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Wiring Matters

Wiring Matters - Winter Issue 2016

Backstage at the theatre: what it takes to power a show

In the Autumn issue of Wiring Matters, ABTT member James Eade caught up with Nick Mumford, Martin Chisnall, Pete Lambert and Robin Barton to talk about their experiences in theatre. In this issue, he chats to them about their best and worst memories, and their advice to those who want to work in theatre.

Memories are made of these...

Sometimes work throws up some memorable events and we asked what ones stuck out in the minds of the four. For Robin:

“This is always a difficult question to answer as most shows are memorable for a variety of reasons; the people involved, the effects, that music or sometimes the show! The show that just edges to the top for me is the launch of the Cultural Olympiad in Ironbridge. I was the technical project manager and had an amazing team that created a huge lighting installation covering many of the sites in the Ironbridge Gorge area.  To work in the presence of engineering greats is always a special experience.”

Pete thinks his was “the original London Lion King; there's not many shows now that use a thousand channels of dimming! It was a challenge of a scale that hasn't really happened since. I'm pleased to say that it's all still there and working. As far as pure enjoyment goes, I'd have to say my favourite was the production of Once, which we started at the Gaiety in Dublin and moved into the Phoenix theatre. It was a beautiful show with virtually no technology and a really talented creative team and cast.”

Photo of a lighting rig and set  

For Nick it was “probably one called Moon Water by Cloudgate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. It was a dance piece that used tai-chi and martial arts as the basis for a lot of the physical movement. Over the course of the last forty minutes of the show, water was trickled slowly onto the dancing surface, until by the end of the show the whole performing area was covered in a small lake a centimetre or two deep. There was a mirrored ceiling to the set and a mirrored back wall, so the dancers' reflections could be seen in those and on the water's surface. It looked incredible – as they were executing their martial arts moves water was flying through the air and being caught in the sidelight. It made for a pretty unnerving time electrically though! From the enormous water tank behind the back wall containing a 63 A three-phase heater, to the lighting booms each side of the stage just metres away from the flying water, it was certainly one to have your wits about you as the electrician (to say the least).”

But those national spectaculars are generally always high up the list, as Nick explains:

“My most memorable show overall was definitely being part of the scenic lighting team for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic ceremonies.  Some pretty wacky projects to light up as part of a team of really positive and proud professionals. Pretty much everyone felt good about that one!”

Uh-oh…

Conversely we’ve all had moments when it doesn’t go according to plan and a show is memorable for the wrong reasons. The passage of time often puts a rosy haze over memories of such events, but when they do happen it can be deeply embarrassing; so we asked the guys if they’ve had any jobs where they wished they’d stayed at home, such as when the curtains have closed early or they’ve sat there for the entire show holding something together with gaffer tape…

For Martin the answer was:

“Not as a result of anything I've done directly” (which did beg the question about what he may have done indirectly…). “After all, part of my job is ensuring that the lighting rigs I am responsible for work safely and reliably with no chance of stopping the show. There have been a few situations outside my control, and it often involves doing shows abroad running from generators. Like the time mid-matinee where the generator bloke turned up to refill the fuel tank and just turned it off mid-show…!

“There was another time when I had installed a show in a theatre in Moscow. I had been back at home for several weeks when I got a report that they had lost a show because the lighting desk had broken. When I asked why the show had not continued on the backup desk, it eventually transpired that the producers, who had never wanted to pay for a backup, had hired it out to another show!”

Photo of lighting rig  

Pete was a little coy:

“I’ve worked on plenty of duds – I’m not willing to mention them though.” As a testament to the technical crews, he did take an audience member’s perspective. “My biggest bugbear is when shows get delayed or cancelled for ‘technical reasons’. It is very rarely a technical problem. I wish producers, directors etc. would just own up to the fact they just aren't ready to do a show because they've either run out of time or ideas. Or in a recent case at the Savoy, the cast weren't in a fit state to go on stage. Stop blaming the technicians!”

