9 Chapter 9: Technical Theater

Technical Theater

As we continue our journey through the world of the theater, we will first examine the foundation work that goes on before a performance. Technical theater requires specialized, technical skill sets that help transport us into another time and/or place. While it’s true that at its most basic, theater requires only one performer and one person as audience, we generally expect a fuller, more complex experience.

“The first task many technicians, designers and stage managers take on when starting work on a new show is a script breakdown. The breakdown is a scene by scene (and often page by page) analysis of the technical requirements of a script. The specific layout of a breakdown and the information it contains will vary from technician to technician depending on the person’s preferences and the needs of their position… “One of the first breakdowns many technicians create is an actor/scene breakdown. This breakdown charts who is on-stage for every page of the script. This knowledge assists many people to do their jobs well.

  • The stage manager will use this scheduling rehearsals as they know who is needed when.
  • The costume designer will use it to estimate how much time there is for possible costume changes.
  • It helps the scenic designer determine how many actors a specific set must accommodate.
  • It allows the prop department to figure out when they will hand individual actors their props.
  • It helps the back-stage staff determine how much time they will have between scenery, or costume changes, and the order of those changes so that they can plan efficiently.
  • It assists the sound designer to determine which mics need to be on when. Additionally, if actors are sharing body mics, It allows the sound team to plot when the changes will happen.

“Before anyone can create a breakdown, they need to read the play from beginning to end. All plays are different, and technicians will have to modify the standard format based on the needs/requirements of their production. For example, in some plays (or in some productions), one actor may play multiple characters…

“Musicals, while often broken into scenes, often merit special consideration. Additional requirements for a moment may be brought about due to a song or dance section. Often, when breaking down a musical, I treat a song (or dance) as its own scene. It will have additional special rehearsals (music/choreography) and may involve additional performers not specifically listed in the script. Sometimes a director or choreographer will add additional performers for a dance, or to enhance the vocal qualities of a song. Sometimes these performers are not on stage but are singing from off-stage. They are still needed for rehearsals, and if they are singing off-stage, it means they cannot also be doing a costume change or appearing on-stage…

“Some plays, especially Elizabethan plays (like those by William Shakespeare), and large scale musicals will have many small, one-scene roles. While a high school or a college may cast a unique and individual actor for each role, professional companies often try to use as few actors as possible. This means that a small one-scene role in the first scene, may be played by the same actor who plays a different one-scene role in the third scene. Sometimes a director will try to assign the actors to multiple roles so that some artistic statement is made to the audience. For example, in the musical ‘Little Me’ the leading lady has a series of husbands and boyfriends throughout the show. Traditionally, one actor plays all of the men in her life. In this case the breakdown will allow a director and production team to see if this symbolic double casting is possible. Sometimes it is merely a matter of filling all the small roles with as few people as possible to make the budget work. Again, the breakdown will allow this doubling to be determined…

“The general skills needed for any of the careers or sectors have many things in common. Workers need to be dead-line oriented, as most productions have firm timelines that cannot be altered. Critical thinking and analysis are much needed skills. Almost every project in the field is unique and technicians and designers alike must discover the best way of reaching a project’s goal. Creative problem solving is a trait successful practitioners have in common. With every project being unique, there are no guaranteed solutions to the problems that are presented. Technicians draw on their vast experience of what worked in the past that can be adapted to be a solution to the current problems. Clear communication and collaboration round out the necessary skills. No technical theatre project is ever handled by one person on their own. Collaboration with many people is the norm, and successful collaboration requires clear written and verbal communication skills.”


When watching the videos, take note of what each department is responsible for—like any finely tuned operation, each area must know its function and carry it out in conjunction with the other departments.

Introduction to Various Departments in Technical Theater

1. Overview

(3:49 min.)

2. Set Design

“The scenic designers breakdown will include required scenery that is mentioned in the script, and any other special requirements. The scenic designer will use this to discover the requirements of the set, of any particular set pieces, and then will develop many drawings to detail what the set will look like. Most of these drawings will be in-scale drawings, which means that a certain measurement on the drawing equals a certain measurement in real life…Scenic designer drawings will include many things, incorporating details on each and every set piece that must be built by the scenery or prop shops.”


(12:16 min.)

3. Lighting

“The electrics crew, led by the master electrician, will examine the light plot to make sure they have all the color, gobos, lights, and power cable indicated by the light plot. They will get all the equipment together…on the day of the load-in, when the lights are installed in the theatre. It is important that the correct light is installed, [that they] are placed correctly, and pointed in the correct direction. The crew will work to power all the lights…After the lights are hung, all the color and gobos need to be installed. Once all the lights are plugged in, the master electrician will work with the board operator to patch the lights in the lighting control desk. Patching is the process of connecting the address that controls the fixture to its assigned channel number…

“Once everything is working, the designer will come in to focus the show. Focus is a process where each light is turned on and under the direction of the lighting designer will point each light where it is supposed to be.”


(1:59 min.)

4. Properties

“Stage properties, or ‘props,’ are those items that are not permanently attached to the scenery, or costumes, that add to the visual picture of the shows. If that definition seems a bit vague, you may have discovered why props are such a varied and interesting section of technical theatre. Props can be divided into the following categories by their use in the final show: “Set Props / Furnishings: These are large items that are rarely, if ever, moved by the cast in the course of the show. These include tables, chairs, settees, etc.

