Over the last few years, I’ve gone deep into Technical Theatre. This is the kind of blanket term for all the non-actors involved in a theatrical production. I’ve worked on a lot of productions (everything from tiny casts in small spaces to huge musicals in traverse), with a relatively small team and that’s led to me wearing an awful lot of hats. The plan is for me to write about all the roles I’ve done and give some opinions. I’ll then talk about my general experience.

I say this multiple times, but it’s good to mention from the start - this is all based off my experiences which are likely not reflective of yours - different shows run differently and people share different responsibilities. There are also probably countless roles I’ve missed - I’m trying to stick to roles I’ve actually had some hand in for the most part here. This is more about my experiences than what you might have done. That having been said, I’m always curious to learn about new things so email me if you’ve got a role I don’t mention here.

I’ll also add a warning here - if you actually want to know what to do, the best resource I’ve found is the ADC Wiki.

Backstage

First, I’ll be talking about all the roles that are on the ground, in the wings and with all the actors.

Stage Manager (SM)

The stage manager is the lead role - if something goes wrong, then the buck ultimately stops with you. This is the most senior technical role, and so can sometimes involve extra details around safety in case of serious on-stage problems or guiding audiences to a safe place.

Your job amounts to knowing exactly what happens when for the whole show in terms of props, set changes & who’s moving everything around. Then, when something inevitably gets forgotten you need to notice and take steps to a) make sure it isn’t forgotten again and b) try and somehow get it onstage subtly.

I’m currently preparing for a Stage Manager job, but I’ve never actually done it so we’ll see what happens.

Assistant Stage Manager (ASM)

The ASMs work for the SM, actually doing all of the set changes and prop pre-setting. Typically you’ll need to memorise transitions because the director will probably have some novel way of moving everything on and off stage. If you forget something, then get ready to be told so over headset from the SM.

I’ve been ASM a few times - it’s often categorised by periods of boredom (because you need to stay by the stage to do transitions, but then can’t talk or do much) interspersed by brief periods of high activity. Depending on the show & director, you might only be needed for a few of the bigger transitions, or you’ll be on your feet for the whole night.

Sound 2/3

The main difference between Sound 2 & 3 is how much you’re responsible for - is it just mic-ing up actors or are you also worried about making sure all the packs have enough batteries and are at the right frequencies.

That having been said, a lot of the work is just making sure actors have microphones.

Depending on the size of the production this can be wildly different in difficulty. In smaller production with lots of talking roles, you might have mic changes with every other scene - once I think I had to do a mic change over about 2 or 3 lines. In larger productions, you might not need to worry much apart from the start and end because you might be able to rent enough for everyone. This is why Sound 3 people can often end up doubling as ASMs.

This is one of the more wasteful areas of the theatre - I’ll write more about this later, but the environmental impact of the theatre is not to be understated. Specifically here the consistent director enforces rules around batteries - regardless of how long they’ve been used for they have to be replaced every night. For a 24 mic production, this means 48 AA batteries per night - if you account for rehearsals and say 6 production nights (which is relatively small), you’re then speaking in the quantities of hundreds of batteries. Do that multiple times a year and you’re into the thousands of batteries. And then at that scale, rechargeable batteries become impractical so most batteries just get binned.

Sound 1

NB: I haven’t ever actually done this because I decided to specialise in lighting - I’ve dabbled and done mic work, but nothing much more so this is extrapolation based off what I’ve seen. I’ll try and keep the opinions to a minimum because I’ve got almost no experience here.

Sound 1 is the other major backstage role, although it’s more similar in nature to a box role, as you mainly stay put during the actual production. Before that point, you’ll be running around checking audio cables and making sure all of your equipment works precisely the way you think it does. The reason I’d qualify this as backstage is because you have to do your job from within the auditorium to make sure that you’re hearing the levels accurately.

During the actual production, your job is to manage the levels of all the different microphones - band & actors both. Recently, this has just been muting the band’s microphones because they’re so loud and getting the actors as loud as possible. That having been said, that’s probably because for the in-traverse musical1, there are way fewer sound deafening seats than usual.

The Box

I usually find that I prefer box roles more as you can sometimes get away with quiet conversation during quiet parts and sometimes even eating. The one time I’ve ever heard eating/drinking being banned was as an intervention to stop the sound operator drinking so much coffee. It’s also often cooler because you sometimes have AC. There’s also usually a great view.

