Theater production staff and crew members make live entertainment possible in a variety of ways.
The magic of live theater relies on a number of invisible hands that keep things working. There are so many kinds of theater, from stripped down, performance centered "black box" plays to elaborate musicals with moving set pieces and complex technical elements. Every show is different, with its own set of challenges and requirements; the job of a theater production staff is to prepare for these variables and find solutions to any issues that may arise. These are the roles that fall under the umbrella of "technical theater", the flip side of performance.
Most theater companies have a set of directors charged with spearheading various productions, initiatives, and operations; each production will have a director of its own who may report to the company's executive or creative director. Each production will also have its own stage manager, production manager, set designer, costume designer, sound designer, lighting designer, their respective teams (for larger shows), and a number of stagehands. Stage managers work closely with actors and technicians to make sure each show goes according to plan. Production managers keep everyone on track, on time, and on budget, coordinating complex rehearsal schedules, meetings, and more. Set designers, set builders, scenic painters, and props masters are responsible for creating the physical world a show takes place in, which is typically constructed in the performance space. Sometimes a set designer is hired on for a production and collaborates with theater employees who are responsible for designing and building multiple productions in a season. Costume designers for theater may determine, find, rent, or construct clothing for each character in a show, which requires a deep understanding of the material and material in general. Theatrical sound design can range from specific song cues to custom soundscapes created and recorded by an expert, or even live sound effects. Lighting designers create highly technical lighting maps with precise cues, colors, patterns, and projections. Finally, stagehands are responsible for stage setups and moving things during a show.
Theater companies or venues may employ a box office manager, a lighting technician, a soundboard operator, and a technical director, who are all affiliated with the company itself rather than with individual productions. Most theater companies additionally have a development or funding official responsible for obtaining and allocating resources, as well as a marketing department that targets potential audience members with information about upcoming shows.
Theater production staff work may include...
- Attracting audience members to shows and answering their questions
- Designing and constructing set pieces, costumes, props, and more
- Making creative decisions for individual shows or full performance seasons
- Acquiring and distributing fiscal resources through outreach and budgeting
- Coordinating technical aspects of each production
Landing a job at a theater tends to be a matter of one's skills and network - it's what you know and who you know that'll get you to a career. Finding work in the arts is notoriously difficult, and theater is an especially competitive and insular world. The best thing to do is apply to a variety of theater companies while working on independent productions; even skilled technicians and managers can build up their skills to become more desirable to hiring production companies. Demonstrable experience and skill is the most valuable thing for production staff aside from a strong network; working on various shows can facilitate connections with others in the industry who can open doors.
Learning stage production is a lifelong journey that many begin young. Teenagers may participate in school or community productions as crew members, helping to realize a show's potential by contributing to its set, sound, lights, or planning. Pursuing theater at the college level can provide further opportunity to learn about the technical side of things; courses in construction, lighting, costuming, and more can teach students with all kinds of useful skills. As a rule, student shows need as much help as they can get, and they can be a great opportunity for aspiring theater technicians to make use of their skills. Some conservatories and performing arts programs offer programs in technical theater that support their student productions. A Bachelor's degree in theater typically covers most aspects of production and can thoroughly prepare students to enter the field. Some production crew can benefit from obtaining a Master's degree, which allows for further specialization in a chosen field, such as directing or sound design.
Working in theater production is as demanding as it is rewarding, but if you appreciate the nuance that goes into a performance, it could be a fulfilling career choice.
IATSE is the union for theatrical stage employees, moving picture technicians, artists and allied crafts.
Local USA 829 is a labor union and professional association for designers and scenic artists.