Cole Guinn, the assistant carpenter with Pacific Northwest Ballet, was setting up for a show in March 2020 when the announcement came — all gatherings of more than 50 people were banned under coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions.
“We’re done. Everyone’s going home,” the technical director announced. That was the last time many of the crew in that room would work for the next year.
Downtown on the same day, Nick Farwell, stage operations supervisor at ACT Theatre, rushed around all eight floors of the theater, unplugging equipment and putting the entire building into hibernation. Since then, he too has been in a sort of hibernation — waiting for work to come back, surviving on unemployment and doing whatever he can to bring in a little income.
The first wave of Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 banned gatherings of more than 250 people, putting thousands of stagehands out of work instantly. Thousands more followed days later, when gatherings of more than 50 people were banned. Eventually, live entertainment was prohibited altogether.
Now, 14 months later, theater productions and live entertainment remain mostly dormant as the fight to contain the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Some entertainment professionals have managed to hobble along with Zoom performances or other creative options.
But stagehands, the invisible artisans and technicians whose behind-the-scenes work manifests itself in the form of onstage pyrotechnics, dreamy lighting, enchanting sets and eerie sound effects, are still out of work, and they don’t see reprieve coming any time soon.
Jennifer Bacon, president of the local chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, estimates that 90% of IATSE Local 15 members have not worked since March 2020. She worries that the cumulative effect of being jobless, and dealing with the social, economic and emotional pressures of the pandemic, has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of the more than 1,000 workers on the local’s hiring list who rely on a thriving entertainment industry to pay their bills.
Working long, odd hours together in close quarters backstage, stagehands often see their co-workers more than their own families. So when they lost work last spring, they also lost their closest social relationships, leaving many feeling isolated. Industry leaders say they’re now seeing what could be a mental health crisis within the stagehand community.
The mental health toll
A stagehand giving away their tools could be a warning sign that they need immediate help, says Lori Rubinstein, executive director of Behind the Scenes, a charity for stagehands and entertainment technology professionals.
“The only reason a stagehand should be giving away their tools is if they’re retiring or they’re going into a completely different industry,” said Rubinstein. “Otherwise, if you hear of someone giving away their tools, start asking questions.”
The warning sign is adapted from general suicide prevention guidance to watch for people who are “wrapping up loose ends” by saying goodbye to loved ones or giving away treasured belongings. Rubinstein has given more than 50 suicide prevention presentations since April 2020.
Rubinstein began incorporating the warning sign into her talks on suicide prevention to stagehand groups after she heard about someone who gave away their tools right before they died by suicide. After hearing this in one of her talks, an audience member showed everyone the tool kit he keeps with him — a memento of the co-worker who had charged him with giving away those tools before he also took his own life.
Rubinstein says she has now heard many more stories like this.
A stagehand’s tools are sacrosanct because the work is much more than a job. It’s a way of life.
“You look out at the audience when you’re working at the opera and you see people in their 80s tearing up because they’re just so swept away. It’s very rewarding,” said PNB’s Guinn. “We get so much satisfaction, and I personally get a lot of pride out of the joy this brings to other people’s lives with what we do.”
Making that magic entails long work days, strenuous physical labor or sometimes waiting hours for a single cue to make a lighting change. But many stagehands say working with their colleagues and watching their hard work transform into appreciative oohs and ahhs from the audience is a reward unto itself.
“Sometimes it’s absolute drudgery and just heinous,” said ACT’s Farwell. “But at the end of it, you’ve all gone through it together, so it’s better. It’s different.”
Many stagehands were attracted to this work because it’s different. They didn’t feel like they fit in traditional jobs or social circles. But as a stagehand, you might work “on the bounce” — working different productions at different venues by the month, week or even day — and have multiple employers over a few months.
For instance, IATSE Local 15 member and stagehand Laurel Blaine says she had to file 12 W-2 tax forms last year even though she only worked two months.
The long hours, high pressure and financial uncertainty of stagehand work has always led to mental health challenges, and that’s why Behind the Scenes launched a mental health and suicide prevention initiative. In 2019, the organization conducted a survey of more than 3,000 “entertainment technology” workers and found that over 90% of respondents experienced anxiety and over 80% experienced depression — and this was before the pandemic.
The pandemic added social isolation to the mix.
“There’s also this incredible camaraderie that happens, being up all night doing a load-out. … It’s more than a job, it’s a life,” said Diana Gervais, who retired last year after a 45-year career as the 5th Avenue Theatre’s prop master.
