A Foot in the (stage) Door: The start of a stage crew’s career

Art Walker used to say: “The worker that watches the clock, will always remain the hand”.

For 8 years I took the lead in the fly-floor as head Flyman, and I got good at it (if I do say myself). There’s a skill to all theatre flying but hemp house flying is an especially unique skill. I took great pride in my role. I trained to be able to lift more, I thoroughly planned my shows, I kept calm under pressure and I learnt to dead a pantomime alone using just the show video monitor. This is maybe something only a flyman can relate to, but levelling 26x 80-100kg cloths to be an inch off the ground so they settle perfectly and then flying them out before a three show day is one of the most physical challenges I mastered (survived).

I worked at the Theatre Royal Lincoln for many years as head Flyman and earned a full-time wage working maintenance shifts (day-man). This was all as a casual crew member (referred to as zero hour contracts nowadays) but I loved the lifestyle and it suited me at the time. The maintenance shifts certainly helped boost the income and kept me in work when the shows slowed down. From early on, Art saw me as a valuable member of his team and helped me develop from a skinny 17-year-old without the ability to hold a drill to a slightly more bulked out 18-year-old who had learnt quickly, shown both availability and commitment and earned my place in the team.

The industry has changed a lot since then. I think it is safe to say that since the recession hit the scale of production in shows has noticeably reduced. Until about 2008, we had 45ft artic lorries (often two per show) at the load-in doors. They were filled with large sets, lighting rigs and their own PA systems. The scene dock would be filled to the rafters with empty flight cases. It would be common to carry a 6ft Midas mixer up our impractical victorian stairs to the circle mixing position. Monday mornings at 8am or 9am were the beginning of the fit-up for the week long run. It was even common to have visiting concerts touring with articulated lorries. I’m not talking the ‘big name’ concerts that still do that today, I’m talking about the Abba tribute shows, etc. I can’t speak for many other venues, but that scaled down to the one or two Mercedes Sprinter vans that are common to see touring today. This certainly put the emphasis on the venue to add production to the shows, which is a topic certainly worth an article of its own. Now, for the smaller regional theatre, the week long run is a thing of the past. It’s all about the one night show. And the 9am start… it still happens, but it is time for the crew to pre-rig and focus ahead of the visiting company’s arrival around midday. Obviously, this is a generalisation and I’m sure it’s not across the board but certainly evident from my experience. I suppose this arrangement is more civilised for the crew, but certainly reduces the satisfaction of working a large two-day fit-up and basking in full houses for the rest of the week, before the inevitable get out on Saturday night.

There seemed to be much more crew available 10 years ago, which I attribute to the improvements made in the technical equipment. I have always considered the technical team having two subdivisions; crew and technicians. Both absolutely invaluable in their own right. A technician being a member of the team that uses the technical equipment, a crew member being there for duties such as building the set and stage management responsibilities. Since the recession kicked in, audience numbers declined and cutbacks were required. Suddenly, the need to transition from ‘crew’ to ‘technician’ became apparent. Scenery scaled back, lighting improved, projection was used more, suddenly a crew member had less to do and a technician had more… and I wanted to be in the ‘more work’ category. This obviously depends on the venue; my current venue is a modern multipurpose theatre with motorised bars and a tension wire grid staffed with ‘technicians’, because we don’t have much requirement for a crew that lack the skill set to operate our lighting and audio equipment. Whereas my old venue, the traditional victorian theatre down the road, requires both technicians and crew as it still has its hemp-house fly-floor and larger stage scenery. The show wouldn’t go on without the crew. But the frequency for this requirement has decreased.

I am one of the lucky individuals that managed to merge passion and profession and make it a career. How? Well, I haven’t been perfect. I’ve made mistakes, big ones and small, some that I wish I could go back and change, some I laugh about and some I just have to shrug off. One important one on reflection was that my time keeping wasn’t always up to scratch, and I used to like to socialise… a little too much. This often lead to the activation of the snooze button. However, one thing I did commit to was helping Art Walker to power down and lock-up at the end of every shift. In my early days, I wasn’t always the first in but I was always the last to leave.

