Have you ever thought about what happens in a theater after that mainstage curtain pulls to a close? The stage seems to gobble all the scenery up, reduced to a blank slate and ready for the next show. But after the performers you just saw walk off stage, a skilled crew of stagehands is waiting to pounce. They are the unionized technicians ready to send that show onto the next city.
The stagehands are part of one of the strongest unions in the country. Which provides work from experts known as gaffers, electricians, stagehands, fly men, wardrobe, makeup, stage managers, riggers, and board-operators. All together they are the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. If you ever watch a movie to the very end of the credits, you will see the union insignia – a five-pointed badge that tells you that the film was made with union workers.
In Madison, there are not so many film productions but lots of live theatrical events. Venues like the Overture Center for the Arts and the Sylvee will contract with the Madison branch of the IATSE – Local 251. I spoke to IATSE’s cheerful business agent, David Gersbach, also known as “Junior”, about what the union provides.
“So It’s a qualified, certified, you know safe, safe labor force, that would be hard to be able to manage yourself.”
The skills needed to work backstage are as varied as they are specialized. One needs to work well in a team and also be able to work quickly and safely. Just one job like hanging lights takes time to learn.
“We don’t have an apprentice program, but we’ve tried to get some of that training inherent. But’s it’s one the job learning. So it’s something that as you work show you might learn a little bit more. You might work in different departments. So some people might only work in one department like props. Or if you are in carpentry, you’re good with your hands and like to build sets and things of that nature. But I think the best is when you can go to multiple departments.
Many people working with IATSE are not full members. One must work many hours as an “extra” before eligible to apply to join. This means there are lots of total workers.
“Our call list is close to a thousand people within our existing call-sheets. That’s just in Madison” said Gersbach.
Justina Vickerman is the Union’s call-steward in charge of assigning people to work.
“Technically the jobs are assigned by skill, well availability: are you actually available to do the call. Skill: do you have the skills to do the job. And then it’s actually it’s service to the industry. So there is an aspect of how long a person has been in it. Or how long they have been a member.”
During the pandemic all parts of theatrical work have changed. The union now provides COVID compliance positions to keep shows safe here at home and as they travel across the country. They feel a high sense of responsibility. Again, David Gersbach.
“When performances come from out of state and they’re traveling around, we don’t want to infect those shows and shut down those shows, that venue, or that production. so that we can continue to work. So we are going to be as accommodating as possible so that people will come to those venues and we can continue to put on those performances and enjoy the arts that we always have.”
Last Sunday I saw the Union loadout Madison Opera’s Production of “She Loves Me.” Stagehands were crisscrossing the stage in a dance of a practicality and get-er-done attitude. Everyone seemed to know each other. When I asked about diversity in the workplace, David told me that diversity is valued and that local 251 welcomes people with open arms.
If you are interested in working back stage visit iatse251.com to learn more.