“I don’t like all those guys, but I certainly do love them, because they’re my brothers,” she said. “That’s why losing that makes you feel isolated from your family. I think that’s where a lot of the depression comes from.”
Behind the Scenes is currently developing another survey. Since COVID-19 began, Rubinstein says she’s heard from even more stagehands who are experiencing anxiety and depression, and has noticed a rise in the suicide rate within the stagehand community.
Locally, other industry leaders and workers concur with Rubinstein’s observation, saying they’ve seen more of their colleagues struggle with mental health challenges.
“I know that nobody is sleeping well. I know that everyone is stressed and making too much bread and eating too much and drinking too much,” Farwell said. “Everyone is distracting themselves as much as possible in whatever healthy or unhealthy way that is.”
This past year, international IATSE leadership asked local chapters to adopt mental health resources and programming for their members. At IATSE Local 15, Blaine oversees a buddy system that enlists volunteers to check in with other members who are going through particularly difficult times. Those volunteers report back if they are concerned that a member is in crisis, and this sets in motion rapid measures to get them professional help.
In the last year, Blaine has received more than a half-dozen calls about members in crisis. In one instance, Blaine says, help came too late, and two local theater community members died. They were able to get help for the others.
Blaine says other IATSE chapters have also reported an increase in mental health crises and suicide cases among their membership.
“Every so often, someone isn’t at a meeting because something happened,” said Blaine.
Gov. Jay Inslee pausing the state’s reopening plan this week underscored the fact that stagehands might be staring down another year of employment insecurity.
“It’s hard to be encouraging as far as the work is concerned. It’s hard to put your mind there because we don’t know how long this is going to be,” said Bess Sullivan, IATSE Local 15 vice president. “If I even think about it, I get too upset to even talk. … The level of loss is too much. It’s a lot of grief.”
What the future holds
No one knows for sure when the theater industry will return to full strength, but most agree things will look different on the other end.
For one, the future will be smaller.
Although performance venues can open at reduced capacity, stagehands say smaller audiences mean smaller productions, which in turn means fewer jobs until things reopen completely.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to look when we come back,” said Farwell. “We’ll always need lights, we’ll always need costumes, we’ll always need sets, we’ll always need sound. So that will require some labor, but I don’t think we’ll be using all of the venues in our building. … We’ll be definitely not at full strength.”
Others say the future presents more questions than answers.
The 2020 theater shutdown motivated some stagehands to retire early. After five months of waiting for work to return, Gervais retired two years earlier from the 5th Avenue Theatre than originally planned.
“It was a tough decision,” said Gervais, 65. “Because I was too young for Medicare and [full] Social Security.”
Gervais worries particularly for colleagues who are too young to retire but old enough to face difficulties in retraining for a new career.
“Who the hell is going to hire a 58-year-old person to do something that somebody who has years to offer [can do]?” Gervais said. “To be faced with that kind of challenge must be terrifying for these people in their 50s. I can only imagine what they’re going through and the stress and depression that must come with that.”
According to IATSE 15 president Bacon, many older stagehands retired early due to the pandemic. That, paired with the loss of those who’ve started new careers out of necessity, could result in a loss of institutional knowledge for the industry.
“You’re losing the opportunity for the new generation to learn before the older generation leaves,” said Bacon.
But there’s no guarantee that newer stagehands will stick around to see the reopening of theaters either.
Some stagehands have already moved on: Lighting technicians have taken new jobs as electricians, prop artists have opened their own Etsy shops.
“Since [theaters] are not going to come back all at once, there’s going to be a period of time where there’s limited work and that work is going to go to the most senior folk,” said Bacon. “If there’s not enough work to make a living off of it, [newer stagehands are] going to prioritize other work.”
But the vacancies, Guinn says, could create unique opportunities for newcomers.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of fresh faces,” Guinn said. “I think we have an opportunity to do some culture shift in a positive way, get a little phoenix coming out of these ashes and have a more equitable workplace, to deal with the fact that theater is a really white industry.”
Bacon says IATSE Local 15 is working on “building partnerships to try to open pathways for workers who are traditionally underrepresented in our field,” and has reached out to several local youth-centered organizations.
“I think there’s an opportunity for us to go back and make the spaces we were in better places than the ones we walked away from,” said Guinn.
In the meantime, many are just trying to keep their heads above water.
“We’re an industry of people that have to fix big problems in the spur of the moment,” said Guinn. “We’re pretty imaginative and good in a bind, but you can only live on adrenaline for so long.”