Stage production workers handle the behind-the-scenes tasks that are necessary for putting on theatrical performances. Their responsibilities include costume and set design, installing lights, rigging, sound equipment, and scenery, and set building for events in parks, stadiums, arenas, and other places. During a performance they control the lighting, sound, and various other aspects of a production that add to its impact on an audience. These technicians work in close cooperation with the stage director, lighting director, actors, and various prop people. In addition, they work directly with theater shops in the construction of sets. Others are involved in the management of the theater or production.
History of Stage Production Worker Career
Theatrical performance is among the most ancient of human art forms. Primitive societies wore masks and costumes during ritual ceremonies designed to ward off evil spirits and to promote the welfare of the society.
Greek theater also made use of masks and costumes. As Greek theater developed, its costumes became more elaborate and were used to emphasize characters’ status within the world of the play. Greek theater was originally performed in a large circle, and the scenery was minimal; around 460 b.c. a wood skene, or stage structure, was added to the back of the circle through which the actors could enter or exit the circle. Painted scenery was attached to the skene; special effects included cranes for flying actors over the stage. As theater became more professional, people began to specialize in the different areas of theater, such as controlling the scenery, directing the action, and creating the costumes. An important development in early theater was the addition of the raised stage.
By the time of the Romans, theaters were freestanding structures that could be covered and held large audiences. Scenery was often mounted on three-sided prism-like structures that could be rotated to change the scenery during a performance. Medieval performances were often extremely elaborate. Performances were generally held outdoors, and sometimes on wagon stages that moved through a town during the performance. Special effects were often spectacular, with flames and smoke, flood, realistic massacres complete with flowing blood, hangings, crucifixions, and the like.
Nonreligious theater rose into prominence during the 16th century. The first dedicated theater was built in 1576 in London, followed by many other theaters, including the famous Globe Theater where the works of William Shakespeare were performed. Costumes, primarily representing contemporary dress, were often highly elaborate and quite costly.
The Renaissance and the rediscovery of Greek and Roman theater brought scenery back into prominence in the theater. The development of perspective techniques in painting and drawing led to more realistic settings as backdrops for the performance. More methods were developed for changing the scenery during the performance, although these scene changes continued to be made in front of the audience. Flying machines and other special effects were added; and, as theater moved indoors, stages were lighted by candles and oil lamps.
Many of the features of present-day theater evolved during the 17th and 18th centuries. A new profession emerged: that of stage designer. One of the most influential of these designers was Giacomo Torelli, who invented a mechanical system for raising and lowering settings. Earlier settings, however, were not generally designed for a specific performance, and costumes were not often historically accurate. By the end of the 18th century, stage direction, which had generally been given by the playwright or by one of the leading actors, became a more recognized part of preparing a theatrical performance.
Lighting and scenery developed rapidly in the 19th century. Gas lamps replaced candles and oil lamps, and innovations such as the limelight (a stage light consisting of an oxyhydrogen flame directed on a cylinder of lime and usually equipped with a lens to concentrate the light in a beam) and the spotlight were introduced. Stages began to feature trap doors, and scenery could be raised from below the stage or lowered from above the stage. Many theaters incorporated hydraulic lifts to raise and lower scenery, props, and actors through the trap doors. The look of a theater production, in its costumes, settings, and props, became at once more realistic and more historically accurate. Settings became increasingly more elaborate, and the introduction of panoramas gave motion effects to the stage. Special effects included the use of real animals on stage, volcanic eruptions, sinking ships, and storms complete with wind and rain. During this period, it became more common that a play would remain in the same theater through many performances. These elaborately planned and staged productions required dedicated directors to oversee the entire production. Another innovation of the 19th century was the use of a curtain to hide the stage during scene changes.
The art of stage production changed considerably with the introduction of electricity to theaters at the end of the 19th century. It became possible to use lighting effects as a major interpretive element in stage productions. Stage machinery became more elaborate, even to the point of moving a whole stage, so that sets could be transformed in new ways. In the 20th century, recording and amplification techniques introduced a wider range of musical and sound effects than ever before. These changes added new dimensions to the tasks of stagehands and other workers.
Today, stage production workers are involved not only in theater performances, but also in film and television performances, which utilize many of the same techniques. As they do on theater stages, workers in television and film do such tasks as building and changing sets and controlling lighting and sound effects.
