Work in the shadows
Inside the world of the stagehands union
Kerry Grisham and Molly Dougherty
Imagine 22 trucks hauling over 20 tons of props, costumes, and sound and lighting equipment for the traveling production of “Phantom of the Opera” rumbling down the interstate toward Tulsa to be unloaded and pieced together.
Who ya gonna call?
IATSE, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (pronounced eye-YAHT-see), is the union that employs highly skilled technicians who make it possible for the Tulsa PAC to host the traveling Broadway tours booked by Celebrity Attractions.
The work of loading in the huge shows is no joke, though the time the actor playing the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” was accidentally suspended upside down in performance still incites laughter in members of Tulsa’s IATSE union, Local 354.
Kerry Grisham, Gary Griffith, John Jack, Molly Dougherty, and Tom Poss represent over a hundred years of experience in the backstage world of the Tulsa PAC and other venues around Tulsa. They specialize in lighting, carpentry, props and rigging, among numerous other skills—and view running a show as a play itself.
“We work in the shadows,” Grisham said. “We have our own performance going on backstage. It’s as choreographed as the onstage show. If we do our job right the audience should never know we’re there.”
“I like to look at what goes on as similar to NASCAR,” Poss said. “Everybody is in the right place at the right time, a well-oiled team. The wheels pop off and right back on and you’re out the gate.”
Shows vary from relatively small convoys of four or five trucks, such as the 2017-18 season opener, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (Aug. 29–Sept. 3) to monsters like “Phantom.” And each show brings its own crew to oversee the process.
Local 354 has provided as many as 100 people to load in a production and run it, though recent technical innovations have made shows more compact for traveling.
“When ‘Cats’ starting touring they came in with eight trucks and now there’s three,” Jack said. “The set literally blows up. They put a metal frame up with huge pieces that inflate and become all the junkyard trash. The pieces the actors crawl on are metal platforms but the rest of the scenery is all inflatable and from the house you can’t see any difference from a normal set.”
Load-ins for shows generally begin around six a.m. Grisham provided details: “We build it as the trucks are unloaded, usually it starts with rigging. They have to get the structures up to fly things. Wardrobe and props are the last things off the trucks and when we load out they’re the first things on the trucks.”
“We work with the traveling crew. It’s their show,” Jack said. “We get paid ‘from the neck down’ to do what they want.”
The PAC stagehands have to possess a wide range of skills, such as knowing how to use and even fix various types of hardware or tie certain knots that are critical to safe installation.
Molly Dougherty, a 2017 TU graduate and one of six women currently in the union, recently became an apprentice in the IATSE program. She will train in all aspects of the work to become a Journeyman, or a top-level worker in the union. The approach reflects the medieval guild practices that underlie a key concept of the union: hands-on learning.
“The coolest thing for me working the ‘Matilda’ load-in,” she said, “was that while I was on break, one of the electricians taught me a few new knots. I practiced and practiced, and by the time I went back for the load-out, I had the knots perfected.”
The IATSE members take tremendous pride in their work ethic and safety record.
“People can get killed in an instant,” Jack said. “For the opera ‘Aida’ one of the stagehands was supposed to open up the valve on a propane tank for a fire effect. He refused to turn it on because he could smell a build-up of propane fumes that would have caused a huge explosion. The stage manager was screaming for the cue to be executed but the stagehand made an in-the-moment decision that not only saved lives but probably kept the theatre from catching fire.”
“Tour crews love coming to Tulsa for this very reason,” Griffith said. “When it comes to load-out they know we’ll get them going quickly and safely. We’re known around the country for that. There’s magic that happens backstage that nobody ever sees because we’re good at it.”
In Celebrity Attractions’ upcoming production of “The Little Mermaid,” that magic will play a prominent role. The show features aerial choreography that creates the illusion of characters swimming effortlessly through the sea.
Flying the actors requires a special truss system that moves characters vertically as well as horizontally, a challenge the stagehands are looking forward to meeting. Overseeing the installation will be personnel from the legendary company, Flying by Foy, whose innovations with aerial work go back to the 1950 Broadway production of “Peter Pan”—meaning the show backstage, as always, will be as exciting as what the audience sees.