Stage technicians: the magicians alongside the other backstage warriors

Monday, January 25, 2016 • Liverpool Arts Society


For this little tale, I’m going to take you on a little journey, across the Atlantic and all the way to Morris, Connecticut. Why? Because that is where I spent the summer. No, I wasn’t a stage technician, I was working at a summer camp as a martial arts counsellor. Strange place for a stage technician story to start right? Maybe a little bit, but bear with me. It’s worth it, I promise.

Now, I worked for this summer camp and thoroughly enjoyed it. But there was a small problem, I was having withdrawals. I had recently graduated from my degree in Drama and was itching to get back to doing something associated with theatre… Anything. Literally anything. Get me to an American amateur dramatics group and I’d happily steal the show dressed as a tree in the background. I wanted some of the arts in my life, pronto. So much so that I let slip that I had been a lighting technician for Inglorious Insinuations of Insanity in January of that year. The directors of the camp heard this and decided to appoint me as the stage technician for their annual summer musical. Now, here is where it gets a bit tricky. The theatre is essentially a sports hall with a small stage and one bar of very basic lights that hang from the ceiling… and the show was Mulan. Which is a show with magic, battles and dragons (well, lizards but it’s still a reptile. You really gonna argue with me and Eddie Murphy?). Now, in no way am I slating the camp’s facilities. If anything I was thoroughly excited to have free reign over the lighting and be able to set them all up, my way, with only the director to answer to (who was more concerned in finishing the directing in all honesty).

So here I am 3230(ish) miles away from home with my own show to technically stage. But, here’s the catch. I had only been given the day off from teaching my usual activities for one day to set the tech up… Which happened to be the day of the performance. Now I don’t know about you but have you ever tried to set up a lighting rig, all the microphones (including radio mics), set up the lighting & sound board, try and get a technical rehearsal out the way AND get the coloured gels into the lanterns for certain scenes – for ambience of course, I may be on a tight schedule but I’m not an amateur – all in about 3 hours? The problem with this was what I’ve just mentioned, the tight schedule I was on. We got to the ‘theatre’ at around 10:00am and we had until around 1:00pm to get all of the above done. Sounds doable right? Of course it does… I thought I’d have it done in under an hour, but what I didn’t realise was, that I was literally on my own to do this (and I always think I have more time than I actually have. That’s a genuine thing isn’t it?). With half of the equipment missing. And it was 35 degrees Celsius. And the theatre was essentially a giant bloody greenhouse. And I had to go up and down the ladder a lot. And I had to carry the lanterns up and down said ladder. And the lanterns were as heavy as a cinder block. And half the kids that weren’t on stage would constantly try and fight me. And I had to choreograph a stage fight as well. Do you pity me yet? PITY ME YOU SCOUNDRELS!!

I think I literally sweat off about a stone of my overall body weight that day. It is safe to say that I was in a foul mood at this point. A sweaty, swollen, sickly mood. Out of the entire summer I spent there, I’ve never come closer to nailing a kid with a swift RKO off the stage. Genuinely serious. That thought crossed my mind… Unfortunately – for my mental state – I didn’t end up RKO’ing any kids. However I did choreograph that fight scene and got a kid choke slammed off the stage. At least that was one small victory!

To make it a much better day, by the time the show was fully directed and choreographed, the rest of the camp had turned up to watch the performance… Only there was one teeny, tiny, problem. I HAD NOT DONE A TECHNICAL OR DRESS REHEARSAL. I was going to be running this entire show of Mulan – the bloody musical with lots of sound effects and lighting states – completely blind with no cues to go off whatsoever. Isn’t that just absolutely bloody lovely? Doesn’t it just make you want to gouge your eyes out in sheer happiness? I nearly did… Although not as close as the thought of RKO’ing someone. That would have been a sheer bout of relief.


But then something odd happened. As the show began to open and the radio mics were turned on, I began to stop sweating as much… No, that is not the odd thing, you awful person… I began to enjoy what I was doing! I genuinely started to enjoy what I was doing. Having to improvise how I was going to make these children actually audible (as they didn’t know or how to project their voice) was something I began to revel in. The only help I had was a script I had found that I was using to anticipate scene changes, yet I was genuinely relishing the challenge of making this show look somewhat professional.

Ok, now granted, this was a children’s performance. This was not the standard that you would usually get in a performance at the RSC. Although neither was the standard of the technical side… Although it looked bloody good for a children’s show I’ll admit that much. But all of that is beside the point. Whether it looked good or not, the effort put in by all of the counsellors behind the scenes to get this show on its feet was absolutely astounding. Personally, I have never ran round and pushed myself as hard to get something looking to a decent standard in such a short timescale… Furthermore, I’ve never enjoyed being an actual technician as much as this. No matter how close I was to a breakdown throughout the performance. The payoff was worth it… and that is what I am leading up to.

So why am I telling you this story then? Why does it matter if I did the tech for a show that none of you will ever see or probably want to see by the way I’ve described it? Why to all of this and more?

Because the kids in the show absolutely loved the time they had on stage. That’s why.

One of the children in the show was one of the boys who I looked after in my cabin and he did not shut up about Mulan for the next few days about how much fun he had as well as how ‘cool’ it looked. He told me that he thought the way the lights looked were ‘awesome’ and ‘it was like the real Mulan.’ Now I don’t know about you, but that makes all that stress worth it. Hearing that the little 9 year old actor appreciated all the work myself and the director etc. had went through to make him look good made all that stress, sweat and annoyance completely obsolete. Who cares if we didn’t get a tech. rehearsal? Who cares if we didn’t get as much recognition as the actors? The audience and actors were grateful that we gave everything we could to make them look ‘cool’ and that is all that matters.

Us lot backstage aren’t in it for the birds, booze and bodacious antics… We can do that wherever we want. We’re in it to make the audience give a standing ovation and make the actors look like they’re doing the easiest job in the world. And for that, we thank you all.

Now if you don’t mind. I’m off to go and RKO some kids…