The Job of Stage Production Workers
For small productions with fewer employees, stage workers must be able to do a variety of tasks. In larger productions (such as those on Broadway), responsibilities are divided among many different workers, each with a special area of expertise. The following paragraphs describe some of these areas of responsibility.
Stage technicians include many different workers, such as carpenters, prop makers, lighting designers, lighting- equipment operators, sound technicians, electricians, riggers, and costume workers.
When installing stage equipment, stage technicians begin with blueprints, diagrams, and specifications concerning the stage area. They confer with the stage manager to establish what kinds of sets, scenery, props, lighting, and sound equipment are required for the event or show, and where each should be placed.
Then the technicians gather props provided by the production company and build other props or scenery using hammers, saws, and other hand tools and power tools. If they are working in a theater, they climb ladders or scaffolding to the grid work at the ceiling and use cables to attach curtains, scenery, and other equipment that needs to be moved, raised, and lowered during performances. They may need to balance on and crawl along beams near the ceiling to connect the cables.
Stage technicians also position lights and sound equipment on or around the stage. They clamp light fixtures to supports and connect electrical wiring from the fixtures to power sources and control panels.
The sound equipment used on and around stages usually includes microphones, speakers, and amplifiers. Technicians position this equipment and attach the wires that connect it to power sources and to the sound-mixing equipment that controls the volume and quality of the sound.
During rehearsals and performances, stage technicians in some theaters may follow cues and pull cables that raise and lower curtains and other equipment. Sometimes they also operate the lighting and sound equipment.
Costume designers choose the costumes necessary for a production, including their style, fabric, color, and pattern. They may do research to design clothes that are historically and stylistically authentic. They discuss their ideas with the stage director and make sketches of costumes for the director’s approval. They check stores and specialty clothing shops for garments that would meet their needs. If appropriate items are not found, designers may have the costumes made from scratch. They oversee the purchasing of fabric and supervise the workers who actually create the costumes. Costume designers also work with actors to make sure that costumes fit properly. In a large production, they may supervise several assistants who help in all aspects of the job, including locating hard-to-find items.
Other workers help to complete the desired appearance of the performers. Hairstylists and makeup artists use cosmetics, greasepaint, wigs, plastics, latex, and other materials to change the look of their hair and skin. Once costumes have been made for a show, wardrobe supervisors keep them in good condition for each performance by ironing, mending, and cleaning them, and doing any necessary minor alterations. Dressers help performers to get dressed before a show and change quickly between scenes.
Stage Production Worker Career Requirements
Requirements vary for different kinds of stage production workers and technicians. In general, a high school diploma is necessary and a college degree is highly recommended. High school students interested in careers in theatrical production should take college-preparatory courses such as English, history, and mathematics. In addition, they should take drama courses and participate in school theatrical performances in a variety of ways, such as acting or working on sets to helping with promotion.
Those who want to work in technical fields such as lighting and sound design would benefit by taking courses in history and art, as well as subjects such as electricity, electronics, computers, mathematics, and physics. Craft workers such as carpenters and electricians do not need a college degree, and they often learn their work skills through apprenticeships. Makeup artists need to study anatomy and art subjects like sculpture and portrait painting. Costume designers ought to have a graduate degree in design or fine arts, as well as a well-developed artistic sense.
Certification or Licensing
Many stage production workers belong to unions. Union membership may be required to get a job, although requirements vary in different areas and even in different theaters in the same city. For example, various theater workers belong to the United Scenic Artists or the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Some unions require members to pass a competency test before they can begin work. Prospective stage production workers need to investigate if there are any union requirements in their field of interest in their local area.
Passion for theater as an art form is essential to bear with the long hours and often low pay associated with these professions. The ability to get along well with others is also important, since stage technicians often work in teams. Patience and flexibility will be needed as directors and designers may change their minds about set plans or demand a stage, lighting effect, or costume piece that might seem difficult or challenging creatively as well as financially.
Exploring Stage Production Worker Career
If you are interested in a stage production career, you can learn a great deal by becoming involved in high school theatrical performances. If possible, try to gain experience in many different capacities, including acting, stage design, lighting, and special effects. Another way to get experience is by working as a volunteer for amateur community theater productions or special benefit events. With this sort of broad experience, you may be able to get a paid or volunteer summer job assisting in a professional theater.
Experiences gained in other fields may be helpful background for some stage production jobs. For example, aspiring costume designers can learn by working for clothes designers in a fashion-oriented business.
