There’s supposed to be two kind of people in theatre – actors and techies. And, I suppose, directors and the ‘creative team’ but unless they’re actively up to their armpits in blood and paint, let’s for the moment ignore them. I’m obviously a techie – I’m also called a sparkie or a lampie, or if in any position of authority, the Prod LX/Proddy or LD – production electrician or lighting designer. Anyone who’s spent any amount of time in theatre will be used to the regular cry of ‘waiting on LX’ and odds are, if I’m the one behind a control desk, that means you’re waiting on me.
Traditionally there’s always been a bit of a divide between actors and technicians. There’s no good reason for it, since at the end of the day both jobs are working for the same thing, being paid the same rubbish wage and channeling the same level of passion.
Technicians, goes the cliche, do the grubby jobs. They are the ones covered in saw dust and lamp dirt, smelling of fibreglass and paint; the ones with trousers worn through at the knees, with cuts along their hands and arms, who haven’t had time to grab a bite to eat and so are now mopping up fake blood from the theatre floor on nothing but a diet of one cornish pasty and a cuppa tea. They are the ones who, before the actors arrive, will have swept the stage and washed their vile socks, and who once the actors are gone, will be putting out the laundry for tomorrow and resetting the stage and sweeping up in the wings and generally, doing what may be called the monkey work (and wrongly so).
And perhaps in all this, your aching, under-fed, under-slept technician may bother to raise their head now and then and see an actor, and the thought may bloom that there is someone whose job is to be appreciated, whose socks are presented fresh every night and who gets to sit around in a lovely warm rehearsal room talking about words and arty farty ideas, maybe drinking tea, while your techie is hanging off a ladder at thirty metres overhead, watching their life flash before their eyes for the sake of a fully finished set. To add insult to injury, it’s quite likely that at that moment in time, the said actors will be polished, sexy, even, because let’s face it, that’s what the punters cheer for, whereas your techie could quite possibly resemble the sausage roll that is all they’ve had time to eat.
Most techies suffer from a bad combination of pride in their works, and the specialty of the job. An example which will always stick in my mind was from one of my few experiences as a flyman. I was assigned with one other to an operation known as ‘bouncing tabs’ – essentially, we’d fly in the house curtains (about 125kg of moving cloth) as fast as we could, get an almost instantaneous ‘go’, fly them back out to a very precise point as fast as we could, fly them back in again, fly them back out again, fly them back in again, breathe, and fly out one last time for the show to continue, all as fast as was humanly possible and to a degree of accuracy that had to be centimetre precise. The flying systems in theatres are generally all counterbalanced, so as 125kg of curtain went one way, 125kg of iron weight went the other. This in theory means that you didn’t have to use much energy at any given moment to keep it all moving, and true enough. To keep it moving, no worries – but to start it moving, especially in the opposite direction to the one you’ve just flown, is heavy work. Our director, who was brutal with everyone, cast and crew alike, had given us flymen orders to ‘do it better!’ and so myself and my colleague were up there obeying his command, practicing away. Being hit by 125kg of even finely balanced high-speed curtain was not considered a healthy thing, so our stage manager had cleared the area below the tabs, made several very loud announcements, and was himself stood on stage acting as watchdog to make sure that no one went within the flying zone. Most of the company were on stage, warming up – then one lad, who shall remain nameless – walked on, later than all the rest, pushed past the stage manager and with a cool ignorance of the mortal danger he was in, stepped straight into the fly zone. I shouted a warning, the stage manager shouted a warning, and myself and my colleague went about the precarious business of stopping the tabs at high speed. Doing this requires hauling a line which was by now traveling fast enough to pull me off my feet – this happened fairly regularly on the fly floor, but never stopped being alarming. The tabs were stopped, but not before the stage manager, seeing imminent and genuine danger, grabbed the actor by the waist and dragged him back out of the fly zone. No harm done. Except…
This actor, understandably rattled by his close-encounter of the curtain kind, turned to the stage manager and started in with a minor torrent. How hard could it be to fly a curtain, quoth he, what the hell was the stage manager doing, quoth he, why the hell couldn’t the flymen just get it right? At which the stage manager started straight on back – didn’t he hear the warnings, couldn’t he see the stage manager standing there to block his path, why was he even late anyway – and it all got a bit messy.
The problem is, technicians and actors are both very specialist. A technician doesn’t understand why an actor might need their space and their time to get into a part in their own, occasionally quirky way, because frankly its just something beyond our experience. Likewise, an actor may have no concept of just how much work it is to stop a flying curtain heading at high speed for a tricky dead, and when these two ignorances combine, you could well end up with that legendary actor/techie divide. The long hours and intensity of the work never helps, and if you hear of backstage fights, they’re usually fueled by fatigue as any genuine complaint.
Ultimately, everyone in theatre ends up stressed and exhausted in different ways. For my part, when I am on a lighting crew, physical exhaustion is usually the order of the day; the groans you hear with a faint snicker-snack will be me and my knees at the end of fit-up. Or if I am working as the LD, there will come a moment when I have spent so many hours looking at details of light that no one else has even noticed to care about, that a sort of mental blindness inserts itself between retina and brain
Then again, I won’t have spent the last few months, agonising about the set or learning lines. I won’t have a head stuffed full of text, and I won’t be expected to get up, every single night, and produce sadness, grief, horror, fear, joy and regret, at volume, on time, to the satisfaction of everyone up to and including the cheap seats. I won’t have learnt how to swashbuckle, or be forced to act in ridiculous shoes. I won’t have to get covered in blood or thrown into water or chucked out of a slime-filled metal machine every night, or wear a corset, and above all else, I am very unlikely to be judged by the world at large unless I’ve done something really, really wrong. At the end of the day, your actor is the guy who has to get out on stage and be prepared to look like a tit, and that’s what will be remembered, more than whether the flying was nice or the lights went a bit pink.
Techies can create a time and a place, and often a feeling, that no degree of shouting or tricksy direction can replicate, but no denying it, we just suck at saying words. And not just saying them – but saying them well, giving them life, which is actually a really, really difficult skill. Actors need techies, and techies need actors, and when the two mesh the results can be brilliant, produce drama at its absolute best. And when they don’t, it can be a right pain for all concerned.