Working Backstage

A Cultural History and Ethnography of Technical Theater Labor
Christin Essin
Places backstage workers in the spotlight to acknowledge their essential roles in creating Broadway magic


Working Backstage illuminates the work of New York City’s theater technicians, shining a light on the essential contributions of unionized stagehands, carpenters, electricians, sound engineers, properties artisans, wardrobe crews, makeup artists, and child guardians. Too-often dismissed or misunderstood as mere functionaries, these technicians are deeply engaged in creative problem-solving and perform collaborative, intricate choreographed work that parallels the performances of actors, singers, and dancers onstage. Although their contributions have fueled the Broadway machine, their contributions have been left out of most theater histories.

Theater historian Christin Essin offers clear and evocative descriptions of this invaluable labor, based on her archival research and interviews with more than 100 backstage technicians, members of the New York locals of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. A former theater technician herself, Essin provides readers with an insider’s view of the Broadway stage, from the suspended lighting bridge of electricians operating followspots for A Chorus Line; the automation deck where carpenters move the massive scenic towers for Newsies; the makeup process in the dressing room for The Lion King; the offstage wings of Matilda the Musical, where guardians guide child actors to entrances and exits. Working Backstage makes an significant contribution to theater studies and also to labor studies, exploring the politics of the unions that serve backstage professionals, protecting their rights and insuring safe working conditions. Illuminating the history of this typically hidden workforce, the book provides uncommon insights into the business of Broadway and its backstage working relationships among cast and crew members.

Christin Essin is Associate Professor of Theatre History at Vanderbilt University.

Praise / Awards

  • Finalist: Theatre Library Association (TLA) 2021 George Freedley Memorial Award 
  • Working Backstage is groundbreaking, fresh, and incisive . . . the depth, breadth, and richness of the ethnographic research underpinning the book’s arguments is extraordinary. The author’s personal connection to the profession, her self-awareness and introspection about women’s and men’s technical work in theater add value and richness to the text.”
    –—Timothy White, New Jersey City University  
  • "This book’s attention to contemporary technicians’ work lives, their ambitions, and how they perceived of their labor is illuminating. Simultaneously, it highlights the operations and effects of theatrical hierarchies on individuals, theatrical culture, and workplace relationships.” 
      –—Ann Folino White, Michigan State University
  • "Producers and journalists alike have consistently portrayed theater union workers, especially members of Local One, the stagehand’s union, in a negative light –overpaid, often unnecessary, and lacking passion for the work they are doing…. Working Backstage: A Cultural History and Ethnography of Technical Theater Labor by Christin Essin, a former professional stagehand turned theater professor, argues that stagehands and hairstylists and dressers deserve respect for their artistry.” --New York Theater
  • "If you have any interest in the history of IATSE and the New York backstage labor community-and it is a community-this is a book worth reading."
  • "This valuable, well-written book will be essential reading for technicians and artistic directors open to understanding more fully the challenges technicians in both vintage spaces and more technologically based theater facilities face. Essential. All readers."
  • Winner: American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS) 2022 John W. Frick Book Award
  • Winner: American Library Association (ALA) Choice 2022 Outstanding Academic Title
  • Finalist: American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) 2022 Barnard Hewitt Book Prize

News, Reviews, Interviews

Read: Highlight in Playbill's "19 Theatre Reads to Check Out in Fall 2021" | 9/22/2021
Read: Christin Essin was interviewed for the Hasty Book List | 9/2021
Read: Working Backstage was featured on the Hasty Book List | 9/20/2021
Read: Essin was interviewed for Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb | 9/20/2021
Read: Highlight in Lifesavvy's Best New Books of September 2021 | 08/30/2021
Read: Working Backstage was reviewed by Jonathan Mandell for New York Theater | 07/30/2021

Product Details

  • 286 pages.
  • 13 illustrations, 1 table.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2021
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-12926-3

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  • IATSE; labor; theatrical labor; backstage work; theatre technician; dresser; stagehand; backstage choreography; theatre history; theatre ethnography; musical theatre; theatrical production; Broadway; commercial theatre; Broadway industry; union politics; labor politics; labor history; makeup artist; followspot operator; wardrobe