Lady Roadie: Touring life on the tech crew (when you don’t look like the other boys!)

My name is Becky Pell and I am an anomaly. I’m a sound engineer, and I’m a woman. It’s an unusual combination, but I’m rarely conscious of it until someone points it out. Usually the conversation goes something like: ‘wow, a female engineer, you don’t see that very often’.  Me: ‘No, there aren’t many of us’.  Them: ‘Why is that?’ Well I have to confess ignorance; as I am one, I’m kind of the wrong person to ask! Why are we the unicorns of the touring world? And what’s life like as a woman on the road?

I love being a touring sound engineer. I’ve been in the business for 20 years, touring for 14, and I think it’s the best job in the world. I feel enormously proud and privileged to have made it in this industry. I work with my first love, music. I see more weird and wacky places in a month than most people will see in a lifetime, and I get to do it with a great bunch of people; there’s always someone to have a laugh with. I get a real buzz from that direct, minute-by-minute involvement in the live show when the lights go down and the audience go nuts. And I get to play with some really cool toys; I never did see why the boys should get all the best ones!

In the early days I got my fair share of sexist crap, but it’s no use being the type who runs off to a tribunal at the first sign of trouble. If I got legal on everyone who’d ever made a crack (‘Are you lost? Kitchen’s that way love’ etc etc) I’d be in court for the next 500 years! Most of it’s just banter and you can actually have a lot of fun with it; the key is learning to give as good as you get. Not having a massive chip on your shoulder about being a woman undoubtedly helps. We teach people how to treat us, and if you just get on with your job and don’t make a big deal of it, other people will soon follow suit!

There were a couple of unpleasant incidents when I was new, but they were few and far between and there was no way I was going to let people like that beat me. Happily, I was so determined that it was a roadie life for me since I saw my first gig aged 12, that I just ploughed on and refused to be put off; in fact voices of dissent simply drove me harder. One day it would be ME with my hands on that monitor desk, in arenas and stadiums, and the more anyone told me that I’d never do it the more I thought “just watch me”. I worked really hard and sure enough I got there.

I sometimes see female crew who dress and behave quite ‘blokey’ – and hey, if that’s your vibe then cool, every woman to herself. But it’s a myth that to succeed as a woman on the technical crew you have to sacrifice your femininity. Yes you need to dress appropriately and work hard and be ready for some very long days. But I’ve always worn make-up to work, and it’s fun to get stuck-in and grubby on the load-out one evening and then wear something a bit glam on a day off!

I think a common deterrent to this life for women is that there’s a fair amount of lifting and heavy physical work involved. That’s a shame because it’s technique as much as strength, and it’s common sense to get a few people around heavy stuff anyway, there are no prizes for slipped discs! I’ve seen plenty of local crew guys twice my size who don’t know how to stack a flight case or get something up a ramp (and I’ve bruised a few egos when I’ve stepped in….), so it’s really not all about brute force. It doesn’t hurt to put in a few sessions at the gym and build a bit of strength, but it’s absolutely not an issue once you get the hang of it.

There’s also a perception that it’s a very macho environment – all farting and swearing and getting dirty – and let’s be honest, that’s exactly how it is at times! There’s nothing glamorous about pulling muddy cables up after a festival, so you can’t be all dainty about that side of it. But there’s also the joy of the camaraderie, the sense of a job well done and the satisfaction of a hot (well, hopefully) shower and a cold beer with your touring family back on the bus at the end of the day. Yes that bus can get a bit stinky and so I often pimp it with scented candles to make it a bit more civilised. My male colleagues will then comment that it ‘smells of girls on here’ before admitting that it’s a definite improvement! In my experience they tend to enjoy having some women around – after all, it’s actually a pretty unbalanced and unnatural environment when it’s all guys.

So if you are, or know, a young woman who’s interested in live show production but is put off by stereotypes and misconceptions, then reconsider. It is hard work and long days, you do have to work your way up and be prepared to get your hands dirty, and it’s really not glamorous at all most of the time. But I honestly believe that being a woman in this business is as much of a problem as you let it be.

And damn it’s fun!

43 thoughts on “Lady Roadie: Touring life on the tech crew (when you don’t look like the other boys!)”

  1. Great to read this. I too am a sound/lighting tech and female. I am only 148cms , but still do my fair bit. I can drive the truck and do most of what the guys do. Sure there are the bigger heavier loads that I dont lift, but the guys always do that ..I give as good as I get, and am treated as one of the boys..I honestly dont think the guys seem me as any different to them….

