By Ali Mignone, Stage Manager for Strings Music Festival
I often write about performing artists and their quirks in this column, giving short shrift to my black-clad stagehand colleagues who are the heavy lifters, the gaff-tapers, the fix-it-quick-ers and the small gods of all things technical.
So I set out to write a column about the history of stagehands, going back to Greek theatre (700 BC) and Roman theatre (4th century). But what I discovered was…nothing. I admit that my research is done online in three hour chunks of classical rehearsal time and is regularly interrupted by necessary rehearsal tasks. But, still…nothing?
It wasn’t until I moved into 14th century Japan and the start of the Noh theatre tradition that I started to find written details about stagehands. It’s clear that the Greeks and the Romans had them—based on stage directions written into surviving scripts, the layout of theatre ruins and the undeniable fact that performer egos are performer egos no matter what century they inhabit—but stagehand contributions from those periods are lost to time. Or at least, they’re lost to this stage manager’s quick perusal of the internet during a rehearsal break.
Stage attendants for Japanese Noh theatre are called “koken,” even to this day. The running crew for Japanese Kabuki theatre are “kuroko.” In these traditional art forms—which date back to the 14th and 17th centuries—the koken and kuroko appear onstage, wearing black, to move scenery and props during a performance, much like today’s western stagehands. Their black clothing signaled to the audience that they were not part of the action of the performance, that they were not to be noticed. During a Kabuki performance, kuroko might become scenery themselves—by stretching a piece of fabric to become a wall or the sea, or holding a mask to represent an animal or another natural element.
Western theatre lore says that theatrical rigging for backdrops and scenery pieces in Elizabethan times came from ship rigging, and that the 16th century stagehand was probably a sailor working a second job. While that idea might be apocryphal, I like the thought that when sailors were in port between sailing gigs, they might get work as theatre technicians.
In the 17th century, western opera took the idea of the not-to-be-seen stagehand and expanded it to fit opera’s more-is-more grandeur with the supernumerary. A supernumerary is a non-speaking, non-singing role intended to fill out the stage with people during crowd scenes. Unlike their Japanese stagehand cousins, opera supers are actors and appear in costume, not in black, because they’re intended to be part of the scene. Although their larger purpose is to create stage tableaux during the performance, supers are often called on to move furniture and props during the singing action onstage.
Strings has a small technical crew—a lighting designer, a lead audio engineer, an assistant audio engineer and a stage manager. For classical recordings, we also have a recording engineer. For Different Tempo shows, our production director joins in the heavy lifting. In a larger venue, each of these positions would be managing multiple team members, designing systems and directing the action of a department. At Strings, each of us is a get-your-hands-dirty worker as well as the brains behind our individual specialties onstage. What that means for me is that, in addition to being the stage manager, I am also the sole classical concert stagehand, regularly seen onstage (wearing black) moving chairs and stands.
My excellent colleagues happily jump in to help me when there’s more to move than I can manage, leaving their lighting and soundboard brain work behind to become piano-moving or harpsichord-shifting muscle. Theatre technicians can be a territorial lot (some crews act like they’re still crotchety Elizabethan pirates on second jobs), making cross-departmental cooperation a thing to be celebrated. So, even though stagehands have been avoiding the limelight for centuries, I’d like to put the spotlight on the stage crew at Strings for some well-deserved kudos.
Thanks, guys. You’re the best—I couldn’t do this without you.
- Tuesday, August 9, 8pm – Asleep at the Wheel (western swing)
- Thursday, August 11, 12:15pm – Jay Roemer and Friends (free, at the Botanic Park)
- Friday, August 12, 8pm – Keb’ Mo’ Band (American roots and blues)
- Saturday, August 20, 8pm – Lake Street Dive (soul pop)
- Friday, September 9, 8pm – BOSTYX Unplugged (Acoustic hits of BOSTON and STYX)
- Friday, October 14, 8pm – Todo Mundo (World Music)
- Friday, November 4, 8pm – Mandy Harvey (American jazz singer/songwriter)
Tickets available at (970) 879-5056 and www.stringsmusicfestival.com.
Ali Mignone stage manages for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.