At the theatre, all in black

This week, the Singing Librarian is turning up to the local theatre each day dressed in black from top to toe.  There could be so many explanations for this.  Perhaps a week-long wake is being held for a local theatrical luminary.  Perhaps he will be donning white make-up and spending a week as a mime.  Or perhaps he is working just outside the limelight, as part of a show’s stage crew.  It is, of course, the last of these which is true.  One of the local Societies is performing Annie Get Your Gun this week and had asked me to sing in the wings, on an off-stage mic, to boost the volume of chorus singing, a task that I was happy to undertake.  Along the way somewhere, this remit expanded to helping with the ‘get-in’ (when the set, props, costumes etc. are brought in to the theatre) and assisting backstage during the week.  It’s a very different sort of week when you’re shrouded in black, hiding in the wings.  Where a performer gets an instant buzz of adrenaline when the stage lights hit them, a member of the crew knows that if they’re in the limelight, something has gone horribly wrong.  The small army of non-performing members of the company should rarely be either seen or heard, hence the black dress code.

Theatre work which doesn’t involve performing is not new to me and is certainly not ‘beneath’ me as a performer, which is something I have encountered before.  I have dabbled with directing, set construction, scenery shifting and I’ve even, and I pity the poor audience at these performance, operated the sound desk for a one-act play.  Many of these activities, particularly anything which involves being present during the performances, are just as scary and just as difficult as acting or singing.  In some cases, you have the power to mess up an entire show at the press of a button or two, and other times there is the dreadful worry that you could squash, concuss or otherwise injure any number of people as you carry out your duties. I certainly believe that all performers should do some backstage work for at least one show to give them a greater appreciation for the work of the black-clad army.  Whether it is shifting the set, handling the microphone packs, operating a spotlight or managing the props, the techies have to get things just right, for they cannot improvise their way around any mistakes and are likely to suffer grumpy actors and directors if anything does go wrong.

This week, I’ll be dashing from the offstage microphone to various other positions.  I hold curtains still or move them out of the way.  I help dismantle and remantle a house, a circus ring, a boat, a ballroom and a fort.  I push a huge train on and off the stage, and tie it together to prevent the cast sliding into the wings.  I check various props.  I pull a ticket office out of the way.  I dodge a multitude of items coming in from the fly tower above the stage.  I try not to tread on anyone.  I desperately hope the three children in the cast keep out of the way.  I have to remember, in the gloom, which bits go where in the glorious jigsaw puzzle of the set.  I do everything as quietly as possible while communicating with the other seven or so people doing the set and the two ladies in charge of the props.  In short I have to keep my head while using all of the muscles developed by the great amount of lifting that library work entails.

Backstage work can be fun, but it is definitely not as much fun a being out there on the stage, and just as stressful.  But it’s worth it.  Whether acknowledged or not, the production would not happen without the people working on set, costume, light, sound, props and stage management.  Next time you flick through a theatre programme and wonder what the operators, managers and assistants under the production credits do, think some happy thoughts about them.  They run around like a hive of silent bees making the actors look even better than they actually are.

  1. I used to love working backstage at school productions – it is stressful but great fun.

  2. Hurrah for the black-clad army!

    How’s the head?

  3. I am rather enjoying myself. The Assistant Stage Manager is determined to convert me, but I enjoy performing too much to be completely assimilated. I shall certainly offer help in future for shows I can’t be on stage for.

    The head (which, for those who don’t know, was injured at the “get in” on Sunday, by a piece of scenery that didn’t want to stay attached to the other pieces of scenery) is much better.

    • Phil
    • November 16th, 2007

    So the dressing in black isn’t just because ‘the lady loves milk tray’ then 😛

    • Julie
    • November 20th, 2007

    I am also a Librarian that is involved with theatre. I’m currently the stage manager of “The Homecoming.” (Walton’s Xmas.)
    I have also part of the cast because they need a townsperson that could carry a tune. Three cheers to the stage crew!
    Being an Assistant Branch Manager is excellent training for being a stage manager. I hope your play goes well. We open Friday!

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