Open Forum

1.  Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-12-2017 12:00
I am a Theater Director and a smallish public Charter school with a growing Performing Arts Department.  I am looking to purchase equipment for a simple backstage communication system for our performances. I was thinking a basic set of belt clip two way radios with wired headsets for maybe 4-5 people like board operators, stage managers, directors, etc. I am completely overwhelmed looking for advice online.  We don't need a state of the art system, just a way for the main crew members to communicate and stay connected during the run of a show without running laps or using noisy walkie talkies.

Stephanie Vitulli
Middle School Theater Director
Highlands Ranch CO

2.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-12-2017 15:18
We use a wireless headset that wasn't too expensive. Here's a link to it. It's worked really well and it's been really nice to not have people tied to the wall.

Shira Schwartz
Chandler Unified School District
Chandler AZ

3.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-13-2017 11:52
'State of the Art' can mean many different things, so let's look at what is available (from simplest to more complex):
  1. Smart Phone based applications like Skype can facilitate multi-member conversations.  They are free, however, the volume of the audio can be problematic for louder shows like musicals.  The potential for distraction to the crew is significant as they have a smartphone in their hand that can receive phone calls, texts, email, etc.  If you can get them to go 'offline' with their phone service (yes! you can actually turn-off the phone service on many phones!) and only connect via WiFi you can eliminate 1/2 the problem.  Can use BlueTooth headsets, wired ear buds, or wired headphones.
  2. BlueTooth Intercom.  Only works for two users, requires special software.
  3. Party-Line Intercom:  This is the defacto standard for most of the the production industry (TV, Film, Theatre, Rock Concerts, etc.).  Originally introduced by ClearCom back in the 1960's, it is now  available from other companies like Telex, RTS, HME, Pro Intercom (formerly Technical Production), and several others.  This runs over a regular microphone cable (or a heavier gauge version if multiple stations).  Available as desktop station, in-wall station, or portable beltpack stations.  Wiring is simple and multiple channels can be used for sound, lighting, fly, and video crews if the correct wiring is installed.  From a practical standpoint, the most versatile and provides experience with 'real-world' equipment.  The stations can drive a loud signal to a professional headset so that cues can be heard over loud music and effects.  Some brands, like ClearCom, have a remote mic kill function so the Stage Manager or Director can turn-off all the mics at other stations and reduce chatter / noise on the line.  Can be interfaced to radios and telephone lines for expanded operations.
  4. Wireless Intercoms:  Typically based upon Cellular Phone Technology (expensive), or DECT digital phone technology (common for home wireless phones - slightly less expensive).  You pretty much get what you pay for with these.  Cheap systems can sometimes be unreliable if the antennas are not optimally located, and more expensive systems may require multiple mini-cellular base stations distributed around the theatre.  Most have a limited number of channels, then they get really expensive.  Wireless equipment require battery chargers and conscious management of the batteries.
  5. Network based intercoms:  GreenGo offers an intercom system that uses conventional network cabling and is all driven from a standard data switch (router) that provides Power over Ethernet (PoE).  The data switch can be a dedicated stand-alone switch or it can be connected to the building system (close coordination with your IT department is needed as they tend to panic about anything they don't understand).  Riedel, ClearCom, and many other companies offer complicated network-based systems that are more appropriate for TV studios, arenas, and complex theatrical production houses.  These are extremely versatile systems with a fairly high price tag.  They can be interfaced to just about anything.
Mobility considerations:  Everyone wishes they had total mobility and could have wireless for everything. Wireless is expensive.  In reality, many work locations can get-buy with a wired solution as the workers are not moving far from their workstation:
  • Sound Operator
  • Lighting Operator
  • Video Operator
  • Follow Spotlight Operator(s)
  • Middle of the House Rehearsal Desk Staff
  • Camera Operators
  • Stage Manager (or ASM, or Director) in the booth
  • Orchestra Director
In Dressing / Make-up Rooms, Shops, and Ticket Offices, a wall-mounted fixed station usually works OK.

