I’m going to recommend to all of you, if you have not already done so, to spend at least one production on the tech crew in some form. Why? Great question! You always ask such good ones. Let me answer it. Starting with a story, because I’m a storyteller, just like you.
I was a dresser on a show called Greater Tuna, in which two actors play the entire population of the town of Tuna, Texas. There were two dressers- one for each actor- and between us we made sure that these two actors made over 70 costume changes, none of them with more than 10 seconds, most 5 or less. Not an easy job, right? And absolutely NEVER made a mistake the whole run (in rehearsal though- lots of them. That’s where you make them so you can get to the perfection point). Anyhow, before the show one night, there was a backstage tour for some donors who had given a bunch of money to the theatre. The other dresser and I stayed backstage to guard our preset costumes, because one person messing with one thing could derail the show. So there we were. As the donors came through with their glasses of wine, one of them looked at me and asked, “So, do you do this because you’re an actress who can’t get cast?” I was momentarily dumbfounded (though that seldom lasts long with me), since the local paper had actually done a two-page spread story on myself and the other dresser on the show, revealing to the world how difficult a job it is. I recovered quickly, and, setting aside all the myriad stinging comebacks that leapt to mind, just said very calmly, “No, I do it because I’m really, really good at it.” I did give him what’s known as a withering look, and he had the decency to blush.
Tech has a bad rep.
Tech crew has often been seen as the trough into which those people fall who fail at being onstage. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is also, in some youth programs, even used as a punishment- you are required to do crew duties if you are late or don’t hang up your costume. This is also a huge mistake. Spend one show on the tech crew and you will understand what I mean. Tech is filled with the amazing, creative, strong, focused, consistent people that no show can run without. If a cast is not solidly supported by their tech, it can literally fall apart. If you have ever been in a show with not enough tech people or techies who are not experienced or who don’t care, you know what I’m talking about.
The tech crew is responsible for EVERYTHING that the actors don’t do, and what they do do is to show up, learn their lines, and not bump into the furniture. What furniture? Right; the furniture that the designers have researched and procured, or the crew has built; that the crew is maintaining every time it gets torn or dinged; that the crew has reinforced so it’s safe to stand on; rigged for effects; that the crew is setting, moving to the correct spots, and resetting every single time it’s needed. That on the set that the crew and designers have dreamed up, shopped for, built, sanded, safety-tested, and painted. The lines are spoken through the microphones that the crew has mixed, assigned, continues to tweak throughout each performance, makes sure there are working batteries in and straps to the actors’ bodies. The story can’t be told in the dark, so the lighting designer and crew is making sure that everyone can be seen and that the lights are heightening and helping the story, follow spot operators keeping singers and dancers in tight dramatic worlds, and a stage manager timing everything perfectly. The actors walk out there dressed in clothes that the designers and crew have researched, chosen, bought, rented, built from scratch, altered, repaired, rigged for quick changes and effects, and that the crew will maintain and keep clean throughout the run. Makeup and hair has also been designed, and often assisted by the crew. At higher levels, hair and makeup will be done for the actors, especially when it’s high specialty.
It is not unusual for a show to have more tech people than cast members. and it’s necessary.
OK, at this point, you get it, right? The tech crew has mad skills, and as an actor, you need to respect them. But not just that; you really need to get in there. For two big reasons. First, to truly understand and appreciate what it is that goes into producing a show from the tech end of things. And second, to see if you have any of those mad skills. Because here is a truth you need to know: Tech skills are marketable. AKA, you can actually make money as a techie.
Actors have a very, very hard time making a living just acting. Usually you need to be able to do something else. You need to teach, or get certified as a freelance electrician or photographer or medical transcriptionist or something, OR, you can work in technical theatre. There is a HUGE demand for good stage management- if you find you are good at it and you like it, you will never have to look for work again. Ditto as a carpenter, rigger, fly system operator, or followspot operator. If you find yourself with talent as a sound operator or designer, able to maintain and style wigs, or a stitcher on costumes, you can also be in a really good position to fill your non-acting time with work that actually pays you something approximating what you are worth.
Start by examining your options. At your school, you may have a program that’s not very well funded or there is just little tech knowledge available, and you may have options only to try working on costumes or lights. You may have a program that’s more technically advanced, and you can take a technical theatre class, and choose what to do on a production. Talk to the director, I’m sure they will jump at the chance to have you on crew. If you want to go outside your school, check the websites of local theatre companies. There is usually a tab somewhere around “About Us” or “Work With Us” or “Volunteer” that will put you in touch with the person there who can set you up on a tech project. Depending on the needs of the theatre, you could be allowed to volunteer to help paint, or you might suddenly be in front of a light board that you know nothing about. Relax, you can learn just about anything. Most of us learn on the job, and the more jobs we do, the more we learn. Try several different things- if you can get a technical internship somewhere, you are GOLDEN, because not only will you get to learn a ton about several different areas, you get school credit for it too! Bonus…
If you like tech, and you want to be able to make it part of your master plan to make a living in the arts, you will probably want to join the tech union. It’s called IATSE, which stands for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Check out the website. There are chapters all over the United States, its Territories and Canada. On that website, find your Local chapter, and check out their website. That will tell you what you have to do to join the local. There is often what is called Overflow Work, which means that there is too much work for their local members to handle, and they need people with basic skills to take on the extra basic stuff so that their members can get freed up to do the more highly skilled work. You usually have to be 18 to apply, but once you are on the list, you can get called to do all kinds of things- loading in and out for concerts and touring shows, moving big stuff around, and even helping to run big shows from backstage. It’s a good way to earn money, experience, and contacts. Once you have developed some amazing skills, you can take whatever tests are necessary to get into the union, pay your yearly dues, and then you have solid work. Some is hard, some is super easy. When you are first starting out, you should say yes to every job they offer you, and when you get further up the list you can start turning down work you aren’t interested in once in a while. But the union then keeps you working, protects your break times, overtime, and minimum pay, covers your health insurance etc. and is behind you in a dispute. It’s big grownup stuff.
Bottom line: Do some tech. It is rewarding, important, creative, difficult, necessary, and marketable. Also thankless, unseen, and often stepped on. Especially if you are building stairs. See what I did there? 🙂