From Cast to Concessions: An Overview of Jobs in the Theater Industry

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The theater can be a magical place. The lights go down and the audience is taken to another world; our problems seemingly disappear as complex characters make us laugh and cry, and we marvel at the song and dance on stage. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

The theater is more than just the actors you see and the musicians you hear. Let’s explore some of the jobs that can be found in the business of show!

Jobs in the theater

Creative 

Playwright—Playwrights are the people who write the story and script. They are the ones who create the foundations of character, plot, and theme, and are responsible for penning the dialogue and scene directions. In musical theater, the playwright is generally referred to as the “book writer” or “librettist.” 

Director—Directors work with every other participant in the production to ensure that their vision—visually, aurally, and performance-wise—is what ends up on stage. Directors cast the show, lead rehearsals, shape the blocking, convey notes to performers, and ensure that everything is ready for opening night. Once a play’s run begins (after any preview period), the director’s job is usually finished, and day-to-day responsibilities fall to the stage manager.

Actor—The cast of actors embodies characters and puts on the performance on stage. In the theater, there are several types of roles for actors: 

  • Principal: Leading roles and their main supporting parts
  • Ensemble: Onstage performers who often play unnamed characters and have few or no lines; instead, they provide support through background work and, in musical theater, singing and dancing. 
  • Understudy: Understudies perform a smaller role in the production while also studying all the requirements of a principal, preparing in case a lead actor becomes unavailable. 
  • Swing: Similar to an understudy, swings prepare for multiple roles in the show in case the primary actor is unavailable. Generally, swings do not perform in a smaller role on a regular night. 

Composer—Composers conceive and write the music of a production, which in turn is vital in establishing the tone, themes, and atmosphere of the show. 

Lyricist—In musicals, the lyricist is responsible for writing the lyrics to the composer’s music. Whether it’s an exposition-heavy patter song or a poetic emotional crux of the show, the lyricist provides the words for actors to sing. In some cases, the composer and lyricist are the same person. In others, the librettist writes the lyrics as well as the book of the musical.

Choreographer—The choreographer creates dance moves for any musical numbers in a show. This includes complex routines like a big, traditional opening number; smaller, more intimate movements for a love ballad; and everything in between. Their goal is to interpret the story through dance. 

Musician—Usually stationed in the orchestra pit at the front of the stage, theater musicians play the score of a musical, or provide incidental accompaniment to plays. 

Actors backstage

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Production

Producer—Producers are responsible for ensuring that the production actually happens. They help raise funds (and provide their own), secure a venue, oversee finances, set deadlines, and ensure that every aspect of the production is following the law (payroll, copyright, insurance, etc.). Depending on the show—and how much funding the producer is providing—producers may also contribute to creative decisions.

Production manager—A production manager's most important job is to make sure everything is on budget, or figure out creative ways to keep things within budget. They also create schedules, order supplies and materials, and solve any sudden logistical issues.

Stage manager—Stage managers run the day-to-day operations of the production, while keeping the lines of communication open between each department. They schedule rehearsals, oversee the technical side of things, and keep documentation. Essentially, the stage manager keeps track of the details so the director can focus on creative matters. During the performance, stage managers are in charge of backstage matters like lighting and sound cues. 

Casting director—Casting directors are responsible for finding actors for each role and putting them in front of the director and producer. They organize auditions and make sure the director has the perfect casting options for every character.

Lighting designer—This artist creates the lighting for the show. The process involves more than just making sure the stage is perfectly lit; LDs are also adding mood, atmosphere, and emotion to every single scene.

Sound designer—True to their title, sound designers create the sound of the show, usually outside of the music if it’s a musical. They are responsible for any auditory effects (like a clap of thunder, or shattered glass), as well as create atmospheric soundscapes. 

Set designer—Also known as a scenic designer, the set designer conceptualizes and creates the sets you see on the stage. Taking cues from the script, set designers take a playwright’s simple description (bedroom, bar, park) and, with the director’s vision in mind, make it feel real to the world of the show. They organize every little physical detail, like the placement of the furniture, a picture on a wall, or a lamppost next to a park bench—sometimes employing realism, and other times using abstraction to exemplify a theme. 

Costume designer—The costume designer is in charge of every piece of clothing and every accessory you see on the actors. If it’s a period piece, the costume designer makes sure the wardrobe authentically reflects the appropriate era. In every show, the costume design team makes or sources clothes to reflect the director’s vision, whether it’s the fabrics of contemporary Wichita or futuristic designs of a cyberpunk L.A. 

Wigs, hair, and make-up artists—These artists are responsible for ensuring that hair fits the character (and era), wigs look authentic, and make-up is designed and applied accurately. Depending on the size of the production, these roles might be individually assigned or be combined into a signal job. 

Automation—This department is responsible for moving any complex set pieces, specifically those using hydraulics or pulleys, properly and safely during a show. If the stage gets raised, scenery or props are swapped between scenes, or even if an actor has to fly on a pulley system, the automation team ensures it all goes smoothly. 

Crew—This broad term includes stagehands and technicians who assist department heads with various aspects of the production, such as rigging, loading, sound, and lighting.

Box office

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Front of house

House manager—House managers oversee day-to-day operations of the front of house staff (ushers, concessions, security, etc.). They prepare staff and, once doors open, troubleshoot any issues that may arise in the lobby area.

Box office manager—This role oversees clerks who sell the tickets for each performance. They ensure that sales numbers are accurate so, for example, a show doesn’t oversell on any given night. Managers may also troubleshoot any problems that arise regarding tickets, as well as answer questions for future productions.

Usher—Ushers help guide guests to their seats. If the show has already begun and a guest arrives late, ushers are responsible for seating them at a break or transition in the show, to minimize distraction of the actors and other guests. Increasingly, ushers are also responsible for enforcing rules about photography and cell phone use during the show. 

Concessions / bartender—These part-time workers sell snacks and drinks before the show and during intermission. Some productions have specialty cocktails inspired by the show, and bartenders must learn to craft them on-site.

These are just a few of the jobs that you can find in the theater industry. Working in theater can be a fun and exciting place to showcase your creative side—no matter which department or area you ultimately choose!

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