  2. That my friend was a great read, well put & honest! 🙂 The boys are very lucky to have a beauty like you on the road, inside & out & clearly great at your her job or you would not be there…

  3. Loved the comment about strength. That is one of my fears about being more serious in the industry. I’m mostly a lighting tech/spot opp.(no degree in the field though :/)

  4. So great to read this. I tour with Canada’s National Orchestra as their technician and LOVE it. I totally agree with your view of dealing with the comments about being a girl – just give it back. Actually I lifted a couple of timpany off a riser without proper help because the house guys were being useless and I finished by saying “don’t worry about me, I’ll put my uterus back later” – they nearly died! Ha!
    I don’t go out year round so it’s not the same as you but I do go for a month at time and come home to my husband and three girls (ages 7,9,11) so I kinda feel like I have it all 🙂

    1. Haha I love that comment Sarah! Sounds like you have a great balance. Can I ask where you saw this article shared? I’m seeing a lot of interest in it over the last few days, but it’s quite an old article so I’m curious!

  5. My daughter is a theatre technical director. She took over from another woman who moved to another gig. Prior to both of them, the job had been male for over 40 years. It is very interesting to see people’s reactions to her.

    1. Hopefully more positive than not Cindy? It’s a tough gig but it’s great when we can change people’s perceptions!

  6. Touring IS the best part of the job 🙂 recognized myself in every word of your text and love it ! As a rock’n roll stage manager (former audio tech) i like to quote our male tourmanager : there should be women in every department to make it all a little bit more civilized 😉
    See you on the road

  7. Never the less . …she persisted.

    I too am a female stagehands. I have 3 union cards. And I know bigger men then me that gave up and quit this industry. The long hours and different times of start and stops is really unbalanced.

    I am a rigger, lighting, video, sound, carpentry, pryro, props, backline, you name it stagehands learn to be a jack of all trades. You bring it will set it up. No matter what time of day or night. We are the stage fairies we come out and pre set shows up while you sleep.

    And if you willing to work hard for it weather they respect you or accept YOU. Who cares. I’m not there for their comfort. I do what I do cause I’m damn good at it and I LOVE what I do.

    And believe me even if I’m small I’m like an ant. I lift twice my weight.

    I’m here to get a pay check and support myself just like any man.

    1. You are the unsung heroes… I wish the public realised what we all do, but especially stagehands…the show couldn’t happen without you!

  8. I own a lighting and video production company and I absolutely love it. I initially had It with my husband but we divorced so I bought him out. Tough thing to do and I have learnt a lot but I have been in this industry since I was 17 and now at 55 I am still learning. The hardest thing I found was other women wanting to get in the industry and the boys not giving them a go. I have only really been treated with disrespect twice but I soon realised they had the issue not me.
    I love my industry and I love the life, it’s family to me…

    1. Great to hear that you’ve had such a good experience Camille, and so inspiring that you run your own company!

  9. Thank you for this article! I loved it! I may not tour but I am a Technical Director/Lighting Designer for a small theatre with big plans! I agree you don’t have to loose your femininity and be in the industry! I wear makeup and business casual clothing including dresses many days at work when I am in my office or hosting a simple event. The days that I am in the shop, on the grid, or loading in I wear appropriate clothes for those times. I learned a long time ago… to always get help when lifting heavy things and lifting correctly helps too. I wish you the best on your tours!

  10. Fantastic piece Becky.. You forgot to mention that you are a dream for any tour manager and artist to have on the road. xx

    1. Wow, thanks Lisa! That really means a lot. Hope we get to do something together again… or just hang out in London or on a beach in Oz!:-)xx

  11. Brigitte Theroux

    So happy to see you made it in this industry, I am a lighting designer and tech myself and it’s not always easy with the guys but I’m pretty lucky I get to work with other women very often. We support each other and make space for more women in our industry. Really enjoyed reading your article thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Brigitte! Great to hear that you liked the article, and loving that web of female support you have going!

  12. Wonderful to read about more women in sound! I am an audio engineer. I would tour but it is difficult having a daughter. I have been doing love sound for a major theme park here in California. I have spent my whole life with a passion for music and wanting to have a career as an engineer. I LOVE being a part of a crew who you would see as typically male. I am accepted and appreciated. I fought hard to be where I am at and I am so glad I live my passion and I look forward to building up the next generation of ladies in our field. Keep truck’n!

  13. You are a wonderful role model to all the girls out there who want to do sound tech. My daughter is a sound/light tech in a theatre after spending a year out on the road working the various festivals. She’s so much happier being based in one venue.

    Go for it girls! You can do anything you turn your minds to – it’s all a matter of positive thought xx

    1. Thanks so much Katherine! That’s great to hear that your daughter is following her dreams and that she has such a supportive Mum – I love your attitude!

  14. I love to hear ladies perspectives of life on the road. I am a lighting tech and I am about to go on the road in a few weeks for the first time! One of the things I love about working in production is working with guys, I grew up with all brothers. And when there are women we are usually like minded! I have never held back on my femininity, it makes me feel even stronger and confident. I have seen some women have that chip on their shoulder and they look to me to validate what their saying, it’s always a little awkward because as much I love being a feminist, crossing the line over to “man hating” isn’t beneficial to anyone, so I try my best to steer clear of those conversations. I have been blessed to have had many females in this industry in higher up positions to look up to. My sexist experiences have been few and far between because of those female production managers. I mainly see the small things ingrained in guys heads, like “oh no I can get that” or “you got it?” or … seeing me and someone else with a case on a ramp and rushing to put their hands on the case even if its super light… it’s well meaning but it is unproductive so some of those moments I try to correct them but if I corrected all of them I would not be seen in a very good light. Thanks for the post!

