How to Become a Stagehand
If you are interested in working behind the scenes on live music and theater productions, this article has some advice and an overview of how to prepare yourself to work as a Stagehand. The different types of roles available, and how to apply for jobs and internships will be explored and discussed.
In our discussion of how to become a Stagehand, we’ll cover:
- What Stagehands do
- Different types of productions
- What it’s like working behind the scenes
- Working with the crew
- Types of Stagehand skills needed
- Rigging, sound, lights
- How to find a Stagehand job
Have you ever seen a concert, musical, or theater production and watched the Stagehands working behind the scenes? I’ve always been fascinated by the stage and everything that goes into the production of a show. In order for the performers to do their best work, there are many people who labor backstage and in the hall to make it possible. The production could never happen without a well-organized crew, and the Stagehands are the workhorses of the music industry. They are on stage and in the hall from the moment the equipment arrives and gets set up, all through showtime, and they stay until the lights are turned out and the hall is shut down. They work long hours and live by the mantra of “the show must go on.” Stagehands are the unsung heroes of the music and entertainment industry.
What Does a Stagehand Do?
From laying cables, placing microphones, and running sound systems, to humping gear, hanging rigging, and tweaking lights, the job of a Stagehand has an incredible variety of tasks. Stagehands work in tightly coordinated teams, and everyone knows exactly what job they must do. There’s not as much hanging around as there is for the musicians (“hurry up and wait” we call it) because there is always something that needs doing. The Stagehand reports to a crew chief, or a Stage Manager. The Stage Manager reports to the producer of the show, so the most important job of the Stagehands and crew is to make the vision of the show producer come to life, whatever that takes.
Sometimes Stagehands are involved with designing, moving, setting up, and tearing down mobile stages. They are expected to think on their feet and find creative solutions to technical problems. They must be especially mindful of safety, as the stage has potential for danger and injury, and accidents can and do happen around stages and show rigging. The Stagehand must have very good people skills and know how to get along with all different types of personalities. There’re a lot of egos in show business, which requires managing complex emotions from time to time. Every artist and show brings its own set of unique problems and demands, and the effective Stagehand will know how to deal with whatever gets thrown at him or her. There’s no room for attitudes or anger when working on a show.
In the most general of terms, a Stagehand assists with the loading in and setting up of gear, while learning what the physical needs will be for the show to happen. Then they will place microphones and instruments appropriately at the time they are needed, operate machinery to open and close curtains or other moving pieces, assist the performers with the soundcheck and with getting on and off stage as needed, monitor and operate all the sound and lighting equipment during the soundcheck and show, and then after the show is over they must tear everything down and put away or move it from the stage to storage or to vehicles. When Stagehands travel with an artist or show, they might be called Roadies, although Roadies tend to mostly just load and unload the equipment from trucks.
The Stagehand gets to be up-front and close to the action. Though they work long hours, I’ve never seen a Stagehand even look a little tired. They are energized by the magical performances and by the audiences, and nobody has a better place from which to see the show unfold.
Different Types of Productions
Stagehands work on a variety of productions, ranging from small, medium, and large concerts to Broadway shows. They also work to produce conventions, rallies, and even some sporting events. Starting with concerts, there are venues that employ Stagehands on a regular basis, such as symphony halls or popular music venues. Places like the House of Blues or Hard Rock Cafe and other large music clubs hire Stagehands as permanent employees. Large convention centers often have staff for setting up and tearing down stages, and there is also a need for setting up and running audio-visual equipment (AV), such as large screens and projectors. Sometimes the Stagehands work for the companies that rent out the equipment. After they deliver and set everything up at the venue, they stick around for the duration of the event to make sure everything is working smoothly. Then they tear it all down and put it away afterward.
Symphonies and theaters in the bigger cities will usually have Stagehands employed on a regular basis. So do sporting arenas and large venues operated by colleges and universities. Pretty much any place that regularly holds large gatherings needs qualified Stagehands to keep the shows moving smoothly. There is usually limited time between events so the Stagehands work day and night to turn the events around. When the attendees are safely back in their hotel rooms or bedrooms, often the crews are still working to get the hall prepared for the next event. It’s a demanding job.
