Whether picking up Slash for a wicked guitar solo or following Kristin Chenoweth as she belts a glory note, the spotlight operator’s primary responsibility is to highlight the focal person or persons on stage. A followspot serves to direct the audience’s attention and fill in the gaps of the stage lighting. This technician works under the direction of the stage manager and lighting supervisor; though generally considered an apprentice position in the lighting department, many veteran stagehands have made a career of this job on touring concerts and theatrical productions.
The specific responsibilities will vary depending on the type of production and work environment. This technician may be required to assist with load-in, the build of the lighting rig, and load-out. For each performance, the spotlight operator arrives at the venue at his or her designated call time (at least one hour before curtain) and participates in a production meeting in which he or she is briefed on cues, assigned a spot position, and given basic directions concerning how cues will be called and what parameters to set on the instrument. The stage manager or lighting supervisor will explain design choices like which color frames to use, iris size on performers, and fade-in timing. Before the spotlight operator gets into position, he or she must also be instructed on any required safety equipment, like harnesses and passive/active fall arrest systems—followspots are usually operated from a perch at least 15 feet off the ground and sometimes much higher. It is typical for there to be more than one spotlight operator for large theatrical shows and concerts, and frequently each technician will be assigned a particular performer to cover or side of the stage to pick up. At least 30 minutes before curtain, the operator should be in his or her designated position to adjust the height of the followspot, check that the instrument is functioning properly, and adjust the fixture’s balance. Some followspots need at least 15 minutes to reach the correct color temperature, and lamp replacement requires the technician to be specially trained and wear personal protective equipment. During the show, it is just a matter of listening carefully for cues, staying focused, and keeping a steady hand.
Skills & Education
Operation of a followspot requires both technique and technical proficiency. You must understand how to properly frame a subject on stage, know your douser from your iris, understand the difference between a slow fade and a slam-in. Every instrument has the same basic components, but each has its own arrangement and personality; operators are expected to be familiar with several different models or else be able to become acquainted with new lamps quickly. Also crucial is competent use of personal protective equipment like safety harnesses and fall arrest systems as regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A college degree in theater or live production is not required, though a formal education will significantly accelerate your career advancement in this increasingly competitive field.
What to Expect
Talented spotlight operators make the gig look easy—just point and shoot. The reality is that the job requires skill, stamina, and intense concentration. (It may go without saying, but those afraid of heights need not apply.) Tiny movements of the operator 500 feet from the stage translate into embarrassing shakes and swerves of the beam that are glaringly obvious to the audience and your boss. Your pick-ups must be precisely timed and on target; if you miss a headliner’s big entrance, you will be replaced before the next show.
An hour or more at the followspot is sure to make your shoulders burn and your arms ache, and may induce daydreaming. Depending on the crew, a bit of headset chatter is acceptable; road stories and jokes are a typical way to keep everyone awake and alert. Be warned, though; there’s an etiquette to headset humor. You should be familiar with the expectations of the person calling cues, understand when to be silent, and take care to consider who else may be on the headset before you unleash your most off-color material.
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