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What you should know on your first gig

So you've been to film or production or recording school and want to work in the entertainment industry? You've learned all the high end equipment, know all the terms and their definitions, and now you want to be the next big Recording or Directing star. Well, I have news for you. Your first gig will not have you mixing on the latest board or directing Brad Pitt. Your first gig will have you unloading trucks on a hot and smelly dock. Or maybe you have no experience at all, and a buddy got you your first gig thinking you could make some extra cash doing a little manual labor that doesn't require any skills or training. No matter what your background is, there are Things You Need To Know.

Gig Etiquette
Basic Skills and Tricks

Gig Etiquette

Here are some rules that you should follow while on jobsite. I don't care how important you think you are or how unimportant you think this job is, your presence on site affects many other people and your ability to perform your job can hurt or help dozens (if not hundreds) of other people. You have a responsibility to the safety and ease of all other stagehands and techs involved.

  1. Get all the appropriate information when you are signed up for the gig. This means get the name of the venue, the EXACT location of where you are meeting (loading dock 2, ballroom C, etc.), the name of your Crew Chief or Lead and a cell phone number for him, the Call Time, the name of the Client or Show, what type of gig it is (Corporate Load In or Concert Strike, Outdoors, etc.), what department you will be in, and any tools or particular attire you are required to bring. If you have to, write this list of important information out and put it next to your calendar or phone to remind you to ask about them when you get a call. And write the answers down!

  2. DO NOT schedule any activity for the same day as your gig! Until you have worked in the business for a while and have developed a feel for how long each type of gig usually lasts, you must be prepared for ending times to change, because they always do. If you absolutely cannot keep your day clear after a scheduled gig, inform the Business Agent or the person who scheduled you as to what time you have to leave to make sure it's OK, and then inform your Crew Chief or Lead as soon as you get to the job site. Requesting to leave early on a regular basis will make you very unpopular and you will cease to get calls if you do this too often.

    While we're on the subject, you should also not schedule work for early the next morning if your gig is scheduled to go late into the night. You might think you can do fine on only 3 hours of sleep, but A) the late night gig might run overtime, making you late and B) sleep deprivation impairs your ability to think clearly and impairs your reaction times and you are risking other people's lives. You might not care if you feel bad or if you burn out after only a few years of working too hard, but the rest of us do care how alert you are, because we are the ones who will pay for your inattention. Just don't.

  3. Always pack snacks and bottled water because not all gigs will feed you or have snack machines and cafeterias conveniently close by. Also have several dollars in cash (preferably $1s) on hand, just in case.

  4. Check in with your Crew Chief 15 minutes before your Call Time. "Call Time" is the time you are scheduled to start working. That means be in the presence of your Lead or Crew Chief 15 minutes early, not circling the parking lot looking for a space or wandering the halls trying to find the ballroom or the loading dock. If this is your first time working with this particular company (even if you've worked other gigs before), bring a photocopy of your Driver's License and Social Security Card and show up 30 minutes early. That way you won't have to run all over searching for a copy machine and you can finish the paperwork necessary to get you paid! As incentive to show up early, many gigs (especially corporate gigs) will have coffee and sometimes breakfast foods available. If you arrive early enough, you can take your time and enjoy breakfast at the client's expense. Do not leave the room or the venue without checking in with your Lead. Do not leave for the day without signing out with the Lead or the Crew Chief or you will not get paid. Find out if you need to do anything else like invoicing the company for your work or filling out paperwork. If you need to invoice the company, keep a copy of all invoices for your records, including proof of transaction (sent email or fax receipt). You can download a copy of a Blank Freelance Invoice if you do not already have one.

  5. Bring the required tools. As a bare minimum, you should always have the following tools with you:

  6. I also recommend you carry: These are not required, but very helpful. There are department-specific tools that also come in handy, but you'll learn about these as you work more often. Mark your tools so you can identify them.

