Stagehand

The Job and What's Involved

Stagehands work 'behind the scenes' in film and television studios, on location and in theatre and concert halls. They work with scenery, props and special effects. Although the spotlight might not be on them, the backstage crew is still vital to making sure a production goes smoothly and according to plan.

In the theatre, they work under the direction of the stage management team. On large films, stagehands have their own head of department, supervisors, chargehands and stand-by staff.

Stagehands do a variety of jobs which can include:

  • Loading and unloading scenery and equipment.
  • Helping carpenters to build and erect scenery.
  • Setting the stage or set before a performance.
  • Moving scenery, furniture and equipment during scene changes.
  • Transporting film or television sets safely within the studio or to other locations.
  • Moving items during theatrical performances, usually in the dark.
  • Helping the sound department lay out the pit, stands and so on, if an orchestra is involved.
  • Creating special finishes to age sets or props.
  • Hanging backing materials required for computer-generated images.
  • Opening and closing the stage curtains.
  • Operating mechanical equipment that moves scenery.
  • Clearing and cleaning the set or stage and backstage area.

Stagehands attend rehearsals to become familiar with scene changes and items needed throughout the performance, as it is very important that furniture and props are always positioned in the right places. Performers rely on this, as do lighting technicians who are responsible for lighting specific areas of the stage or set. Sites are usually marked using small pieces of tape.

During a theatrical performance, the stage crew may stay in contact with each other using walkie-talkies or headsets and microphones.

In the theatre, stagehands have to be flexible and work whenever there are performances, which is often in the evening. During rehearsal periods work is mainly during the daytime. Once a production begins, they work before, during and after evening and matinee performances. Stagehands are usually some of the last people to leave the theatre. Film and television productions often involve working long hours. Sometimes this is on location in the UK or abroad.

Working conditions are sometimes hot, dark and dusty. The work involves lifting and moving heavy objects, climbing ladders and working on high walkways above the stage.

Operating mechanical scenery-moving equipment may involve heavy manual work. This can include turning a winch handle, moving a heavy lever or operating mechanical systems to fly scenery from above the stage. With computer technology, more systems are becoming fully automated, especially in larger venues.

In film and television, stagehands drive and tow vehicles safely within the confines of a busy film or television studio or on location. They also use specialised set-piece moving and lifting equipment.

New stagehands may earn around £14,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Most opportunities for stagehands in theatre are in London and other major UK cities, such as Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester. Many other towns, and some rural venues, have theatres and concert halls too. There are also opportunities with touring artists and companies and short-term jobs at arts festivals and concerts in different locations.

Many theatres employ a core team of a stage manager, deputy stage manager and assistant stage manager, then hire in extra team members as needed. Touring companies and larger theatres usually use freelance stage crew.

Stagehands in film and television work on a freelance basis. They might work on location on a production in the UK or abroad for several weeks or months and then might have a gap before their next job. Networking and building up industry contacts are very important in order to find out about the next production. Positions are often filled through word of mouth.

Jobs may be advertised in The Stage and on job websites specialising in stage jobs, such as www.stagejobspro.com. Another option is to contact theatres directly.

Education and Training

There are no set qualifications needed to become a stagehand. A real interest in theatre, film or television is the most important entry requirement. Many people begin their career by working in amateur productions or as casual backstage staff in a local theatre.

The following qualifications are useful for people who want to pursue a career as a stagehand in film/television or in the backstage or technical side of theatre work:

  • NVQ Levels 2 and 3 for stagehands in film and television.
  • BTEC Level 1 Introductory Certificate and Diploma in performing arts.
  • BTEC Level 3 National Certificate in production arts or performing arts.
  • BTEC Level 3 National Diploma in production arts.
  • BTEC Level 3 National Diploma in technical theatre.
  • BTEC HNC/HND Levels 4 and 5 in performing arts.

The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant for this area of work.

The Skillset Screen Academy at Ealing Institute of Media runs industry-endorsed further education courses that train students in 35mm film craft skills including set building and lighting/effects.

There are also foundation degrees, degree courses and diplomas in stage management and technical theatre available at a range of colleges. The National Council for Drama Training website, www.ncdt.co.uk, lists courses and colleges. Applicants should check specific entry requirements with individual institutions.

Entrants must be able to cope with the physical demands of the job. Previous theatrical or film experience, perhaps with a local amateur drama company or on a low-budget film, is important for all applicants.

Colleges and universities may relax entry requirements for people with relevant skills and experience.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Training is usually on the job. In the theatre, new stagehands receive instruction and guidance from the technical stage manager or another experienced staff member. In film or television, the stagehand will receive guidance from the supervising stagehand.

The Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) runs short courses in all technical aspects of theatre work. These can lead to bronze, silver and gold awards.

Stagehands need to keep up to date with training and information on all industry-related health and safety issues. The Stage Management Association also runs a range of courses.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A stagehand should:

  • Be able to work as part of a team.
  • Be physically fit in order to move and carry scenery, furniture and props.
  • Have a head for heights.
  • Be cheerful and helpful, especially when working under pressure.
  • Be able to pay attention to detail.
  • Be aware of health and safety requirements.

Your Long Term Prospects

Stagehands with good knowledge and experience can be promoted to stage technician or technical stage manager in the theatre, or to supervising stagehand or head of department in film and television.

Stagehands working with touring companies or at smaller venues may be able to get work at theatres in London and other cities by demonstrating their experience and enthusiasm.

Knowledge and experience gained as a stagehand are useful for people wanting to train for a different role, for example as a lighting technician.

Get Further Information

The Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT),
55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Website: www.abtt.org.uk

Creative and Cultural Skills,
Lafone House, The Leathermarket,
Weston St, London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
Website: www.creative-choices.co.uk

Equity, Guild House,
Upper St Martins Lane,
London WC2H 9EG
Tel: 020 7379 6000
Website: www.equity.org.uk

National Council for Drama Training,
249 Tooley Street, London SE1 2JX
Tel: 020 7407 3686
Website: www.ncdt.co.uk

Performing Arts Technical Training,
Entertainment Technology Press,
The Studio, High Green,
Great Shelford, Cambridge CB22 5EG
Tel: 01223 550805
Website: www.performing-arts.org.uk

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road, London N1 9GB
Free careers helplines:
for England and Northern Ireland 08080 300 900;
for Wales 0800 0121 815
and for Scotland 0808 100 8094
Website: www.skillset.org

The Stage Management Association,
55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9250
Website: www.stagemanagementassociation.co.uk

Stagework, Royal National Theatre,
South Bank, London SE1 9PX
Tel: 020 7452 3000
Website: www.stagework.org

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