This information is principally designed for new technicians, drama teachers or schools without a dedicated support technician, and has been compiled from questions regularly asked to us. The answers are not intended to be definitive; they are based on comments and personal opinions collated from our members.
With thanks to RB Health & Safety for advising on the Health & Safety content.
School technicians usually manage, provide and supervise all aspects of theatre productions: - lighting, sound, video, costume, props, scenery, rigging, stage management, etc. - as well as supervising and training students who are interested in backstage work, supporting drama lessons and practical exams, and managing the theatre and drama facilities. Often, school theatres also host visiting professional shows, or are let to other organisations during evenings and school holidays.
As well as managing the school's theatre space(s) and running the extra-curricular school productions, school technicians often support the drama department with workshops, resources and guiding students through the technical options of GCSE and A-level, plus technical support for examined performance work. There is regular maintenance and testing to be done in the theatre, as well as the plethora of other school events which often take place in the theatre such as exams, discos, concerts, assemblies, parents' evenings, exhibitions and external lettings.
Quite often, the technician also has other responsibilities around the school as well, such as IT or AV support. A typical day can be filled with department meetings, setting up a portable PA and projector for a small lecture, helping with a drama lesson, fixing a broken toilet door, rigging lights for a forthcoming show, taking ticket bookings, organising the student 'backstage club', setting up front-of-house, and then running the evening performance!
We are regularly asked for a sample job description, so we have attempted to compile one from several of our members. A draft version is available below, but it has not been completed. If you're thinking of employing a new technician or theatre manager, please feel free to use this as a starter example. It is intentionally detailed, so will need editing to suit your circumstances.
Most jobs can be found in the independent school sector, and in state schools which have specialist performing arts status. Generalising, you will find better jobs in the independent sector; quite often, schools will have their own dedicated theatre building with a manager and sometimes one or more technicians in the largest of cases. Some schools operate their theatre commercially. State schools and academies may also have their own theatre facilities, usually multi-purpose shared halls with a multi-skilled Performing Arts Technician or Teaching Assistant.
In terms of qualifications, each school will determine it's own criteria, but some level of related qualification and/or good experience is going to give you the best advantage. Don't be surprised if a degree is a prerequisite for some positions, particularly in schools with significant academic bias (and most likely essential for management jobs) - but skills, enthusiasm and commitment will usually be more important.
Working in a school theatre is a very rewarding job, but hours and expectations can be demanding - if you're lucky, this is offset by school holidays and/or a higher salary, but not always – often relying on goodwill and dedication alone (which is a prerequisite for any school technician).
School jobs are often advertised in The Stage or in local newspapers. By setting-up a free account, you can also advertise online with Mandy Network (Stage Jobs Pro) or the Blue Room Technical Forums . Schools are also welcome to advertise to STSG members by contacting us.
Some schools also employ casual or freelance technicians. Adverts for these can be found in local newspapers or perhaps by contacting your nearest school.
There is no overall 'School Theatre' training/qualification available, but it is sensible to be suitably trained in areas such as working-at-height, manual handling, electrical testing (PAT), first aid, and other general practices which come into everyday theatre work. It is worthwhile covering the basics at least - e.g. a scaffolding tower/ladder course (whatever is appropriate for your means of access), an electrical safety & PAT course, and a fire safety/Fire Marshal course. A good place to start is to create a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) for yourself and any staff you have. This can be a simple spreadsheet showing the jobs and training courses you think are necessary for each role.
For a good introduction and to cover the safety basics, we suggest joining the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) . They run regular training days around the country, covering various aspects of technical theatre, plus week-long 'schools' where technicians can progress towards various awards. For example, the Bronze summer school, usually held near Coventry, covers electrical basics, working at height, ropes and knots for rigging, flying, and manual handling. ABTT training is regularly promoted to our members.
Some industry suppliers also offer training courses covering topics such as lantern maintenance, use of ladders, sound mixing, etc. There are also many generic training companies who can provide short courses for things like working at height, electrical safety, fire safety, etc. RB Health & Safety offer theatre-specific safety courses for theatre technicians and provide training packages covering a range of areas.
Finally, the STSG network can always help with support and advice if needed.
This is a massive subject!
It is important for you - whether you are Head of Drama, Facilities Manager or Theatre Technician - to get involved with the planning as early as possible. The worst examples of school theatres are often the result of a lack of consultation with the end users. Once submitted, the initial brief is often set in stone, so it's vital that all your requirements are clearly defined and listed in detail. Visit plenty of other schools, taking your architect and project manager with you. Appoint a specialist Theatre Consultant from as early as possible in the project - ideally alongside the architect appointment. A list of recognised consultants can be found here.
The auditorium and stage spaces are the most difficult to define, as it will set the style and mood of the whole building and the theatrical experience. School theatres tend to need to cater to several different performance styles, including plays, musicals, orchestra concerts, fashion shows, rock concerts, etc. - all of which have differing requirements. Think beyond your current requirements and ensure flexibility - but this can be expensive, so often the final layout is a compromise. It is essential to take specialist advice about seating arrangements, sight-lines, acoustics and safety requirements - otherwise you can easily finish with a bad compromise.