  7. Wear the appropriate clothes. Unless you are told otherwise, it is safest to arrive in black close-toed shoes, black pants and a black t-shirt, with a pair of shorts and a collared shirt in your bag, just in case (this is another reason for showing up early, so you can change if you need to). Assume you will be doing manual labor when you choose your clothing and bring a "nice" change with you, not the other way around. If you are given a Show Call, make sure your black clothing has no writing on it anywhere. If you are working outdoors, wear khakis, light colors, and natural fibers. When in doubt, ask the person who called you for work. Yes, the dress code is more flexible, and different types of gigs allow different types of clothing. But until you've been around a while, just go with this.

  8. Cell Phones are a No-No.No Cell Phones When you get to the jobsite, turn your cell phone off! It is sometimes acceptable to simply turn it on silent or vibrate, but absolutely DO NOT take a call while on the clock. Do not book work for another gig while on the clock! If you have some kind of emergency and you need to take a call that can't wait for your break, then excuse yourself to the bathroom and take the call in private. If you can't refrain from answering your phone every time it rings, then turn it off and check messages at lunch. Many clients have been known to confiscate cell phones or even kick people off the gig for talking on their phone. Not only is it rude, but it is also dangerous to your fellow stagehands and techs. We want you to focus on the job here and now, not some conversation, and we want both hands and attention free to do your job.

  9. Ask Questions. If you are unsure, don't be afraid to ask. We would rather have you ask how to do something, than have you do it wrong and then we have to go back and redo it.

  10. Jump in and start working. Don't hang back and wait to be told what to do, if you see people working, get right in there and work with them. When in doubt, ask

  11. Don't smoke in the truck or indoors. In some states this is even illegal. Smoking is for breaktimes and not everyone on the crew will smoke. Be considerate of your fellow workers and save the cigarettes for the designated areas and times. If nothing else, having a cigarette in your mouth or hand while working is a safety hazard. Even if you see other people doing it, refrain until breaktime.

  12. A word about female stagehands: Ladies: This is a male-dominated industry and it involves heavy manual labor and competent technical skills. Women need to understand this and need to be able to keep up with everyone else. Sometimes the women will not be able to lift as much as the men, and that's OK because there are some men who aren't as strong as other men too. But women need to put forth the effort to contribute equally to the job. If you are a woman, don't play up the stupid girl routine and expect to get off easy at work, you will quickly offend people of all genders.

    Men: Guys need to understand that women are also there to work and voluntarily choose this business and everything that goes with it. If you are a man, it's courteous to help people who are struggling, but that should be for all genders. Do not ignore other men who could use some assistance and do not constantly take heavy loads away from the women or people who present as women - ask them first if they would like help. Let us do our job! Most female stagehands I know work harder and are just as strong as the males and will take SERIOUS offense at any guy who grabs a heavy load out of her hands or elbows her out of the way to push a heavy box. We know how to ask for help when it's needed. While we're taking about strong women ... guys, don't let it injure your pride if a woman can sling more weight than you can, has more years experience, or has developed a skill you haven't. It takes all of us to put together a show. Let's work together and appreciate everyone for the skills they bring to the production.

    It is usually perfectly acceptable to say "you guys" to a mixed group. It is often offensive to female stagehands to have males apologize for cussing or telling dirty jokes just because a woman is present. We often want to hear them too! Respecting women also means treating women as human beings, which means respecting their preferences - if women say it's OK to swear or tell dirty jokes, then take them at their word and treat them how they want to be treated. Chances are, the women on the crew will cuss more or tell worse dirty jokes than the guys. The bottom line is to see all your coworkers as coworkers first, and their gender (if you must see their gender) last. That goes for foul language and dirty jokes too. Women don't get special treatment just because they're women, and men deserve a little courtesy too. This does not, however, apply to sexist, racist, or otherwise bigoted jokes, slurs, or opinions. Women don't need to be "protected" from swearing and sex talk because they're delicate little flowers, ALL people deserve the right to work in an environment that is not hostile to entire demographics of people. If someone needs a hand, offer it regardless of gender, but do not assume someone can't do something just because of their size or sex. As always, when in doubt, ask people how they would like to be treated and err on the side of gender-neutral courtesy.

