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Theatre technicians are responsible for ensuring that the lighting, sound and other technical aspects of theatre performances run safely, smoothly and on time.
Theatre technicians work with the rest of a technical team, as well as creative practitioners, to plan, set up (‘get-in’), perform and then ‘get-out’ performances. Technicians make sure that theatre equipment is kept in good working order and that all those using or exposed to it are safe. A single technician is sometimes given responsibility for all technical aspects of a theatre or performance, but more often than not, the role is focussed on either lighting or sound.
Whether working on a freelance basis at a number of theatres, or on contract at a single theatre, being a technician involves working with lots of different people. Visiting actors, directors, set designers and others each have ambitions for a production, which technicians help them to fulfil along with the rest of the technical team.
The job of a technician therefore demands both methodical attention to detail, in the ongoing maintenance of a performance space, and an ability to improvise and solve unique technical problems as they arise.
Theatre technicians often need to be dedicated to their profession as they regularly work long hours for relatively little money.
Salaries in theatre jobs are usually relatively low. Salaries for technicians usually range between £15,000 and £20,000.
Most technicians will be required:
- To ensure the smooth running of the technical aspects of the theatre’s day-to-day operation.
- To organise the rigging and setting of lighting, setting up of sound equipment, acquiring and setting up props, masking etc. on stage.
- To operate sound, lighting and other effects during performances, as directed by members of the creative and production teams.
- To help furnish rehearsals with appropriate lighting, sound and scenery as needed.
- To carry out all duties in accordance with the organisation’s Health & Safety Policy and promote a culture of safety.
- To carry out, or ensure others carry out, Portable Appliance Testing (PAT, a safety measure) of equipment.
- To attend production meetings and regular technical department meetings as required.
- To work together with other members of staff in the event of an emergency.
Technicians may also be required:
- To manage the work and schedules of casual staff as and when they are needed, including providing basic technical training.
- To ensure the public areas of the theatre and/or production space are in a safe and presentable condition.
- To order new technical equipment within authorised budgets.
- To maintain equipment inventories.
- To keep abreast of changes in health and safety legislation.
Typically, no formal qualifications are necessary for this job, although many organizations will expect at least a general education to GCSE or equivalent. There are two types of further qualification which may be useful to achieve in order to carry out the role, alongside practical experience with theatres (see Experience below).
Becoming qualified as an electrician is a good basis for many of the skills needed to be a technician. At present, this means getting an NVQ Levels 2 and 3 in Electrotechnical Services, although this will be replaced in September 2010 by a new NVQ Level 2 and 3 Diploma in Electrotechnical Technology.
Some higher education institutions also offer technical theatre courses. These include BTEC National Certificate/Diploma in Production Arts and BTEC HNC/HND in Performing Arts.
Some creative institutions also offer graduate traineeships, such as the one mentioned in the Case Study.
Some theatres will require a First Aid at Work Certificate.
- The ability to work in a team. This means being able to manage the expectations and demands of a number of people, and effectively communicating ideas and needs to them.
- The ability to work under pressure and to tight deadlines.
- A thorough understanding of the production process and theatre production techniques.
- Knowledge of how to use modern lighting, sound and other technical equipment.
- An interest in theatre.
- Flexibility and the ability to improvise when faced with unexpected situations.
- Attention to detail.
As the hours theatre technicians work are related to the schedule of the productions playing at a theatre, they are typically irregular. Long shifts, late finishes and occasionally working on Sundays and bank holidays are also common for the same reasons.
Technicians will usually either work on a freelance basis and therefore only be paid for the hours they work, or will be contracted to work a number of hours a week, typically around 40, often with an above-average hourly rate for hours worked over that set amount.
The work is physically demanding and it is useful to have a head for heights when replacing bulbs on the lighting rigs which hang above a stage.
The working environment is generally relaxed in terms of dress, and technicians will usually be able to choose to have breaks when they can fit them in. It is also a role which demands meeting the strict deadlines of preparing a production for the stage, as well as performing cues on time during the production.
It is useful to build up as much experience of the same or related work. This can be through amateur or student theatre, voluntary work, or other professional work. Documented evidence of your work – your ‘showreel’ and, crucially, references – are often as important as formal qualifications when applying for roles.
There are many small theatres across the country but each will typically employ only a small number of technicians. The larger theatres, such as The National Theatre and The Globe in London, and The Swan in Stratford, employ many more technicians. In some larger theatres there will be other performance spaces in addition to the main one, in order to be able to put on different sorts of plays and plays from emerging writers. In these institutions, technicians will usually work predominantly in one of the spaces.
The main positions theatre technicians progress to are, in ascending order of overall responsibility, Deputy Technical Manager, Deputy Chief Electrician, Chief Electrician and Technical Manager.
Positions for advancement come up relatively infrequently.
Also known as…
- Sound Technician
- Lighting Technician
- Technical Stage Manager
- Stage Director
- Lighting Engineer
- Electrician, Chief or Deputy
- Sound Technician
What’s it really like?
Cressida Klaces, aged 27, works as a theatre technician at the Hampstead Theatre.
I first started working in theatre ten years ago, when I was 17. At the time, I was trying out lots of potential careers in a gap year before university. I volunteered at The Crescent theatre close to my home, in Birmingham.
After completing a BA in Media Studies I was still attracted by the idea of working in theatre, so went and got a part-time job back at The Crescent helping out backstage. This gradually turned into a full-time junior role, through which I learnt a lot very quickly about how a theatre works and how shows are put together. I was lucky then to be accepted onto a graduate traineeship at the Laban dance centre in south London.
There are several ways to get into theatre. This sort of training gave me a lot of confidence and a good jump-start, but many people work their way up through professional experience, or get qualified as an electrician, or do both.
At the end of my year at Laban I decided that I wanted the security of a contract with a theatre rather than trying to go freelance. Hampstead Theatre took me on and I have been here ever since. One interesting thing came from the move from working with dance to drama. Before, the lighting and sound could be more abstract and less constrained; with drama, I am definitely supporting the telling of a story: all the technical aspects are defined by that.
As technician of the Michael Frayn space here, the question I am continually asking is, “how can we safely and efficiently accomplish what the actors and director envision?” So I am often the one asking the annoying questions about exactly how a fight scene is going to work without actually hurting anybody, about fire hazards, and the safety of the audience. In order to do the job well, you really have to get to know the different companies that come in, so that you can understand exactly what they are trying to do and how you can help. I am always trying to foresee problems and work out solutions in advance, although with the deadlines we work to, often it is a case of improvisation at the last minute.
And, occasionally, I have to tell the company that what they want to do is just not possible in the space.
Because it is an education space, I get to work a lot with young actors and emerging writers. It is exciting to help premiere plays and do ‘start nights’ where new material is tested for writers and actors to get a better idea of where they might take it. Other things I like about the job are the satisfaction of helping the creative team turn their ideas into reality and meeting talented people. Challenges of the job are the long hours, the inevitable politics of a theatre space and sometimes having to be the person who says “No” to exciting ideas.
My advice for people wanting to get into theatre in general and a technician’s role in particular is to take every opportunity for experience, no matter how small and/or random it seems: it all helps. Also, get to know people in the industry, go to theatre productions, follow up with contacts and be nice to people. A little friendliness goes a long way. And a key piece of advice for anyone just starting the job is to take breaks when they are offered, because you never know how long you might have to wait for another opportunity to get some rest!