Stage Managers (and ASM's) on stage may need a bit of flexibility in movement, but this can be generally handled by a longer cord to their beltpack (or headset if the master station is in the Stage Manager's rack).  if you are concerned about people tripping over the cable, drop it from the ceiling above the workspace so they can move about (+/- 10 feet or so) without the cable on the floor.  If they need to move more, they should be sending a runner and not leaving their workstation.

Fly crew (pre-show / post-show) usually don't need to wear intercoms, as the stage should be quiet when moving sets (if it is not quiet, then MAKE IT QUIET).  During shows, there is usually little movement along the fly rail unless it is a really complicated show, so cabled beltpacks aren't much of a problem.  Like the suggestion for the Stage Manager, suspend the cables from overhead to reduce the trip hazard and extend the range of movement.

The House Manager may be the most mobile person of all, so consider getting a wireless beltpack (Eartec or similar) for them and interfacing it to the wired party line system.

Headsets:  Different production environments require different types of headsets.  Double Muff headsets are good for louder shows.  Single Muff headsets are good for people that have to also listen to the people around them.  Light-weight 'on the ear' single or double ear headsets may be better of sound operators so they can hear cues and the show audio at the same time.  Sound operators may need a way to switch between 'intercom' and 'mixing console' in their headset so they can listen to individual channels on the mixing console.  In-ear 'buds' can work with intercoms, but many people find them uncomfortable for a two or three hour show.

Health and Safety concerns:  People are dirty.  Wipe-down intercom headsets and stations after each show to prevent the spread of skin disease, hair lice, and germs. Purchase disposable paper covers for the ear muffs and boom mics -- and use them!

During a power failure the intercom system can be a critical communications element.  Consider powering the central main station / power supply with a high capacity UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).  Justify it under 'Safety Equipment'.

Bottom line:  No one company makes all the pieces you need.  Mix and match the parts to make a SYSTEM that works for your venue and productions.

Erich Friend
Theatre Consultant
Teqniqal Systems

4.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-13-2017 12:38
I prefer wall wired units. With wireless you don't know where the student is, with hard-wired you know that kid is at the SM desk or at the fly rail.

John Perry
Drama Instructor
Atherton High School
Louisville KY

5.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-14-2017 15:11
Wired vs Wireless?  Here's an excerpt from my book to help you decide...

Wired vs. wireless

There are two ways headsets are powered. One way is by DC, which is batteries (rechargeables save a lot of money – you can spend hundreds of dollars a year on headset batteries - so be sure to include rechargables in your spec's or purchases). The other is by AC, which is plugged into the theatre's hardwired system by way of a cable. Both wireless and wired headsets have their benefits and you should spec some of each.  



Wired headsets don't eat up batteries, and are best for people who don't have to walk around. For instance, the light board and sound board operators don't usually have to leave their positions during a show, nor do the followspot operators, because boards and followspots are not portable. (Although, that said, even board operators occasionally have to get up from their post to attend to something that might be happening ten feet away. With a wired headset they would then would have to temporarily 'go off headset' and might miss a cue being called.)



Wireless headsets are best for crew who need to move around, such as a fly system operator. They may have to fly out a drop on Lineset 6 and then rush to fly in a drop at Lineset 20. The fly rail area can be a dangerous place (see The Counterweight System chapter), and although there may be policies that any actor waiting in the wings should stay away from the fly rail, it's not always possible because of space considerations. Imagine what would happen if the crew member on a headset attached to the wall with a 20' wire were to have to move between actors and other crew standing in the wings. The cable would be a big tripping hazard.

Another person who has to move around backstage is a Mic Wrangler. This is the person who is in charge of placing mics on actors who might be sharing them, and is in charge of replacing dead batteries if they occur during a show.

Likewise for the House Manager who has to move around the lobby, in and out of audience members, concession sellers, and the box office. A cable would be very impractical.




From our original list of positions, here's who should have what headset capability.


Stage Manager      

The Stage Manager should have both options; a wired headset in the booth if they are calling the show from the booth and a wireless headset to wear if they are calling the show from backstage.