The layout of the whole building needs careful consideration. Doorways and lifts will need to be larger than usual for scenery and staging to be moved around. The stage floor will need to be stronger to cope with access equipment and heavy scenery. Hanging points need to be provided over the stage and the auditorium. You must consider how different users will need to access the building. For example, can an external hirer access the auditorium, stage, dressing rooms and foyer without affecting drama lessons or evening rehearsals elsewhere? Will noise from a dance studio affect quiet lessons somewhere nearby? An exam hall will need very bright lighting, whereas a theatre auditorium needs to be much more subtle. An orchestra needs space to tune up and store their instrument cases. Scenery needs to be constructed and easily moved to the stage. Technicians and pupils need to be able to safely access lighting and sound equipment. Also think about how future users may want things in 5, 10 or even 20 years time.
Remembering that it is a school theatre is important - to ensure that pupils can participate as fully as possible with all aspects of running the theatre, particularly backstage - such as having a safe means for them to work at height (e.g. tension wire grid or catwalks, rather than ladders and towers), or having motorised flying bars which the pupils can operate, rather than heavy lifting. The control room is also likely to need to be larger than normal in order to accommodate groups of pupils around the lighting console, for example. (Some architects may not even realise that you need a control room at all!) Dressing rooms can perhaps be doubled with classrooms, as lessons usually finish before the evening performance - but the costumes need to be stored securely nearby and the classroom left tidy for the next day. Simple sports-style changing rooms may suffice, but performers will need desks and mirrors for make-up and hair-styling.
Technical infrastructure is important - stage lights and 'toys' can be hired and/or bought at a later date, whereas you can't easily replace an inadequate power supply or add extra hanging positions. Specialist advice is essential - don't try to think of everything yourself. You should install plenty of circuits for lighting, sound, video and data, and leave cable routes accessible and only half full to allow for future expansion. Other things to consider include suitable foyer space and facilities for audiences (and how will this space be used during the day - perhaps an extra rehearsal space, or a coffee shop for the sixth-form?), plus plenty of backstage space for large casts to wait off-stage. Don't forget to include plenty of storage space - for scenery, rostra, stage lights, pianos, costumes, props, etc, etc, etc. You can never have too much storage space, but space comes at a price so can be difficult to justify.
Most theatrical suppliers will also happily offer you advice and visit you, on the basis that they can quote for the installation. However, an independent Theatre Consultant really is worth the extra money, as they will not only deal with competing suppliers but also with the rest of the building team in order to ensure that they fully understand the unique challenges and requirements of a theatre building. Quite a few STSG members have recently had new buildings or refurbishments, so there are those here who can offer further advice as well.
Back in April 2010, the Theatres Trust held their annual conference with the topic of 'Designing School Theatres'. There was much discussion about the criteria which make a good school theatre, but it was also very clear that there are a lot of schools with new facilities which don't come up to the expected standard. The aim of the conference was to provide a framework from which common flaws can be avoided, such as not providing sufficient backstage space, or failing to consider conflicting users such as school lessons and external bookings, or simply providing a building which is merely functional and not a creative or inspiring place.
Unfortunately the full conference report can no longer be found on the Theatres Trust website, but a summary report is included below.
These are the basic areas for regular inspection and testing of specialist areas. This list does not include regular building maintanence and inspections, such as for emergency lighting, fire extinguishers or fire alarm systems, etc.
Regular safety/visual inspections can be done in-house, whereas formal testing will usually require the services of a reputable contractor; - preferably a theatre specialist in many cases. If you're unsure, speak to your usual equipment supplier who can provide advice.
In all cases, equipment must be inspected/tested according to the relevant legislation and the manufacturer's guidelines or instructions. Your risk assessment should suggest whether more checking is needed due to regularity and heaviness of use.
'Work at height' means activity in any place where, if there were no precautions in place, a person could fall a distance liable to cause personal injury (HSE ). That could easily include the front of the stage, but mostly this is concerned with ladders, platforms and other forms of high-level access.
In general we do not recommend that pupils are allowed to work at height unless the facilities allow safe access (such as bridges or Tension Wire Grid) and specific precautions/rules are put in place (which should equally apply to you and your staff). However, it is not always quite so simple. It is obviously desirable to give pupils the full experience of working in the theatre, which often includes working at height on ladders or platforms.
Regarding the use of ladders and other access equipment, consider the wording of the PUWER regulations: -
"Where the use of work equipment is likely to involve a specific risk to health and safety, ensure that the use of the equipment is restricted to those people trained and appointed to use it."
If you don't have a purpose-built theatre, then you're likely to be stuck with ladders, a scaffold tower or a motorised platform - but can you still remove the risk? Can pupils be taught rigging and focusing at ground level with some lanterns on a stand? Should you limit working at height to older pupils only? Can you run a training session where you can teach and assess the pupils to safely work at height?