I will add one point to that though - this is mainly from my experiences with one box that is: sound-proofed, air-conditioned for several reasons, has a mini-fridge and large windows. I’ve also seen boxes that are small and stuffy where the fact that the windows opens is a godsend for heat reasons. I’ve done one production in a box that was centimetres away from an audience, and on that occasion roles were reversed because the ASMs and other backstage roles waited outside right next to a stage entrance.

Lighting Designer

Lighting design involves looking at the stage and current lighting plans and deciding whether or not they’re sufficient. If not, then everyone gets involved to bring the lighting bars down and add new lights - either from storage, purchase or rental. This involves a whole lot of tape and safety chains to make sure the cables are as invisible as possible (that is, not drooping down from the bars) and takes a while. Then, they need to be put back in place and focused, a job I’ve never done but looks like it involves spanners and heights which makes me glad I’ve never had to do it - although I would one day like to do it, for curiosity’s sake.

Lighting Programming

Lighting programming mainly involves a mastery of whichever lighting system the theatre uses to control the fixtures - trying follow what the lighting designer says, and tweaking it to fit with the lights installed.

Sounds pretty simple, and for smaller shows it definitely can be - the trouble comes with larger shows where me you might jump around in the various sections you’re programming - this can lead to (dun dun duunnununnn!!!) tracking issues! These are the worst bane of lighting programmers and result when cues are incorrectly updated and those changes can persist until that light is used again. You then need to go through every cue between and fix it, which can take a forever and a half.

Lighting/Sound Operator

Lighting & Sound Operator are both very similar and quite simple - you just press the button to advance to the next cue when the Deputy Stage Manager tells you to.

The main difference is in the frequency of button-pushing - as a sound operator I once had time to make a cup of tea for the lighting operator, wait for him to drink it and then clean it all up between cues. Lighting changes are often more frequent - I think the longest gap I ever had was during a 7 minute duration cue which signified the transition between day & night.

Deputy Stage Manager (DSM)

The DSM’s job is to call the lighting changes and communicate any possible on-stage issues to the SM in case they haven’t already noticed. This involves a very well marked up script (often called The Book), but doesn’t involve too much beyond that.

This is the most senior box-based role, and on smaller productions you’ll often see the director double up as the DSM to execute the cues exactly to their vision. I’ve seen some quite funny sights of DSMs getting very annoyed at the cast during rehearsals privately to the box crew (who are sworn to secrecy by tradition) once to the point of snapping the nib of their pen.

Pre-Production

Unfortunately, I have no experience in costumes, set design, prop sourcing or lots of the aspects of the show that start long before production.

The only thing I can say is that set building & rigging lights has shown me that Manual Labour can be fun with friends.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve loved my last few years in technical theatres - including the production I’m working on right now I’ve done 9, as well as multiple events the theatre team is asked to do like running cable for fireworks night. I’m definitely going to continue on when I get to university but I probably need a bit of a healthier attitude towards it - last year I did literally everything I could apart from when it directly clashed with permanent-record acts and I’m a hair tired of it all.

Then, on the other hand what can you really be without hardship? I’ve learnt proper transferable skills like teamwork, a hair of leadership & prioritisation. I’ve got my calendar and todo list to a bulletproof state, partially because I’m just that guy, but also because if I didn’t then all the balls I’m carefully juggling would have fallen by now.

I haven’t even considered the impact on people other than me here - I’ve already mentioned the batteries earlier but there’s a far larger impact than that. I haven’t mentioned the tape (wouldn’t be surprised if we get through it by the 100s of metres per production and then that all goes in the bin). There’s the paint and the lights. I’ve worked on productions where the lights are so many and so bright that we don’t turn on the lights until right before the audience comes in for heat management. Even just from a heat perspective that’s more power than my computer probably consumes all year just in an evening.

All of that having been said, I’ve never quite found anything else that matches the stress, the teamwork & the eventual satisfaction when everything goes well in front of a paying audience. I love the thinking on your feet problem solving it a prop is left on stage, or a lighting cue goes one too early because there’s no time for dallying or indecisiveness. Some people get this by sports, but I’ve never quite had that experience so for now I’ll be staying in the theatre. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds for my theatrical career.


  1. This is where most of the seats are moved out of the way to have the actors act between 2 pairs of facing audience seats. Makes the show far more immersive at the cost of seating space. ↩︎