Every play is the culmination of a million little pieces made by many hands the audience will never meet. Just like films have crucial, but mysterious roles like best boy, key grip, or B location scout, theatre has its own lesser known heroes crucial to the performance’s success. Whether you just want to know more about your friends behind the scenes, or are looking for the right career in theatre arts, here are some key players to get you started.
Costume Shop: First Hand
The costume shop first hand, has two hands, but is the right-hand man or woman to the tailor or draper. The tailor (specializing in menswear) and draper (specializing in women’s wear) draft costume patterns while the first hand cuts them out in mock-up or fashion fabric, sets up sewing projects for stitchers, and is usually a master at hand-finishing, zippers, and welt pockets. The first hand is a mid-level construction position: sewers begin as stitchers, move into first hand, and then many go on to become drapers or tailors. These are the people you rarely meet, but know they put hours into the precise construction of the costumes you see onstage.
Backstage: Stage Supervisor
The stage supervisor is the MacGyver of any production. While the stage manager oversees actors, blocking, the script, and their ASM, a stage supervisor manages the backstage crew, scene shifts, consumables, and much more. If you’re doing a production of Les Miserables, and a turntable breaks, the stage supervisor is the first in line to fix it. This superhero works closely with stage management, wardrobe, props, and the scene shop to help maintain the continuity of a show, maintain any minimal wear and tear on props or scenery, and keep the show running as smoothly as possible. If you love herding cats, having your hand in many aspects of the art, and thrive off of the adrenaline of fast-paced problem solving, this is the job for you. You also have to be pretty good with an impact driver and hot glue gun.
Sound is an integral design element to any show (despite what the Tonys have to say about it), but sound is even more important in a musical. For most musicals, their audio engineer has a booth in the house where they can listen to show and mix each actor’s microphone levels live. What you don’t see is their backstage partner, the A2. This second audio position is like the ASM of the sound department. They’re responsible for placing the mic on each actor, changing out batteries or elements when things get sweaty, and often spend the show following actors who have many changes. They are quick on their feet, work well with wardrobe, and are ninjas with a battery.
Scene Shop: Shop Foreman
It takes a village to operate a scene shop effectively. Technical directors translate drawings into CAD, manage the budget, and purchase supplies, but don’t always spend time on the shop floor. This job is left to the shop foreman. The foreman runs the shop floor crew, assigning tasks, dictating their cut lists, and making sure everything runs smoothly. They’re an expert at reading ground plans, safely using all machinery, and managing time. Most shop foreman start as carpenters, and can grow into technical directors, or even production managers when they get tired of working on the floor. Next time you see an amazing set, thank the shop foreman for guiding the carpenters, trouble-shooting scenic difficulties, and making scenic magic happen.
Scene Shop: Scenic Charge Artist
Even the simplest sets need paint, and more than a can of Behr from Home Depot. The scenic charge artist is in charge of all scenic treatments. This ranges from painting back panel steel black to prevent rust, to intricate trompe-l’oeil of bricks, woodland scenes, or intricate wallpaper. They are given a scale rendering by the scenic designer, and enlarge it to life size using a giant grid, often painting by numbers on a giant scale. The scenic charge is an expert in paint varieties, can color mix like no other, and knows more painting techniques than Martha Stewart could ever dream of. This is a job for hard-working, skilled artists who can visualize large scale work, have great patience, and can withstand long hours on their feet—or their hands and knees. They are chemists, artists, and craftsman. Next time you’re watching a production of Sweeney Todd, consider the extensive paint treatment on those old London buildings—before the blood hits, that is.
These are just a handful of craftsmen who contribute to the technical side of the art you see onstage. It’s good to remember just how many artists it takes to put on a play—especially those you cannot see.