Invisible Heroes: An Ode to the Tech Team
- OnStage New York Columnist
Having spent much of my theatrical history in the realm of the actor, the ins and outs of the tech world still remain very much a mystery to me. But being that it is Tech Week here at Onstage, I feel it my due diligence to honor these unseen heroes of our craft in some way. However, taking into account that my personal history with technical theatre is decidedly limited I cannot, in good conscience, sit here and try to get into the realities of working in tech.
I don't have the resources to pontificate on the artistic and technical expertise required of a lighting designer, the challenges faced by a sound department attempting to fill every nook and cranny of a space with story, or the teamwork and precision of stagehands executing hundreds of cues to the second. I can't discuss the total disregard for personal safety involved in hanging and aiming lights or the trials of a costume designer's hunt for the perfect mid-century fabric. I've never styled a wig or navigated a bridge. And I certainly don't know how to program a board, or how exactly anyone coordinates all of these elements from a stage manager's chair.
When it comes to the finer points of tech, I am, admittedly, a novice. But what I do know, however, is that the contributions of a great tech staff go far beyond the manual labor of running a show and that "Tech Week" itself in all its endless, frustrating, rewarding glory, may bring many headaches to those in its throes, but it also brings the incredible alchemy of teamwork and the unmistakable magic of theatre with it.
I was 9 years old when I made my first theatrical outing and those first weeks with the cast and creatives had misled me into thinking the work we did in rehearsal was all there was to putting on a show. Just a bunch of old and new friends, jammed into a community parish center (All-Catholic 'Fiddler on the Roof, represent) learning songs, doing scene work, and stumbling our way through choreography. A merry band of plainclothes regular Joes putting on a show for each other. We sang, we worked, we laughed, we carried on. It was a fun thing to do.
Then, Tech Week came. And suddenly, the air was different. There was a feeling of urgency everywhere you went. It was a far cry from the relaxed joviality of the preceding weeks and the process took on a sterner tone, but the excitement was palpable. And in that week, a whole new side of theatre revealed itself to me. Huge boxes of equipment were rolled in, scaffolding was built, lights were hung. People shouted cues and instructions from all corners of the auditorium. Adults flew in different directions, moving scenery, hoisting flies, climbing ladders, tossing cables from 30 feet in the air, etc.
It was then that my young mind realized that this was how theatre really happens.
More mesmerizing still, in that week, magic began to take hold of our little play. The sets, once painted slabs of wood in our gymnasium, were now onstage, an assembled work of art that put us squarely in this little village of Anatevka I'd heard so much about. The lights created space and mood that did not exist in the natural world. As costume racks and makeup kits came rolling out, our squadron of players transformed from parents, students, and clergy to matchmakers, milkmen, and Cossacks. Executives became butchers, pharmacists became fearsome ghosts (complete with ghoulish reverb), priests became rabbis, a company became a show.
Our backstage, once an area populated only by actors, was now shared with mythic figures called stagehands. Clad all in black, they looked like a coven, and fittingly so, as some heavily coordinated sorcery enabled them to transform the stage each time the lights went down. They were a dynamic crew who moved quickly, hit their marks, became annoyed when you got in the way, but ultimately kept the show intact and us all safe.
Tech Week was also a time for awareness. Of listening and figuring out my position in what was now a hectic new atmosphere; a time of beginning to understand my place in not just a cast, but a show. A week of learning the truth about the real work that goes into creating live entertainment.
Tech Week is also the first time I learned very basic tech etiquette and standards of professionalism. It was a time understanding not only my accountability to the performing itself but to the backstage atmosphere and tools of the trade. To the importance of safely hitting my marks onstage and off, to the sanctity of costumes (no eating), to the responsibility of prop(s) (use it onstage, put it back where you got it, and don't screw around otherwise), to the proper care of things like body mics and wigs. These are all lessons learned from working with some amazing technical counterparts and gaining an appreciation for the work that they do. Through witnessing their artistry firsthand, I have been made a much more effective and generous contributor to this art form.
On that show and each show since, I have been mesmerized by the incredible tech crews I've had the privilege of working with. They truly are the beating heart of what we do. They are most valuable and the least visible, the most dedicated and the most seldom rewarded. They are the difference between a script and a show, a cast and a company. They make intangible visions come to life. They do in one week what it takes the rest of us months to do.
And so, while my knowledge of the technical realm may be limited, my work has been made immeasurably better through working alongside of these people. And even though they may be invisible to the audience, in my experience, the tech crew and the wonderful work that they do goes very far from unnoticed.