Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Rick McAllister, Run Crew

The actors in a play usually have about four weeks to perfect the show; they make sure lines, blocking, and choreography are crisp and memorized. Members of the run crew—the ones who shift props and scenery, fly actors, and operate trap doors, among other things—get only five days to learn their roles. Rick McAllister, who has been a member of Children’s Theatre Company’s (CTC) run crew for the past 15 years, calls his work “a passion,” and despite being unseen, members of the run crew are vital to the success of every performance.

McAllister has been involved in theatre for 30 years, and he began working for Child’s Play Theatre Company (now Stages Theatre Company) in 1991. There, he worked backstage, stage managed, built sets and props, hung and programmed lights, worked in the ticket office, and acted as a house manager. He was later hired by CTC and has since worked on run crew for 63 CTC productions as well as working with the scenic and electric departments. He encourages people who are interested in working backstage to start as early as possible. “Find community or professional theatres that offer backstage experiences, helping with scene shifting, set building, costumes, props, lighting, sound, the works,” he advises.

McAllister speaks enthusiastically about the exciting parts of his job, including flying actors across the stage. When a show calls for an actor to fly, an outside contractor installs a system of cables, tracks, and pulleys, and the run crew operates them. Actors wear harnesses attached to cables, and crew members propel them up and down by pulling ropes; McAllister states that, because of the pulley system, crew members are actually pulling about two thirds of an actor’s weight, which is “a workout, but a lot of fun.” Other crew members are responsible for operating a second cable that controls side-to-side movement and is attached to a traveler track that moves much like a stage curtain does. The result of the run crew’s backstage efforts is an actor who soars weightlessly across the stage.

The run crew also operates the stage’s trap doors and lifts, some of which are automated and some of which require the push of a button or lever to move. During the run of Diary of a Wimpy Kid the Musical, one of McAllister’s favorite shows, he was in the trap room for the whole show, ensuring that the lifts brought the right contents up and down at the correct times. Because McAllister was below the stage, he kept track of the show through an aerial camera that showed him what was occurring onstage in real time.

McAllister and the run crew also get cues from the Stage Manager, Assistant Stage Manager, and Master Stage Carpenter through something called a “shift plot,” which McAllister refers to as “our script for the show.” The shift plot contains schedules and timing of tasks as well as listing what type of cue will signal the action. Sometimes the cue is visual, such as a particular movement onstage, and sometimes it comes from the Stage Manager’s voice in a headset. The most unique type of cue, however, comes from a cue light. Backstage at CTC’s UnitedHealth Group Stage, a string of rope lights flash different colors based on what type of action the run crew needs to take. For example, the rope lights up with one color if a set piece needs to be moved on or off the stage and a different color if scenery needs to fly in or out. When the light is on, run crew is on standby, and they take action as soon as the light goes out.

One particularly proud moment for McAllister was CTC’s production of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas as, as the show’s run crew creatively performed scene changes behind a translucent curtain called a scrim. There was a blackout curtain behind the scrim, and upon its removal, the audience could see a preview of the new scene through the scrim; after a short period of time, the curtain was raised to reveal the glory of the full scene change. The role of run crew is similar to these scene changes behind the scrim: at the moment, it’s not entirely clear what’s occurring or who’s responsible for the action, but when the curtain comes up, everyone can appreciate the beauty of the stage.