  13. Safety on the jobsite. Be aware of your surroundings and observe local safety procedures. Many double-stacked loads should be two-man or four-man lifted. Don't lift something alone if you can lift it with help. Don't carry it if you can push it. Don't push it if you can leave it. Don't deprive yourself of sleep. Take care of your health. Have knee, arm, or back braces for additional support. Keep yourself hydrated and wear hats, sunscreen and sunglasses in the sun. Learn the standard danger calls and don't be afraid to shout out. Remember that the most important piece of safety equipment is carried between your ears ... pay attention!

    If you're working in a theatre, don't hang on the batten! These are the long bars that lower to the stage that we hang lights and drapes and scenery pieces on. You may be asked to put some weight on the batten while the guys on the fly rail add the appropriate counter-weight. Use your hands and keep your head out from over the batten. If anything happens, it could fly up into the air knocking into your chin. I've seen it happen! See how many guys it took to control the runaway batten on the right image? There are more guys hanging on down the line. Always be aware of where your head, arms and legs are and what pieces of equipment are near you and which way they could fall or fly or otherwise move when they're not supposed to move.

  14. Language on the jobsite. With all the misunderstanding of what "political correctness" means, there is a lot of confusion over appropriate language and behaviour in this industry. Stagehands, roadies and technicians use cuss words, foul language, tell off-color jokes, and flirt with everyone, regardless of gender or actual interest. In corporate environments, it is important to keep your voice low and not use this kind of language or joking when the Client can hear. There are some individuals who do not appreciate cussing or sexual innuendo, and if they express a preference for a cleaner environment, you should be respectful of how you treat them. But most of us like to cuss and most of us like off-color jokes and most of us like to flirt outrageously and to tell sexual anecdotes. You should go into this business aware of this fact and learn to understand the context behind things like "political correctness" so that you can make appropriate choices. Things are offensive when they harm others or "punch down", not just because they were arbitrarily assigned "offensive". Cussing and flirting and dirty jokes shouldn't be seen as automatically "offensive", as they often are outside of this industry. They should be evaluated for their relative harm, and most of the time, simply using a swear word or having a little consensual flirty fun with friends at work isn't harmful the way that racist or sexist jokes are.

    It's probably not a good idea to tell the cute little stagehand next to you how you want to fuck her up the ass unless you know her really well and know she appreciates hearing that kind of comment and won't take a swing at you for it, but expect to hear swearing and flirting on the job and you will probably be able to get away with some swearing and flirting yourself. Pay attention to how your Crew Chief and more experienced stagehands behave and try to match their behaviour. It's also not a good idea to cuss out a superior or more experienced worker, even if they are being an asshole. Cussing is best accepted when it's not cussing at someone else. If there is some kind of problem, take that person aside and politely tell them the problem and ask them to cease. If that doesn't work or the person is the Client and you are afraid to offend them, talk to your Lead or Crew Chief. If your Lead or Crew Chief is the problem, talk to the Business Agent or the person who scheduled you. The guys of the Production Company who hired the company *you* are working for may be giving you your orders for the day, but they are not in charge of human resources or personnel issues, so handle problems within the company that hired you.

  15. Under the influence. It should go without saying that you should never be under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs while on the clock, regardless of how well you think you can function while stoned. If you are somehow involved in an accident, even if it was some other person who caused it, you and all others involved will be subject to a drug test and you will be held liable for those results, including termination of your employment and even legal action taken against you. Maybe you really can function better or move faster while on drugs, but if someone else screws up and you get hurt, your drug use will be used against you. Drugs such as cold medicine or prescription medication, and even sleep deprivation are not against the law, but still a bad idea because they impair your critical thinking abilities and your reaction time, no matter how you think you can react. Studies show that sleep deprivation impairs your functioning even worse than alcohol. So protect yourself from unwanted legal action while protecting the rest of us from unsafe behaviour by showing up to work sober, awake, and alert, not under the influence of mood, mind, or behaviour-altering substances (short of necessary prescription medications that do not come with behaviour restrictions that impact your job, such as not operating heavy machinery).

