Working behind the scenes, students make Staller work

(This story was originally published for The Statesman on April 21, 2013.)

The Staller Center at Stony Brook University is home to approximately 500 shows per year. There is something new to see nearly every weekend, and with so many shows coming and going, the sets need to be changed, the stage needs to be readied and the lights need to be set.

There is a lot of theatrical magic happening on the various stages of the Staller Center, but the stage changes take a little more elbow grease than fairy dust.

When the performers are done taking their bows and the attendees leave, the stagehands come and get ready for the next show. They climb 50-foot ladders with even longer cable wrapped around their shoulders. They unload and reload sets in and out of trucks. They lift boxes and trudge lights up and down every inch of Staller’s stages.

But for the Staller Center, not all stagehands are professionally trained. Many do not have any knowledge of what it takes to prepare a stage for a performance. Many are just students looking for a job.

For Heather Young, the physically demanding job of being a stagehand at the Staller Center was the perfect place to make some extra cash.

“I love it. It’s honestly the best campus job out there,” Young said. Young is a sophomore from Orange County, N.Y. She is studying biochemistry and has no plan to make a career out of working in the theater. “You’re active and constantly doing stuff. And the people are wonderful.”

Young has been working as a stagehand since her freshman year. She learned about the job through a friend in her freshman seminar class. But being a stagehand is nothing knew for her: she was a member of stage crew for all four years of high school and was president of the Audio Visual Club in her senior year.

“I was a super, super, super shy, sit-in-the-corner, wear-black-all-day, kind of person,” Young said. “It really got me out of my shell. It made me who I am today.”

Young had no experience with going to the theater before joining her high school’s AV Club.

“I don’t think I had ever seen a theatrical production before that,” Young said. “My parents weren’t really into it. It wasn’t something that was ever really on the radar.”

For not being on the radar, the job has benefitted Young in more ways than just making her more outgoing. She described the job as being extremely physically demanding.

“It’s not a typical desk job,” Elizabeth Silver, production manager at the Staller Center, said. “We’re going to make you work.” Silver was a student at SBU in the mid-1980s and has been working at the Staller Center for 25 years.

The physicality of the job does not deter Young, though.

“There are tedious parts,” Young said. “But my experience has been completely and utterly positive.”

Silver hires students to work as stagehands because she likes to teach people who have even just a slight interest in theater.

“We don’t write them off because they don’t know the right way of a wrench in the first five minutes they get here,” Silver said. “We don’t care if you don’t know, we’ll teach you.”

Silver’s style of managing leans towards the educational side. She would rather have someone learn something than have someone come in already knowing everything there is to know.

“I can be one of those bosses that’s keep up, shut up and stay out of my way. But I’m not,” Silver said. “I nurture potential because that student can become your right-hand man.”

Young has become another appendage for Silver.

“She’s energetic, she listens, she watches,” Silver said. “She’s one of those students you want to mold and make 20 of them. She’s on time, she asks questions, she wants to learn. Normally you look for just a spark of that and she has all of it.”

Young also works as a stagehand for the Wang Center. She has more room to grow there, Silver said, as the crews are smaller and she is able to take more control.

“She’s gained more confidence as a stagehand because of working at Wang,” Silver said. “She’s grown because of them.”

Young plans on working as a stagehand for the remainder of her college career but does not plan to pursue it professionally.

“It’s a field that’s very difficult to make a living in unless you are faultless and I know personally I am not faultless,” Young said. “I would love to go into it, but not as a career. It’s very physically exhausting and I can’t see me doing that up until my 50s or 60s.”

She wants to be a medical doctor with a Ph.D.

“I highly doubt I’ll be able to do that,” Young said. “You have to have insane scores on the MCATs and I’m barely even competitive for med school as it is.”

She is also considering becoming a doctor of osteopathic medicine. Doctors who specialize in osteopathic medicine practice a form of health care that utilizes the body’s natural processes to help it heal itself.

While it is not the career that she plans on pursuing, being a stagehand has given Young a home.

“It was something that I joined and it was all the weird kids,” Young said. “It was the kids who did video games and didn’t fit in anywhere else and it was my family. I love it.”