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This week's question comes from Robert H. from New York, NY.
Question: We often hear about the typical audition process that actors go through when they want to join a Broadway production. However, what process do potential backstage crew members go through when they want to join a new/current show? Answer: For this column we'll explain all the different types of stagehands, in addition to how they're hired. A show has two types of stagehands: First, there's the "pink contract" crew, which is hired by the show's producers, typically via a production manager that the producers hire to oversee everything that goes on backstage. The pink contracts start with a musical during its out-of-town tryout, and then travel with the show to Broadway.
Then there's the house crew, which is hired by the theatre owner. Typically, a big Broadway theatre will have a permanent house carpenter, house electrician, house propman and a flyman. When a show is in the theatre, those house heads will be working there; if there's no show, they don't have to be there. For a show, these house heads hire crew members who work under them.
As you might have guessed, this breakdown is a union-related distinction: The house crew is governed by Local One, the stagehands union in New York City. The pink contracts are governed by the national union. (The majority of pink contracts are also Local One members, who work in Local One contracts at other points in time, according to Bruce Cohen, a spokesperson for Local One.)
Hillary Blanken of Juniper Street Productions — the production management company for shows such as Cry-Baby, Xanadu, A Catered Affair and Gypsy —says that on the big musical Cry-Baby, for instance, the house heads and their crew consist of five carpenters, four electricians, three props people and one sound person. In addition, there are seven pink contract crew members: three carpenters, one electrician, one props, two sound. The pink contracts collaborate with the house heads in leading each department. To load in the sets, the show needed even more people: about 30 people, plus the pink contract crew.
The term "carpenters" doesn't mean that they're backstage sawing all the time. They put the sets together, hang parts of the set, raise and lower sets, and prepare the sets to be moved onstage and offstage via the automation system (these days, stagehands don't usually push sets on and off stage with their hands).
Typically, Blanken says, the house electrician runs house lights, while a pink contract electrician runs the light board. Other electricians run follow spots, or work backstage setting up lights that are embedded into set pieces and props.
The props people prepare props and hand off props — and props doesn't just mean things you hold in your hand. In Cry-Baby, for instance, when the prisoners escape from the prison, they jump onto a huge crash mat behind the set that gets carted on and taken off by props people.
Cry-Baby also has a wardrobe supervisor, wardrobe assistant, nine dressers, a hair supervisor and three hairstylists. They're hired by the show's producers (as opposed to the theatre), and are governed by their own union, separate from the stagehands.
Broadway stagehands have to first be members of the stagehands union, and membership has various requirements that we don't have time to get into here (it involves earning a certain amount of money over a certain length of time). Local One also runs an apprentice program, which aspiring stagehands can join by passing a written test. Apprentices get placed into various New York City theatres or scene shops (though typically not Broadway theatres, Cohen says). Eventually, after a certain number of years, they can join Local One and work their way up into Broadway shows.
The Broadway shows run by not-for-profit companies — where the producer and the theatre owner are usually one and the same — work similarly to the for-profit shows. Rebecca Habel, a general manager with the Roundabout Theatre Company, says that the company hires a production supervisor to oversee each show, on a per-show basis (though, by contrast, Manhattan Theatre Club, another not-for-profit with its own Broadway theatre, has a full-time production management team). In addition each of the Roundabout's Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres has a full-time head electrician, master technician and wardrobe supervisor, and occasionally a sound supervisor and a head of props. The house heads collaborate with the production supervisors to hire the other stagehands.
So how do they decide who gets the jobs? "A lot of times [we hire] people who work on our load-ins," Habel says. "Other times it's somebody that one of our heads knows and recommends. What we look for is obviously someone who is experienced, and has the right technical skills that we're looking for, and is in the union, and has — at the Roundabout — what is a significant time period available, often 11 weeks to 14 weeks depending on the theatre."