technical theatre

The most basic and the most important task of any technician in both music and theatre production is simply wrapping a cable. It may sound basic, but *how* you wrap a cable can actually determine how long it lasts.  Now, most professional for-profit productions do list cable as “consumables”, meaning that they are designed to be thrown out and purchased or manufactured anew if they develop an issue.  But you will catch hell by any Foreperson, TD or SM for wrapping cable in a way that damages it.

There is a correct technique accepted by both IATSE and Teamsters production houses, and that is called the “Over/Under” technique. Trying to describe it in words is maddening, and even I have a hard time trying to tell someone what has become a reflex to me over 20 years.  But, this video by the London School of Sound perfectly shows the way I learned how to wrap cable.

Now, I know what you are saying if this is a new thing to you, or if you’ve been too embarrassed to ask because some asshole stagehand called you out for not knowing such a “basic” thing (And, if any tech does pull that, they are a bad person and shouldn’t be on the gig, FYI)

“But, WHY?!??! Why do Techs gotta make EVERYTHING so hard and, well, dramatic!!??”

Excellent Question!

It all comes down to how the cable is constructed.  The cable itself is actually made up of various different wires (which is why we don’t call a cable a “wire” on a show, because they technically mean two different things).  The wires in a cable, such as a balanced XLR cable, are actually wrapped around one another, like this:

Now you see that the wires are actually wrapped AROUND one another! This means that the cable, once covered in shielding, it going to want to twist a certain way, because the cable is tensioned around one another (usually counter-clockwise).  This means if you try to wrap it like your extension cord you use for your Christmas lights, it is going to get kinked up, and the wires inside will start binding against one another because by just wrapping it over your arm like a garden hose is going to force those cables to bind and twist in a way that is unnatural. 

In short: You end up forcing them against one another until they simply break.

Yep. Wire itself is just thin bits of copper (anywhere from 22 to 10 gauge thick, with the bigger the number being the thinner the wire), and it doesn’t take much to bend them out. Just like when you shove your earbuds in your pocket without making sure they are coiled up nicely. 

So, when you wrap Over/Under, you are actually alternating the coil of the cable to match the natural way the cable wants to go (this is called the “lay” of the cable). When you get the over/under technique down, you will feel that the cable naturally wants to coil that way, and it takes no effort.  When you wrap a coil just one over the other like a home extension cord, you can feel the cable actually twist and want to fight you.

Also, to know if you got it right, all you have to do is take one end of the cable, and then throw the rest of it out away from your body. If you did it right the cable will FLY out of your hands and land straight and true right on the deck, making you look like a badass stage ninja!

It may take a lot of practice, but eventually you will literally do it in your sleep.  Just like any motor action, it just takes practice! And, you will find that many professional houses still have people who cannot coil cable correctly (these tend to also be the know-it-alls who will give new techs trouble, ironically).  Master fast, accurate cable wrapping and you will save the band or the venue a TON of money in cable costs, and it will make you more attractive too!  Trust me.

One of my favorite little backstage things is when people recognize someone else’s job as more important than their own and move the fuck out of the way.

Anticipated or not, we’ve all been there. You’ll be meandering back to the dressing rooms to rest your feet before the next scene when you see the prop runner bolting toward you. Turning, you instinctively hug the wall just as they fly past. You go on your way.

Or you have just descended the stairs when, “Fuck!” Before you know it you’ve turned around and every actor ascending to make their entrance pins themselves to the rail while you pound up the stairs. You accidentally bump into a guy on the way, but you both forget the encounter.

Or that moment every show when you step to the side with your arms out. Seconds later, an actress drops her prop in your hands as she dashes to her quick change.

It’s (usually) wordless, instead relying on bounding feet and focused eyes to communicate that their job is more important than yours in that moment. Knowing theatre is full of mishaps, we rarely follow up or know what it was about, but trust that it was all to serve the show.

Was thinking about this the other day...

What would a group of technicians be called? I made a joke that a group of electricians would be called a “charge”. But what about riggers or scenic painters or sound techs or carpenters or stagehands in general? 

I feel like a group of sound techs could be called a “squawk” or something. And a group of carpenters could be called a “smash”. 

But let’s hear your ideas. What would you call a group of any theater professionals?