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How to choose your technical theatre training

Stage manager at work. Photo: Alex Brenner
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Do you want to work backstage? Operating a lighting or sound console is what most people have in mind when considering a career as a technician, but there are many more options. David Walker introduces the roles and training routes available


At first glance, it can seem as though you need to be a professor of computer science to work backstage in a 21st-century theatre. Technology is moving so fast that you might think anyone without specialist qualifications would be regarded as unemployable. But this is not always the case, as most employers value someone with a good grounding in technical theatre, from which they can then develop their more specialised skill sets.

What are my training options?

Most colleges in the UK offer a range of level 1 performing arts courses covering drama, dance and musical theory. Those who are more interested in the technical side may go straight into a level 2 or 3 course in technical theatre, which cover the basics of backstage work such as lighting and sound. Depending on the course, students are awarded either an A level or diploma in their field of study.

What these don’t include, though, are other areas such as rigging, set design or costume work. For this, you would need to enrol in a more specialised course such as those run at universities or drama schools.

Stage management tutor Alistair Milne, from St Mary’s University in London, says: “Our modules start off with the basics over the first year such as lighting and sound, but then go into more detail in the second year, covering costume, stage management, set design and production management. We also do a separate module in TV Production, to give an indication as to how it differs from theatre.”

It used to be the case that drama schools would offer a more practical approach to training than universities, with universities offering a more academic approach. However, to provide a student with a degree, drama schools need to have their higher education validated by a university. This has led to drama schools increasing emphasis on the academic aspects of their courses, and many universities offering more practical courses.

Phil Rowe is technical manager at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He agrees that students who pass through his organisation are more geared towards the technological side of things. However, most of his recent intakes of students have “grown up in the digital age” and tend to be more experienced in using computers than the more hands-on aspects of technical theatre work. Occasionally, he will see someone who has little or no hands-on theatre experience yet wants to become a lighting designer. In cases like this, Rowe says Central helps students by “teaching them the craft basics first”.

Technical theatre students at St Mary’s University

In most university technical theatre courses, everyone must work on several shows a year as part of their degree. Students Jack Vertigan and Jessica Bowker, currently studying at St Mary’s, explain that for each show, they are assigned a skill, which changes per production. Both have found this a useful exercise, as it helps them decide whether or not they are interested in working in a particular field.

Vertigan wants to pursue a career in lighting and set design, while Bowker is interested in costume and stage management. Bowker says: “I started off as a performer before university and went into the technical side to try something new, though I didn’t like doing lighting.”

They both recognise that to secure employment you must be an all-rounder first for a few years and build up a reliable contacts book. Vertigan says: “It would just be too difficult if you start off specialised”.

As part of their modules, universities arrange for students to undertake work placements at different venues. With the right mindset and a ‘can do’ attitude, students may find themselves in more permanent employment at the end of their placement.

Gabriel Hipperson is a former student at St Mary’s who started his course aged 18. Two years later, he’s working as a flyman at the Lyric Theatre, after first doing two months general stage work at the venue. He feels the industry is a “social profession” and decided to “grab every opportunity, working day and night at gigs”, taking whatever he could.

Apprenticeships are also an increasingly popular route into the sector. Technical employers including Ambassador Theatre Group, White Light, the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre run apprenticeship schemes, as do many regional theatres.

The National College for the Creative Industries offers specialist technical production apprenticeships, as well as offering level 3 diplomas in performing and production arts. They also do level 4 professional diplomas in technical and production practice for the creative industries.

One of the key advantages of apprenticeships is that apprentices are paid and gain hands-on experience in their chosen field. The courses are also designed with input from employers, meaning that the skills you learn should be transferable to the workplace. They are, however, likely to have a more specific focus (and be shorter) than most university or drama school courses.

The government also runs a portal that helps applicants find suitable apprenticeships in their area of the country.

RADA’s Matt Leventhall: ‘Look for work experience on a tour, or at a regional theatre, not the West End’

Do I need a formal qualification to work in the industry?

Not necessarily. Work experience at a venue can be a good route into the industry. Even if a theatre does not offer an official scheme or apprenticeship, it’s worth contacting
them directly.

Most technicians you speak to will say the same thing: go to your nearest venue and offer your services. Tell them you want to learn and that you are happy to make tea, sweep the stage and generally get dirty, just so you can get experience. Some venues are happy to take on students as young as 16, but it’s unlikely they would be allowed to undertake all areas of stage work as some restrictions are in place: for example, they would not be able to work at height.

To get the best out of its employees and under a duty of care, a venue may send them on a specific course. This could include operating certain types machinery, or how to repair a piece of equipment. Any person can attend a course and you don’t have to be attached to a specific company or venue to qualify for a placement. If you fulfil the criteria required by the training provider and pay the fee, then you are entitled to enrol. These courses provide attendees with a certificate of attendance, which can be useful when applying for a new job.

If you are looking to undertake specific one-off courses, the Association of British Theatre Technicians runs a range of training schemes in subjects as diverse as electrics, flying and pyrotechnics safety.

What do employers want from theatre technicians?

Flexibility is key for most employers. Chris Davis is managing director of Devon productions and event hire company Showbitz. He learnt the ropes by assisting other technicians at Exeter’s Northcott Theatre.

