Students in black: The backstage crew
With this post I´d like to do some justice to a group of students whose great work often goes unnoticed: our BACKSTAGE CREWS. They have to wear black during the performances so as not to be seen as they perform their magic on stage, main reason why they become unnoticed to the public. I´ve been teaching, supervising and organizing their work at St. Andrew´s for the past 24 years, yes, almost a QUARTER OF A CENTURY! This, without taking into account that back in the 70´s I was part of the backstage crew of the first play ever performed at “The Girl´s School Theatre“ now The Secondary Hall, a production of “The importance of being Earnest” by Senior 2 students (what would now be Y9). This gives me the right to be extremely proud of our Backstage Crews, and to call them: “my babies”. And I´m not alone in praising our students, I had the privilege to be part of huge productions in which our students and Former pupils excelled outside the school premises: Luna Park, The Opera Theatre and no less than the Colon Opera House. In all three of them, the local staff at the theatres could not believe that our backstage crews were composed of just kids that were more professional in their work than many other paid crews that had worked in that theatre before. And on top of it all they had that passion and energy that most professional crews lack and that we are so used to see at school. This passion comes as a reflection of what is learned during the backstage training here at school
They are the ones behind the magic that we see in all our Plays and Concerts, from as young as Y3 students (8 year old children) to former pupils in their 50’s, like myself. They work and rehearse long hours to do their job. They are the first ones to arrive to prepare and check everything on the stage and the last ones to leave after tidying up. Besides the rehearsals with the cast, we spend much time constructing the set on which the actors will perform, and come extra hours to be able to work and practice on the stage our technical run-throughs just for the backstage crew.
Preparing a play takes a lot of time, but the show in itself isn’t the aim of all this work rather the pedagogic process of getting there, such as the social skills learned by working so close together in such a big heterogeneous group of people. We all share a common project that demands the better of each other and the learning of how to work in a team in which everyone depends on each other. Trying hard to achieve excellence and enjoying the journey.
When I describe certain tasks to my backstage crew that they will have to achieve and be responsible for, both before and during the play, their initial reaction is that they will be impossible to achieve. My usual reply is that “nothing is impossible, there is always a way”. It is very rewarding later on to see their faces showing a sense of accomplishment when, under my guidance, they realize that they have overcome by themselves an obstacle they thought was impossible.
The main way that these tasks are accomplished is by teamwork. One can see confident fifth year students teaching and guiding shy younger ones, “ruggers” constructing the set side by side with “nerds” respecting each other, delicate girls who would have never dreamt of getting their hands dirty end up working side by side with tomboys with hands and arms covered in a slimy gruel of paint and glue. Many kids who had not found their place in sports or academics excel in one of the many areas of backstage thus boosting their self-esteem.
Let me introduce you into our magical world:
The journey is fascinating, it begins on audition day when I give the candidates “my discouraging speech”: as we always have more than what is necessary (about 70 candidates), we try to discourage those who are not really interested by explaining to them all the drawbacks of being part of the team: the commitment to be available long hours after school, Saturdays and even some Sundays and school holidays, and the hard physical work required. In spite of this, only a few leave, some will do so during the first weeks when they realize that they are unable to handle their timetable in such a busy school as ours.
Once we have the team, we begin our work. The different sets have to be a challenge for the backstage crew in order to keep them alert with the adrenalin always high during the whole show. They have to be able to take part in some of the construction for them to feel it belongs to them and to be proud of their achievements. That is why many of the artistic techniques I now use are the result of a filtering process over the years. At the end of every show they must be left with the feeling of “mission accomplished” by hard team work and the knowledge that the sky is the limit when one really does their best.
Apart from the construction we have to learn all the technical scene changes of the play, in general no less than 20 complete set changes per show. For that we have technical rehearsals with the backstage crew only, where we run the play scene by scene on a scaled model of the stage and sets that I do for every play. We also have scaled floor drawings for every scene and we have to figure out the easiest and quickest way of moving the platforms from scene to scene, then we go on to the stage itself to put in practice what we have learned in the scaled model to be able to move the real heavy things around. All the heads of areas of the crew have to write all this information on their scripts and especially who moves what. Part of the process is also to mark the position of each platform on the stage floor with masking tape. All this is very critical because in these types of productions where there is much interdependency at all levels, things have to be always in the correct place at the exact time, and many times the changes are done in the dark at blackout
For the Primary Concerts we only have a Floor crew, I manage the flies alone. On the other hand, the Middle school, Senior and Former Pupils Plays are so complex that we need a full backstage crew that is very professional and well organized which works as follows:
Functions and responsibilities of the Backstage Crew.
As the production Stage Manager of the play, I organize, teach and supervise all of the children involved in Backstage. To have a better idea of how it’s composed I’ll explain the hierarchies and what their specific jobs and responsibilities are:
At the top we have the Stage Manager and his deputy. They have to know every aspect of the play, they have to control and direct their crew, at least one of them has to be present when any other member of the crew is working and they should write down everything related to the running of the play on their scripts. They participate in some of the production meetings when needed. We try to have a 12th year student as manager and a younger one as deputy to train him for the following year.