Ultimately you must remember that anyone using a ladder (including you and your staff) should be appropriately trained by a competent person, and the equipment you are using should comply with the relevant standard (i.e. EN131) as well as being regularly inspected in-house. You will need a thorough risk assessment, a rescue plan (in case somebody gets 'stuck' or is injured whilst working at height), and clear training records for both pupils and staff.
If you have a Tallescope we recommend taking specialist advice from the ABTT . They are not banned, but will likely need modification kits from the manufacturer to make them safe to use for pupils and staff alike. The manufacturer's instructions state that you must never move the Tallescope with persons or materials in the basket, unless specific safe systems are in place and appropriate training has been received. You also need to ensure that you have a method of getting someone safely out of the cage should they become incapacitated. RB Health & Safety offer training on tallescopes and are happy to talk through your specific requirements or issues you maybe having.
Construction Design and Management Regulations 2015
As of 2015, the CDM regulations now apply to construction work within the theatre - such as set building and fit-ups.
In reality, for our level of work, this just means supplementing your risk assessment process with a method statement / CDM construction plan, and designating certain people in specific 'construction roles'. You will need to put together a Project File for each production as appropriate, and ensure that areas such as those listed below are considered on fit-ups and get-outs:
For more information, including a template and theatre examples, visit the HSE website .
Premises Licence (England/Wales) ...aka Entertainment Licence, Liquor Licence, Theatre Licence.
If your theatre or performance space has an audience capacity of less than 499 AND you do not supply alcohol, then you do not need a licence .
If you intend to supply alcohol (whether free or for sale, regardless of venue size), or if your theatre has a capacity of 500 or more, then you will need a licence .
There are two ways to be licensed: for occasional events you can apply for a Temporary Events Notice. However, for regular events you will need a Premises Licence from your local council. In addition, at least one senior person in your organisation will need to pass an exam for a Personal Licence, so that person can be the Designated Premises Supervisor (DPS). The DPS does not need to be present at every event, but should be the person most responsible for the running of the premises.
Each council has different licence conditions, so you will need to enquire locally . Your venue should be compliant with the Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment (ABTT et al) .
Live and Recorded Music
Previously, at least two licences were required to play recorded music and to perform live music outside of the classroom (i.e. non-curricular use) - but recently the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) have merged into one:
This is managed through the Centre for Education & Finance Management (CEFM) for school licences.
Theatres are also likely to have two additional licences; - one covering pre-show and interval music, and one for recorded music used during performances. There are many other licences for specific activities, such as dance classes, so it's worth seeking further advice.
Note that third parties (e.g. people hiring the school premises) may require a separate licence, particularly for professional shows. Likewise if you take a show to another venue, you should check if the venue is covered or not.
Pre-recorded films, whether rented or purchased or downloaded from the internet, are intended for home use only. Showing films anywhere outside of a home environment is considered 'public performance' and requires a licence from the copyright owner. There is an educational exemption for showing films to pupils and staff at school, but only as part of the curriculum.
There are two common film screening licences - each representing different film publishers:
'Grand Rights' - aka Performing Rights
A licence to perform published works must be obtained directly from the publisher or agent. Most school productions are classed as amateur performances. It can sometimes be difficult to find out who is the current rights holder, as it can be different to the publisher of the script, or the rights have been sold/moved to a new agent.
Some works by non-living playwrights are 'public domain' and do not require performing rights (e.g. Shakespeare), but adaptions or modern versions may still require rights. Note that it is extremely rare for performing rights to include the right to film/record the performance. You will need to make separate enquiries for the filming rights if you want to record your show.
Some radio mics can be operated without a licence in the Ch70 range (863-865 MHz). Generally, it is possible to use up to 4 channels in this band, but there is no coordination with neighbouring venues and there is risk of interference. Cheaper VHF radio mics are also licence exempt (173-175 MHz).
Digital wireless mics operate in WiFi bands (2.4 GHz), so are licence exempt.
For multiple channels, it is likely that you will want a relatively inexpensive annual Shared Licence in order to operate in the Ch38 UHF range (606-614 MHz), which is the band used by most professional radio mic products. Up to 10-12 frequencies can be used in this range. A VHF licence is also available (175-210 MHz).
For a larger number of channels, you will need to purchase a Standard Licence for specific frequencies (470-694 MHz, Ch21-48). This is coordinated with other users in the area, so there is minimal risk of interference. The licence is available for one-off events or annually.
When hiring radio mics, the hire company should provide the necessary licence for the channels you are using.
If you have any equipment operating in the 700 MHz band (Ch49-60), these frequencies are being withdrawn by Ofcom from May 2020. A compensation scheme for equipment is currently running .
All licences are purchased from Ofcom, under their Programme-Making and Special Events (PMSE) section.
The comments published here are not necessarily the views or opinions of the STSG, nor any associated school or organisation. STSG does not accept responsibility for any loss, damage or injury arising from any use/interpretation of the information given. Please seek appropriate specialist advice as necessary. Please ensure that all activities are carried out in line with your organisation's health and safety policies, current legislation and relevant risk assessments.