(Lead pic: Richard Wiltshire)
Richard Wiltshire, Operations Manager at Burnside High School Christchurch, has nurtured students interested in entertainment technology for over forty years. Meanwhile Graeme Anderson, Wellington-based freelancer, has transformed with the industry, journeying through video, sound, to the special effects world of pyrotechnics and armoury. Both were due to receive 100+ Production and Event Pins at the recent Entertainment Technology New Zealand (ETNZ) conference, unfortunately impacted by COVID-19.
The Lifelong Educator: Richard Wiltshire
Richard first trod the boards as a child, supporting his parents, both actors and directors at Ranfurly’s amateur dramatic society, “I absolutely sucked at acting but I liked flicking the light switches and making pretty colours. Back then it was a lighting board on the wall!” Interest ignited, he joined the backstage crew at Otago Boys and got to play with early editions of moving lights. In 1980 after completing his teacher training, Richard fell on his feet, landing a science teaching role and picking up the technician mantle at Burnside High, where he still works today.
In 1983 another door opened. Volunteering on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers in the James Hay Theatre, he met Alistair Cameron, then a Lighting Technician, “I did a good job and he asked me to follow spot at an Eartha Kitt gig, getting me on the Town Hall pay roll. That got me back into the theatre scene outside of the high school.” For the next few decades, Richard spent his weekends working as a lighting and event technician across Christchurch, including for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, at the Court Theatre and on the Summer Shakespeare Festival.
Meanwhile Burnside High built the drawcard that has meant Richard has never left, the seven hundred seater Aurora Theatre, “The school has a really strong tradition in music and the performing arts and in the late 90s proposed to build a ‘proper’ theatre for the school and Christchurch community organisations.” Richard was one of three on the design committee, “Me, the Property Manager and the Head of Music. I wanted wings, they wanted a box and no curtains or wings. We compromised and have shallow wings. We have on occasion had to put mattresses against the winch handles to avoid dancers flying into them, but we manage!” Initially the technician, in 2006 when Burnside High took over from the founding Community Trust, Richard assumed the role of Operations Manager.
Five years later and Richard’s role was suddenly inflated to Ops Manager of the only theatre still open in the city following the earthquake in February 2011, “Our phones were ringing off the hook and we had people lining the corridor asking to use our facility. In addition, our seniors were doing a production of Godspell.” With minimal time, a cast that knew their lines but lacked enthusiasm, and an absent Director, Richard recalls it as one of his greatest challenges, “I was under pressure to transform it from the mundane to worthy of Christchurch audiences, as the only show in town!” With some palm trees and waves left over from a TV ad, a borrowed lighting desk and a lot of hard work, he managed to awake the students’ passion. The show’s usual three day season doubled, and every show was a sell-out, “It was important for the school and the students with everything that had happened for it to be a success.”
Richard’s commitment has always ultimately been to the students, “I really appreciate the opportunity to help guide young people who are interested in the theatre industry. It is rewarding when you see ex-students go on to have great careers and even set up their own businesses. His former students include Nick Sears and Dave Spark who run Pixel, the Christchurch-based video solutions and production design company. Dave aptly sums up Richard’s contribution over the years, “Richard gave me a really good grounding, not only in the technical but in the ethics of hard work, always ensuring we delivered to a high standard.” Richard also frequently opened doors for his mentees, “He used his contacts around town to set up work experience for us, giving us a step up. I’m genuinely grateful to Richard for his input. He definitely played a part in where I am today.”
And what next for Richard? He is currently on an Entertainment Technology NZ committee looking at how best to support secondary drama and music teachers with the practicalities of putting on a production. He’s got the Year 13 assessments to do, “If we get to the other side of this lockdown”. And with retirement not far away, he’s looking at some traveling, “Again subject to COVID.” Until then Richard will continue to support students at Burnside High, “I still have students coming up with new ideas when they’ve been playing with the lighting rig, and I think we’ll have that, and it will become standard. I let them run the ship, no hierarchy. That’s the fun of it, letting them loose!”
