A childhood love of theatre has led Chris Durant to one of the most high-profile jobs in technical theatre at leading North East venue Northern Stage. He gives Tracey Sinclair an insight into what it takes to keep a production running smoothly and explains why inter-theatre cooperation suits his philosophy of openness
Northern Stage production manager Chris Durant inherited his love of theatre from his parents. “My mum did wardrobe and my dad did set design and construction at Bingley Little Theatre,” he says. “So we were exposed to theatre when we were really young.”
That love has blossomed into a career, one he’s built on his own terms and has led to one of the most prestigious jobs in technical theatre in the North East. “I’ve had no formal training,” he says. “It’s all been school of life – being in the right place at the right time, asking questions, watching people. Wherever I go, I learn something from somebody. You see other people doing things and think: ‘That’s really clever, I’ll copy that.’”
Durant’s first practical experience with theatre came at his school’s arts centre. But it was joining the theatre society at Newcastle University that changed everything, as he subsequently abandoned his degree in electronic and electrical engineering. After the society did some shows at the city’s Live Theatre, “I very cheekily asked if they had any jobs. They said: ‘Yes, we need some help building a set.’ The rest is history.”
After temporary jobs with Live, he became its touring stage manager. That led to him becoming a regular technician for the venue and then technical manager. But it was a ‘side’ role that led to a position at one of the North East’s landmark venues.
“I was consultant to Folkworks [which promotes the folk music of the North East], which was in the design process for Sage Gateshead. I was encouraged to apply for head of technical operations.”
Durant worked at the building for more than 12 years, often on music shows including classical music concerts and festivals, such as production-managing the BBC’s 6 Music Festival there, as well as on West Side Story. He then moved to Northern Stage in early 2016, drawn by the chance to indulge his love of theatre and the variety it involves. “There’s only so many ways you can do a gig. In theatre – certainly the way we produce theatre – there’s very little chance you’ll do the same from one show to the next.” He picks out productions including A Christmas Carol and Dr Frankenstein as recent highlights.
At Northern Stage, Durant runs a team of 13 full-time staff. “It’s quite big for a receiving theatre, but we’re also producing shows and supporting the education programmes,” he says. The pride of the production team is the new workshop that allows it to construct in-house, which was moved from smaller, temporary premises in 2017. It was both a creative and an economic decision. “Outsourcing all of our work would give us fewer creative options and probably be more expensive overall because of the cost of having to buy sets, and having to fit with other people’s time frames,” Durant says.
“Here we can develop with the designer through rehearsals, whereas if we were working with a building in Manchester or London, we might have a three-week opportunity to build the set and if you want to make tweaks afterwards, there’s no chance. We could have decided to close it, but I don’t think we would ever have got it back. That’s the really hard decision that theatres are facing.”
This larger space came in handy for Northern Stage’s most recent show, A Thousand Splendid Suns, a co-production with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and in a associations with Nuffield Southampton Theatres. The play, adapted from Khaled Hosseini’s novel set in 1992 Afghanistan, required a large and complicated set. It had to be built in pieces in Newcastle and then assembled in Birmingham for the cast to rehearse on.
It’s a perfect example of the demands of a touring show – the set had to accommodate the more-than-six-metre difference between the largest stage of the tour and the smallest. “The set was designed so it could be reduced – two metres on each side were optional. We were going to have them in Birmingham and Newcastle, but not anywhere else.”
The aim with such a set, Durant says, is to minimise changes between theatres. “To make a touring show universal is really hard. What you are trying to do is change the fewest number of variables. We try to keep it so the actors’ journeys are as similar as they can be. The ideal is a show that can sit in a smaller venue but has the ability to flex into the bigger venue without changing what the performance area feels like. That’s the real challenge.”
This play is a good example of cooperation between theatres. “If you were producing this commercially, it would probably cost twice as much. Birmingham’s in-house department did wardrobe, we made the set – that ‘in-kind’ contribution is golden.”
This way of working suits Durant’s philosophy of openness. “I share everything. The more information you share with people, the more they can engage with it. I use Basecamp project management software, so you can invite people into the project from the different theatres involved. All those people can see it, but we flag specific pieces of information for specific people.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
Making sets at Bingley Little Theatre.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked as an administration assistant in the VAT office over a summer holiday when I was 17 – it was the worst job ever.
What is your next job?
The Snow Queen, this Christmas, is the next really big job.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Some days you’ll get things wrong and do things that aren’t up to the standards you set yourself, but you learn from them and do it better next time.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
I have looked up to loads of people. We went on loads of tours before we opened Sage Gateshead, including Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, where Miriam Stone was technical manager at the time. Her crew really liked working for her because she looked after them, trained them, respected them and backed them up. People like that, they’re the people you want to be like.
What’s your best advice?
I have a couple of personal mantras: Don’t say no, say how. I nicked that off a health and safety inspector I met. Don’t instinctively say you don’t know how to do things, it’s about looking for ways of solving stuff. And every day’s a school day. The day I stop learning, absorbing new techniques or new methods is the day I’m going to go sit on a beach.
If you hadn’t been a production manager, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I like to go out and hear the applause on the first night. Backstage teams aren’t thanked enough. The actors get the applause, but it is for everyone who works on a show. So I take a moment for myself and pass that thanks on to my team.
Being a production manager involves constant juggling. “All the time you’re fixing little things, some of which feel hugely important at the time.” Although he’s “never had a technical stop”, there were some tricky moments in the early days at Sage Gateshead – not least because they were given the building only a week before opening, not the six months initially planned. “The whole opening weekend was a wing and a prayer,” Durant laughs. Logistics are always a concern: a recent show saw the crew waiting in Newcastle to unpack a truck that had accidentally been sent to Felixstowe.
Sometimes frustrations turn out to be beneficial, as on A Thousand Splendid Suns: “The challenge [of such a set] is that you have to spend a lot of time reblocking the cast’s positions and relighting the two versions. It puts a lot of pressure on the performers and lighting team. After the first preview performance in Birmingham, the director [Roxana Silbert] said: ‘I think we should cut the side extension pieces and continue with the smaller touring version.’
“It caught us a little by surprise and was a bit disappointing – only one audience saw the big set – but the show is better for it,” Durant continues. “We saved ourselves loads of pain later in the run. We were able to refine just one version of the show and the actors and lighting designer didn’t have to make as many changes to blocking between theatres. It’s like ripping the plaster off – it heals faster. It was a strong decision made at the right time.”
Durant’s plans to develop his department are tied to his values of collaboration and innovation, and this includes using the workshop better. “We’re having conversations with several theatres, exploring options where we might build their sets. We’re not looking to become fully commercial – the aim is that the workshop is almost cost-neutral rather than a profit-making enterprise.”
He’s also alive to the possibilities of new technology and the impact it can have on theatre productions. “We’re looking at how you can get a creative team to visualise what a 3D environment is going to be like, right from the start. We’re hoping to explore virtual-reality options for a director.”
Another important thing, for someone who learnt to love the theatre at a young age, is Northern Stage’s education programme and opening the eyes of potential new technical theatre recruits. “We recently had 11 young people in for a week’s work experience,” he says. “Some had never been to the theatre before. We got all these notes saying: ‘I’ve never had confidence like I did this week’ and ‘I didn’t know theatre had jobs like this’. We genuinely changed their lives.”
Born: 1974, Keighley (near Bradford)
• James and the Giant Peach (2016)
• Julie (2016)
• Dr Frankenstein (2017)
• A Christmas Carol (2018)
• West Side Story (2012)