  16. Your Educational Background. People will ask if you have any experience and if you went to school, and if so, which one. Don't swing around your degree until after you've proved yourself to be competent and willing to do the work required, including loading trucks and heavy lifting. Many schools offer a wide range of learning opportunities and some of the latest equipment in the business. But many students have left school with an attitude that really offends the veterans in the business. You may have the information and skills required, but we honestly can't tell just by your degree. The best way to show your stuff and win over the veterans is to be willing to jump in anywhere, any department, no matter how unskilled the job or how manual the labor, without complaining that you are "too good" to be unloading trucks or pushing boxes. While many people are skilled enough to do the higher level jobs and sometimes we will get a gig that doesn't require truckloading, no one is "too good" to help unload a truck.

    One thing that works against you when mentioning school, any school, is that you do not get real-world experience on campus and you will be judged on your abilities on the job, not your book knowledge. You should never utter the phrase, "At my school we always..." to correct someone who has been working in the business longer than you. The shows and productions that are held within the university or tradeschool setting often do not resemble the "real world", even if they have knowledgeable instructors and all the latest equipment. You can ask why the veterans choose one method over another, or you can ask why your school may have taught you another method. But never assume that your education has given you knowledge over and above what the veterans have. Having a degree will not impress most of your coworkers as much as how many gigs you've worked or how long you've been working (we might not look like it, but many of us also have degrees in addition to our decades of experience) and many veterans will hold your lack of experience against you even with a degree.

Basic Skills and Tricks

  1. Stage Directions First thing, you need to know your stage directions. All stage directions are given from the point of standing on the stage looking at the audience. So, if you are standing on the center of the stage and looking at the audience, Stage Left (or SL) is to your left. If you are standing in the audience looking towards the stage, then SL is to your right, because SL is always the same part of the stage no matter what direction you're facing. Memorize the directions in the following image:
    Stage Directions

    I shouldn't have to say that the center of the stage is called "center stage". But I will. "Onstage" means to go whatever direction will take you closer to the center of the stage. "Offstage" means to go whatever direction will take you closer to the wings. If someone tells you to push a case "offstage left" that means to take it to the stage left side, but not on the stage itself. If someone says "downstage right", that means the stage right side of the stage, near the downstage edge, or "front" of the stage.

  2. Truck Loading and Unloading. No matter what your education or background is, you will be in the truck and on the dock at some point. Lift with your legs, not your back, and use a partner or several if it's heavy even if you can do it on your own. We want you to last the whole gig, not to strain your back 5 minutes in because you are showing off how strong you are. Many road cases are top-heavy, so push low down and "foot" things over uneven surfaces. To "Foot" something means to put your foot on the bottom edge of the case on the side you are pushing, then apply pressure to gently lift the front edge of the case off the ground. This will help you push top-heavy cases over uneven surfaces or cables or other bumps in the road. Watch for "riders", which are loose objects riding on top of the case and have a tendency to slide off and hit people pushing the case (called Pushers). "Wheels" refers to any case with wheels that can be used to carry in loose objects without wheels so you don't have to carry them by hand.

  3. Coiling Cable. Most cable should be coiled over-under, but this is a personal preference of your department lead. When in doubt, ask. Over-Under is a method by which you take the end of a cable in your left hand and stretch out a length with your right hand. Bring your two hands together to form a loop in the cable and put the section of cable that is currently in your right hand, into your left hand. Next, stretch out the same length of cable with your right hand again. Bring your hands together again, only this time twist your right hand so it is facing backwards and the cable crosses underneath itself. Pass off this section to your left hand and repeat the process from the beginning, alternating with the "Over" (the first step) and the "Under" (the twisting step).

    Never, never, never coil a cable by wrapping it around your hand and elbow! Even if it's a regular Home Depot extension cord (called an "edison" or "a/c cable"). This is bad for the cable, it destoys the very fine copper lines inside.

