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A Day in the Life of a Stage Technician

If you enjoy the theater, but haven’t been bitten by the acting bug, or if you enjoy working with your hands, look into a career in theater production. Stage technicians fill a variety of jobs in the theater-they are light and sound board operators, carpenters, prop handlers, production assistants, wardrobe supervisors, and stage managers. The stage manager is perhaps the most visible and versatile of the production crew. The stage manager’s job requires an understanding of all of the elements of stage production, as well as some familiarity with a director’s duties. He or she coordinates the production once the run is under way, often managing the actors themselves and seeing to it that the director’s instructions are not forgotten. Stage carpenters build and repair sets. Once the show is running, they place and move sets and scenery during the performance. Prop handlers maintain the various objects used on stage. They work with the production designers in selecting props and with the carpenters in repairing props when they break. Wardrobe supervisors keep costumes clean and mended. Although designers and directors make the final decisions about what the sets and actors should look like, they often rely on a technician for practical advice. During preproduction, technicians typically work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., bringing to life the images and sounds that a play’s directors, authors, and designers propose. When the show is up and running, these same hands work nights, starting about two hours before showtime, maintaining the machinery of the theater, cleaning and fixing stages, lights, and sets and, as one technician said, “moving whatever needs to be moved.” Post-show clean-up and preparation for the next evening’s performance can last well into the night. Good stage technicians can translate the plans of others into finished products, are committed to the theater, and can handle the frustrations and problems that come with the job. A stage hand’s job is not a terribly secure one. Your job lasts as long as each show lasts, so a flop can really wreck your finances. Pay scales start low and don’t really provide a comfortable living until after a couple of years. The competition for higher-paying and more secure union jobs can be fierce. Nevertheless, most stage technicians value a life in the theater and relish the opportunity to make a hands-on contribution to the creative process.

Paying Your Dues

While not mandatory, a high school diploma is recommended, and high school is where many technicians gain their first experience. Most employers look for experienced technicians, so technicians often work at regional theaters or in summer stock before heading to the nation’s biggest labor markets: The East and West coasts. A general understanding of stagecraft and the theater is desirable. A good technician is handy with tools and knows the in and outs of constructing and lighting sets. “It isn’t like building a house,” said one stage hand. If you choose to join a union, you’ll probably have to take a written test (depending on the specific profession) and participate in a three-year apprenticeship. Unions are selective about their members, and only well-reputed technicians can expect to be invited to join. Unionized stage managers belong to the ultra-competitive Actors’ Equity Association, so opportunities to join are few.

Present and Future

Even dating back to ancient times, there were people responsible for the creation, maintenance and improvement of the theater. Some large Greek amphitheaters could hold audiences of over 5,000, and writings from the Hellenic age mention elaborate sets and costumes that added to the theater experience. The modern theater is marked by technical specialists, such as lighting designers, prop managers, and set designers. The role of these specialists is important, and opportunities will continue to be available for newcomers to the profession. Those with electrical or artistic skills will have an advantage in finding jobs; those who perform more menial tasks (e.g., stage cleanup) will find opportunities harder to come by.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many aspiring technicians spend their first two years establishing a reputation and adding credits to their resume. Since employment is show-by-show, thorough networking is essential to job security. Many make barely enough money to live on but gain a valuable understanding of the craft from the seasoned professionals with whom they work. After two years, many technicians choose to follow the union track, while others apply to college or graduate school to pursue a degree in production or design. Technical theater production can be tiring; many cite professional fatigue in these early years that few anticipated when they began.

FIVE YEARS OUT

By this time, members have decided to join the technical theater union or to remain independent laborers. The competition among stage technicians drives many out of the profession, which means that those who stick it out, establish contacts and earn a good name for themselves will find greater opportunities available to them. Satisfaction is average, as many experience a “mid-career lull” where their responsibilities stay the same and their hours increase. Salaries rise, but not tremendously.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year veterans have most likely established their reputations, made significant professional contacts, and developed a long resume that allows them to choose their own jobs. Veterans supervise less-experienced technicians, and many start their own training companies and freelance technical theatrical agencies. Union members can expect to enjoy relative job security and a decent living.