Broadway and Off-Broadway shows rely on Stagehands to present shows and musicals. Most of the time, these stage workers are organized in a labor union (more on this below). Cruise ships offer live entertainment as do casinos and theme parks. Many tourist attractions put on shows and rely on the intrepid and ever-present Stagehands. Finally, municipalities, especially cities and towns, often produce large scale events and festivals.
What It’s Like Working Behind the Scenes
One of the nice things about working as a Stagehand is that no two days are the same. Every show, every venue, and every artist presents different challenges. No two halls are exactly the same. I’ve never met a Stagehand who seemed bored with their job. The people drawn to this line of work love being on stage making the show run. There is an energy exchange between the performers and the audience that is thrilling on a good night. The Stagehand gets to be up-front and close to the action. Though they work long hours, I’ve never seen a Stagehand even look a little tired. They are energized by the magical performances and by the audiences, and nobody has a better place from which to see the show unfold.
Report time for duty is typically many hours before show time. There is the load-in of gear, set up, and soundcheck all happening usually during the afternoon, for an evening show. Depending on arrival time and set-up requirements, the crew might be on premises very early. As they are there all day and through the evening, they will usually have a catered lunch and dinner backstage. Early on, they gather in the green room and have a briefing from the Stage Manager about the course of the day. Everyone is assigned a station and tasks, and the success of the show depends on the Stagehands being where they are supposed to be, and doing what they are supposed to do. Since things never seem to go exactly as planned, they must be constantly alert for changes and unexpected needs from the performers and producer.
The Stagehands are typically dressed in black so that they aren’t too visible from the audience when working the stage. The Stagehand uniform is a black T-shirt, black jeans or slacks, black shoes, and socks. The Stage Manager watches over the backstage area from beginning to end, including during the show, and issues commands to the crew as needed. The Stage Manager must be connected via intercom or walkie-talkie with the House Manager, Soundman, lights, and sometimes the producer, who keeps an eye on what the stage looks like from the audience. At times, such as during the show, there might be long pauses in action from the crew, but they must be ready to spring into action the moment they are needed.
After the show finishes, the Stagehands begin tearing down all the equipment. Everything must be put back in the correct place. There are cables to be coiled, microphones and mic stands to be put away, amplifiers and drums to be put into their cases, perhaps rigging or major props that need disassembling, and lots of other odds and ends. The crew works together like a well-oiled machine, as in a synchronized dance, to get everything ready to transport, or put away and ready for the next use. When the day is done, it could be very late, and everyone high-fives each other as congratulations on another production finished. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction in that moment when all the work is finished. Of course, it is time to go get rested and ready for another day.
Working with the Crew
Since Stagehands work in a team, getting along well with others is a prerequisite. There is a high level of synchronization with all the hands working in concert (pun intended) to pull off a successful show. There isn’t always time to rehearse everything and sometimes there is extreme pressure to get things exactly right. At some point, something always goes wrong and it’s up to everyone on the crew to pitch in and correct course. This means Stagehands must keep a cool head and think creatively under stressful conditions. It’s not always like this, but it does happen.
Working on a crew also involves some long hours, so it’s understandable that nerves can get frayed backstage. Most successful Stagehands have a good sense of humor and know not to take themselves or others too seriously. This doesn’t mean the work isn’t serious; it is. But there are stressful moments where having a good laugh afterward can go a long way towards diffusing any tension that could linger after the anxious moments have passed. Having a shared mission of producing the best show possible pulls the crew together as a cohesive team.
Types of Stagehand Skills Needed
Probably the first requirement for being a Stagehand is to be able to stand up without sitting for long periods. There are other physical requirements, such as being able to lift heavy objects of 50 lb. or more, pull on curtain ropes, climb into rigging to adjust lights, and move very quickly in the dark to place and remove microphone stands. Other than the physical requirements, it is important to stay mentally focused on what is happening in the stage environment, which requires the ability to maintain sharp attention over prolonged periods. This is especially important when it comes to maintaining a safe environment. A good Stagehand understands what the potential dangers are backstage and keeps a sharp eye out for anything that might pose a hazard.