  4. Hanging Lighting Instruments. First, hang the instrument so that the long bolt of the C-Clamp is pointing towards you and away from the truss or pipe it's hanging on. Tighten the bolt with a wrench. Hook the safety cable around the truss or pipe (whatever the light is hanging from) in such a manner that it is also connected to the instrument, but keep it loose enough that someone can reposition or tilt the instrument without messing with the safety cable. Unless otherwise specified, hang the instrument straight down and tilt the instrument approximately 45° at the yoke. If the instrument is not a "conventional", like an intelligent or moving light, or a light that cannot be adjusted once it's hung, keeping the safety cable loose and tilting the instrument are unnecessary. Unwrap or untie the power cable and leave it loose (unless you were told to plug it in and you know which circuit it goes to). If it is a Leko or Source Four, pull the shutter handles out as far as they will go without actually removing them from the instrument.
    parcans    parcans    Source Four Shutter

    When the lighting instruments come off the truck already hung on a bar, pipe, or truss, sometimes they are already positioned where they need to be. If you didn't hang the instrument on the bar, pipe or truss yourself, ask before messing with the tilt or shutters.

    For the record, it is always "cable", not "wire", but sometimes "cord", because "wires" are the metal threads inside the sheathing, and if you can see them, they're exposed, and this is a bad thing. The lighting fixture is always an "instrument" or "fixture" and not a "lamp" or "light" because a "lamp" is the thing inside the fixture that makes the "light". Which means that it's always "lamp" and never "bulb". Bulbs are what you plant in the ground in the spring. Got it? A fixture or instrument houses a lamp which makes light and is plugged in by a cable.

  5. Signal Direction. Many instruments do not label which way is the incoming signal and which is the outgoing signal, and will have both male and female ports for daisy-chaining. Or you may be asked to run the cable before either the instrument or the power source is in place and therefore can't check the inputs/outputs before you run the wrong end of the cable 100 feet across the room. To make sure you remember which end goes where, remember this: in Lighting (and usually video), the females carry the power. What this means is, for lighting and video, you will plug the male end of the cable into the source (the wall or the dimmer or the data box) and plug the female into the instrument. When running extension cables, jumpers, multi or soca ( often pronounced sock-o) cable, the rule is the same: the male end goes to the source and the female end goes to the instrument. When daisy-chaining power or data cable, you run the female end away from the start or source of the signal, towards the last instrument in the line. In other departments like audio, sometimes it is the reverse. When in doubt, ask (are you noticing a theme here?). It really sucks to have a whole grid cabled up only to discover it's backwards and you have to re-run it.

  6. Video Screens. There are many different types of video screens, but most commonly you will see a screen with a frame that requires you to unfold each side then bolt the sides together with crank-bolts. There are 2 tricks to screens that, if you don't do them, will announce you as a newbie. First is, when you unfold a piece of the screen frame, at the joint there are little metal flaps that swing open and lock onto a nub that keeps the frame from folding closed again. Most newbies try to use their hands to swing this metal flap into place, often while holding the frame piece in the air. Don't do that. Lay the frame on the ground and step on it near the joint. Yes, step on it. This will help to flatten out the joint and make the metal flap connect with the little nub. Next, take your foot and kick the metal flap until it swings around from its position to the locking position 180° away. Yes, kicking the frame is the PROPER method of assembly.

    Another trick is used when fastening the vinyl screen onto the frame. Start with the bottom edge first! Screens usually are snapped onto the frame. You can tell the bottom edge because it's the only edge that has snaps on both sides of the black matte. 3 of the edges have smooth snap tops, but one edge has painful raised snaps for the purpose of attaching a screen skirt. These are less painful to snap if you fasten this edge first. There are at least 3 different methods of attaching a screen, and they all have their pros and cons, but with all 3 methods, always fasten the bottom edge first. You can either try to fasten all four corners first and then attach the sides, or you can do one whole side at a time, or you can fasten the bottom edge, then unlock the sides of the frame, bend the top of the frame towards the bottom, attach the top of the screen, then fold the frame back down and re-lock, then fasten the sides. Ask your lead or your coworkers which they prefer, because everyone has their own idea of the "best" way to do anything.

