Running the construction crew

Saturday is right around the corner, you have the set designer’s drawings, and six volunteers are coming to help with construction. Now what?

My post on getting the most out of volunteers has been so popular that I thought I’d share some observations and suggestions from scene shops I’ve encountered. The most efficient and “user friendly” ones have had several things in common:

The crew is treated like a team

Everyone is there to work on the same project: the set for the upcoming show. They may be working on different parts of it, but it all goes towards the same end. This is no different than a football team, a basketball team, or any other sports team where everyone has their own specialty but are working together. There are times when someone will need an extra pair of hands for something, or even just to hold the other end of the tape measure, and the team members should be happy and willing to help out.

Everyone is clear on the goal

The goal, in this case, is to have the set ready for first tech, which is often the weekend before opening night. By making sure that everyone understands the scope of the project, what the deadline is, how much needs to get done, and how many people are on the team, you will go a long way towards getting that set completed on time.

There is a defined work schedule, including breaks

Most shops I’ve seen work on a defined schedule, where everyone starts at the same time, takes breaks at the same time, cleans up at the same time, and leaves at the same time. This not only creates a sense of order, but also helps you organize the day’s work and know that people will be there when you need them. It also helps with the camaraderie (and therefore the team-building), since everyone will be free to chat at the same time and get to know each other.

There is a project list and schedule

By making and posting a list of what needs to be built, painted, rigged, and so forth, you not only have a constant picture of where you are in the process, but so does everyone else. And there is something therapeutic and wonderful about crossing items off a list, especially as opening night gets closer.

The shop drawings are clear and readily available

Shop drawings, renderings, painters’ elevations, and other applicable materials should be right there, visible at all times and easy to reference. The best way to do this is to designate a table for this purpose, which can also serve as the tech director’s desk during work periods. That way everyone knows where the “instructions” belong and where they need to go back to at the end of the work session.

The supervisor is available to supervise

One thing I’ve found over the years is that it’s very hard to be a working supervisor, where you’re trying to work on your own project at the same time as keeping an eye on other workers, especially if it’s a large group. Inevitably one or the other suffers. The best solution is to just accept that you may not be able to work on your own project, and to spend your time making sure that everyone has what they need, answering questions, and providing guidance where necessary.

Safety is important

Needless to say, you want to make sure that anyone who is using a tool (any kind of a tool) has demonstrated that he or she knows how to use it properly and safely. Anyone using a tool for the first time needs to have someone, already skilled in it, show them how to use it and watch them the first few times. Some shops have “checkout” forms that they use to keep track of who can use which tool, and some also have a list of shop procedures and practices that they issue to everyone (and go over) on the first day of work. Safety is one area where you don’t want to take anything for granted.

Along the same lines, keeping a clean work area can help keep everyone safe. Piles of scrap wood or sawdust on the floor, paint cans scattered around, and tools everywhere, will only cause accidents. Several large trash cans in strategic places–and making sure people use them as they work–can be a huge help.

Everyone helps clean up after each work session

Cleaning up is part of the work session, and you want to let everyone know about this at the start of construction. One professional shop I worked with called a ten-minute “clean up” time before lunch, and again before the end of the day. With everyone chipping in, it only takes a few minutes.


Running a construction crew properly takes a bit of work, but the end results will speak for themselves. Often, it’s just a matter of a little pre-planning.