The descent of the stage curtain has long signaled a traditional end to the careful artistic façade of a play, opera or ballet. But while the actors can pause and emerge from the woodwork to take their bows and soak up the applause of the audience, a veritable army of highly trained crewmembers continue their covert performances without missing a beat.
And if you think the only intricately choreographed show of the night took place on stage, you haven’t seen half of it.
Audiences rarely think about the inner workings of the place we refer to as “backstage.” And why would they? After all, a good performance should keep you so entranced by the onstage action that you forget about the people behind the scenes who keep the well-oiled machine running smoothly.
In a binary world of organized chaos where audience and mechanics are divided by a few sheets of canvas and a few planks of wood, the actors can only contribute so much to a show’s success. Would anyone marvel at Glinda’s graceful wisdom if she were wearing yoga pants? Would anyone swoon over R and J’s balcony scene if Juliet were standing on a milk crate?
Enter “the crew.” It’s not uncommon for the crewmember population to far outnumber the show’s “cast.” Beyond a director and producer, a show needs designers for the sets, lighting, costumes and sound as well as publicists, stage managers, carpenters, painters, props masters, sound and light board operators, deck electricians, a fly team, dressers, stagehands … the list of crews and subcrews goes on, and on, and on.
And these aren’t just a bunch of construction workers who got gold stars in their high school shop classes.
The more experience you have, the more likely you’ll be chosen for a show, and many people have decades of specialized work under their belts. Unions exist for every conceivable backstage occupation, and competition for jobs is just as tough for the people behind, underneath and over the curtain as it is for the actors in front of it.
Technical prowess isn’t the only skill valued on the job. Flexibility and a knack for improvisation is a must. Depending on how they want to interpret and present the script, you could end up doing two nearly unrecognizable versions of the same show for two different directors — the choice between taking a minimalist and traditionalist approach could mean weeks of extra design and construction for every crewmember.
Requirements for each performance title vary greatly. Are you the Props Master for a production of “Our Town?” You got lucky! Most directors choose to have their actors pantomime their props in this show, leaving you in charge of a lamp and a few chairs.
But are you the Props Master for “You Can’t Take It With You?” I naïvely took this unfortunate job in high school as a way to stay close to my theater friends, and ended up calling nearly 40 surrounding businesses asking for outlandish donations, including a printing press, a xylophone, a half-finished painting of a man in a toga, an erector set, a live snake, real kittens, nonlethal fireworks and nearly 60 more completely random items which were then tagged and organized for every rehearsal and performance.
Think running a ballet or opera is any easier? Think again. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2009 performance of “La Cenerentola” (Cinderella) required a stunningly complicated set that broke apart to form multiple corridors and ballrooms while performers were still on stage, allowing for a seamless flow between scenes without having to wait until intermission for large-scale changes.
As if that wasn’t complicated enough, the set also had to “catch fire” when struck by lightning in Act II. Instead of using a lighting trick or fluttering red streamers, the set designer used actual pyrotechnics to light (and safely extinguish) not only the walls, but also a character’s entire umbrella.
So what’s in it for them? While it’s certainly not the most glamorous occupation, there’s something about contributing to a greater success that feels just as rewarding as a bouquet thrown to a lead soprano. To know you are an indispensable part of a human machine that can speak, winch, shift, dance and operate in synchronized perfection night after night makes listening to the applause from afar more than worth it, keeping you going until that last light is turned off and the last door is locked.
Just think: The maxim may say that “the show must go on,” but how would it begin if no one was there to raise the curtain?