Alternative jobs: Enter the goblin world of the theatre technician

Alternative jobs: Enter the goblin world of the theatre technician

Theatre jobs: Theatre technicians are the rebels without applause. Behind the scenes, lighting, audio and backstage technicians are brave and talented gremlins who make the show happen…

What is a theatre technician? God, goblin, or both?

Have you ever wondered how the auditory and lighting effects are created in live theatre? Or perhaps you’ve noticed shadowy figures lurking on the catwalks or behind the curtains. While it may seem that the theatre is inhabited by a group of gremlins who use their magical powers to run the spotlights and microphones, the truth is… well. More or less just that.

The scientific term for these strange persons is a ‘theatre technician’ or ‘auditory-visual technician’. We tend to refer to ourselves as, simply, ‘techies’. Actors (for whom techies tend to have a certain distaste – you know, pirates versus ninjas, vampires versus werewolves, actors versus techies) may also use the term, but in certain situations, it can be offensive. Such as, say, when it’s angrily shouted when something (anything) goes wrong.

Of course, techies never make mistakes. The equipment may fail, or the actors may screw up, but never us. As an anonymous but oft-quoted tech quipped, ‘I don’t make mistakes, I have unintentional improvisations.’ Such arrogance is just one of the many character traits found in the theatre tech. Other identifying characteristics include dressing in black, wearing stompy-stomp boots, excessive pride (though really, if you and your mates could put together an entire show one week – Hell Week – before it opened, well, wouldn’t you be proud?) and a fondness for cheesecake.

Techs come in several different varieties.

Lighting technicians

Lighting specialists either run spotlights or run the light board, a primitive sort of computer programmed to run certain patterns of lights above the stage on and off. Of course, the lights have to be set up with proper angles and gels (thin sheets of shaded plastic placed over lights to create interesting colors) in the first place, which can be a mentally and physically demanding task. When accused (which they often are) of merely flipping switches, the classic lighting tech response is to use the example from ancient Greek theatre- “Did they have lights back then?” The answer is simply “Yes. And who supplied them with light? God.” The nice thing about this job is that – should you turn on a stage left light instead of a lower left light – chances are the audience will never notice.

Audio technicians

Should an audio tech make a mistake, the results can be slightly more disastrous. Audio techs control the soundboard, through which microphones, sound effects and any pre-recorded music are run. Each microphone, both around the stage and on actors, must be monitored to prevent the ultimate nemesis – feedback. Slightly-less awful is the threat of missing entrance cues, so that the actor’s microphone doesn’t turn on until halfway through their monologue, or missing exit cues, so that the entire audience hears the actor swearing backstage.

Backstage technicians

The fittingly named backstage techs are responsible for (nearly) everything that happens backstage. This includes moving set pieces, preparing (and repairing) props, and reminding actors of their cues. About a million and six things can go wrong backstage, but a proper theatre technician will always be prepared with:

+ Gaffer’s tape – stronger and more expensive than duct tape; about sixteen bucks a roll but can effectively tape anything. Including small children to walls.

+ Duct tape – a classic cure-all. Nothing more be said.

+ Glow tape – tape… that glows in the dark! Used to mark where on the stage large set pieces are to be placed. Is often an impromptu flashlight

+ Masking tape – the weakest of all tapes, this is mainly for labeling props or taping up cue sheets and scripts backstage

So, if you like tape, dressing in black and lurking in dark places, pretending to be an all-powerful being, working long hours, off-color jokes (‘Techies do it in the dark’ is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg), flipping switches, carrying heavy objects, wearing headsets, or cheesecake, you would probably make an excellent tech! While theatre techs have been – and still are – disproportionately male, gender doesn’t matter nearly as much as ability. Encountering gender prejudice is a possibility, but no reason to be discouraged!

How to become a theatre technician

How to join this strange subculture? Well, most high schools and colleges have some sort of tech crew, so inquire with the head of the theatre department. Contacting a local community theatre is also a good idea. It’s also possible to major in theatre technology and go into professional teching. After all, all the world’s a stage – and where would they be without techies?