Technical Talk

13 April 2020

Marina Johnson finds out about life as a theatre technician

Employees from SLX, a hire and events company who provide lighting, rigging and audio visual to theatres and touring productions across the UK – Katy Lowe (KL), Ruari Cormack (RC), Russell Payne (RP) – sat down (virtually) with Marina to answer questions for those of us at the start of our careers, and tell us what it is like working in the technical side of the industry.

How did you get to where you are today?

RP: In primary school plays I was much more interested in the scaffolding tower that had some lights on it. I started with an apprenticeship at a regional repertory theatre where I worked my way up to chief electrician. I was an NSDF TA for 4 years, I am a lighting designer, project manager and head of live events at SLX.

KL: It was similar for me, at school the stage crew was more exciting. I worked in the Stage Electrics warehouse and as a Sound Technician. I also earned some extra qualifications in electrics, and spent time fitting up brand new theatre's electrics. I worked on the sales team here at SLX and I am now the customer service manager.

RC: I had a friend at church, who invited me by saying the Front of House girls were good-looking. About 34 years on I am still here. I went to college, and during my Easter break I knocked on the door of the Marquee Club and worked for them. I got stuck in and got involved. The more you do, the more people think you know what you are doing. Then after many years of being a loyal customer I jumped ship to SLX and the hiring side.

What do you feel about university courses that offer courses in tech?

RC: They provide a good starting place with built-in contacts for you to be working with.

KL: I found I was too young to decide what I wanted to do. 

Do you feel it is important to specialise in a particular area of tech or to have a wide understanding?

RP: Yes, particularly for later career development. The technology is so advanced now – with techniques like pixel mapping being common. Lighting designers are not working with dimmers, but instead building a network and using IP addresses.

What is the difference between working as a freelancer or with a company?

RP: It really depends on the person. SLX offers a career path through the company. One of our directors started by sweeping the floor in the warehouses, not speaking English. When I work with freelancers, it's because I need a specialist. That freelancer can earn money by hopping from show to show. Often freelancers like it because it provides travel – particularly with touring work.

I personally wanted to commit to a business, and work my way up. Freelancing is not easy; if they are not working they are not earning.

What is the difference between working on TV and theatre?

RP: It is a completely different skill. In the theatre you are lighting for the human eye, and it is easily drawn to the brightest point in the room.

In TV, cameras are everywhere.  You need light from every angle to ensure the camera can pick out the person from their background. Some sets appear one colour to the human eye, but look different on camera. 

The operating of the lighting for live TV is different too. One operator balances the light on faces, because when you cut from camera to camera they still need to be lit the same. The second operator is controlling the moving lights. TV is also massively behind live events in terms of technology. They don’t really use dimmers.

Ruri, tell me about your time as Technical Director of Assembly Festival?

RC: It’s like being the dad of a huge family. In June we arrive in Edinburgh and we have gone from a tech team of just me, to 6-7 heads of department and under them 60-70 technicians. And this is all before the performers and audience arrive!

I have a story I share: I had a HoD that I had a problem with. We ended up working on the same team again. In that new year – we had two technicians who we lost due to a messy situation. The person who supported me through the crisis, and had my back though all of it, was the HoD I had never wanted to work with again. I think it shows how things can change and people learn.

What advice do you have for someone considering going to Fringe in the future? 

RC: Do it! Be ready to communicate clearly. Remember if you can do it in a small venue, you can do it at Glastonbury. 

KL: Get to know your suppliers – Fringe is the perfect time to network. 

RP: Whilst you are on your feet sorting things out; we can be finding alternative options out of the space, and providing a supportive outside eye to a problem.

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Photograph: Beatrice Debney