A Foot in the (Stage) Door: A stage crew’s first day

My first foot in the proverbial door came by chance. A shortage of crew for the local pantomime and my 100% availability led to nearly 13 years of working full time in the industry.

Having only worked with friends as a kitchen porter, I was feeling slightly tentative about my first day in this new environment. I remember it very well. I entered the stage door, hidden down a small cobbled street and walked up the corridor and waited silently in the green room. I happened to be one of two new crew that day, which felt somewhat reassuring.

The building appeared tiny from the front but inside was a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells. I remember vividly saying “Wow” as I looked on at the auditorium from the stage. Something I have done many times since at various beautiful theatres around the UK. I had never actually visited this theatre and had a moment of awe at discovering this little gem existed in Lincoln.

I met a tall grey haired man who carried an extraordinary presence of authority, he introduced himself as Art Walker, the Stage Manager, a man I now very much consider family. The stage crew at the time consisted of only men, men of every age. One of whom introduced himself as Andy King, a truly lovely man who kindly took me in and made me feel welcome. Andy was in his seventies and did this for the love of it. He had enough tales of theatre to write a hundred books.

Day one was a combination of fear, excitement and more fear. I very quickly felt the spare part and waited patiently to interpret instructions given to me.

Day one flew by. The whole day felt shorter than a 3-hour shift washing dishes. The day is a bit of a blur but one moment that still stands out is the absolute roasting Art Walker gave to the other new starter for sweeping rubbish into the stage cable traps (for those that don’t know, these are hidden runs built into the stage to run cables along the stage without them being in the way). I quickly learnt not to do anything as stupid as this. Note: he wasn’t asked to come back the next day.

We finished at 10pm, the longest working day of my life so far, but I loved it. Bring on tomorrow.

Day one: I think it’s important to go into some detail specifically surrounding day one, as it is so fundamentally important to anybody’s first steps. So what advice would I give for a first shift, whether it’s work experience, voluntary or paid?

Firstly, when you enter that theatre for the first time, you are the new one. Regardless of whether you have never set foot in a theatre or you’ve just completed a technical degree. Always introduce yourself, to everyone (given the opportunity). Take a moment to plan your introduction and relax. The technical team don’t know you and if you’re new, aren’t expecting you to know everything yet. But what they will do is test you. They will test what you do know and how well you can listen and learn. Don’t worry about this, nobody intends to catch you out, but please make sure you’re listening. I’ve had to work with a number of people that say they have heard me and come back 10 minutes later without a clue of what I asked. And I always say (after doing the job myself) “don’t be afraid to ask me to repeat the request if you didn’t hear it. I’ll explain it further if you didn’t understand it”. At least that way, you have a fighting chance to get it right first time and won’t feel embarrassed that you just walked around for 10 minutes looking for something that matched a word in the request. “Fetch me the Podger” was a common example.

In my opinion, some of the most important things for day one are:

  • Introduce yourself and meet the team. Really try to memorise names, I’m terrible at this and usually overthink my own introduction. A method I use is to repeat their name in the next sentence to them. This is so simple but forces you to repeat their name and then ensure you’ve acknowledged it.
  • Listen really carefully to instructions. You may not have the experience yet, but you can show everyone how serious you are about getting involved by listening. Simple.
  • Be polite, never walk in thinking you know it all. Manners and respect cost you nothing. My worst experience so far was with some tech students from the local college who had an arrogant attitude that they knew it all and that their local theatre was beneath them. It instantly closed future prospects for them and in an industry where local jobs are difficult to secure; this wasn’t a wise career move.
  • Don’t disappear so that you’re there when you are needed. It can be really frustrating for the venue staff when they have a job that you could do, but there’s no sign of you.
  • Ask if you can help. Be conscious not to get annoying with this but stay attentive and show a willingness by asking what you can do.
  • Don’t sit down. If you keep sitting down, it gives the impression you don’t want to be there.
  • Don’t use your phone. I appreciate some staff will do this, I now need to use my phone at work as it has my calendar and emails on, but this isn’t an invite for everyone to get their phones out. Get a watch if you want to check the time. A little exercise is to try to notice how vacant a friend looks when you’re talking to them and their phone goes off.
  • Enjoy it, it’s the best industry you will ever work in. You’ll meet loads of interesting people and have a great time both at work and out of work, it’s a business like no other.

The days quickly passed, and the pantomime opened, Aladdin 2003. I spent the entire run in the fly floor learning the ropes… literally.

I will continue this series and talk more about my first steps in the industry.

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Have a great week,

Michael

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