The Perpetual Student: Graeme Anderson
Graeme Anderson started learning at Wellington High School and he hasn’t stopped. Beginning with exploring 16mm projection, sound and lighting for assemblies and productions, he has worked in TV, radio, theatre, events and movies. He has remained in the game because he has never been scared to learn something new, consistently upskilling or morphing as the demands of the entertainment technology business have shifted.
After leaving school, Graeme joined the then New Zealand Broadcasting Company maintaining equipment and film editing just at the time the industry was shifting from 16mm to the early days of tape. After a few years it was time to spread his wings, “I really wanted to learn more about sound, so I transferred to radio, became a studio operator and ran all the controls back when radio announcers really did announce.” He cemented his radio experience with a spell at Radio Windy, Wellington’s local radio station.
After a few years in the UK, he returned to New Zealand in 1983 and worked as a technician on Wellington Council’s fourth Summer City Festival. The six week lavish festival included sport, music, theatre and public art. There followed a spell touring and then came the exciting opportunity presented by the new Michael Fowler Centre, “I was House Tech and it was actually pretty challenging. Originally destined to be a concert hall, it had ended up part conference centre, and as a result of the compromise it often didn’t satisfy the requirements of either!”
Three years later Graeme took the plunge and went freelance, “I loved the variety of the work and the touring. I supported modern dance and ballet shows, did heaps of corporate work, all over the country.” He slowly acquired his own gear, “There was still a bit of good old-fashioned AV and slide projectors. Computer graphics and video projection were just coming in.” It wasn’t all fun and games. He laughingly recalls three months touring with a circus doing sound with Allan McShane from Grouse Lighting and his brother on rigging, “It was just hard work, physically and mentally. The budget was tight, the tent was falling to bits, everyone was falling out.”
The pain and the glory all translated into a wealth of knowledge in event production and planning. “Laptops arrived and the bigger companies geared up and put paid to the little AV hire and tech guy so I evolved again.” Graeme moved into event production, subcontracting the technical operation, “I did the big wine and food festivals that were just starting, Wellington Street Race, you name it.”
It was whilst doing production work on the Firestone Firepower show, later the Wellington Fire Show, that Graeme discovered a new passion, “I thought pyrotechnics could be interesting and I got my head around the health and safety regulations and the insurance side of things.” Once again he got in a few good years, until the environment changed. “It was hard to stay in the game as clients dwindled to council bodies and the regulatory requirements grew and grew.” Many would have given up, but not Graeme, “I’d developed an interesting little sideline, armoury, which like pyrotechnics focuses on safety, lots of rules and regulations, special licenses.” As a result Graeme has spent the last few years working on TVs and movies, combining all his years of experience to deliver pyrotechnic and armoury special effects, “Special effects work is very creative. The Director wants something, and you go away and make it happen.”
During this period, Graeme’s path crossed with Brendon Durey from Filmfx and over the last eight years a close friendship has developed, “We call Graeme the ‘walking license’. We pop him on set and we can do pretty much anything under his supervision. You can’t match his depth of knowledge.” Brendon recalls working with him on the opening of the World Masters Games at Eden Park in 2017, featuring lights, smoke, fireworks, and the biggest laser show New Zealand had ever seen, as the backdrop to a Maori cultural performance, “There was a problem with the wiring for the pyrotechnics and everything needed to be checked. Graeme just took it in his stride, he’s done it all before!”
On a personal level too, Brendon cannot speak highly enough of Graeme, “He’s a genuine, wonderful person with a great sense of humour. Also at the World Masters, the Maori dancers came out earlier than they should have and we had people in grass skirts heading towards the pyrotechnics. It was a white knuckle moment and I was glad to have Graeme at my side.”
Nothing illustrates Graeme’s enduring passion for the business more than the fact that his ‘proudest moment’ happened only a couple of years ago working on The War Horse at the Auckland Civic Theatre, “It was a fantastic show to be involved with, a wonderful opportunity.”
And what next for Graeme? “I still do a lot of tech work for Wellington venues and I was supposed to be doing WOW at the TSB Arena but that is cancelled for the second time. Amazon shifting the Lord of the Rings series to the UK has also hit the TV industry, but Sweet Tooth is doing a second series here with Filmfx. Hopefully things pick up soon, and I’ll just move with the times.”
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