Team Work and the Technical Side

We have discussed in other articles how one, single, theater performance, functions like a complex piece of machinery. Though an audience member only sees the stage, there is so much more happening behind the scenes. We’ve interviewed Anton Osul, stage manager of the Estonian National Ballet, and heard about his job in the booth. He reads the score and musically cues all the set changes to keep you moving from one time and place to another. But he is not alone in his job. His team of stage technicians are equally responsible for the seamless transitions, and overall magical experience of theater storytelling. One of those people is Ever Sibul. 

Ever is a stage technician at the Estonian National Opera. He has worked there faithfully for 16 years, helping put on hundreds of shows. 

“I’ve been living in Tallinn my whole life, but my roots are in the countryside. I still have a dream to live in the countryside…I want to see a forest when I look out the window.”

But for now, the countryside will have to wait, the theater still has much need for Ever. Ever joined the theater stage crew in his early twenties after bouncing from job to job. However, there was definitely a draw to manual labor. Before joining the theatre he had his hand in the hat-making business!

“Most stage technicians come to the theatre through recommendations, but actually I came here after finding an ad. I was in my early twenties and I was hopping from job to job, trying to figure out my place, and what interests me. Right before I came here, I was doing handicrafts. I was making those old-school felt hats that you stretch on wooden molds. It was pretty cool, but I was looking for something new to do.”

That was 16 years ago. For one to be working in the same establishment for so long is often a sign of a good working environment and enjoyable work. Ever definitely credits his enjoyment of his job to his coworkers.

“We have a pretty great team. And that makes all the difference. When you have a great team you can do anything. But when you have a crappy team you don’t want to do the job, even if you like it. I would even prefer a lower pay, as long as there is a good environment.”

Though the stage crew has a very different job to that of the opera, ballet, or any other department in the theater, they are by no means exempt from the incredibly fast pace of the Estonian National Opera’s schedule. Ever recalls his first days in the theater as being quite crazy.

“My first experience was pretty confusing. You’re often just ‘thrown in’ to everything, but in a couple of months, I figured out most of it. My very first day was a transportation day where we take the decorations to the storage unit.”

The Estonian National Opera is quite small compared to other Houses around the world. For this reason, they keep their scenery and props that are not currently in use in a warehouse until it’s their time for the stage again. The transportation of these sets is one of the stage crew’s tasks.

“The duration of a transportation day depends on how many truckloads we have to do. But when it’s only one or two trucks it takes only three or four hours. It’s quite intense and hard work, but we can get it done quickly.”

For a show, every stage technician has their job, position, and their rank, but everyone works together to make this beautiful machine tick like clockwork.

“So we have twenty stage technicians. The lowest rank is the ‘stage technician’, then the next title is ‘stage technician operator’, that’s me, then is the senior stage technician. But everyone does very similar jobs with small additions. The operators also run the computers that manage the fly bars and such, and the senior master is overseeing everything but is also hands-on doing the job.”

Another unique aspect of this job is the hours and shifts. The Estonian National opera stage has something on stage almost every morning and evening, not only that but something different every morning and evening too! This means a lot of sets to be changed. Funny enough, though, while dancers muster all their strength for endless shows of The Nutcracker in December, the stage crew can finally breathe a bit because they don’t have to completely tear down one set and put up a new one in the evening.

“The day is divided into two shifts: morning stage runs or performances, and evening stage runs or performances. The morning shift normally starts between 8-9:00 am. We come, set up the stage, service the show, then we take down the stage. We finish between 15-16:00 pm, right as the next shift comes in. If it’s a simple show, we’ll only have eight people working, but for the others, we have eleven to twelve people. Then, most nights we’ll finish around 23:00/23:30 pm. Mostly we work six days a week, but sometimes we add Monday too (a day off for artists in Estonia). I, personally, prefer long days. If I have six shifts per week, then I prefer that I have two long days and then two short days, then I can maximize my free time also.”

Ballet and Opera sets have very different demands when it comes to scenery, however, Ever says one is not harder than the other, it simply depends on that specific performance.