Stagehands also must understand the basics of audio and sound reinforcement technology. This involves the proper placement of microphones, coiling and uncoiling cables (there is a special technique for this), and using gaffer tape (a black, wide, cloth-like sticky tape) to secure cables and hide unsightly parts of the equipment. Patching cables to the correct inputs and setting up and running sound mixers and amplifiers is also something Stagehands should know about. Additionally, there may be times that Stagehands would be asked to assist with crowd control in the front-of-house (FOH), or to clear a congested backstage area to keep the show on track.
Rigging, Sound, Lights
Beyond the setting up and running of stage and audience sound reinforcement equipment, Stagehands must often learn to operate other complex mechanical systems. For example, the orchestra pit may have a hydraulic lift to raise and lower it, and the light rigging above and around the stage must be positioned using a complex system of pulleys and cables. Every hall and every stage will be designed differently, so the Stagehand must learn to quickly size up this machinery and learn safe reliable methods of operation.
With major concert acts, gigantic stages are moved in and out of arenas in a few hours, and setting up requires well-trained road and stage crews familiar with both the hall requirements and the stage itself. There are cranes, slings, booms, and other machines and systems designed to create an exciting show for the audience. Besides complex lighting systems, stage risers, overhead rigging, and speakers, there are usually giant video screens and cameras to be positioned properly. All this happens on a very tight schedule. One of the best-known companies that designs and produces giant stages around the world is Tait Towers. Their portfolio will give you an idea of the scale of such major stage productions.
There’s an old saying: if you hang around the barber shop, eventually you’ll get a haircut. Sometimes just being on the scene will get you first shot at an opening, maybe by filling in as a sub for someone who is sick. Many job openings never get posted because there was someone waiting in the wings ready to work the minute there was an opening.
Many halls in large urban centers have Stagehands that are part of a union, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, founded in 1893. There are other unions which protect the rights of Stagehands and determine their pay and working conditions. While not everyone is a fan of unions (especially management, because of higher costs associated with them), there is no denying that for their members, they ensure higher pay and benefits for those working as Stagehands. Rumor has it that some Stagehands at Carnegie Hall can earn $400,000 annually, though I’m pretty sure most do not earn that much. New York City is an expensive place to live, so I’m sure that professional Stagehands who are part of the union in NYC receive fair wages or better.
How to Find a Stagehand Job
Becoming a Stagehand does not require a college degree or special advance training or skills, in most cases. It’s a great entry-level job for someone wanting to get into the concert or theater business who is eager to work hard. Most Stagehands will receive initial training for the job that could last anywhere from 3 weeks to several months. Stagehand jobs are posted to job boards and on company websites and you can sign up for a job agent which will automatically send you notices of openings in your area. If you are a student, you might be able to land a professional internship as a Stagehand.
An even better way to get a job is to just hang around a venue and meet the people working there so you will get the first notice of any openings. Have a basic resume and cover letter and try to meet with the Stage Manager or Venue Manager to have an informal conversation. There’s an old saying: if you hang around the barber shop, eventually you’ll get a haircut. Sometimes just being on the scene will get you first shot at an opening, maybe by filling in as a sub for someone who is sick. Many job openings never get posted because there was someone waiting in the wings ready to work the minute there was an opening. Making friends with other Stagehands is a good way to network as well.
Applying for Stagehand jobs is no different than applying for any position. Be ready to talk about why you would be a good fit for the job, show positive enthusiasm, and make a professional impression with your clothes, handshake, and attitude. Network with anyone in the music business, such as Booking Agents, Promoters, Band Crew, Sound and Lighting Technicians, other Stagehands, Managers, and musicians. To gain experience, consider joining up with a local band to assist with their live gigs. The best kind of learning is on-the-job, and it never hurts to have lots of friends in the business. You could also apply directly to the companies that build and transport stages, or manage the tours. There are many kinds of outfits that employ Stagehands, so if you want a job you will make it your business to get on their radar and connect with them.
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