Backstage’s purpose is getting that show on stage

David Evans
David Evans is head of production at National Theatre Wales and is the co-founder of production and consultancy company Theatrical Solutions
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I have been working with some BTec students whose enthusiasm and interest was inspiring. A lot of work is, at long last, being done to bring younger people into our industry.

We were chatting about what they were learning and I was saddened to hear the only ones who knew how to throw a cleat were the ones who had worked in amateur theatre. All the others were well informed about the latest moving lights and digital sound desks, but were weak on stagecraft. Much of this is, of course, learnt on the job as many of the courses purport to turn out “lighting designers” and “production managers”, where are they going to learn? And, indeed, without such core knowledge – how useful will they be?

Is throwing a cleat an essential skill? Is being able to run a 6m flat? Is the ability to fly a hemp bar and tie off the lines onto the fly rail? They were essential 30 years ago but are they now?

Is focusing from a tallescope a required skill for a lighting technician? It is at the moment, as is the ability to wire a plug, but will they be required in ten years time? The skills deemed non-essential could be lost very swiftly. We already look at some of the effects that were performed on Victorian and Edwardian stages and have no idea how they were achieved. The dramatic lighting effects of a 1959 production of the Flying Dutchman could only be recreated because an academic had researched it – the knowledge was no longer within the pool of contemporary technicians.

[pullquote]All the dry training and multi-skilling must not be allowed to drown the extraordinary thing that happens on stage every night.[/pullquote]

Many venues are fielding multi-skilled technicians who may work as a lampy on Monday and be on the flyfloor on Tuesday, they may even be calling the show on Saturday. There are many good reasons for this approach, one is the up-skilling of the staff, and another is that it makes scheduling staff a lot easier. The downside is that none of them are specialists and even those that express a particular interest will not have the opportunity to develop that skill.

The industry needs new blood but we must be cautious. The influx of new, well-trained technicians can and should lead to an improvement in what we do. We must encourage them to bring a fresh eye to current practices and we must listen to them. However, we must be careful that the standards set for them are not too limiting. There is a fashion for targets throughout academia, in industry, in the medical profession and even for MPs, but the process of making something measurable – be it the training of a theatre technician or the amount of patients that a doctor sees in a morning, is a very blunt instrument. It is something that encourages standardisation and moderation where neither is helpful.

Our industry is changing and, as current incumbents, we can help it change for the good. There are increasing numbers of young well-trained individuals working in our theatres and within our theatre companies. They have achieved standards and passed exams and they will be safe on stage. But it is not just a job, it is a vocation.

The students I worked with participated in a two-day fit-up and they joined all the departments at various points during the process and they were great to have around. But it was all quite sensible and dry, until the end of the show which they watched. They were amazed, stunned and suddenly in awe. They were so familiar with the process that they had forgotten why it existed.

Theatre is magical and we all do it because it does something to us that we cannot find anywhere else, and all the dry training and multi-skilling must not be allowed to drown the extraordinary thing that happens on stage every night.