“Currently, the hardest performance for the crew is the opera Lõbus Lesk, with Figaro Pulm coming in close second. They have heavy decorations and they take a long time to build. Figaro is also a long opera which means we finish even later than normal.” 

When the theater brought in the new dance floor it was a huge blessing for the ballerinas but it made the stage crew’s job substantially harder. 

“It changed a lot for us. It made a lot of ballets much harder. For example, we often have to roll props and pieces of the set onto the stage, but the dance floor is elevated, and things get stuck. It raised a lot of problems. Our floor comes in little pieces, that we have to put together like a puzzle. It takes a lot of extra time, and extra work to put down the dance floor and take it up every time, but I’ve seen other floors you can roll onto the stage or even floors that are hanging in the ceiling and are brought down when there is a ballet, and attached to the floor. There are different solutions.”

It’s funny how what can be a blessing for some is a curse for another, but something that was a blessing for everyone was the installation of a new computer and fly bar system this past summer.

“Over the past few years, there have been so many problems due to an old computer system. And it didn’t depend on us. We would do everything we could, but if you pushed a button and nothing happens… we couldn’t do anything about that. It added a lot of anxiety when we set up the stage to know that everything should work, but there is always that ‘should’. In 2006, when I joined, they had just installed the old computer system. Before that, they had the hand-pulled fly bars. I didn’t experience that though, luckily. However, we just found out that many of our hanging set pieces are too heavy for the new fly bars. We’ve already had some problems. In one of the operas, the fly bars refused to move the set. It would just say ‘overload’. This new system weighs everything. It knows the exact weight of everything and if it’s over the limit, 300kg, it just won’t move it. So we are having some troubles already, and it’s just the beginning of the season. For the future, there are a lot of unknowns because we don’t know how much the sets weigh until we hang them. So there will be a lot of surprises.”

Though the stage crew plays a vital role in the performance, Ever says he doesn’t get nervous.

“I think we don’t get nervous because the rehearsal period is long enough, that by the time we get to the premiere, it’s a routine. Of course, preparing for a premiere always brings up certain emotions, to put it nicely… but it depends on the production designer. Some come one day and say I want everything like ‘that’, and then we program the computer, and then the next morning, they come and want to change everything. Or they come and sit in the auditorium and only start thinking of what they want then. In that case, it’s more stressful. Others have done their homework, and when they come they have notes on how everything should be and should move. Then you can get a lot done ahead of time. When someone comes and their vision is clear it’s a pleasure for us to work.”

With heavy sets can come a lot of danger hazards, but once again, with a good team, it’s not something one has to worry about.

“I’m not afraid of that. Most of our team is pretty experienced and has been working here for a long time. Most of us could do it in our sleep by now. We have a lot of trust in each other. And when something goes wrong we are all on the radio waiting for the stage manager’s orders. The stage manager decides what happens next, but overall, we have quick reactions.”

Even with the crazy hours, and demanding physical labor, Ever says it’s a great job, and really good if you have a family.

“You don’t get into a routine. You always have something new. The tours are interesting; you get to go somewhere new, and on a professional level, you get to see close-up how other theaters work, especially the technical side, and that’s always very interesting. Actually the Estonian tours, to small concert houses, those are always stressful. They are concert houses, not theaters, but we have to make them work like theaters and that’s technically really demanding. But about the job itself, I can’t really criticize anything. Of course, it’s a personal thing. For example, I can’t imagine working Monday through Friday from 9:00-18:00, I just can’t imagine doing that. I really like the job’s schedule; I can sometimes have four days off in a row, depending on the schedule. I really value my free time. Family is very important to me. Of course, working late is demanding, especially if you have to come back the next morning at 8:00 am. But I really really love to spend time with my daughter; as a family, we like to spend time in nature, and working with this schedule gives us the freedom to have that time together.”

As you can see, so much happens to make one show run smoothly. It requires many individuals, like Ever, working together to make it happen. In a world that celebrates individuality and independence, let’s also not forget to celebrate the beauty and creativity that also come from team work and joined forces.

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