‘No’ Problem

Blue pen-and-ink drawing of busy shapes

Article by Ariel; Image by Doreen
Published April 2022

I don’t generally write what I consider “opinion pieces” but here’s an opinion that every theatre technician I know agrees may as well be a fact: theatre has a ‘no’ problem. Or rather, theatre has a problem with saying ‘no.’ In our pursuit of art and in the name of collaboration, we are taught to disappear that word from our vocabularies and from our attitudes. Often this disappearance is in the name of collaboration, but what effect does that have on the people involved?

This idea seems to stem from the birth of the technical aspects of the entertainment field as a necessity to follow-through the design and direction by way of the physical elements of a show. How often do we talk about our jobs in terms of serving the show, the script, and the director and artistic director as the captains of a creative vision? But this origin means we as technicians enter the room from a position of lesser authority and aren’t often welcomed as collaborators of equal value. Design poses an interesting grey area where designers are considered collaborators but still subject to serve the “overall vision” held by the director and facilitated by the artistic staff. Their resistance to hearing “no” has the same effect of ignoring boundaries set for both worker safety and budget, but because of their place in the process there is an opportunity to be reigned in by the director, production manager and artistic director. But so often that failure to respect boundaries from the production department waterfalls from the very top of our artistic departments. This is the hierarchy so clear to those of us at the bottom of that ladder, a hierarchy that is not only explicitly classist but also rooted in white, patriarchal capitalism where the value of the product designed by those on top is exponentially more than that of the workers creating that product.

Now I am not by any means an expert on intersectional marginalization, being white myself. But if any of us have been listening for the last two years at least, it is obvious that if those of us who are privileged are being crushed by the weight of unreasonable demand from those making production decisions then it is no wonder that companies have trouble hiring BIPOC folx into technical fields. Not to mention that marginalized identities have barriers at entry to negotiating pay and benefits as well as saying no to unsustainable or abusive conditions.

I speak personally when I say that this weight is in fact crushing, and that in the end those who bear the weight are those of us who are heard and paid least. It starts as early as scheduling a season and refusing to listen to the voices even of the technicians allowed into the room (department heads or supervisors) when they say that certain time demands and show spacings aren’t feasible. People who should know their department’s skills and timetable best of all are so often completely ignored when they point out that while two shows may never overlap, when processes are placed too close together their crews may need to simultaneously strike, build, and load in under such close time constraints that crew members work insane amounts of overtime with little to no time off. No show is worth the amount of physical and emotional exhaustion and often injury dealt by working three consecutive 70 hour weeks.

From a more holistic viewpoint, I’m aware it may be frustrating to immediately hear a blanket ‘no’ from a collaborator during the artistic process – especially if one is unable to emotionally separate oneself from the work. Collaborators setting boundaries may feel deliberately stifling when one doesn’t understand or refuses to listen to the reasons behind that ‘no.’ “Well you’ve done that before for this show;” “this company did this for another show I worked on.” Is the schedule different here? Is that demand more difficult because of the space, the access to materials, the size of the labor pool? And are you really being a good collaborator if your artistic vision trumps worker protection? So many times I’ve asked a supervisor, “Why is this happening this way?” and the response is the same: “When we met, I stated that this wouldn’t be possible within this timeline/with our resources/without these concessions but they refused to hear me.”

What baffles me is that when I studied design at NYU, we were taught that constraints and boundaries were what made design interesting. They were the turning point of being collaborative, and often in accepting the ‘no’ and being willing to re-envision what we’ve originally created, we create better and more inspired design work. Which, on not much of a tangent, is why it is so important to have as many different voices in the room as possible – art with diverse input and therefore diverse boundaries is always better art. And I think that emphasis on the technical production and design side of collaboration is why we are so often taught as students not to say no. Or sometimes, how to say no without saying it – bargaining tactics that we all are either taught or picked up along the way as a necessary tool to set more subtle boundaries without being accused of stifling creativity.

It is worth noting that it often feels like the artistic side of our companies refuse to acknowledge the effect of scope creep on what is feasible in a production. It adds a level of complexity to our boundary setting as well as our communication where a ‘yes’ two weeks ago may now be a ‘no’ with tech rehearsals looming. The problem here is that a ‘no’ from a props master, because a massive build is added a week before load in, may be ignored by a director for whom rehearsals only started two weeks ago and they are “still exploring.” Except that now that build is an entire weekend worked by their props team who already had 3 builds to go due to a shortened process. When decision-makers are not cross-educated or refuse to listen to the experience of others, then it’s no surprise that resentment brews in those most affected.

In the end, the resistance towards hearing ‘no’ in theatre is something that does irrevocable damage to its workers, especially the technicians. As we pull ridiculously long hours and put ourselves in danger to create the impossible, we are lauded for our dedication and technical wizardry while the damage to us is blatantly ignored. The reason these companies can ignore the build up of overtime is because we are usually the lowest paid, that time and a half rate much closer to a living wage and still nowhere close to what those in artistic and administration get paid. (Even if many of them are unwilling to talk about that.) It is incredibly clear that because we create physical products, our skills are considered less specialized despite our graduate degrees, decades of experience, incredible problem-solving creativity and integral importance to the actual production of our artform.

What I discuss here is how we perceive worthiness in our field. Who gets listened to, who gets to set boundaries that are respected, and who suffers for the relentless push to create without willingness to concede to the needs of others? When first writing this article, I agonized over feeling very much the least qualified to unpack the complexities of a problem that manifests in every aspect and every level of our industry since its inception, and affects marginalized identities exponentially. However, that is the distillation of what I write here about – our perception of who has worth is perceived, and in theatre the perception of our technical staff’s worth is not only horribly warped, but keeps us from setting the boundaries necessary for worker sustainability. Until there is a change made on the artistic and administrative level, our industry will continue to hemorrhage skilled artisans, especially those who are most lacking in privilege.  

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