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Friday, March 01, 2024
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‘The technical element is the spectacle element’: The stagehands who make the magic happen

The spectacle of theater is part of what continues to draw crowds in the age of smartphones and streaming services. Upon sitting down to watch a live performance, the dazzling lights, sounds and sets never fail to mesmerize an audience. To those sitting in the auditorium, such theatricality might appear to have an almost effortlessly magical quality to it.

But, what most audiences don’t see are the many hours of diligent work stagehands and other backstage workers devote to shape this experience. Although actors tend to receive the most  attention, many will argue stagehands are the foundation upon which every performance rests. 

Without them, the show will not, in fact, go on.

The Wisconsin Union Theater and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama host numerous performances year-round, relying on the crucial labor of stagehands. Many are professional technicians and specialists, but most are part-time student workers. The Daily Cardinal spoke with Grace, a UW-Madison student employed by the Wisconsin Union Theater as a stagehand, who emphasized the huge breadth of tasks stagehands are responsible for. She asked not to be identified using her last name. 

“There is no such thing as a mundane day,” Grace said. “Like, my first time doing the Nutcracker at Shannon Hall I learned how to take the dance floor off of this huge rolling machine, and that process is so funny. And we painted the floor as well.” 

Grace described some of her other responsibilities, including operating soundboards, working lights, setting the stage and hauling equipment. But, as she explained, this type of work can be physically demanding.

“For someone who's petite, the hardest part would be lifting the speakers. We have some really big speakers. It's sometimes hard to lug that around. You’ve got to be strong. And then the rig system, which also requires upper body strength,” she said. 

Working as a stagehand isn’t only physically demanding, but the irregularity of performances can be demanding on one's schedule, too. This is especially true of some student stagehands.

“Sometimes you can work 10 hours a week, maybe less. Sometimes you can work like 30-plus or more. I know that for the Wisconsin Film Festival, that tends to be a bigger chunk of time,” Grace said. “Shannon Hall [also] does … graduations. There's four graduations and that's 36 hours in three days.”

A stagehand’s work presents unique challenges that most other professions don’t. Despite this, the average Wisconsin stage worker salary of $36,407 continues to lag behind the $58,260 national average. But, as Grace noted, joining a union is a great way for stagehands to bridge that gap.

“[I make] $16.10 [an hour] I think, but then there are levels,” Grace said. “Once you’re able to join the union — because you do have to work a certain amount of hours to join — the pay increases.”

In Madison, the largest stage worker union is the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). IATSE was founded in 1893 amid the transition of theater companies from the cooperative-based model to the modern tour-based one. 

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Since then, IATSE has fought to improve working conditions for stagehands by negotiating minimum pay rates and limiting the number of hours stagehands may be required to work. In Wisconsin, stagehands who are members of a union make an average salary of approximately $44,566 a year — over $8,000 more than non-union stagehands. But, non-union stagehands, like Grace, may still see some benefits thanks to the union. 

“One of the shifts I did for IATSE was a changeover shift at the Kohl Center,” Grace said. “It was [converting the court from a] hockey to basketball court. I was being paid $21 an hour, and then once you hit midnight, it went to $25.”

For those who do not intend to pursue a career as a stagehand, Grace said the experience working backstage can be of great benefit to a wide variety of roles within the entertainment industry, including acting. 

“There's a lot of benefit as an actor learning the fundamentals of stagecraft. Actors memorize their lines and everything, but if you don't have the crew, you don't have sound, lighting [or] sets,” Grace said. “So it really [gives you] perspective. You also respect the process of what the crew members are doing.”

Grace stressed how crucial stagehands are to the performing arts. 

“Each role is, no matter how small it might sound, it’s needed,” Grace said. “Without backstage people, things would not get done. The technical element is the spectacle element. So without the spectacle, you just have actors there with nothing, nothing around them. No lights.”

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Noah Fellinger

Noah Fellinger is an Arts Editor for The Daily Cardinal. He's covered the performing arts, new film and television releases, and labor issues in the arts. Follow him on Twitter at @Noah_Fellinger.

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