  7. Folding Drape. This is a 2 person job. Spread the drape out flat between you and your partner with the "nice" side facing up. You and your partner should be standing opposite each other on the top and bottom so the length (or height) is stretched between you. Check all four corners on the "back" side to see if there is an ID label or sharpie markings. That corner will always stay on the bottom as you fold. You and your partner now pick up your respective corners and bring your hands together, folding the drape in half with the "nice" side folded inside. Hold both corners in one hand and reach for the folded edge. The hand you use to hold the two corners is determined by where the ID tag is. When you hold the corners in one hand and the folded edge in the other and the drape is held parallel to the ground, the ID tag should be on the side facing the ground. Bring the folded edge to the hand with the two corners, folding the drape lengthwise again. Keep folding until it is approximately 18" or 2' wide. Lay the drape on the ground with the ID tag still on the outside, facing the ground. The person without the ID tag will then pick up his end of the drape and walk it all the way to the other person's edge, folding the drape in half. The other person will go to the new folded edge, pick it up and walk it down to the same end, folding it in half again. Continue folding in half this direction until it is more or less square-shaped, with the ID tag visible on the bottom. Flip the folded drape over so the ID tag is clearly displayed on the top of the pile and put the drape in the hamper.

    Occasionally you will find a company who wants the drape rolled and not folded. In this case, fold the drape lengthwise as before until it's about 18" or 2' wide. Lay the drape on the ground, just as before. The person without the ID tag will still take his end all the way to the other end. But instead of the second person picking up the drape at the new fold, the second person will now go to the new fold and begin rolling the drape. The ID tag should still end up clearly displayed on the outside of the roll.

    If you are folding a skirt piece, or other drape with gathers, the proper method is the Accordion fold. Hold one corner in your hand and place your other hand approximate 2' away, both hands at the "top" or the side with the gathers. Fold the corner towards the rest of the drape, using your inside hand as the pivot or fold point, bringing the drape face to face (nice side touching nice side). Using the hand with the corner, now also grab the portion of the drape where your hand ends up, keeping a hold of the corner. This now becomes the new pivot or folding point. Swing your other hand around that is now holding a folded corner, to meet the inside of the drape, this time it will be backside to backside. This will become the next pivot or folding point. Keep switching back and forth like an accordion until it's completely folded and only the "bad" side is visible. Keep the ID tag (if any) visible and place in the hamper or screen box.

    This does not apply to backgrounds, cycs, drops, or any large piece of soft-goods that spans the entire stage (or large portion of it). For these special soft-goods, your department lead will tell you how he likes it folded. If he doesn't ... ask.

  8. Rigging. Rigging is a very specialized department that requires training. You cannot jump into rigging without some form of training because of the extreme safety issues involved (not to mention the insurance nightmare!). So just DON'T touch anything rigging related, leave that to the riggers. Don't mess with shackles or steel cables or spansets (black fabric loops that are used for hanging truss and other objects from the ceiling) or motors or chain or pulleys at all. If someone tells you to attach something that is rigging related because they don't know that you're new, tell them you've never done it before and have them either show you or find a qualified rigger.

  9. Vehicles. Like Rigging, vehicles are an insurance nightmare. You are not qualified to drive any of these vehicles, even if you think you know how. Golf carts are rented vehicles, so just don't drive one. Vehicles like scissor lifts, forklifts, and boomlifts all require you to complete an OSHA-certified training course and be a licensed lift operator. You have to know about weight distribution and load capacity and safety equipment, as well as a number of other important details. You shouldn't even be riding as a passenger in any of the lift vehicles without a safety course of some kind because there are many state laws that require the use of safety harnesses in certain vehicles or above certain heights and if you do not know the local laws regarding safety, and you get caught by OSHA or do damage, or someone gets hurt, you will be paying for that mistake for a long time.
    Lift Vehicles

    You will see many unlicensed stagehands get into scissor lifts especially. Much of the damage to hotels and other equipment is because of an unlicensed stagehand messing around with vehicles and now the company you are working for has to pay for the damages. If someone asks you to drive a lift and you have not completed an OSHA-certified training course, and you do not have your license on your person at that time, DO NOT operate that vehicle. If you would like to learn, let your Lead, Business Agent or head Shop guy know. Many people will be happy to teach you how to drive or tell you where to get licensed.

There are many more skills and techniques and tricks for each department, but these are more advanced and you are not expected to know them on your first day. Although we don't expect brand new people to know anything, knowing these basics will keep most stagehands and technicians from getting annoyed at being saddled with yet more completely green newbies and they might be more willing to teach you the more advanced tricks and tips.

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