of it as a career, and something I could do to make money. If a teacher was like, “Well you need to give me a real answer” to the question, “What do you want to do?” the answer I would always give, no joke, was cartographer. I always thought that was really an interesting field, but the thing is, there’s not really a big need for cartographers these days. Maybe when we land on Mars, but at least right now there’s not a big need for them.
Nora: How did you get into cartography?
Mitchell: So my dad is a Technical Writer and a Physicist. He loved, and still does love, to do little riddles and brain teasers. There was one that asked, “If you are going to draw a map, how many is the minimum number of colors you need so that they’re not touching at all?” There’s a clear formula and the answer is four unless it’s a donut shape— then you need six. He showed me the math of it and it just blew my mind, and I was like maybe thirteen, fourteen, determined to prove it wrong. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around it. Through that, I started finding books on cartography and thought it was really cool.
Celia: Can you tell us about the process of what it was like to be on ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’?
Mitchell: I’ve always kind of known a lot of random stuff from picking it up over the years. I was on Quizbowl in high school, and would often attend trivia contests. I’m that loser who participates in adult spelling bees. And I never really put two and two together, like, “Oh yeah, any average schmo can go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’’ I was living in Rhode Island at the time, working on a show, and we were all hanging out during intermission and Who Wants to be a Millionaire was on and I was able to answer pretty much every question, and someone was like, “Why don’t you audition for it?” and I’m like, “Why don’t I?”
The process is… you go to their studio in New York, unless they are touring. So I took a weekend and went in. You take a 30-question multiple-choice test, and they don’t tell you how many you need to get right or even how many you did get right, or which ones, or anything. All they do is take the test away and come back five minutes later after the scantron has gone through, and they call your name, and if you are called, you go back and do a little interview with the producer. It’s not about which questions you know but more so about your personality. They want to make sure if you’re on camera you won’t just stand there and be flat, and that you’re actually talkative. And then if you pass that, you have a camera test, where it’s like, “Are you actually going to be lively on camera?” Then they ask you questions to test your reaction. If you pass that, they put your name into a hat and draw names. I actually got my name into the hat about nine times before I was picked, so it was about a three year process from the first time I auditioned to the time I got on. At the time I got on, I was living in New York, so I went. When I was doing it, they didn’t do the “phone-a-friend” anymore, because people were just saying, “Oh type this in,” so you actually got to bring someone. And that was one of the hardest parts, because I had two weeks, so it was like, “Who can take two days off work and come with me?” Luckily a friend of mine is a lighting director for the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, so they just happened to be on break at that time, and he came up with me. My grandma was in the audience. Honestly, I think back on it and it feels like it was forever ago. I’ve tried to get on Jeopardy a couple times, but that test is a lot harder to pass. It’s online, and it’s timed. It’s not multiple choice, but I hope I get on one day. I usually follow along pretty well with the answers online.