Blacksburg, Va., April 22 – Tattoo: Master Electrician Erika Koekkoek’s tattoo references the “magic” that technicians create. The tattoo says, “It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done,” and features tools often used to do the job. Photo: Lizzy Street
by Lizzy Street–
While actors have their time in the limelight performing for an attentive audience, there are other workers whom the audience rarely sees.
In Squires Studio Theatre at Virginia Tech, they work behind the curtains, under the stage floor and 30 feet above the actors’ heads to make sure the show goes on. These technicians and designers use their skills in lighting, costuming, sound, carpentry and more to create a world that captivates the audience. But the cost is visibility.
“People who typically work behind the scenes are very much people who work thankless jobs,” said Chris Russo, Technical Supervisor for Virginia Tech’s School of Performing Arts. “It does take the right kind of person to understand that you may never get the same kind of appreciation [as actors] for what you’ve been doing for the production.”
According to end-of-season statistics assembled by The Broadway League, over 13 million people, the highest number ever recorded, attended Broadway shows in the 2017 to 2018 season. Though theater’s popularity grows, a number of technicians and designers still feel unseen by audiences – but Russo says that is how it should be.
“Part of the illusion is presenting something to an audience so that they are taken out of reality and taken into another world,” said Russo. “That means, yes, some people behind the scenes have to be in black, and they can’t be seen.”
The technicians themselves may not be seen, but their work is an integral part of creating an immersive experience for the audience. Erika Koekkoek, Master Electrician for the School of Performing Arts’ production of “As You Like It,” refers to such work as “[creating] the magic.”
“As a technician, I can make it snow on stage. I can make a sunset on stage,” said Koekkoek. “I can do so many things that help add to the magic of live theatre, and it awes me every time I do it.”
A study from Data USA says that the theater workforce has a growth rate of 2.1 percent. Despite this growth, a Georgetown University study identifies theater arts as one of the lowest-paying college majors, with a median annual income of $45,000, according to U.S. Census data.
Prospects for backstage workers aren’t all bad, though. A Forbes article recognized two electricians and a carpenter at Carnegie Hall who each made approximately $400,000 in one year.
High salaries are not typical for backstage work, but technicians and designers are not deterred. Though the behind-the-scenes workers themselves will stay out of the limelight, Russo says that he takes pride in his work and the process of creating the final product.
“Take the journey, get to the destination and say, ‘What’s the next challenge?’” said Russo. “And that’s the fun – that’s the joy of my job.”
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Scene Shop: Sets, props and other elements for theatrical productions are put together in the scene shop, which is located behind Squires Studio Theatre. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Measuring Metal: Students learn skills for set-building and other projects, including metalworking. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Learning the Saw: The supervisor of the scene shop teaches a group of students how to use the cold cut saw. This saw is used to cut metal, and it sprays a water-based coolant to keep the metal from overheating while in use. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Using the Saw: A student uses the cold cut saw for the first time.
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Doing Repairs: The stage is set for the production. A group of technicians is fixing the revolving set piece in the center of the stage. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Headsets: Communication between technicians, managers and directors is vital for the show to run smoothly. Headsets are used as this line of communication. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Revolving Set Piece: The piece, constructed by Chris Russo and students, is made from metal bars and is powered by a small motor. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Command Center: The revolving set piece on stage is operated at this work station directly under the stage. The operator has a headset to communicate with other technicians for timing, as well as a monitor showing a live feed of the stage. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Costume Changes: A schedule hangs outside the dressing rooms for reference by the costuming department. It outlines each costume change, its time and the clothing to change. Photo: Lizzy Street
Blacksburg, Va., April 19 – Lighting: Lighting instruments hang from the catwalk, which is 30 feet above the stage. These lamps are maintained by Erika Koekkoek, the Master Electrician. Photo: Lizzy Street