Heads of area: they have to know all the aspects of the play but they are only responsible for their specific area and the interaction of it with any other. They have to be present during the rehearsals. They have to have an updated script with all the movements and changes their area has to do during the show (the play is constantly evolving and some things are added and others changed), and they are responsible for the performance and behavior of all the pupils working for them. Here too we try to have a 12th year student as head and a selection of younger ones under them. Backstage is divided into seven areas. They are: Floor, Flies (parrilla), Props, Lights, Sound, Costumes and Special Effects. Although every member belongs to one specific area, it is always stressed that they all belong to a bigger team, the Backstage Team, and they have to work or help in any other area when needed. Once we had the whole first fifteen rugby team in Floor but they were asked to sew extensions to some 12 reed curtains that were too short. So they spent a whole Saturday afternoon lying on the front patio floor sewing with needles and thread. And although they had to put up with some jokes by cast members, they were extremely proud of their finished work, and they did a perfect job: we still use those reeds after many, many years. Each area has the following responsibilities:
Flies (parrilla): They are in charge of all the movements of everything that hangs over the stage. They are the ones in charge of hanging all the backdrops. They have to check that the ropes keep in their pulleys, that they are all properly fastened, and check that the backdrops are not damaged by collisions with Floor elements. We have two bridges on our stage, one on each side. We generally use the one on the left for the backdrops and the other one for lights, motors and special effects. The flies are eleven meters from the stage floor and the balconies six meters so you can imagine the big responsibility these kids have as anything that falls from that height becomes dangerous.
Floor: they have to move around all the platforms and heavy elements on the stage to set every scene at the right time in close combination with the Flies crew. They have to learn how to handle the anxieties of the cast and look after them during all the scene changes. Everything that is on the stage floor is their responsibility. They have to constantly check security issues: floor nails popping out, fasten bolts, correct functioning of wheels, etc.
Props: they are responsible for everything that the actors carry on them (a suitcase, a bird’s cage, coins, newspaper, etc.). They have to study the timing and place of entrance of each actor to be able to have their prop ready for him to use at the right time and place, and take care that it is properly returned afterwards. They build most of them and make an inventory of all the props of the play, scene by scene, and check that they are all in the prop’s room before and after each show, and check if they need maintenance, and if so, do it or give them to me to fix.
Lights: They only start to work on their specific area during the final week when the rented lights arrive. Up until then, they help in other areas when needed. Nevertheless they have to be present during the big run-throughs at the end of the rehearsal period, to write down their technical script with all the information on where all the changes in lighting occur (the light cues), where and for how long the blackouts take place (when we have complete darkness to conceal a change of scene), in which parts of the play follow spots are needed and which is the effect needed, etc. The area is divided into two: the lighting switchboard (consola) and the follow spots. The lighting switchboard is generally controlled by the head of Lights with the help of a member of the company from whom we rent the lights. This switchboard is programmed beforehand during long sessions that generally end in the early hours of the day. So what the pupil has to do during the show is to press a bottom on the exact moment, the cue, so he changes the lighting of the scene. We generally rent two follow spots, one pupil controlling each. They have an intense job in which any mistake is quickly spotted by the public because when the follow spots are on, the rest of the lights are low or off. They have to control that when they turn them on they have to be pointing at the exact place with the correct opening of the diaphragm (it constantly varies to change the size of the area illuminated), and they have to change filters when required for special effects. They have to know the exact movements of all the actors during the play as there is no time to start searching for them during the play.
Sound: During the rehearsal period they have to play the music on the stage controlling the equipment. This implies being on the alert to follow the instructions given by the director or choreographer who during the learning period, have to constantly stop and restart the scenes till the actors learn them. During the run-throughs period they have to make a microphone chart which indicates which main character uses each microphone. As there are never enough mikes for everyone they share them, and the sound crew has to decide the best way to do it basing on the actors places of entrance and exit. The sound equipment and the microphones are also rented like the lights, and as the rental is computed by days, they arrive one or two days before the dress rehearsal, so up till then they have to provide the actors with numbered sticks that work as fake mikes so that the actors get used to follow the mike-chart which can be complex. The day the equipment arrives and is installed by the company personnel, the sound checks begin where the actors sing and the professionals tune the sound individually for every actor so that the coming out sound is correct, here our crew assists them and learns as much as they can about all the technical aspects. During the shows sound is divided in two: the boy in charge of the switchboard, usually the Head, and the one in charge of mikes. They are both assisted by personnel from the company from where we rent the equipment but our crew is responsible of which mike opens or closes, that the cues to change the music is correct and that the actors are wearing the right mike and that they are using them properly. At the beginning of each show they have to put on the permanent mikes that only the most important main characters use, check that they are working, and make sure they are all returned at the end.
