Getting into backstage work

 2 November 2012

Simon Lovelace, founder of technical crew training company Crewclass, has seven tips for finding backstage technical work.

Simon Lovelace founded CrewClass in an effort to provide greater access to backstage training.
Simon Lovelace founded CrewClass in an effort to provide greater access to backstage training.

1. Qualifications aren't everything

"You do not need a formal qualification to get into stagehand work.

"What you do need is an appropriate background, the appropriate interests, and maybe a little bit of experience with local bands, AmDram or casual work.

"If you're going to do a qualification, at the moment the feedback I have received is that the industry is generally far more interested in a BTEC in carpentry or electronics than a production arts degree.

"With carpentry, we know you’ll be a competent carpenter. If you’ve done electronics, we know you’ll understand how to take apart a moving light.

"Production arts, on the other hand, is such a broad spectrum that for people actually working in the industry, it’s too vague. We don’t know what you’ve learned, or how developed you really are.”

2. Think ‘transferable skills’

"You can spend an awful lot of money and an awful lot of time doing a degree course in production management.

"But when you’re finished, you’ll find your competitor for a job is someone who’s worked their way up.

"They've started out as a stage hand, done several tours as Head of Sound, and are now getting too old to lug speakers around, which is why they're getting into the production management side. Who’ll get the job?

"When something big comes into town – a travelling opera, a ballet – they’ll take on more staff. If you’re on that list, you’ll get the call."

"I also raise a big question mark around all these specialist degrees, because I’m not sure how many production managers we actually need. I’ve seen it year in and year out: on every world tour it’s the same guys doing the same jobs – the same team all the time."

"Often the only way in is dead man’s shoes. When someone does get a look-in, it’ll be the person who’s already established on projects of that scale .

"So if you’re going to do a degree, I’d say you’d do better to do a humanities degree, or a business management degree, maybe – rather than a degree specific to our industry.

"But do spend all your free time helping out at your student union venue, and any other local arts space.

"At least with a humanities degree you’ll come out with some transferable skills.

"Then, if you get into the industry and find you hate the long hours, you can go off and do something else instead."

3. Get experience as casual crew

"If you want to work in this industry, get involved with your local band scene, your student union or local student club.

  • Spend all your spare time helping out the bands in your local student venue, or your local venue. Get involved with the lighting, sound, whatever! That’ll give you some relevant hands-on experience.
  • Watch out for panto – at panto season your local community theatre will be taking on casual staff. CrewClass and ABTT (the Association of British Theatre Technicians) are working on a training course that will prepare you for your first day at panto and help make you useful. Be good and useful on a panto, and you can progress up.
  • The next stage is to go and work for your local crewing company. There are plenty of them out there – everyone from Rock City down in Plymouth (and all over England) to Stage Miracles up in London. There’s always a local crewing company and there’s always a local small theatre.

"Theatres will have their mainstay of senior technicians who do all the shows.

"But when something big comes into town – a travelling opera, a ballet, or 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat', which tours all the time and requires an extra dozen bodies in each venue – they’ll take on more staff. 

“They’ll have either their own list of casuals or a contract with a crewing company. If you’re on that list, you’ll get the call.”

4. Be in the right place as much as possible

"This whole industry works on a ‘right place, right time’ understanding.

"If you’re in the right place all the time, your chance will come.

"Once, a touring production of 'Joseph' I was working on arrived in Blackpool. Suddenly, the head of sound had to leave – his wife was having a baby.

"So Sound 2 became Head of Sound , the tecchie junior became Sound 2, and suddenly there was a space for a techie junior.

"Tthere was a young lad, 17 years old, working on the casual crew. They asked him what he was doing for the rest of his career.

"We liked him – he was good. He liked us, so we phoned his mum and told her the score, and he jumped on a tour bus. As far as I know he’s still on 'Joseph'!

5. Be a nice guy

"You may be brilliant, have all the technical skills, certificates and so on.

"But if you’re going on tour, people will have to live in a confined space with you, in a frenetic environment, for six weeks. Do they want to?

"Every day is an audition."

"These jobs are hard to come by and highly prized.

"Once you’re a ‘face’ and you’ve been doing it for three or four years, everybody will know you. They'll know how you roll and they'll know your style – then maybe you can start relaxing.

"But in your early stages – after you’ve done your casual crewing, after you’ve done your build up of basic experience, once you’ve got a little break – every day is an audition.

"Never think you’ve made it and are untouchable. There are 1,000 people behind you waiting for their break. Remember that."

6. Health and safety is king

"Back in the mid-80s, early 90s – up to and including when Oasis were big – this job came with a fairly hedonistic lifestyle.

"We had some wild parties; we did some pretty crazy things.

"The old rock’n’roll riggers in the 80s and early 90s were risking their lives on a daily basis. They were doing crazy climbs all the time – it was a very gung-ho, macho environment.

"But that was nearly 20 years ago. We’ve moved on. And we’ve moved on in a good way – today, health and safety and best practice are of prime importance.

"Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll: it’s a thing of the past. In fact, if you turned up with that attitude you wouldn’t last long.

"Health and safety, best practice, personal code of conduct, personal safety equipment, harnesses, hard hats, hi-vis, steely boots – all these things that didn’t exist 20 years ago are now absolutely de rigueur. You’ll be chucked off site if you don’t have them.

"Building site rules apply."

7. Understand the role of backstage crew

"The work is hard, and it’s not glamorous.

"You won't be going to the aftershow party. You’ll be too busy taking the set down and putting it on a truck.

"You turn up in an empty field. Two weeks later you’ve built Glastonbury. You stand back and go, ‘we did that’."

"Hard work, long hours, and lack of sleep: those are the facts. You won’t be getting rich, either.

"However, job satisfaction is absolutely off the scale. If you’re working on a big rock’n’roll tour, even if you’re the lowest, humblest scaffolder, and you turn up in an empty field and two weeks later you’ve built Glastonbury, you stand back and go, ‘we did that’.

"You’re only ever as good as your last job, it’s not easy to get into, and there are only a limited amount of job opportunities in our industry every year. But if you can get into it, you can make a living and you can have a lot of fun

"Persevere, do all the right things and tick all the right boxes, and all being well, your chance will come."

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