During the intermission of a play I saw this season, a theatre professional introduced himself to me. I’ve since forgotten his name, as I’m an actor and, thus, a self-absorbed monster whose opinions should be considered by no one, ever.
The two of us had been struck by the high overall quality of the performance we were watching, and we were talking shop, points of craft, the kind of shit that really bores and alienates your wife. We were two connoisseurs, fairly wallowing in our appreciation and enjoyment of the acting, directing, and playwriting we’d experienced. But then I asked “And aren’t these lights amazing?” (They were. Any play in Philly would be lucky to be lit so well so cheaply.) The guy said “I guess. I’ve never really understood lights.” I nodded. Then the guy said “It just always seems like magic to me.”
If you’re my age (none of your business) in this profession and there’s an entire half of the process you don’t even understand to be “labor”, then your ignorance is a deliberate, sustained act of will (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Lights, sound, scenery, rigging, properties, costuming and show running. Without these things, you’re out on the sidewalk in a fucking unitard doing, I don’t know, Oedipus (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Magic is for the audience, the professional understands the process.
The professional understands that theatrical production isn’t magic practiced by fucking elves, but a complex system of interlocking schools of constantly evolving craft, each of them with specific standards of basic proficiency and fucking safety. When you, as a theatre professional, call stagecraft magic you shit on all of that. You’re at best willfully misunderstanding and at worst outright denying not just the value but the existence of hard, skilled, often dangerous work and the specific, quantifiable, reproducible, and, yes, budget-able requirements in time, money, equipment, labor, experience, brains, balls, favors, threats, blackmail and insanity that this work necessitates.
Which is fine. You make your living in theatre, you don’t understand production: fine, man. No, really! That’s why we specialize! It’s normal! We can’t all know everything about everything. We specialize, we complement each other. Our skills interlock. We’re all in it together! Go team!
This lady watches the bottom line: this lady created an education program out of thin-fucking-air. This guy keeps finding grant opportunities to potentially cover the shortfalls: this guy can paint the shit out of scenery and even weld aluminum! Put them all in a lobby with some red wine and cheese: that’s my idea of a good time. Really! We don’t have to understand, appreciate, or even once thank any of these people for what they do, we just need them to keep doing it; because if any of them stop, we’re all out on the sidewalk in our unitards going “Oeeeeeedipus!” (NTTAWWT)
When someone in the Philadelphia theatre community is bitching to me about PTC, it’s always about two things. 1) They only do shows that sell well in NYC. 2) They don’t hire enough local actors, directors, or designers. Both of these things are true. (PTC also does shows that tanked horribly in NYC, like Race and the Scottsboro Boys, the PTC remounts of which I seem to recall being completely fucking awesome, but I digress) To the first complaint, I would respond: so what? People want to see those shows. They like them! What’s the problem? To the second complaint I would nod sympathetically, because what the person bitching to me is actually saying is: “I want to act/design/direct there.” As well they should: PTC is a great place to do any of these things. They don’t hire a lot of locals because they don’t think we’re good enough. Yeah, I think they’re wrong, too, but, you know, whatcha gonna do. PTC’s like the prettiest girl at the prom: you really shouldn’t give a shit what she thinks about you…but you do. Sorry it’s corny but it’s pretty true.
I worked as a freelance non-union stagehand for seven fucking years, man. I worked for a shitload of local theatres, but I worked at PTC the most because I had the most friends there, the most opportunity, and the most fun there. I easily worked 40 hours a week for PTC and often way more. The pay was great. I was treated really well. The facilities and equipment were great. The work was challenging on every level. I’ve never worked so hard in my fucking life. I slept there more than a couple of times. The sheer, cockeyed novelty of the technical problems we were routinely obligated to solve were often their own reward. As one of my friends recently mentioned, we were repeatedly tasked with the impossible, only to watch the impossible become the new norm. He wasn’t complaining, neither am I: that’s Production. That’s Stagecraft. It’s not magic.
So as a former stagehand I have a stupid, half-formed opinion about the stagehand strike at PTC that I’d like to share with you, and it’s way more valid than your stupid eighth-informed opinion so you should consider it. It goes like this:
When PTC built the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, they made a huge investment in lights, sound, scenery, rigging, properties, costuming and show-running: they made a huge investment in Production at a specific level of proficiency, safety, and excellence. They built a state-of-the-art mainstage to produce state-of-the-art theatre. They hired some of the best designers in the country (and a couple of times the best), designers whose visions absolutely, no-fucking-argument, no-fucking-equivocation necessitate a specific level of proficiency, safety, and excellence to execute.
No one from PTC save for the box office, house management, and stagehands actually work at the Suzanne Roberts, where the shows are. They work in rented office space a couple of blocks away. My dumb opinion is that, because of this division, part of the organizational culture at PTC is that theatrical production of PTC shows is something no one in management has ever seen happen.
But so what? Why do they need to watch it happen? They know what it costs: they write the checks! They don’t know the standards of proficiency, safety, or excellence the stagehands of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre have to meet. But they don’t need to! They’re all busy doing their jobs! Go, team, right? What do the stagehands want, a medal?
Here’s what’s happening: PTC management is cutting costs while standing behind their investments in big facilities, big shows, big designers. Good for them! PTC’s management isn’t evil, incompetent or crazy; I don’t think that, neither should you. Their attitude towards labor, though appalling, is simply a product of their organizational culture. Shame on them all the same: because not only are they backing away (faaar the fuck away) from their investment in proficient, safe, excellent standards in lights, sound, scenery, rigging, properties, costuming and show-running, they’re pretending those standards don’t exist and never did. They’re denying not just the value but the existence of hard, skilled, dangerous work, and the specific, quantifiable, reproducible, and, yes, budget-able requirements in time, money, equipment, labor, experience, brains, balls etc. that the work necessitates. They’re pretending it’s magic.
Magic is for the audience. And right now, PTC’s audience has to cross a picket line to get their fix, and that sucks. If you’re a theatre professional, you understand the neurotic compulsion to put a happy face on a shit situation. When we describe our jobs to outsiders, we always make it seem fun and cool and glamorous and, yes, magical: especially when it isn’t.
To the management of PTC: your stagehands don’t enjoy standing on the sidewalk while the audience nervously skitters around them to watch a show without lights, sound, video, or set changes. I doubt your designers or director are high-fiving each other about it. I doubt you or your audience are enjoying it either.
So get a deal done. Your stagehands aren’t asking to be respected, thanked, or fellated: they’re upholding a standard you’re invested in no matter how hard or long you pretend that you’re not, or that you are, in the bizarre, inexplicable words of managing director Shira Beckerman a “small non-profit group” (and god fucking forbid you ever become one). Let’s save the unitards and the Oedipus for Egopo (I kid! I kid). You’re not a small non-profit group. You’re an awesome, big-shit American Regional Theatre and your stagehands just unionized: get a deal done.
Oh, the amazing lights my fellow connoisseur mistook for magic? They were by Allyssandra Docherty. She replaced me at PTC, accepting more responsibility than I ever had at less money. I was a smart, hardworking poseur with a shitty attitude: she’s the real thing. She doesn’t uphold the standard, she is the fucking standard. And she’s on strike.