Behind the Scenes at A.C.T.: An Interview with Head Carpenter Miguel Ongpin

By Elspeth Sweatman

It’s easy to spot Miguel Ongpin, A.C.T.’s Head Carpenter. Just look for his signature orange baseball cap or listen for his booming laughter. When in doubt, head towards his shrine: a collection of posters—including John Sayles’s Lone Star—that Ongpin brought to liven up his backstage kingdom.

Head Carpenter Miguel Ongpin. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.
Before a performance of Battlefield, we sat down with Ongpin to get some insight into the life of a theater’s stagehand and carpenter.

How did you get into theater?
I had fun doing the productions in high school, whether that was being in them or helping backstage. So I thought, “Oh, that’s a good way to meet people in college.” So I did it in college at UC Berkeley. I acted—ha!—in a couple plays, and then I stage-managed a bunch of plays. The guy who ran the theater told me, “If you really want to make money and do theater, you become the stagehand. At least we always work.” [laughs]

So after college I started working as a non-union stagehand at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, and at California Shakespeare Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I did that for a couple of years to build up my skill set. Then Ed Raymond [A.C.T.’s former technical director] told me to join the union so I could work at A.C.T. I began as a flyman until the 2005–06 season, when I became the head carpenter.

What has been the most challenging show to work on?
The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets (2004). There was not a lot of automation in that; it was all manual stuff. It was a lot of what I call “stupid theater tricks.” It wasn’t like the last show we did, Needles and Opium, where it was projection. This was making a tree spring up. But it was fun because everything had to be done manually and still be spot on.

A.C.T.'s 2003 production of Urinetown. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The hardest shows set-wise were Tales of the City (2011) and Urinetown (2003). They were bears. For Urinetown, there were these two towers downstage. It took a couple of weeks to put them up. The show had just come from Broadway and they hadn’t pared down the set for the road. But it was fun, and that was a good show.

What are you looking forward to in A.C.T.’s upcoming 2017–18 season?
Hamlet with John Douglas Thompson. That guy’s awesome. He’s such a nice guy and so hard-working. It was a pleasure to work with him when he was here with Satchmo at the Waldorf (2016). I can’t wait to work with him again.

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