Tyler Shapard shares secrets to his success with Twenty One Pilots

Tyler Shapard at the console

MTSU Media Arts alumnus, Tyler Shapard considers himself lucky! He’s working in a field he loves, using what he learned earning his degree, and sharing work places with some of his closest and longest friends. He’s toured the world more than ten times and gone through four passports in four years. He didn’t have to turn down his first job offer so that he could finish his degree—a difficult choice that some individuals face—because he could work on needed hours while on the road. “I get to see and hear the best music almost every night,” says Shapard, who describes himself as a devoted fan of Twenty One pilots, the award-winning alternative band for whom he is lighting director and co-designer.

Tyler Shapard working a Twenty One Pilots concert as Lighting Director - and simultaneously rocking out.

Tyler Shapard working a Twenty One Pilots concert as Lighting Director – and simultaneously rocking out.

What Shapard passes off as “luck” others see as the result of his inclination to learn at every opportunity and focus his considerable energy on whatever needs doing. “One reason I’ve done well is that I’m a video guy in a lighting world. I took what I learned and broke it down to the basics. Mike Forbes taught me to troubleshoot, and troubleshooting is troubleshooting no matter where you are,” Shapard explains, going on to say that he learned from many at MTSU, citing Bob Gordon, Dennis Oneal, and Mark Parrish as examples. “I used to hang out with Forbes and the switcher. . . . Another reason I learned was that at MTSU you get to work with the real stuff. You can’t just learn one switcher and know how to work others because they’re all different. But MTSU bought not one but two super switchers so that students can really be prepared.”

Shapard is quick to acknowledge that he wasn’t always so focused. He graduated from LaVergne High School in 2008 and decided to go to Motlow State Community College and study business administration. “I was in a band and much more focused on that than school, but the band kind of fizzled out,” he explains. With a dad working in media for some 30 years, a cousin working at the Opry, and an uncle operating a television studio, Shapard had plenty of awareness of possibilities and pitfalls and of MTSU’s stellar reputation. “I woke up one morning and thought ‘I’m enrolling at MTSU,’ and I’ve never looked back.”

He roomed with his best friend from high school—Philip Elliott—for whom he has high praise and still works with when possible. Studying video production, Shapard recalls that he worked on “The Truck,” MTSU’s mobile production lab, and gained outstanding experience in live production settings. By the time he graduated in 2014, Shapard was already employed. He was recruited out of the “truck class” by VER and went eagerly, thinking he’d be part of “doing wonderful things. I worked for three solid days taking screws out of panels. It was a big reality check. You know a lot, but you still have a lot to learn. And you’re not entitled to any particular job!” But VER kept calling him back and he was moved up to the shop and eventually to a Univision awards show, then to the TV show Nashville for three seasons where he did lighting and LED work. He quickly found out that to be successful, “you can’t just be one thing. You need to know something about everything.”

Although he had a couple of job offers, his mentor at VER advised him to wait “because we have something coming up. What people don’t realize is that much work is done on a handshake. You have to have faith and be loyal,” explains Shapard. The “something” was Twenty One pilots, and he started as an LED technician, but that quickly developed into many things from working as a rigger to a carpenter. Now he’s the lighting director and co-designer working with a whole team of talented folk. “We all have a voice. We respect each other as we attempt to facilitate the expression of ideas that come from the artist.” Although today’s technology makes some things easier, Shapard points out, “We still have the physical limits of how much something weighs and how much weight can be hung.” Part of the challenge is solving problems so that the audience forgets there are limitations.

Touring is a tough life filled with 18-hour days on five hours of sleep producing a show in ever-changing venues. The band’s success calls for constant change and increased personnel and equipment. Shapard says that makes a dependable crew extremely important, and he seeks out and hires former classmates he worked with during his student days that he knows he can trust. “Don’t burn bridges,” he advises.

Shapard shares ways he keeps his energy level high: “I pretend that this is the first time I’ve seen the show, and I dance all the time. I’m homesick sometimes on the road, but during the show you can forget for a couple of hours. I like to imagine I’m the third member of the band as I push the buttons and control the live show.” He is in the enviable position of working directly for the band along with a core group that Shapard describes as family. “It’s a good setting to be in. Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun, Twenty One Pilots artists, are good people who influence those around them.”

One of many stories that Shapard shares has to do with his longtime dream of being a video director. As the touring company for Twenty One pilots grew, “I was offered the position of lighting director and found myself in the difficult position of hiring someone for my dream job (of video director)—it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.” Not surprisingly, he solved the dilemma by hiring the best person he knew for the job—video and film production classmate Adam Peck.

Married to Amanda Terranova, who works in radio and is the digital program director for the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore markets, Shapard says the psychological toll of traveling constantly is hard on relationships, but they support each other by putting the career of the other front and center. “You need someone who is level headed and who can save you from burnout. It’s not the glamorous life that people may think, not the ‘80s with drugs and alcohol. It’s long days of physically exhausting work pretty far removed from reality.”