      • Set Dressing: These are items that are not touched by the actors but complete the look of the set. These include books on a bookcase, pictures on a wall, fancy plates in a china cabinet, etc.
      • Hand Props: These are items carried by and used by the actors in the course of stage directions or stage business. These include such things as a cell phone an actor uses, a coffee mug they drink from, a journal in which they take a note, etc.
      • Costume Props: These are items that are not generally considered clothing, but would be designed by the costume designer and worn by the actors. These include hats, eye glasses, wallets, pocket watches, etc.
      • Some props have additional requirements which they must meet. These additional categories of props are a description in addition to any item above.

“Practical Props: Any item that is a practical prop is also one of the other categories listed. A practical prop is one that must perform its real-world function. For example, a cell phone (hand prop) that an actor needs to hold and imagine that they are using to make a call is not practical. However, if that cell phone needs to ring on cue, it is now a practical hand prop. Similarly, a lamp that sits on the stage is set dressing, until it is determined that it must also turn on. Generally, if the prop must light up or make a noise, especially if cued somehow from off stage, it is considered a practical prop.

“Consumable Props: Like practical props, consumable props fit into an additional category. A consumable is one that is ‘used up’ over the course of one or more performances. Food that is eaten by the cast on stage is an example of a consumable prop, as are letters that are torn to pieces by the cast. If a show has a practical flashlight, its batteries and lamp would be considered consumable.

“Rehearsal Props: Often the ‘real’ props are not available for the rehearsal period. In those cases where the actors need certain props to rehearse, but do not have access to the real prop, a substitute, or rehearsal prop, is acquired. Rehearsal props need to be approximately the same size and weight as the real prop, but are generally a cheap substitute that does not have the correct look. For example, even though a play may be set in the 1800s, the cast could rehearse with a modern composition book instead of a period diary, assuming the composition book was approximately the same size as the final prop will be.

“One of the most confusing things about props is that an item, such as a hat, may be in different categories depending on the show. For example, if the hat is attached to a mannequin in a window and never touched by the cast, it might be considered furnishings. In another show, the hat may be hanging on a hat stand, but not used by the cast, making it set dressing. [In] yet another show, an actor, playing a maid, might hand the hat to another actor who carries it off stage with them, making it a hand prop. In a final example an actor might wear the hat, making it a costume prop.

“Another confusing layer is what department will supply that hat. As the costume department often has more hats in their storage, they may supply that hat regardless of its use in the show. Props may be supplied by the props department, the scenery department or the costume department depending on the prop and the production team. Some props may take collaboration between departments. For example, a table lamp may be supplied by the scenery department but may be wired and made practical by the electrics department. In all cases, clear communication between departments, facilitated by the stage manager, is essential. Often all the designers and department heads will meet to examine the prop lists developed by each department and the stage manager. At this point they will collaborate on who will supply each prop.”

Properties Department: 2 Stories


(7:13 min.)

An Overview of the Prop Department—The National Theatre (1:22 min)

5. Costumes

“The work of costumes in theatre can be divided into two separate groups. The first group is the costume construction crew. These artisans are responsible [for] turning the Costume Designers’ renderings into working costumes. More to our focus of this text is the costume crew for production. Perhaps the best resource for understanding this work is to watch the video under Additional materials called ‘A Day in the life of the dresser at the British theatre.’ The head of the production crew is called the Wardrobe Supervisor. In olden days this job was termed ‘Wardrobe Master’ or ‘Wardrobe Mistress.’ The crew members are generally called Dressers.

“The Wardrobe Supervisor supervises the dressers. He or she will also maintain a repair and cleaning schedule for all the costumes. The dressers report to the wardrobe supervisor, and generally focus on all costumes for specific groups of characters/actors. They will make sure that all the costumes are in show ready condition, including spot cleaning, pressing, and minor repair work. Dressers will assist performers with any unusual or difficult costumes. One of the other major issues for costume crew members.

“Quick changes are becoming a major feature (or challenge) of modern productions. As theatre pieces become more film-like, or are done with smaller casts, there are increasing needs for quick changes. A quick change is when an actor has to do a major costume change in a very limited amount of time. Generally, there is not enough time for the actor to return to his or her dressing room, and the change has to happen just off-stage, or in some instances, even onstage just behind the set. To happen effectively, quick changes take extensive preparation and rehearsal.

“In preparation for the quick change, the dresser should have all the costume pieces that the actor will need to change into. In some cases, where time is especially tight, the dresser and prop crew will need to coordinate so that the actor’s props can be brought to the place where he or she is changing. The costume pieces need to be prepared to make putting them on quickly possible…It is possible that an actor will be discarding a prop that was in a pocket or bag into the laundry basket, so it is important to keep a look out and return those props to the prop crew…The actor should proceed directly to the quick change area, unbuttoning, or removing any items that they can safely undo. Once they get to the booth, the dresser and the actor should work together according to the plan they rehearsed. After the change is complete, the dresser should give the actor one final look over to make sure everything is correct. After the actor has moved back to the stage, the dresser should clean up after the change, hanging up the costumes and preparing for the next change. The costume designer and the wardrobe supervisor will have worked out the quick change details, and will run it with the actor and dresser several times. If either the actor or the dresser has some suggestions of how to make it faster, they should voice them. Of course, the final call of how to do it should be that of the costume designer.”



  1. Integrative Technology

(11:15 min)

Text excerpted and adapted from: Boltz, Christopher R. Technical Theatre Practicum: THEAT 186A v.1 (College of the Canyons, February 26, 2019.) 5, 16–22, 30–43. (CC BY 4.0) https://www.canyons.edu/_resources/documents/academics/onlineeducation/TechnicalTheatrePracticumV1.pdf


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