“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
It’s a line that a lot of us will at least vaguely recognize from The Wizard of Oz, and also one that can be quite apt to apply to those who work backstage on shows. Indeed, it can be said to be true that the less we see of them from the audience, the better they’re doing their job. And while this is certainly true in the setting of show night in the middle of a scene, maybe it’s time we started paying just a bit more attention to the people who help make sure that the show goes up every night.
I’ve been to the theatre countless times, and while I’ve heard people compliment the actors, the costumes, the orchestra (in case of a musical) and sometimes the set, I’ve very rarely heard someone mention how impressed they were by the lights or by the sound design. The times that I have heard, it’s generally been by a fellow ‘techie’, or about a show which is tech-heavy (for example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time). But why? Why is this not a thing we include in our reviews to friends and family? Without lights and sound, a show can’t go on, just as it couldn’t without actors, and yet these things are rarely mentioned, often only popping up in reviews if something has gone wrong.
Personally, I’ve been on both sides myself. I’ve worked on the stage, but lately my work has primarily been off it, hiding in the darkness and making sure that everyone else is in the light. Granted, this has been in student theatre, but nonetheless, it’s given me a new perspective on things. And while I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible teams, I can’t help but notice that if there’s anyone who goes unnoticed in general, it’s usually the techies. Of course, we can be a pretty reclusive bunch, so we don’t necessarily mind this, but at the same time, a little appreciation wouldn’t go amiss. It’s why I like the fact that our group has a tradition for curtain calls- you come out, everyone takes their bows, everyone bows as a group, and then everyone raises a hand to the tech box to direct applause towards there. It’s a small gesture, but one that can mean a lot.
Unfortunately this isn’t always possible, depending on the location of a tech team during a show, especially in professional settings where the audience will largely have no clue about them, as opposed to a student theatre where everybody knows everyone and the tech box is a fairly obvious structure on the balcony. So I understand the lack of this in shows like that.
But why do these things get forgotten? Is it because of a lack of understanding of how they work? Or is it maybe because people sometimes presume that it’s less complicated than it actually is? I’ve had people tell me before “but it’s just turning lights on and off”. In a way, that’s true, but it says nothing of the work and effort that go into it. For every show, all the lights need to be rigged, need to be focused in exactly the right spots, with the right shape and intensity, which can take hours, and that’s before you even begin to programme. Washes, chases, other effects, they all take time, and yes, they can be the reason why your tech run is dragging on- because the poor techies spent all night, into the early hours of the morning, putting things where they needed to go and now have to program on the fly.
Also, sometimes things just go wrong.
I remember going to see Billy Elliot last September, and the show having to stop for around ten minutes during the first act due to a technical issue with some of their moving set pieces. They took the ten minutes to fix it, and then the rest of the show continued as normal. And yet, I witnessed multiple people get up and leave during those ten minutes and not return. Maybe they had reasons, but surely I can’t be the only one to find that silly? To spend so much money on a ticket to then walk out because it was decided that it was better to stop and fix something than for the show to continue with something relatively vital missing? Of course, we’d rather nothing went wrong in the first place, but even in the professional world, that doesn’t always happen. You just have to do your best to fix it and move on.
So I think it’s time we started showing a little more appreciation towards our backstage crews- technicians, stage managers, costume managers and every other person who helps out. They put a lot more work, time, and effort in than most people realise, and do an incredible job that can often be relatively thankless.
So the next time you’re in a particularly lengthy tech run, be patient with your techies. We don’t usually bite, but we do tend to run on little sleep and whatever food we can scavenge. In return, we’ll make sure the audience can see your best side and hear every word you say on stage (And not get too insane when you wander out of the spotlight we’ve told you about multiple times).
Megan Henry is a student at the University of Edinburgh and has been doing theatre since the age of seven. She is a keen member of the Edinburgh University Theatre Company (EUTC) and has worked on the technical aspect of almost twenty shows in the past two years, as well as participating on stage as well. She hopes that maybe one day, she’ll get to be paid for it too.