The Hardest Working Act In Show Business Is….The Stage Crew

July 30, 2012

San Francisco Opera Crew (1997)

Lesson #1 for any performer: Always be good to the stage crew.

We often use the terms “stagehands” and “stage crew” interchangeably, but is there a difference? The Urban Online Dictionary says it best.

Definition: Stage Crew: 

“The people behind any play you see; creating and moving out the set, working the lights, babysitting the actors…you name it, they do it. They are really the only reason the show actually happens, yet they are terribly unappreciated. They hold together entire sets with duct tape and will run out behind the set in the middle of a scene just to hold up a fallen curtain.  They are usually made up of the most awesome people you will ever meet. Never piss them off, for they control everything and will not hesitate to @#!! you up on stage.” 

Therefore, “stage crew” is a broad term used to describe the production staff and happens to include anyone working backstage or in the tech booth.

Stagehands are members of the stage crew, and primarily work backstage.  They are the electricians, lighting technician, carpenters, props masters, riggers, and are involved with setting up the scenery and special effects for a production. So, yes, the same thing holds true: “Never piss them off, for they control everything and will not hesitate to @#!! you up on stage.”


In addition to that,  what else do we know about the stage crew?  Well, we know…

A. Their work can be very dangerous, and requires an understanding of highly technical information.  

In this case, our “being good to the stage crew” essentially means to just stay out of their way.

According to the essay “What It’s Like To Be A Stagehand” written anonymously at FlyingMoose.org:

“Stagehands are often viewed as dangerous barbarians. I think we perpetuate the image because we’ve become so comfortable with it, and because it keeps people out of our way when we’re trying to work.”

B. They tell the best jokes  (most of which we can’t even print here.)

Q: How many stage hands does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: None. They know they’ll be killed if they mess with the lights.

Q: How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: None. They can never find their light.

Q: How many choreographers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: “Ah-Five, Six, Seven, Eight…”

C. Because of their vast technical knowledge, the stagehands may even take time out of their schedules to coach the dancers.

Kent Barnes

We asked Kent Barnes (formerly Stage Tech, Props. Department, Keyman, and Orchestra Technician of the San Francisco Opera and  San Francisco Ballet) to explain just what is going on in the photograph below. This was taken onstage at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House in 1994.  The dancers shown are former Principals with the San Francisco Ballet: Tina LeBlanc and Anthony (“Tony”) Randazzo preparing for Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo and Juliet.  In the center is Kenneth (“Kenny”) Ryan, Properties Master at the San Francisco Ballet and to his right is Kent Barnes.  (Kent and Kenny are members of  IATSE (The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts), which is the union of professional stagehands, motion picture technicians, and allied crafts.)

According to Kent:

“Kenny and I were asked to dust mop the stage, and Tina and Tony were still rehearsing . By this point, the curtain had come in, but they were still there, both so sweet.  Kenny and I were just trying to get them to stop so we could finish mopping the stage to prepare for the dress rehearsal.” —– Kent Barnes

Tina Leblanc and Anthony Randazzo onstage with Kenneth Ryan and Kent Barnes (The original photo appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle)

By the way, Kent is just being modest.  It is clear from this photo that there is some serious ballet coaching going on by both Kent Barnes and Kenny Ryan.  So, yes, we’re right about the stagehands coaching the dancers!  And it just goes to illustrate yet another example of how the performance could not go on without the expertise of the stage crew!

Moving on… So, what else do we know?

Another Long Hard Day

C. The work of the stage crew requires tremendous stamina!  

How else could they survive the extreme possibility of a 12 to 16 hour workday?

So, what are they actually doing throughout these long work hours, anyway? To get an idea, you can find out in the excellent documentary:  Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle (1999): http://archive.itvs.org/singfaster/

Ken Ryan Master of Properties at San Francisco Ballet

D. Stagehands know how to eat!!

This photograph of the same Kenny Ryan shown above, was taken at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum, Idaho during the San Francisco Ballet’s recent tour to Sun Valley.  (See:  The San Francisco Ballet  in Sun Valley Idaho).  Check out that steak!

E. As if they don’t already have enough to do, sometimes it’s up to the stage crew to keep everyone else in the theatre in check.  

That goes for dancers, singers, actors, musicians and even audience members.  More often than not, it is usually up to the stage crew, to find a way to get situations like this under control.  In this scene from the 1935 film “A Night at the Opera”, Groucho Marx (as Driftwood) heckles from the audience while Chico (as Fiorello) and Harpo (as Tomasso) infiltrate the cast of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”.   The film clip can be found here:  http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/224512/Night-at-the-Opera.  (Sorry. There’s nothing we could do about the ad.)

That just goes to show you the kinds of crazy situations that the stage crew just might have  to put up with.

Probably the best piece of advice for the performers in a show comes from the writer, journalist, publisher, actor, radio DJ, activist, spoken word artist and legendary frontman for the punk band Black Flag, Henry Rollins:

…and we should not forget it.

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5 Responses to The Hardest Working Act In Show Business Is….The Stage Crew

  1. July 30, 2012 at 7:46 pm

    Thank you to Kent Barnes, Kenneth Ryan, and to all of the stage crew!

    • March 27, 2014 at 5:46 pm

      Thank you for telling our stories!
      Cheers!

  2. Stan Sacha
    July 31, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    This article rocks! As a member of Local 26, West Michigan Stagehands, I agree with and appreciated the construction of this story.

  3. July 31, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Thank you. Stan! We look forward to including more stories about the stagehands in the future. If you have any ideas or suggestions, please send them to us!