The props. The lightning. The sound. Unseen by the audience, these small details on stage are all being lead by a team of black shadows and a manager screaming into her headset.
“If you don’t see us, it means we did our job right,” said Jenny Austin, a sophomore at the California School of the Arts in the Production and Design conservatory who’s worked on school productions such as “Pippin,” “The Yellow Boat,” “The Importance of Being Earnest,” and “The Merry Lives of Windsor High.”
Although it seems the backstage team always does their job right, each show is different from the next that the audience does not get to experience. But Austin can. Being in charge of a show that’s always different than the next, because anything can go wrong, keeps her job exciting.
“I also like to work with all the different departments. It requires you to do multiple things at once. It can be overwhelming at times, but it’s calming to know what’s going on at stage left and right, at the same time,” Austin explained.
No one now would have guessed that Austin used to take drama classes and performed on the stage. She knew from a young age that she wanted to do something in theater and as a kid, the stage meant acting and singing. However, it was in the eighth grade that Austin started to enjoy backstage work. At the time, it was simply flicking on and off light switches for her school’s talent show. She preferred it compared to being the one on stage.
“I didn’t like how last minute decisions were made for me,” Austin said.
Now, as backstage manager of many of CSArt’s productions, Austin has ironically become just the person that makes last-minute decisions for the actors. However, her position has let her see that these decisions are made for the safety of not only the actors but for everyone else backstage. Naturally, the actors do not see eye to eye on all her decisions. Once, an actress refused to talk to Austin after she made her do something she didn’t want to do.
“They call us bossy. Being a girl and a lot younger than most of the actors, I get a lot of mean comments,” Austin said. “But I’ve learned to talk back to them in a way that doesn’t come off as disrespectful.”
For example, an actor once yelled at her for being a bad stage manager, because she asked for his phone which he was glued onto.
She just said to him, “If you want to be an actor, you need to be in control of yourself and your phone.”
Being sensible while strict is something Austin had to learn as a manager.
“Learning to be patient, respectful, and mature is something we should all do in life, not just in the production and design world,” she said.
Another thing Austin found out as a production and design student was the struggle with being underappreciated. According to her, the topic is brought up in every conservatory class which usually strikes up a debate.
Austin reasonably understands why the crew is never acknowledged at the end of a performance for she said it takes the magic out of the show. When actors and actresses leave the stage and accept flowers and compliments for their performance, the backstage crew is cleaning up and preparing for the next night’s show. This is all well with Austin. She said she has accepted that this is and will be the same for the rest of her career in production and design. However, there is one thing she does not tolerate.
“Everyone thinks our job is the easiest,” she said. “It might be something easy to pick up and learn, but it requires the same amount of hard work and dedication than any other talent.”
Although Austin must overcome these obstacles as a backstage crew member, she still prefers it to being on stage or any other passion. According to her, she sees the good in her job and the reason why she fell in love with it in the first place.
“A poster was slowly falling off its prop and I told someone backstage to sneak on stage while the scene was happening, while at the same time I was frantically trying to find queues. It’s hilarious that the audience doesn’t know that I’m screaming on com during half of the show. And I love looking at people I know in the audience who don’t know I’m looking at them,” she said.
For Austin, it is the ability to control one’s own decisions, the thrill that every show is never the same each night, and the feeling of being undercover that lets her see past the obstacles in the production and design world.