    1. Hi Kelsie! It sounds like we’ve have similar experiences, glad to hear yours have been mostly positive too. Those little things are usually well-meaning and not worth getting up in arms about! ‘Man-hating’ doesn’t serve anyone, I agree – I like working with men too – most guys are decent folks and maybe just need a little education and to see capable women in action, which is where we come in. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  15. Kelly Williamson

    Hi, just happened to run across your article. I believe that there is a reason for everything. Im 54 year old male and this story just inspires me to know end. Im an old analog guy, graduated from the Art Institute of Dallas in 1991. I primarily freelanced, and ran sound for local bands. Did a few local shows as a stage hand. I found out in 96 I was going to be a dad, excited, but still had not realized my dream to work on a tour. Bad circumstances with my Son’s mom (Not married) forced me into a custody battle. This really forced me to get a regular job. For 21 years I have been miserable. This past Dec. (2017) I walked away from a dead end job I had for 10 years. This Feb. I hired on with a production company as a stage hand in the corporaye world. I have never been happier. My dream tp tpur is bigger than ever but I am so lost Tech. Wise with. Changing technology and it is so diffetent. The tpuring industry also has seemed to have changed. I so desperately want to tour it is always in my thougjts. I have no problem starting at the bottom, even at 54. My work ethic is second to none and will work circles around my younger counterparts. Need any suggestions to get on a tour. Im a little frustrated at times becaise I feel like Im not going to get to ever go on the road. I love this stuff. I have to do this and any advice on how to get hired on a tour is appreciated. I tefuse to stop.working towards my dream and your article was so awesome, just at the right time to find it too. Thank you and best wishes. Advice appreciated.

    1. Hey Kelly,

      First up let me applaud you for having the cojones to follow your dreams and break out of a situation that made you miserable!

      It’s great that you’ve found work in a relevant field – that going to stand you in good stead for getting to the next stage. You are obviously passionate and committed, and there’s a hell of a lot to be said for life experience and a strong work ethic, so age need not necessarily be a barrier if you can get in front of the right person.

      My suggestion would be to write to as many PA companies as you can find, and see if you can get an in that way. You’re not going to get on the road straight away by any means, but it’s a brilliant way of learning the ropes and you have all the gear at your disposal to improve your knowledge during quiet periods. Over time, you might get sent out on the road as ‘fourth man’ – basically the least experienced member of the crew.

      The other way to get to be a part of rock and roll gigs would be to join a crewing company as local crew. I can’t tell you much about how that works in the US – it’s very different from the rest of the world and many venues have union crew – but in the UK and other places around the world there are companies like Stage Miracles, who supply local crew for load in and load out at gigs. You don’t get to tour, but it does get you out in the field.

      Big names you might like to Google are: Clair Global, Solotech, Eighth Day Sound. Also Google ‘sound companies USA’ and ‘live sound production companies USA’ and see what comes up – there are a ton of companies over there of all sizes. Be prepared for the fact you might need to relocate! You might also like to look up ‘local show crewing companies USA’.

      I hope that helps Kelly, please do let me know how you get on! All the very best, Becky

  16. Such an inspiring article.. I’m 22 years old and really want to work in this industry. Not quite sure how but i’m doing a lot of research. I’m obsessed with big concerts and events, i travel all over Europe to see my favorite bands. I’ve been playing sports all my life so I have very different interests than other girls I know. I dropped out of university, moved to London and finally chasing my dreams. I’m a bit lost to be honest and don’t know where to start. I have such a strong passion but i still don’t know where to direct it. Hope I can figure it out, your article really put a smile on my face. This is what I want too.
    Thank you xoxo

    1. Happy to hear you feel inspired by it Carolina! Follow your dreams and feel free to drop me an email via the ‘contact me’ box if you’d like to talk about where you’re looking etc.

  17. I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m just finishing my A levels and have wanted to become a lighting technician for the past 4 years. It’s so nice to hear the story of a woman who’s made it in a similar industry to that in which I hope to work, and it makes me feel more confident about my own ability to achieve this goal. I will be going to university in September to study lighting and hope to become one of many inspiring stories, such as your own.

    1. Hi Cerys, I’m so glad that you found this helpful. You’re at the start of a wonderful, exciting journey, and I wish you the very best of luck!

  18. This post is just what I needed. I’ve been lost with what I want to do in my life so I’ve been hanging out with my friends who play shows locally quite a bit. I love watching everything that goes into but I’ve been too intimidated to ask if they want/need help. I’m gonna take the leap! I can’t affirdanytype of classes to help me with anything but I’ll just see what I can learn from the amazing people around me. Thank you !!!

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