Stage production workers and technicians may be employed by theatre, dance, music, and other performing arts companies. They more often receive full-time employment from those companies that have their own facilities, although companies that tour year-round often need to keep technical workers on staff. In addition, managers of performing arts facilities, such as theaters, opera houses, arenas, or auditoriums, may hire full-time technicians. Often, technical workers are not hired by a single employer; many find work with different companies and/or facility managers on a freelance basis.
Competition is very keen for nearly all positions associated with theatrical productions, so you should get as much experience and become as versatile a worker as possible. It is often necessary to begin working on a volunteer basis or start in a position unrelated to your desired field. Because of the great difficulty in securing satisfying jobs, many people who want to work in stage production end up in other professions.
Job seekers should not be discouraged by the tight labor market. In New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, publications specifically about local activities in the theater and television industries are an excellent source of information that may lead to jobs. In many cities, local newspapers regularly list production plans for area community theater groups. Sometimes college internships in theater jobs or recommendations from drama teachers can lead to permanent employment.
Advancement opportunities vary according to the type of work performed. Often, workers advance by moving to different theaters where they handle greater responsibilities associated with more complicated productions. Those who develop good reputations in the industry may be sought out by other employers to do similar jobs in new settings.
Costume designers can work on larger theatrical productions or for television production companies. Alternatively, they may establish independent consulting firms and work for a variety of clients.
Competition for the best positions is so strong that many workers remain in the same job and consider salary increases as evidence of their success.
Earnings vary widely according to the worker’s experience, job responsibilities, the geographic location of the theater, and the budget of the performance. In addition, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees reports that different local chapters have different pay scales, although its members, who are mostly employed at the largest commercial houses and on Broadway, generally earn more than nonmembers.
According to the Web site Salary.com, the average salary for stage designers in 2004 was $38,967, with most designers making between $32,000 and $48,000 a year. The same Web site reports that production managers made average salaries of $58,268 per year in 2004. Set and lighting designers generally work on a freelance basis and are paid widely varying fees on a per-project basis.
The pay of costume designers is often based on the number of costumes designed. Experienced designers working in major markets such as New York and Chicago earn more than those in other markets. Local unions often determine salary scales. Some costume designers working in summer theaters earn around $500 or more a week, but others may earn substantially less. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that tailors, dressmakers, and custom sewers—a group that includes costume designers—made a median annual wage of $10.79 in 2004. For full-time work, this hourly wage translates into a yearly income of approximately $22,440. However, those just starting out and working as assistants earned as little as $6.70 an hour, translating into an annual salary of approximately $13,940.
Most full-time workers receive health insurance and other benefits, as established by the local union contract. Because workers are hired for a particular time period, vacations are rarely provided.
Working conditions in theaters vary from the lavish in a few theaters to small, simply equipped facilities in many community theaters. Many theaters are hot and stuffy during performances, or drafty and cold when empty. Stage production workers can expect to work long hours and spend much time on their feet. Many work evenings and weekends. People who work behind the scenes in theaters must be concerned about safety. Those who work with lights and electric cables risk burns, while those who climb rigging or scaffolding need to use care to avoid falls.
Costume designers work in design shops sketching and designing costumes, in theaters fitting performers, and in libraries and other locations researching costume possibilities. They spend long hours preparing for a show, with most of their work done before and during the rehearsal period.
Stage Production Worker Career Outlook
Present employment patterns for workers in this field are probably a good guide to the situation for the foreseeable future. According to Theatre Communications Group, overall theater attendance has been up over the past several years, but most theaters are still operating a deficit. Thus, there are few new or small theaters that can pay living wages for stage production workers and technicians. Thus, many people working in theater production— especially at small or nonprofit theaters—supplement their incomes with other sources of work.
Today, theaters tend to be concentrated in large metropolitan areas, so the number of job possibilities is greatest there, but so too is the competition for those jobs. Many stage workers start out instead with small theatrical groups. After they develop skills and a local reputation, they may be able to move to bigger, better-paying markets. They may have to work part time, do volunteer work in amateur theater, or support themselves in unrelated fields for extended periods while waiting for better theater jobs.
For the foreseeable future, stage productions, even among the larger theaters, are likely to become less elaborate to lower operating costs. These factors could limit the need for new stage production employees. However, theater remains a popular form of entertainment and an important cultural resource. Those who are skilled in a variety of production areas stand the best chance of employment. For example, someone who knows about both lighting and sound systems, or both set design and props, is more likely to get a desirable position in theater.