Learning from the professionals – in and around theatre
Running a modern theatre involves around 50 different professions, from traditional crafts to high-tech media specialisation. Young people are urgently needed to make up the next generation of stage craftspeople, especially in the manual, technical professions. Working in the background, they are far from the limelight – but essential for creating it. Reason enough for BTR to take readers behind the scenes to find out more about the various occupations in and around theatre.
Where once skills were acquired in a learning-by-doing way, since the 1980s, standards have risen and the options for training and gaining qualifications have increased. A hundred years of progress in theatre means that yesterday’s scene shifters can be today’s specialists in event technology.
It all started with technological innovations in theatre. In Germany, developments were triggered by the introduction of electric light towards the end of the 19th century and the use of steel to build stages. Changes in society, art and technology took place at a breath-taking pace – and in close parallel – at the start of the 20th century. Max Reinhardt’s ground-breaking director’s theatre was made possible by the invention of the revolving stage. Electric light meant that all parts of the stage could be lit up for the first time. Theatre design had been revolutionised by Richard Wagner and his festival theatre in Bayreuth. Wagner rejected the hierarchical arrangement of the royal court theatres and their approach to opera as a place of amusement. To make his opera a site of education and edification, he shifted the audience closer to the stage and banished the orchestra to a pit below the auditorium – an outrageously provocative move at the time.
Previously, technical directors were theatre’s éminences grises. Stage sets were no more than painted backdrops, often daubed by the technical directors themselves. But that changed with the evolution of new approaches to stage art and craft. Three-dimensional stage sets now aspired to high artistic standards and directors brought in new ideas of their own. The innovations of complex steel stages and mechanical stage machinery called for engineering expertise. Stage designers needed to have not only good spatial imaginations but also the technical know-how to creatively use rotating and hoisting devices, to develop their own visual language for the stage.
For this special edition on theatre professions, BTR talked to two leading stage designers, Etienne Pluss and Lena Newton, and found out how artists, technicians and craftspeople cooperate to create productions on – an increasingly tight – schedule and break new artistic ground at the same time.
The first step towards making individual professions of the various aspects of stage craft was to place them on an equal footing. In Germany, the national stage technicians’ society DTHG started campaigning for recognised training and qualifications for theatre occupations a hundred years ago. But it was not until the 1980s, and the introduction of a diploma course in Event Technology Engineering at the Berlin technical college (then Technische Fachhochschule Berlin, now Beuth Hochschule) as well as the Master and Technical Degree – an ongoing, internationally pioneering and unique system of qualification for stage ‘allrounders’ – that creative teams were ensured the support they needed to realise their ideas. However, while the master’s certificate in lighting was established long ago, it places little importance on the creative side of the profession. And there is still no course of training to become a stage manager – the real poor relation among theatre occupations. But committed representatives of the profession are currently working hard to change that.
On the other hand, the status of many stage crafts has risen over the last thirty years. It is now possible to take a diploma course in stage painting and sculpture, for example, and to train to become a certified property master. The work of metalworkers, carpenters, machine operators and wardrobe directors is more highly valued now than in the past. Their needs and demands are given careful consideration in the planning of workshop refurbishments and extensions, and when venues modernise their facilities and equipment to meet the changing requirements.
Between the covers of this BTR special edition, there is only scope to highlight selected areas of the broad spectrum of theatre-related occupations. But we hope that our career descriptions, underpinned by personal observations and accounts, will leave you wanting more of the world of theatre – whether by making it your professional home or by enjoying the magic it conjures from the auditorium.
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