Special Effects: They vary according to the requirements of each play. In the last 3 years we stopped having them but this year they came back in full with: smoke bombs, paper canons, acrobats from hanging cloths and 3 motor operated cages that took three pupils up to the flies and down. The pupils in this area are carefully chosen and trained. In the pre-Cromagnon era we had real fire effects: in Turandot 1994 and Man of la Mancha 1996 we had fire torches, in David two open 3-metre long pipes creating a wall of fire along the back wall of the stage, in Chess 1997, Guys and Dolls 1998, Fiddler on the Roof 1999, David 2001, Once on this Island 2002 and Quasimodo 2003 we had 120 real candles on stage that were carried by cast members. The pupils responsible for this area had to turn the fire on and off, some carried fire extinguishers and were placed in strategic spots, others had buckets with wet linen ready to use in case someone’s hair caught fire. All of the backstage crew received special training and there was, and is, a strict protocol to follow in case of an emergency.
Other type of special effects is “motors”. Depending on the play we have used from one to six in the same show. We have raised a platform with 10 former pupils above and 5 hanging down in Time for Music 2001, a 6m x 3m rectangular screen in Quasimodo 2003, a 6m side cube in Tommy 2004, 2 platforms with actors on top in West Side Story 2005, we used them to raise a 4 meter 4 sided Pyramid in Aida 2006, actors while singing in A Night at the Opera 2004, two gigantic disco balls with actors sitting on top and 2 big platforms full of students in West Side Story 2005, three mummy like cages in Aida 2006, three wicket chairs and a 3 meter rigging trust in Joseph 2009, three throne-like platforms with 4 students each + one platform with a Greek temple and a student + a see-saw like revolving machine with a gigantic mirrored ball in the centre and 2 students going both up and down and around in Time in 2010, and the three witches ´cages this year. In this category I would also include the “Jennies” two special cranes that we used in Tommy 2004, which were placed underneath the front extension of the stage (6m x 2m) and raised it 5m with actors on top. Each pupil controls one of these motors by an on-off button, and they not only have to synchronize them with the music, but when there is more than one motor, they have to work at the same time. As they are very slow, the kids have to anticipate how long in advance they have to start them to reach the position on time.
Two types of aerial effects have been used at school: hanging from cloth doing pirouettes: Time for Music 2001, Aida 2006, Joseph 2009, Time 2010 and on this year too. Also, actors suspended from the flies by ropes: Guys and Dolls 1998, Dreams 2000, David 2001, Once on this Island 2002, Tommy 2004 (a pinball machine with an electronic circuit run off a car battery which took to the flies 2 kids), A Night at the Opera 2004, West Side Story 2005, Aida 2006, Joseph 2009. Here the actors are trained together with the backstage crew during the rehearsal period. During the shows they constantly check the knots, ropes and cloths and they alone fit the security harnesses to the actors, checking that all the carabineers are properly closed.
Stilts are another effect used in Barnum 1993, Chess 1997, The Big Bash 1998, David 2001, and Once on this Island 2002, and a smaller version in Time 2010. As in the aerials the actors are trained for a long period of time with the backstage crew. Their job is to look after these actors during their training and acting period, they have to help them on and off the stilts, and control that they are properly fastened.
Other special effects would include back and front projections: Chess 1997, The Big Bash 1998, David 2001, Both Sides 2002, Quasimodo 2003, A Night at the Opera 2004, Time 2010, Much Ado 2011. Laser projections The Big Bash 1998, A Night at the Opera 2004, and Aida 2006. LED walls: Lion King 2008, Joseph 2009, Time 2010, Much Ado 2011. Smoke and fans are found in all the shows. Here the crew has to see that the effect is produced at the correct time and that the machines are not moved from their positions and that they are properly reloaded when necessary.
Costumes: Although it was a tradition that backstage was involved in this department, in the Secondary School play, this area has been suspended in the past four years. This is because the school is renting the costumes from a company that brings in their own staff to do that job. In the Primary Concerts I design all the costumes and the parents are in charge of producing them.
The Ushers another group of students that help in the shows but are not considered members of the backstage crew because they only join in at the end, only during the shows, but they do attend the cast party! They control that everybody who enters the hall has a seat, and they guide them to their place, not an easy job sometimes. During the shows they keep all the doors closed. They sometimes help to decorate the front of house and the bar.
As you can see, the backstage of the plays is extremely complex and most of the time goes completely unnoticed by the audience. There is a huge amount of work involved and a big commitment by those who take part. The students are given major responsibilities in the production of the show, not only related to team work, but also the particular tasks that each member has been assigned and the ones related to security issues and the safety of their fellow students. It is very rewarding to see how the students mature and grow in the course of the production and how eager they come back the next year asking for new challenges, and even when they have graduated they return to offer a hand. Many kids learned so much on the technical side of backstage that a large number of them studied related careers and are now working successfully in the professional world, amongst other important companies in Disney here and abroad, Cirque du Soleil, etc.
I hope that I´ve been able to show a bit of the unknown world behind “The Students in Black” and how much their participation in the backstage team contributes to their education as a whole. I’m always surprised by students that return after 20 years that still remember the good times they had and how those memories contribute to their school spirit today.
I´d like to apologize for the quality, there is usually very little time for that. Unfortunately most of the working process of the things we do go unregistered.
– Different backstage crews:
-Backstage crews at work:
– Step by step of some of the things we did:
– Flies, parrilla: an unknown site for most.
– Special effects: