MAYBE YOU’RE JOINING the technical crew for the first time. Maybe you’re a seasoned student technician ready to move up the ranks. Either way, to succeed in technical theatre — whether you want a leadership role (stage manager, house manager, student shop foreman) or just to deepen your current skills — you need to understand how to help your theatre director in three important ways: recruiting, maintaining, and building a strong team.

While this may sound like your teacher’s job, the strength of a tech team very much depends on you, and your efforts will be noticed. Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced senior, here are four things you can do.

  1. Develop an understanding of the entire production process.
  2. Brainstorm ways to reach other interested students.
  3. Accept help and mentorship from your peers, then pass it forward.
  4. Enjoy yourself! Make the work fun and rewarding for you and your team.

Learn stage management

Stage management training offers an overview of the entire theatrical production process.

Stage management training offers an overview of the entire theatrical production process. Photo courtesy of Elynmarie Kazle.

If your school, Thespian troupe, or Thespian chapter offers one — and even if you’re not interested in becoming a stage manager — check into local or online resources for basic training in stage management. This is a great way to learn the production process. There is no need to actually call a show or lead the team, but thinking like a stage manager or an assistant stage manager takes you through the life of a production and focuses on team-building and communication skills applicable to any shop or production role.

As Thespian Sarah Sterns from Troupe 5570 at Akron School for the Arts put it, “Taking [a stage management] workshop as a freshman allowed me to understand all of the work a department does. When I work or lead a crew, I am much more detail-oriented and a better communicator.” Now a senior, Sterns has worked as a stage manager and audio engineer.

If you’re not able to find a training course in your area, you and your troupe director might check with a local college to see if someone there is willing to offer one to your school. There are also good online learning resources. For example, the Stage Managers’ Association of the United States offers mentoring, professional stage manager guides, and both online and in-class teaching resources. The United States Institute for Theatre Technology also offers workshops, online exams, and conferences at both the national and regional level for technicians entering and working in the entertainment field.

Keep in mind that theatre is human at its core and deeply collaborative. The relationships built by good stage managers emerge from their position as servant leaders, an important distinction from that of typical bosses. Stage managers serve the process of theatre and the humans creating it. This means when they lead, it is not about them; it is about all the humans involved, the story, and the process itself. Learning about stage management is a great way to practice self-reliance and problem-solving skills. Stage managers create the systems and environments that allow the creative work to become the best it can be. Studying how a stage manager runs the room will help you appreciate how every person’s part fits into the bigger picture and set you up to be a better leader or teammate.

“Stage manager training taught me how to lead without things being ‘my way or the highway,’ and that has helped me in every technical and crew position I have ever had, ‘lead’ or otherwise,” said Thespian alum Regina Vitale of Troupe 2014 at St. Francis DeSales High School in Columbus. Vitale served as assistant production manager “and dragon wrangler” for the 2015 Akron All-City Musical production of Shrek, presented by the Akron Civic Theatre Women’s Guild.

Thespian technicians participate in a full production meeting.
Thespian technicians participate in a full production meeting. Photo courtesy of Elynmarie Kazle.

Help your team grow

You already know how much fun and satisfaction you get from working on a show. Now you need to get the word out to grow your team. There are a number of ways you can help your director with this task.

Suggest a tech fair to your troupe leader. Help them plan an after-school event in the theatre with stations providing a brief demonstration of technical theatre jobs. This can serve as a “show and do” for your school. Demonstrate prop-making and costuming through craft projects such as decorating masks and hats or bedazzling a box or bottle prop. These can be done at tables while less visual or hands-on departments explain and demonstrate their fields to participants.

Jill Foster, also a Thespian at Akron School for the Arts, initiated her school’s student tech fair following her experience as a student production manager. “Learning about all [tech theatre] departments as a new student culminated in my interest to bring on the next generation of students by coordinating and planning our student tech fair,” she said. “It was fun and made me realize I am able to take on more responsibility.”

For the tech fair, or as a separate event, invite a local professional or someone in town on a touring show to come to your school to give a short talk about their job, with a question-and-answer session. Provide snacks and snap photos for your social media accounts or school yearbook.

You could even suggest a 24-hour theatre experience. This is a lot of fun for everyone involved and allows you and your fellow Thespians to practice all the skills required to put on a show, from composition to execution, in a concentrated, full-production exercise. In Firestone High School’s 24-hour Project, we cast, write, direct, rehearse, and perform a series of 10-minute plays in a single 24-hour period. This is a great training ground for students interested in working as stage managers, student tech directors, and production managers — and it provides additional training for student playwrights and actors.

Apply what you’ve learned

Your director will likely be happy to offer less experienced students opportunities to serve on the stage management team as second or third assistants on a big show. If you’ve taken a stage management course or informally shadowed the team, ask for an opportunity to practice what you’ve learned.

Deepening the stage management bench builds the production team for your entire school, engaging you and others in a process that enhances your understanding of every tech role and teaches you marketable skills in any professional field of your choice. Plus, it allows you to dip your toe in the water to see if this is an area of interest without the commitment a full-time position would require. Even if you later decide to focus on a specific technical department, an assistant stage manager gig will help you and your entire team strive for excellence and work together.

Thespian alum Will Rothman of Troupe 5570 used an experience in assistant stage management as a jumping off point to other technical positions. “Starting with my first ASM assignment and moving on to positions in lighting and sound taught me that I could do well in multiple departments and situations and led me to the position of stage managing the All-City Musical for the Akron Civic Theatre my senior year of high school.” Rothman has since worked as a production assistant at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood Hills, California, and Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts.

A tech fair can serve as a “show and do” for your school.
A tech fair can serve as a “show and do” for your school. Photo courtesy of Elynmarie Kazle.

Assist your peers

If you’re a more experienced crew member, pay attention to your newest team members. Don’t be afraid to step in if they forget something or seem confused. Don’t make a big deal of their mistakes; just demonstrate what to do and have them try again. If they seem overwhelmed, offer to help or take over. And if you start feeling overwhelmed with a mentorship role, let your director know. When I have students work with freshmen, I encourage them to check in with me often. If you feel as though there isn’t enough time carved out for team or self-reflection, ask your director for feedback or suggest a team huddle. Your initiative will likely be appreciated.

“The stage management training I took during my freshman year taught me how to collaborate, lead a crew, stay organized, be professional, keep calm in stressful situations, and make sure that a show runs smoothly — all skills I have applied to countless tasks throughout my four years of high school,” said Ethan Korvne, a senior at the Akron School for the Arts.

Understanding all areas of theatre production will make you a better technician and a better theatre person. By including everyone in the production process and finding your own happy place, your school’s theatre program can develop a reputation for being an open, fun, and less risky place for learning and participating in theatre.

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