RSC automation technician Simon Crowley: ‘I thrive on the pressure when big audiences turn up’
Automation specialist Simon Crowley is responsible for ensuring the scene changes at the Royal Shakespeare Company are seamless. He tells Nick Smurthwaite about the difference between working in the West End and Stratford-upon-Avon and learning everything he knows on Lord of the Rings
Blank looks usually greet Simon Crowley when he tells people what he does for a living. Being an automation technician for the Royal Shakespeare Company sounds like a contradiction in terms. Shakespeare and automation? Strange bedfellows, you might imagine. Whatever happened to two planks and a passion?
“What you have to remember is that every production of Shakespeare we do here is a re-imagining,” Crowley tells me in a break in technical rehearsals for The Merry Wives of Windsor in Stratford-upon-Avon. “Every director brings his or her new ideas or concept to the show.”
In the case of The Merry Wives, Shakespeare’s only full-on comedy, director Fiona Laird and designer Lez Brotherston seek to combine old and new, modern and traditional, both in the costumes and the sets. So there is Tudor-style architecture incorporated into the design, but with an LED-illuminated modern twist.
One way of making scene changes more seamless is automation. Or as Crowley tells those with blank looks at social occasions, “moving sets, scenery and actors around the stage using winches, motors and computers”.
Crowley is part of a team of six automation engineers and technicians who are responsible for implementing and operating all the RSC’s automated machinery, which, if not quite as whizzy as the West End’s finest, shows that the Stratford theatre has moved with the times. The set for Merry Wives includes two revolves and a hydraulic lift, which ensure smooth and swift scene changes.
Each member of the automation team is assigned a show at the start of the season, then given a brief for what’s needed automation-wise. After that, it’s down to them to make it happen. But they also help each other out when necessary, working as a tight knit, interdependent team.
There is limited use of automation at the Swan, but it has become an important feature of design concepts in the main house. The freelance designers who work regularly at the RSC know mostly what is and is not possible on the main stage.
“We are usually brought in at the white card meeting where the designer shows how the design will work with the model box they’ve made,” says Crowley. “I don’t get involved in the design or building of the set, but we often need to talk to the design team in the planning stage to work out the type of motor, brake and gearbox, or how much weight the lift will need to carry, as well as the control and safety measures required for each mechanism.”
He continues: “The RSC doesn’t make a big feature of automation, like some West End musicals, it just tries to use it in the service of the production and the play. The main difference between working on automation with the RSC and the West End is that a London producer is only concerned with putting on one show at a time, whereas the RSC has to think about a whole season. So, for Merry Wives, I was told there would be a lift, two revolves and three flying pieces, and it’s my job to make sure it all fits with the other shows in the season, and that they all work together.”
A crucial part of his job is to make sure everything is completely safe by running through procedures and performing checks before each performance. He points out that you can’t mess around with a one-tonne lift. The team has to be absolutely certain that nobody, either cast or operators, can be injured at any stage of its operation.
“We are responsible for risk management and ensuring that the moving pieces of a show are as safe as is practicably possible,” he says. “Safety measures are carefully documented.”
So how does Crowley come to be a senior automation technician at one of the UK’s leading theatres? It has been a circuitous journey, he says. Always attracted to the theatre – he did amdram as a youngster in north-west London where he grew up – Crowley became an estate agent for a couple of years after leaving school at 18, before deciding to try to find a way of making a living out of his hobby. Starting at the bottom, he got a job stacking chairs at the Royal Albert Hall.
He says: “I had no formal training but I was quite confident, hard-working and strong. My first big West End show was as crew swing on The Lion King in 2006. It was pretty much the last big musical to have manual flying, so I spent much of my time pulling on ropes, which was hard work but enjoyable.”
Q&A: Simon Crowley
What was your first non-theatre job?
Sales assistant in a camping shop in Harrow.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Casual technician at the Royal Albert Hall.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not to worry about things going wrong. I learned to take it in my stride.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The drum revolve in Wind in the Willows at the National in 1990. It’s the only thing I remember about the show.
What’s your best advice for working backstage?
Always be on time.
If you hadn’t been an automation technician, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
The following year, he moved from The Lion King to the £12.5 million musical version of Lord of the Rings, which he describes as “the most state-of-the-art show I’ve worked on to date, with 16 hydraulic lifts, three revolves and airborne actors”. It was his first show as an automation technician and he learned virtually everything he knows on the job.
Since then, Crowley has specialised in automation and flying, working with Stage Technologies for two years before joining the RSC in 2017. Comparing the RSC’s automation capability to that of the West End, Crowley says it is “substantially better in some ways, but limited in others”.
He continues: “Because the RSC has its own design workshop, metal workshop, carpenters and fitters, everything is done in-house, which makes everything easier. You can take a really complicated design, build it, install it, get it moving and test it, which is great. In the West End, you get an outside contractor to do everything, which is a longer and more complicated affair.
“If the RSC overextends itself, which happens rarely, then we have to bring in outside people, but that isn’t the case with the automation department. We buy in the equipment but the application and operation of it is all done in-house by the team.”
Few theatres have the resources to sustain a six-strong automation team, let alone all the expensive kit needed to meet the designer’s requirements. So does Crowley see himself remaining at the RSC?
He says: “I have a young family and Stratford-upon-Avon is a lovely place to bring up kids. My wife works locally and my eldest is about to start reception. I’m very happy to have this job and be in this part of the world.” The only way to do bigger would be to go international. “I’m not in the right place to do that,” he adds.
“When I was younger, I’d get bored working on the same show night after night, but there is too much to do here to get bored,” Crowley says. “I love the tech rehearsals and programming shows. When you start previews, you know there are 1,000 people outside waiting to see the show. It has to work and it has to work now. I thrive on that level of pressure and I don’t get flustered if something goes wrong. That’s quite important in this job.”
CV: Simon Crowley
Born: 1982, Brent, London
• The Lion King, Lyceum Theatre (2006-07)
• Lord of the Rings, Theatre Royal Drury Lane (2007-08)
• Hairspray, Shaftesbury Theatre (2008-09)
• Betty Blue Eyes, Novello Theatre (2011)
• Stage Technologies (2015-17)
• Royal Shakespeare Company, 2017-present
The Merry Wives of Windsor is running in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until January 2019