Davis is clear that, as an employer, the most important thing is to have the right attitude and never be afraid to ask questions: “You’ll be expected to say ‘yes’ but don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ and offer an alternative option.” And if you are working somewhere new, he advises that the right thing to say is: “I know how to do it, but how do you want me to
do it here?”

Working backstage has certainly changed over the past 20 years, as Barney Meats, Salisbury Playhouse’s technical manager, observes. “There appears to be a generational difference between the old-school technicians and current college leavers,” he says – adding that he feels the industry is “no longer a smoking-and-drinking culture and that technicians of today are more health-conscious”.

Tom Sneddon from the adjoining City Hall feels that we are now in a more “trained industry”. He says: “Gone are the days of basics. We are in a world of textbook technicians who are fresh out of college with no real experience.”

Certainly, some in the industry are concerned that the balance has shifted too far towards theoretical training, and away from hands-on experience. Or as one technician put it: “The top schools are turning out 23-year-olds who are computer-savvy kids with no real-world experience.”

When applying for work, one piece of advice Davis has to offer is “don’t get your parents to write an application for you”. While this may seem to be an obvious assumption, he says this does happen and is “a big turn off”. It shows a prospective employer that you may not actually be willing to do the job. “I look for someone who is conscientious, able to work in a team and willing to learn,” he says.

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What else should I be asking myself if I want a backstage career?

Some people might believe theatre technicians lead a glamorous lifestyle. Working with famous people and operating complex systems can have an air of magic around it. But the reality can sometimes be the complete opposite. You may be asked to work in difficult or cramped conditions that could be in hot, dusty environments.

Dave Marsh is a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. He says that to work in this industry you “have to enjoy what you do, keep an open mind, and accept it will be hard work and long hours”.

If, however, you find yourself in a situation that may require union intervention, then BECTU is the official union for those working in technical roles in the media and entertainment industry.

Among other things, its key aims include protecting jobs and working conditions for people who work in non-performance roles in the UK. To gain full benefit of their services you would need to become a member. As well as being able to offer legal assistance, the union can also provide you with useful general advice.


Behind the scenes: a selection of technical roles

Students at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Lighting

There are many roles available in the world of lighting, ranging from lighting designer to followspot operator. The lighting designer is responsible for the overall artistic design of the lighting on a production and will liaise with the director and set, costume and sound designers to create the overall feel of a production. An electrician will be responsible for stage lighting equipment – and sometimes sound – as well as maintenance of the building’s electrical equipment, including cabling. They will also be required to do on-the-spot repairs quickly and safely.

Stage crew

This is where most people hone their craft and start their career: helping moving flight cases, building stages, loading and unloading trucks and so on. Offer to help others who already work in an area that interests you and ask them questions. Common sense and safety are paramount. If you are ever unsure about something, don’t be afraid to ask whoever you are working with. They may well have asked the same thing when they started out.

CSSD student at work. Photo: Patrick Baldwin

Stage management

The role of a stage manager can come with a huge level of responsibility. On a small production, they may be in control of everything from the safety of the performers on stage to ensuring all cues are on time. Bigger shows will have a larger team, with the deputy stage manager and one or more assistant stage managers helping run what’s on stage. Large-scale shows will also have a production manager.

Sound

A sound engineer operates the sound system and ensures those on stage are heard clearly. Getting the best out of your subject takes a good ear and years of experience. Knowledge of radio theory, acoustic technology and having a musical background can be an advantage.

Rigger

A rigger installs the safety lines and constructs the metal truss framework from which lighting and sound equipment is hung. They have a key role in hanging and securing most audiovisual equipment (and indeed anything that needs to be suspended) for a theatre show. It helps to be good at maths and engineering for this job. You need to have a head for heights as you will spend half of your career up in the air, moving around from one part of the rig to another.

Photo: Alex Brenner

Scenic design

The scenic designer works with the director to establish a visual concept for the production and design the stage environment. This will then be used by the production manager, set builder and scenic carpenters.

Fly crew

The fly crew lifts scenery vertically in and out of the stage area using a series of counterweights and pulleys. Often this is done at speed and requires a great deal of accuracy. These skills can take years to master. In newer venues, flying is often automated using motors controlled by an automation desk.


David Walker: my path to becoming a technician

I started out in 1983, at my local amateur dramatics society. After spending a few years on stage, I worked as a volunteer in my local theatre, where they taught me all the technical elements within the venue. There, I lit countless shows of which some were good and some bad – but overall it was a great experience.

My first real job was in the rental department of a theatre supplies company, starting at the bottom and working my way up. I was paid to take things apart and see how they worked – but of course I had to remember how to put it all back again. Unfortunately, after I moved to a different company some years later, it folded and I was left without work.

I moved to London for 10 years. There I worked on some great productions, met some wonderful people and increased my network of contacts. Throughout my career, I have tended to lean towards lighting and special effects, as this is what interested me the most. Now, I spend most of my time working in theatres, writing articles and appearing on the radio, which keeps me very busy.

My work has been seen all around the world and yet no one knows who I am, or that I was involved. And that’s why I do it – for the pleasure of others and the satisfaction of saying: “I did that.”



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