Robin has also been incredibly lucky in his career, but acknowledged:

“We all have ‘moments’! Over the years, you become good at wing-and-prayer fixes using whatever is to hand.  I have never had to bring a show down early, although I have had some close calls – such as doing an event on a Royal Navy warship where the power kept going off until a junior rating helped us out by changing the supply fuses.  Shortly after that there was a small fire, but we were back up and running quickly ...”

For Nick there’ve been “lots of minor hiccups! But nothing too dramatic I don't think. Quite a few years ago I watched the stage plunge into complete darkness on the last lighting cue of the opening number of a musical.  An adjustable RCD at the venue covering the whole stage lighting supply was set too low for the cumulative effects of the earth leakage from all our equipment. What should have been a very bright lighting state, snapping up quickly for the freeze-frame moment at the end of the high-octane opening number, ended up being somewhat less than impressive.  Cue my colleague's seemingly slow motion comedy run back towards the stage ...”

Getting started in the business

We asked how the four got started in the industry as there isn’t a tried-and-tested route. Robin was involved in amateur theatre from his childhood and loved working backstage. After gaining A-levels and a degree in Electronic System Design Engineering (“this was a great course where we covered many areas of engineering and learnt how to make things work in the real world”) he landed a job at a leading exhibition company. This involved travelling the globe installing high-end exhibition stands with a lot of ground-breaking technology. “I learnt a lot about problem solving during that time – when you are on your own in a far-flung location you have to make it work.  From there, I moved into events and then theatre, learning all the way.”

For Pete it started at school before “going on a course run by the ABTT. The course gave you electrical qualifications as well as direct contact with the industry on a daily basis. It was pretty cool being lectured by the man that invented the Patt 23!” [The Patt 23 is an iconic early lighting fixture made by Strand Lighting.]

Martin’s interest was first sparked at school. “I was quite good at chemistry and the chemistry teacher also 'did the lighting' for school plays. Mr. Davidson has a lot to answer for! During the school summer holidays I joined The National Youth Theatre (NYT), then based in London at The Shaw Theatre. There I met Jerry Hodgson, the NYT Chief Electrician. When I dropped out of University (Electronic Engineering – far too much maths), Gerry had moved to The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, and he offered me my first job. So there was no formal training or qualifications, just being in the right place and knowing the right people.”

In terms of careers advice to budding production electricians, Pete says that you should “get some electrical education, even if it's only the basics. I meet so many people that have done a three-year lighting course/degree and they can't calculate the load of a single lamp, never mind the entire lighting rig.”

One of the characteristics of modern shows is that deploying the technology used is virtually a job in itself. In years gone by, the production electrician would have had a hand in the DMX data work, programming the lighting desk and maybe some lighting design and other roles as well, but Pete encourages newcomers to be focussed on one job:

“If you want to be a production electrician then be one, don't also try to be an associate or a programmer or an LD  [lighting designer] at the same time. Also be prepared to get physical - no matter what happens with technology over the next 20 years, the lights are never going to get themselves off a truck, into a theatre, and plug themselves together!”

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of other functions – as Robin says, you should “get a broad range of experience, listen and get to know people. The best production electricians understand the technical elements but also get the creative element and know what other people around them are doing. Go and spend a few days sitting with a lighting designer, at the scenic workshop, in the wardrobe and all of the other departments so that you understand their roles and pressures. “

Photo of equipment backstage  

Nick’s advice is that you “get a very good grounding in electrical knowledge, but realise that doesn't necessarily need to involve getting the full set of electrical qualifications that a more traditional electrical installation contractor might do. There is a lot in traditional courses that won't be relevant as a theatre production electrician, and competence is about having the training and experience that is relevant to the work you are actually doing.”

He also noted that you should “try and work with as many experienced production electricians as possible, in as many environments as possible.  Be hard working, positive, and especially nice to people who are working for you. Know your limits and when to ask for help or advice. Don't pretend to understand something you don't; nobody knows everything or ever will.”

The job is one of unsocial hours, travel and fun in some weird and wonderful places, so welcome attributes include a sociable can-do attitude which is essential when working under pressure as part of a close-knit team. To highlight this, the last word goes to Nick who identifies the most important task a budding production electrician should be willing to do: “Always buy a round …!”

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