Having found his role in The Stage, technical manager Jason Wescombe has overseen 100 Almeida productions and is now working on Machinal. He tells Tim Bano how he fell into theatre through an unsuccessful student radio show
There’s a large frame on Jason Wescombe’s office wall, a collection of 14 posters from productions stretching back two decades at the Almeida theatre. They mark his favourite shows out of more than 100 he’s overseen as technical manager since joining the building 20 years ago.
“They aren’t necessarily the best shows, but the ones I’ve most enjoyed,” he says. King Charles III, written by Mike Bartlett, is on there – “fantastic acting and a really good script” – and James Graham’s Ink – “it actually made Rupert Murdoch vaguely sympathetic”. But there are less obvious choices too, such as Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw for its “fantastically clever” set design by Jonathan Fensom, and Jez Butterworth’s Parlour Song “because it had Toby Jones in it”.
As technical manager, Wescombe puts designers’ ideas into practice. “It’s the interface between the artistic side and the practical side: budgeting, working out what’s achievable in the time, what’s safe,” he says. His spiky hair, six inches high and bleached at the tips, quivers as he talks.
He inhabits an eyrie at the top of the Almeida, in which every spare inch is taken up with neatly coiled cables and carefully labelled drawers. It’s far removed from the rest of the staff offices, a few hundred metres along Islington’s Upper Street, but it does have the advantage of being attached to the auditorium.
In fact, walk through the office and you reach the tech box where Wescombe has spent a lot of time sitting snugly next to the deputy stage manager while they operate a show. It’s a relationship so intense that he says it’s quite common for technical crew and DSMs to get together. “My wife was a DSM, my lighting technician’s wife was a DSM. We spend a lot of time talking to them on cans.”
For Wescombe, his relationship with theatre started during a geography degree at the University of Manchester. His friend hosted a radio show that ran a weekly competition giving away theatre tickets. “Not that many people listened to his show and even fewer entered his competitions, so I saw loads of shows at the Royal Exchange as a prize winner. I’d never thought it would be a profession or a job or anything like that. It was just a good Friday night out.”
Born: Preston, Lancashire, 1966
Training: No formal theatre training – geography BA (hons) from University of Manchester
• All My Sons, Watford Palace Theatre (1992)
• Hamlet, Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, London (1994)
• Festen, Almeida Theatre, London (2004)
• Ruined, Almeida Theatre, London (2010)
• King Charles III, Almeida Theatre, London (2014)
After graduating he worked in the Watford Palace Theatre bar, his local, and every few weeks they would need people to move scenery. He was a willing and capable volunteer, and eventually rose from bar manager to chief electrician. When the Palace went dark during the summers he would decamp to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, even touring The Taming of the Shrew to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Syria. “One venue was in the open air in Damascus, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. But it’s not there anymore.”
Then in 1998 he saw a job advertised in The Stage and applied to the Almeida, where he’s been ever since. Day to day it involves a lot of upkeep, looking after the electrical and technical infrastructure of the building. “This morning I was doing a fire alarm test, then I had to mend a switch-over unit in the emergency lighting.”
Once each production is up and running, a lot of Wescombe’s job is babysitting. For a show such as Machinal, the Almeida’s latest production, there is such a huge amount of furniture being pulled on and off stage at very high speed that things are always breaking.
When gearing up for a show, Wescombe will oversee the rigging, focusing and plotting of the lights, the sound team, the staff technicians and the casuals. During his 20 years the rapid advances in technology, particularly when it comes to lighting, have made his job a lot easier in many ways, but they also present problems.
“Every time new technology comes out everyone sidesteps around it because you don’t want to invest all your money in something that is going to be the Betamax version. If you walk into White Light or Stage Electrics there are racks full of the wrong choices,” he says.
“For Machinal, I approached a company at the beginning of rehearsals and said: ‘We’re thinking of this’, and they sent me a sample. Four weeks later they stopped selling it because the technology had moved so quickly, they had a better one.”
He reaches into a box behind his desk, full of strips of tape in tidy rows, and pulls one out. “This is what it was originally going to be.” It’s a strip with tiny LED bulbs every inch or so. He pulls out another tape. “Now this is what we’re using. Eight per inch, that’s how close the LEDs are. When you turn it on full and look at it you get blinded by white lines. In the show it barely gets to 10% of its full brightness. When I started you wouldn’t get anything like that.”
So that new technology was effectively untried? “Don’t tell the designer,” Wescombe laughs, “but there were a lot of fingers crossed.”
‘This is our work. We found the play, cast, designers. Then another producer comes in and gets the glory’
As well as trying out new kit, a lot of the job is about keeping the theatre’s old equipment working. Sometimes that divides his loyalties, forcing him to choose between production and building, but his attachment is ultimately to the building.
“People often ask if they can cut something in half or paint something. Well, actually, no, it belongs to the theatre,” the technical manager says. “You don’t want to say ‘no’ all the time because sometimes they’re really creative ideas, but you’ll get left with something you can’t use for the benefit of the next five shows or the next 50 shows. So it’s got to be to the theatre rather than the production.”
It means that, as delighted as a show might be with a West End transfer, it causes problems for Wescombe: “We buy equipment for a show and then if it transfers you lose it.” He’s also concerned that transfers “ride the coat-tails” of subsidised labour. “This is our work. We found the play, the cast, the designers, and we’re subsidised by the taxpayer. Then some other producer comes in and gets the glory.”
As the man in charge of drawing up the timetables and looking after the theatre’s casual technical staff, Wescombe is acutely aware of how much work they put in, and how little credit they get if something transfers. “If we do a show and an outside commercial producer comes along, they are benefiting from the taxpayers’ funding. The directors and the designers get royalties and get more money for doing that show, which doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the other staff.”
As well as more than 100 productions, Wescombe has seen the Almeida go through massive changes. There was a refurbishment in 2001, “which gave us a roof that kept the rain out, electricity that was on all the time, that sort of thing”.
As well as the highs there have been grim moments. A particular low point was at the turn of the century, when he found himself lying on top of a scaffolding tower spraying the ceiling of the derelict Gainsborough Film Studios (now flats) black in the bitter cold for Jonathan Kent’s productions of Richard II and Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes. “We ended up so cold and covered in black paint. It was soul-destroyingly poor.”
But even after all this time Wescombe loves what he does. The natural progression, he explains, would be to become a production manager. But he worries the role would be too far removed from the live nature of theatre – and that’s what he enjoys about his job. He operated the first preview of Machinal a few weeks ago, which he’d not done for a while. “The adrenaline is still there,” he says, “and it’s still the most exciting thing ever.”
Machinal is at the Almeida until July 21
What was your first non-theatre job?
Assistant in a camping shop.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant bar manager, Watford Palace Theatre, 1988.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
A) Be nice to the cleaners, box office staff and bar staff, they can make your life so much easier.
B) Don’t knock panto, it can be the highest art form on stage.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My first chief electricians, Huw and Paul, and “old school” lighting designers such as Lenny Tucker and Mick Hughes, they always had time – absolute gentlemen.
If you hadn’t been a technical manager, what would you have been?
Chef, it’s not that far away from theatre – a nightly performance for a critical audience.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?