Light Board Operator

The Light Board operator can make do with a wired headset most of the time, but a wireless headset would be optimal.


Sound Board Operator

The Sound Board operator (located in the house, because you've read this book) can make do with a wired headset most of the time, but a wireless headset would be optimal.


Followspot Operators

Followspot operators rarely have to move from their positions, because they are usually located in the beams or catwalks or another position away from distractions. So they can have wired headsets. Ideally, though, they should each be able to plug into their own jacks, even if they are standing next to each other. The headset wires should be carefully located and taped down so that there is no tripping hazard.


Flyman/Fly Rail Side of the Stage

Wireless. Tripping hazard.  Say no more.


Stage Right or Left – the other side of the stage from the fly rail

Get out your crystal ball and decide if the person standing back stage will be issuing orders from where they stand, or whether they will need to move around for set changes, etc. A wired headset is better than no headset, but a wireless headset would be the best choice for flexibility in a variety of show situations.


Center of House – tech table position

These – at least two jacks are optimal – can be wired. If someone needs to go off headset while at the tech table during a rehearsal, that's ok. It's not likely that anyone would be sitting at a tech table in the house during a show, when leaving a headset could jeopardize the show.

Beth Rand
High School Theatre Operations Coach

Next HS Theatre Management Training for Drama Teachers online course: Fall Session starts Sept. 11 (1 space left). Winter Session starts Jan. 15 (limited to 8 students).

Author of "High School Theatre Operations" and "The High School Theatre Safety Manual" and several more books on Amazon.
Westminster, CO

6.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-13-2017 23:41
I also work for a small Charter School, where the budget is relatively tight. The wired mics are difficult when they haven't already been wired into the walls. Our situation is that the technical elements of our historic theater have been an after thought, and we can't install the cabling needed for the wall units.

We did purchase a wireless set. We have not used them yet. I believe the company is called Eartec. They were pretty reasonable.

Sarah Mathews
Theater Teacher
St Louis MO

7.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-14-2017 08:43
There is nothing as reliable as a wired party line system - I used my first ClearCom system back in 1977.
I know many folks who use FRS walkie talkies - they are inexpensive, but by the time you add decent headsets (really needed for musicals) ... not so much.

I was surprised by the Eartec systems - a client requested an inexpensive wireless com system to be added to the 16 chqnnel wireless they rented from me.  I got them the entry level eartec "all in the headset" transceivers, and they performed lawlessly.  The theatre was a 700-800 seat auditorium with a 40 foot deep stage.  They even gave a set to a parent who was marshaling the chorus in a music room which was 15 ft across a hall behind the stage.  They reported no drop-outs. Normal caveats apply.

I also import Granite Sound party line systems from the UK - ClearCom compatible - beltpacks, wall/desk speaker stations, power supplies, master stations, headsets.

My preference - wired stations to fixed positions (stage manager, spot ops, lighting op, sound op) and wireless for those that move around and still need to be on comms.  We have interfaces for Eartec to ClearCom/Granite Sound Party-line, Telex Digital and others.

If running cables is impossible - or  prohibitive - then the Eartec are worth a go - 7 channels starts at about $1750.

If you will be at EdTA Conference this week I will be there!

Rod Reilly
Owner, Bodymics
Somerset NJ

8.  RE: Simple backstage communication set up?

Posted 09-14-2017 12:36
Edited by Michael Johnson 09-14-2017 12:51
My preference would be a wall mount hard wired party line system like others have suggested. If you are pretty handy, it can be done DIY, but nothing is better than having the dealer do the installation for you.  And as others have suggested, it can be something in the 1500 to 3K range, price wise-- so may be something to plan for.

In the meantime, however, there are pretty simple walkie=talkie's out there that come with headsets and microphones and even feature PTT/VOX options.  We use the Midland brand, I think it works pretty well for us, and you can get them with rechargeable battery packs.  The headsets wear out after a year or two, so that is an expense--- but something like this might get you started as you plan for an installed system.

Michael Johnson
Trinity NC