In Focus: The Stagehand

Article by Cindy Lindau

Cindy Lindau’s career is magnificent. She’s worked at theatres of all shapes and sizes, off the Union referral list and as staff. She’s done and seen more than I probably ever will in my career. They are, at the end of the day, the ones who actually get things done, and Cindy is one of the finest. I’ve learned so much from her, just by watching her navigate the stage and event floor. I’m honoured to have her write for us. -Wu Chen

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Photo Credit: Monica Almeida/The New York Times

What is a stagehand? To quote Wikipedia: “A stagehand is a person who works backstage or behind the scenes in theaters, film, television, or location performance. Their work includes setting up the scenery, lights, sound, props, rigging, and special effects for a production.” Simple, right?

I recommend the following webpage: http://flyingmoose.org/stage/stage.htm This particular page of the Flying Moose of Nargothrond website has a lot of hilarious and actually quite accurate descriptions of stagehandery, especially the comparisons between stagehands and pirates. Go ahead, check it out, but a word of warning: the site is tremendously entertaining and you might forget all about clicking back to this humble essay. Truth be told, I've had to tear myself away from the site once or twice in the past few days.

I have spent the majority of my professional stagehand career as a member of the run crew at the Children's Theatre and then at the Guthrie Theater (yes, two different spellings. It's a thing...). I have sat under a teacher's desk onstage for an hour in order to perform a one minute gag with a Tardis-like satchel. I have been the Invisible Man plucking the hat off someone's head. I have been invisible Bilbo Baggins unlocking a jail cell to free the dwarves; I have sat in the underworld at the old Guthrie countless times waiting for a scene change involving 1) an elevator, or 2) a trapdoor, or 3) a steering wheel that turned vertical panels on the stage above. I have even been the Grinch taking the log from the fire, and Tinkerbell drinking the poison.

Being a member of a performance run crew is only one aspect of being a stagehand, and it's the one I know best. I learned early on that it is an aspect that I am good at. I can hang and focus lights, or crawl under a stage to plug in a speaker or run feeder, or help to push a road box into a truck, but I have found that backstage during a show is the place where I am most content. I figured out in college that I wasn't going to be an actor; instead of leaving the business, I chose the backstage life.

Working as a stagehand has ruined going to the theatre. I walk in, sit down and soon start checking out the lighting rig overhead, the scenery on stage, speaker placement (if there are speakers in view) etc. etc. I might look at the set, see a thin seam on the floor and think “there's a turntable in the show” or “I wonder when that trap door will be used”. Many years ago during a performance, I heard a slide projector click on in the catwalks and pondered what that meant until moments later the lights went down and a pattern projected from said projector bathed the stage while a scene shift took place. I wasn't familiar with the show, but from that point I knew that every time I heard that projector click on there was a scene change coming up. It was still a great show, but I wonder if I'd lost part of the impact by knowing that.

There have also been times when I've seen a really cool effect and spent the rest of the act trying to figure out how it was done instead of watching the show. Sometimes that happens when the show is less than absorbing, but it can also happen in the middle of a riveting performance. (Sorry all my actor friends, it's not you, it's me.) That said, I think War Horse is one of the few shows I've seen where my sense of wonder and amazement stayed intact through the whole performance; one of the few shows in my 35 years of working in the theatre where I came out of the auditorium at the end of the night thinking “Yes! THAT is why I'm in this business.” The power of stagecraft to tell a story was overwhelmingly evident that night. That's what I've always loved about working backstage; being an unseen part of that power to bring a story to life. I'm not ashamed to tell you that sometimes I quietly (being backstage and all) filch a little bit of the applause for myself.