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  • An Aesthetic of Backstage Labor
  • Christin Essin (bio)

"The backstage world is theatre's other, internal double.… Its pragmatic functions make it seem transparently real when compared with the hallucinations of the onstage world. Yet the purpose and function of the backstage activity is contingent on and justified by those hallucinations."

—Alice Rayner, Ghosts (2006)

As a theatre historian interested in documenting and theorizing the work of designers and technicians, I am regularly met with bewilderment or skepticism by backstage professionals. Most accepted relative anonymity long ago, taking pleasure in their work not because it draws applause, but because it satisfies their own creative aspirations and sense of accomplishment. They choose to work relatively unseen, preferring to affect theatrical illusion (Rayner's "hallucinations") from the offstage spaces, using tools and practices that seem more "pragmatic" compared to the attention-grabbing performance techniques of their onstage collaborators. They are fascinated with the intricacies and technologies of backstage craftsmanship, but do not expect that curiosity to extend beyond their own professional tribe, and certainly not to theatre scholars, directors, or public audiences.

I was not surprised, therefore, when student technicians looked at me skeptically when I appeared, camera in hand, on the suspension grid of the Tornabene Theatre at the University of Arizona, where I teach. The lighting director had called a crew of BFA majors to focus lights for that evenings' cue-to-cue rehearsal, and she agreed to let me document their work. The student technicians were puzzled (but generally amused) as I snapped shots of their work; they regularly see cameras pointed at actors, but rarely at themselves. While they expect to be under the watchful gaze of design and technology faculty, they are less sure about the attention of the animated historian who taught Aristotle's Poetics that morning. "Why are you here?" they asked. I expressed my interest in their work, reminding them that I had been an electrician during my twenties. "OK." Pause. "But why are you here now?" In other words, they asked, what did my scholarship have to do with their manual labor?

Visual depictions of stage technicians are far less common than those of onstage performers, yet their occasional emergence provides evidence of public interest (albeit limited) into the visual dynamics of backstage labor. My decision to take a camera backstage surfaced from a desire to theorize the motivation and artistry behind a selection of visual documents, including photographs of technicians hired by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) (1935–39), the documentary Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle (1999) featuring stagehands at the San Francisco Opera in 1990, and the YouTube video "Focus Tape," produced by Santa Fe Opera electricians during the summer of 2009. Although created at different cultural moments from different production contexts, the aesthetics of these representations shared an affinity for backstage labor.

What had inspired these artists to push past the proscenium to document backstage activity? I began to investigate this question through historical research, but I eventually picked up my camera. My previous experiences guided my lens, helping me capture (and remember) the dramatic offstage vistas open to technicians, the satisfaction gained from the precise manipulation of lighting instruments, and the harmony felt between crews who communicate through a vernacular of handsignals and rapid, sharp commands (Figs. 1–2). I shared the images with the students whom I had [End Page 33] photographed and they seemed pleased with the result and effort taken to document their work. Because they had participated in the process, they recognized the photographs as products of labor themselves taken by someone invested in their work. My amateur photographs, although distinct from the publicly circulated images of my analysis, express a similar affinity with the backstage world of technicians. By placing them in the same company as these representations, I situate the practices of today's student technicians within a genealogy of professional stagecraft practices and recognize the significance of backstage labor to an understanding of the broader theatre industry and its university training programs.

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Fig. 1.

Suspension grid perspective from the Tornabene Theatre at the University of Arizona.

(Photographed by the author.)

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pp. 33-48
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