We continue our Backstage Access series with Acting Head Carpenter, Jim Constable. We shadowed Jim during the setup of Million Dollar Quartet to get some insights in to the process of setting up scenery.
Q: What is your role at The Centre?
A: I’m the Acting Head Carpenter. On days when there’s a show at The Centre, I supervise the crew that sets up and takes down the scenery. On other days, I do maintenance work on the fly system, seat wagons and other stage equipment. I also do some carpentry work, like building shelves and other custom units, when needed.
Q: Tell me what a day is like during a performance day.
A: We start at about 8AM with a carpentry crew of usually 6-8 people. Depending on the show, the total crew can go up to 70-80 people. We start by unloading the trucks, sorting out the scenery and start setting it up. We hang the soft goods, such as borders and painted drops, on the pipes and build the solid scenery on the stage. For example, the set Million Dollar Quartet is brick walls as this all takes part inside a recording studio. From the audience’s point of view, you see a lot of brick walls, doors and windows, but none of it is actually real. It’s actually made from painted canvas and foam.
Q: What do you like about your job?
A: The variety – no two days are the same. The shows are all slightly different: some are heavy with scenery sitting on the floor, some are heavy with scenery that flies in – meaning it is lowered onto the stage. When something ‘flies’, there’s a lot of scene changes, and the walls that you see from the audience will just ‘fly up’ or ‘fly in’ to make it look different.
Q: What moment in your job stood out for you?
A: I worked for about fifteen years with the National Ballet of Canada and we did tours of Europe, Mexico and Japan. I then spent a few years working on The Phantom of The Opera. It was the shortest thing I ever worked on, but it stood out to me because it was 19 trucks of scenery that we had to move town to town, and the challenge of setting it up and tearing it down over and over again, and coordinating a show crew of about 12 people was interesting.
Q: What experience and qualification would someone interested in this line of work need?
A: There are a number of skills that relate to the actual work, and some to do with my position. One needs a good working knowledge of stage scenery, including building and assembling. Overhead rigging is also a large part of the job. So, safety is a key area of knowledge. Being able to co-ordinate the relationship between the placement or spacing of scenery on the stage and scenery that is hung from our battens is very important.
After all the practical considerations, my job requires the ability to assign tasks and supervise a crew of workers that might number in the dozens. One needs to be able to recognize the various abilities of the members of the crew, and assign work that is suitable to each individual.
The practical qualifications can be learned at any number of theatre schools at our community colleges and universities. One can also learn on the job by working in the many theatre companies throughout Ontario that hire apprentices. Young candidates may want to start in high school, working with the drama and musical associations. The other skills can be taught, to a certain extent, but are also part of a person’s personality and can only be honed over time.