A quick side not on lateness and general punctuality. DON’T BE LATE! If there is one thing that will affect you reputation and personal brand and potentially end your career early; it’s turning up late. I got lucky but I’ve learnt from it. I am now incredibly strict on show fit-up days and expect my staff to have opened up, powered up and had their coffee before 8:55am, so 9am starts can kick off on the dot. I must say, they are all very good at it.

When touring, I used to hate turning up at a venue for a 9am start and getting there before the venue staff, or seeing the venue staff walk in at 9am but still have to put their boots on, take their bag and coat off and power-up. This was more common then you would think. I called these experiences ‘Bad day warnings’; hints of the turbulent day to come. I could always tell how the fit-up would go within the first 15 mins at the venue.

I accepted my first tour aged 20. It was a National tour of ‘Star Quality’ with the potential to go into the West End. For my first fit up, I had to be in Richmond London for a 9am fit up. I had always planned on staying nearby the night before but my love interest at the time ‘persuaded’ me to stay and drive down early in the morning. Stupidly, I agreed. I left at 4:30am to do a 3 hour journey. I hit delays on the M1 of 5 hours. Rookie mistake never to be repeated. I was lucky to get away lightly with that one. The feeling I got as I walked into the theatre with the lorry half unloaded and the looks of disapproval from everyone was enough to teach me a valuable lesson. Get a good nights sleep in a hotel the night before. After this incident, I used to use late rooms and find four star hotels for £30 a night. Bargain. This allowed me to head to the theatre, Starbucks coffee in hand, fresh and ready for the day ahead.

There was one occasion (later in my career) that I chose to sleep in my car in a service station car park to save a little money as I had my wedding to pay for. I learnt that this was not a wise idea. My boss docked me £50 for not staying in a hotel, I didn’t sleep well and 10 days later I received a fine of £90 for staying longer than 2 hours in the services car park. My shrewd sacrifice backfired.

I share these trials and tribulations to try to save you from making similar errors in judgement. It’s easily done.

On my first tour, I even performed (a little) as an acting ASM and even better then that, it paid well, much more then I was getting as a casual. However, this tour didn’t work out.

To be honest, I missed the Theatre Royal and at this stage in my life I found touring massively daunting. So week three, I had a chat with the producer/director about my concerns and I honestly thought he would never employ me again, but turns out the tour was losing money and the idea of saving my wage was one he liked. So we ended on good terms and he employed me full time later in my career.

Which surprised me after an unfortunate incident that occurred on the press night. The set was made up of trucks that rotated and flats that swung out and drop-bolted into position. When these flats were closed, they were held in place by elastic bungee and a screw eye. Simple, but effective. We had put the set up in the morning and so the lighting designer, Dave North, was using the afternoon to light the show. I was on stage moving the trucks and flats as required, in the dark of course. Doing it in total darkness and discovering the bungee just so happened to be attached at eye level, I felt a whack to the eye and saw a huge white star flashed brightly in the darkness. The bungee had pinged off the screw eye and propelled itself into my eye, which of course was wide open and couldn’t see it coming. I staggered helplessly around the stage, embarrassed and unable to open my eye. I literally thought I had been blinded. The wonderful first aider at Richmond theatre helped me out and after what was probably an hour, I could open my eye again. Fixed, or so I thought. Press night and the theatre was full. In the dark of the wings I could see perfectly. In the show, I had to go on multiple times and perform in the background and do live scene changes. My first scene, a garden party. I stood on stage in front of all those people in the audience in a lighting state that felt light a midsummer’s day in the Caribbean and my eye began to twitch, that turned to a weep and then before I knew it, my eye was red and streaming with tears, with absolutely no way to hide it. Talk about upstaging the leading lady. The audience must have thought I had a really exciting subplot coming up later in the play. I can still hear the director way back in the circle muttering “What the f*$% does he think he’s doing?”.

