9 Nov 2023

Back to my Roots

by Jason Allen

The Northern Festival Centre

Everyone in this industry can exactly pinpoint the time and place their passion for all things performance and production started. Mine was in 1983 in my hometown of Port Pirie, South Australia, at the then one year old Northern Festival Centre. When I first stepped on to its stage to perform in my primary school’s production of The Wizard of Oz, I was eight. When the lights went up, I was hooked.

From then on, I put my hand up for every production my primary school, then high school, and local youth theatre group put on. I also managed to wangle my way into productions the local adult amateur theatre companies were putting on. I saw my first professional shows there, when touring concerts and theatre came through. I practically lived in there until I left to study in Adelaide in 1993.

At the time, I was mainly interested in being on the stage, but when I wrote and recorded the incidental music for my year 12 production and got into the bio box to set levels, I touched my first real mixing desk. Between that and my high school’s Tascam four track and Yamaha SPX effects unit, I got into audio in a big way, and never came back.

On a recent trip back home to celebrate my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, nostalgia got the better of me and I decided to see if I could get in to chat with the techs and tour backstage. Being a small town of 13,500, it wasn’t hard to track down Technical Manager Paul Schrader, who generously came and opened up the Keith Michell Theatre for me on a weekend, and even brought along his young protégé, Max Hunt.

Paul Schrader and Max Hunt

Named for local boy made good Keith Michell, an actor who moved to the UK and had a long film and TV career, the theatre seats 495 and has a 21.5m x 12.5m stage. It’s remarkably similar to The Playhouse in Arts Centre Melbourne, where I spent quite a lot of my work hours in the late 90s and early 2000s. On the day, I came in through the loading dock, walked backstage, and was astonished to find that the place was almost exactly the same as the last time I was there in 1992. Except for the painting on the wall in the back corridor that Rolf Harris did when he was in town; that’s understandably gone.

It’s like the arid air of mid-north SA has preserved the venue, much in the same way the desert of Egypt preserves their archaeological heritage. The dressing rooms are still the original 80s beige with salmon highlights. The auditorium has had its seats replaced once but still is, in both mine and Paul’s words, “very pretty.” Paul and the team keep the venue immaculate, and wandering around the back corridors, lighting bridges, storage, and bio box, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a cleaner venue, which is amazing as the place is now 41 years old.

ETC Ion in the bio box

Technical updates have kept the place ticking along, and the theatre’s main audio console is a Roland M-400 digital with stage box racked up side stage. Main lighting control is an ETC Ion with Fader Wing, specified to handle the regular SA State Theatre Company shows that come through. Lighting fixtures include 12 Martin Mac Auras, 24 Source 4 Lustr2s, 12 ETC Colorsources, 8 Martin Mac Quantums, two Robert Juliat OZ followspots, and a solid stock of old CCT conventionals.

An antique film projector stored behind a Juliet balcony

The venue is run by Country Arts SA, a state government created entity that also runs Noarlunga’s Hopgood Theatre, Renmark’s Chaffey Theatre, Berri’s River Lands Gallery, and Whyalla’s Middleback Arts Centre, which Paul is also currently managing technically. And Country Arts SA, if you’re reading this, it’s time to give this theatre new FoH loudspeaker and foldback systems. In fact, it was time to give them new ones in 1993, 2003, and 2013, too.

Yes amazingly, the FoH PA is the original pair- per-side Bose 802s with two Bose 302 subs that went in when the joint opened back in 1982. They are still powered by Yamaha P-2200 power amps, which first entered the market in 1976, and were discontinued sometime in the late 80s. No wonder most acts bring their own PA. Country Arts SA, this is not OK. The foldback too is two Bose 802s (how are they still working?!?), four Bose 620M, three Ramsas, and four ‘Etones’, which after doing some digging, appear to have been handmade in Sydney. All of this is powered by two Yamaha P2200s and two Yamaha P-2201s, which while testimony to the quality and reliability of the gear to keep running for 41 years, is still not acceptable.

While walking the corridors and storage spaces in the typically labyrinthine back of  house, I was shown lots of antique gear that is thankfully no longer in service, including the original Yamaha mixing desk on which I pushed up my first fader. There’s a lot of tech history stored at the NFC, including the original Rank Strand AMC lighting desk, and a Jands Stagemaster 12, which I emailed David Mullholland at Jands about for inclusion in the Jands Museum at their Mascot HQ. I suspect every other government run country performing arts centre in Australia is sitting on a similar treasure trove, as its apparently bureaucratically difficult to sell or recycle old government-owned gear.

“This is a wonderful place to work, and we love what we do,” says Paul, who got the theatre bug when he helped out on a bump-in back in the 90s. “I then did volunteer work and started as a casual in 1996. I studied IT in 1997 and got my diploma in 2001. I gradually worked through the theatre technical ranks and became the main lighting op in 2000. By 2005 I was full time and started operating Whyalla’s Middleback Theatre too. I became Technical Manager of the Northern Festival Centre in 2007.”

Max’s story is almost identical to mine, but he chose lighting; “I’ve been involved with Port Pirie Youth Theatre since I was 11,” says Max. “I started doing follow spot, then I did work experience here in year 10 with Paul. I started doing work with local theatre companies as assistant tech director, then Paul asked me to come in here and do lights and threw me in the deep end! From there, I’ve done tech direction, and I’ve also directed a production of Wicked.”

Regional and suburban performing arts centres like the Northern Festival Centre are major training grounds for the next generation of performers, creatives, and technicians.

I know of three other technicians who cut their teeth at the NFC that have gone on to have nationally and internationally significant careers. They’re a vital cultural and economic asset to their nation that should be supported, celebrated, and maintained. So, Country Arts SA, it’s time to pony up for a new PA.


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