I’ve always found theatres to be magical places.
For many years now, an important part of my pre-show ritual has been to arrive at the theatre early enough that I can sit alone for a few minutes in the stillness of the deserted auditorium, soaking up a little bit of that magic; the atmosphere pregnant with the possibilities of performance, like the tingly, cordite calm that presages a coming storm.
Theatre magic is real. Tangible.
And it’s got very little to do with me. Or performers in general.
As performers we rehearse everything for several weeks in a studio before we even see the stage. Ideally, the basic pattern or “blocking” of the show is completed in advance of our arrival in the theatre. There is no special lighting and our rehearsal sets are generally very basic – a few flat, black screens to indicate walls and doors, and some coloured sticky-tape on the floor to mark out the rough shape of the set.
We have the luxury of spending countless hours in this space figuring out exactly how the characters will relate to one another on stage, which emphasis will be placed on which word, which gesture will accompany which phrase. Every single move is choreographed, documented, and repeated over and over, until it becomes second nature.
Not much magic there. Just a lot of experimentation and mind-numbing repetition.
No, the magic starts to happen when we finally hit the stage.
Costumes, make-up, lighting, props, sets, scenery, scrims, projections, smoke and (yes I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true nonetheless) even mirrors. These are the magical elements which breathe life into the crude carcass we’ve created in the rehearsal studio.
Many of the most incredible stage illusions you will ever see are achieved using techniques that have been around for centuries. Clever lighting and use of a scrim (a see-through gauze across the stage) can create sudden appearances or disappearances, or can add depth and dimension to the stage to create 3-D spaces such as forests or cityscapes. Today, with the aid of ever-developing digital technology, it is possible to remotely control many aspects of lighting, set movement, flying scenery, even projections, to create extraordinary special effects.
All of this, however, is entirely dependent upon theatre’s greatest magical weapon – the vast army of backstage technicians responsible for every single piece of live theatre being performed in the world today.
Here’s a brief list, and a few words about what these amazing people do.
Production Department – The people who work with the director, designer, and production team to make sure everything translates from blueprint to reality with as few problems as possible. If you think that sounds easy, remember that every theatre is different, and most of them are very old, so the technical demands and requirements differ hugely from place to place. A production designed to fit in one theatre won’t simply slot into another. These people routinely solve seemingly impossible problems.
Stage Management – The team who actually run the show. They are responsible for all aspects of stage performance, from running “The Book” (which contains all the staging, lighting, and sound cues for the entire show), to supervising scene changes, corralling performers, and generally dealing with any and all problems which might arise during a live performance. They will attend all rehearsals, both in studio and on stage, and all performances. From a performer’s point of view, a good stage manager is worth their weight in gold.
Stage Crew – The builders who construct the world you see when the curtain flies out. When the curtain comes in again, they quickly disassemble that world and create another, all in the time it takes you drink a glass of champagne. They work around the clock, to ensure that a theatre is able to offer a wide range of repertoire, often building and breaking down two completely different shows in a day. They are the bedrock upon which any theatre company stands.
Technical Department – Electrical, lighting, sound, and pyrotechnic specialists who create the visual language of the production. When people talk about creating mood-lighting at in their home, it’s rarely more than a couple of recessed lights and a dimmer switch. In the theatre, it’s an art form. Stage lighting is never static. It is a performer in its own right, constantly interacting with the other performers, commenting upon, highlighting, and underscoring the drama, much as movie soundtrack does. A good lighting designer can make or break a show, and a good lighting crew is a vital part of the set-up and performance.
There is also a range of sound equipment throughout the theatre. Other than the obvious PA systems, there are also sound monitors in strategic positions all over the backstage area to provide “fold-back” (a way for the onstage performers to hear the piano/band/orchestra more clearly on stage) as theatres are designed to throw sound from the pit into the auditorium rather than back onto the stage. Obviously, any recording has to be captured via strategically placed microphones, and with the rise of live radio, television, and cinema relays, this has become a vital part of the industry.
Props Department – More correctly, the Properties Department. These people are the detail specialists who hunt down everything which dresses the set, from everyday items such as furniture, pens and paper, knives and forks, weapons (some places have a dedicated armourer for this) and so on, to more bizarre items, such as buffalo skulls, fluorescent mannequins, or even water-fountains full of blood, to name but a few I’ve personally encountered. Whatever is required, they will seek it out, or build it from scratch, keeping track of it during performances so that nothing goes amiss.
Fly Crew – Look at the outside of any theatre. You see that big, square bit sticking up above the stage? That’s called the Fly Tower, and it’s essentially an elevated storage space above the stage which holds all the scenery that flies in and out during a performance. (It is also home to the lighting rig.) This is the realm of the Fly Crew, who we hardly ever see as they’re stationed far above the stage. Every piece of flying scenery is cleverly counter-weighted and many tonnes of gear can be lifted and lowered to the stage by hand. Computer control systems are more and more common these days, but if they go wrong, you still can’t beat a safe pair of hands.
Wardrobe Department – Costume is one of the toughest things to get right. Very early on in the rehearsal process, fittings will take place. Most rehearsals will involve mock-up costumes, while the wardrobe people feverishly prepare the full costumes for soloists, chorus, and any supernumeraries involved in the show. Normally, these will be ready for the beginning of stage rehearsals, but alterations and adjustments will continue all the way to the opening night, as there’s always something that gets damaged, or doesn’t look right under the lights, or doesn’t work properly in a given scene.
Hats require a skilled milliner who generally works away on their own for weeks on end trying to get everything ready in time for the stage rehearsals.
Dressers are employed during stage rehearsals and performances to help with costume changes, maintenance, and repair.
Wigs and Make-up Department – Wigs are incredibly time-consuming and expensive to make, and shows which are set in a specific historical period will require a great many of them. As they are made from real hair, they require washing, styling and setting every time they are worn.
Make-up requires a great deal of experimentation to get right. If the lighting set-up changes, then the make-up has to change as well, lest we all end up day-glow orange, or bleached white. Personnel are on hand to prepare, apply, and touch-up make-up from the beginning of stage rehearsals through all the performances.
For every performer you see on the stage, there are at least ten people backstage that you never get to see. I could not do my job without any of them, yet they never get the chance to take a bow.
The next time you’re at the theatre, applauding a performance, please think of these unsung heroes, and remember that the lion’s share of the magic you’ve enjoyed that evening is down to them.