To my relief, I was welcomed back to the Theatre Royal.

The reason I included this is because it’s important to know that things will work and things won’t, some will go right and some will fail on an epic scale. But always be polite, respectful and communicate, and even if it goes horribly wrong, your reputation and integrity should get out of the situation unscathed. Always consider your professional reputation; you will quickly learn that it’s your reputation and personality that gets you the work. After all, everyone can make a mistake.

Before too long, Art Walker went through a stage of illness and I stepped in for a few weeks as acting stage manager. Much to everyone’s relief, he recovered quickly and came back. The legendary Art Walker didn’t believe in days off.

A few years passed and Art eventually retired. I aspired for the Stage Manager position. I had the experience now (or so I thought) and desperately hoped to have the accolade to say I was Art’s prodigy and replacement and what I would imagine to be one of the youngest venue stage managers in the country, aged 21 . But that title went to a less experienced individual from Ware. Unfortunately, he made a number of mistakes in his first year and it is safe to say, quickly found himself out of his depth. I was employed in my first permanent full time post as Deputy Stage Manager. Admittedly, I spent a lot of my time teaching him the job. He actually became a great friend and although not very experienced in theatre at the time, he had the people skills to blag the ____ out of it!

I was once given a piece of advice by a mentor, “Specialise in one thing”. I didn’t want to take this onboard at the time, I considered it far more important to have a broad spectrum of skills. The truth is, I did specialise in one thing, unknowingly. I found myself taking the lighting route, trying to add my own original touches to shows. I eventually got the opportunity to light my first show, an Easter pantomime. I say ‘light’ loosely; I lit it so badly. It must have been so dark. I had a lot to learn. Back then, I found myself only focusing on the lighting, the action on stage was just going on around it. I have huge appreciation for Chris Moreno for giving me that opportunity, although it got me no other lighting design work, it gave me the ambition to grow my understanding and get better. And I have. I read books, observed lighting and experimented. And 5 years later, I found myself as a lighting designer on a good number of UK national tours.

In my period leading up to working as a lighting designer, I spent 18 months touring as the lighting engineer on a fantastic Motown show called ‘How Sweet It Is’. The people were great and I loved the show. I never got board of watching and listening to the same songs. This was an exceptional experience and the difference in my ability from when I started to when I left was huge. There really isn’t a better or faster way of gaining theatre experience than touring. You get to pick up so many gems of knowledge from all over the UK.

Working in a theatre is an excellent way to meet people and get a job on tour. It’s important to both work hard and socialise and show visitors and colleagues that you will be an asset on tour, not only for your quality work and commitment but your personality too.

I continued to work hard and developed my skills. I took on every job that I could and made a number of mistakes along the way. The frustrating thing is that people remember the mistakes more than the successes. I even began rekindling an old ability in art. I took on a project to paint pantomime scenery with a close friend and colleague. Everyday remained a day to learn something new. Whether that was a skill in something or learning something about myself, such as the fact that I’m most productive when I have no time left, or that communication is the golden solution (I’m still working on this one).

The truth is, there’s a thousand ways to start in the industry, there’s a million paths to choose from. I’m happy with where I’ve got within technical theatre but I could have developed so much sooner, been more professional and advanced my career if I had access to the information that the ProRefero community wants to share.

Information such as:

  • Career stories
  • Audition techniques
  • Creating a theatre company
  • Training pathways
  • Creating your personal brand
  • Support on being self employed
  • Theatre contracts and what to expect
  • Organising your business
  • Support for your business
  • Marketing information
  • Reviews
  • Tutorials
  • And much more.

I have begun building the community of contributors to the ProRefero project. I really thought that this would be a really hard sell, but to my delight, so many of the incredibly experienced professionals I have had the pleasure of working with have expressed their approval for the project and offered to help. I’m really excited to see what ProRefero can become. To make that happen, I need your support. Please subscribe to make sure the future articles that these professionals are creating get the viewers they deserve.

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