27 Nov 2023

From treading the boards to R&R and back

by John O’Brien

Some crusty old bard once opined that “all the world’s a stage”. Critics say that it represented the seven ages of man, but I reckon it refers to the stage we choose to work on, whether that stage is physical, metaphorical or both.

As a naive teen, I’d been caked in pancake makeup, pushing sets around live for the avant- guard experimentation of a university theatrical review. I worked out then that I was not meant to be centre stage. After a few life detours, I succumbed to the R&R beast and ended up being front of house instead. Long hours, hard work and good times were had.

When the relentless toil of touring rock and roll finally got too much for my mind and body, it was time for some stark professional truths and a good look at the next stage of life. 30-something, a dodgy back, no qualifications to speak of and all my fun vouchers blown on living the good life. Retrain for a new industry or use the hard-won tech and staging skills in another context? The thought of being an impoverished student again didn’t appeal, so I moved into theatre lighting as a primary profession.

Initially, I found the change of pace a little difficult but soon recognised a different groove to slot into. Instead of 3-4 hours to rig (smash together?) a light show, I could now take a week and get all OCD about cable runs and perfect focus. Setup is a whole lot longer and rehearsals are more in depth than a quick pub soundcheck. But, show nerves still tingle and the interaction between performer, production and audience is still there. Hearing audience gasps on a dramatic scenery or lighting reveal can be as rewarding as the cheers from a raucous pub crowd. And all with no beer, mud (or worse) stained multicores to pack away every night. How good is that?

Vintage Poster of a French performance of Moliere’s L’avaro. Circa 1900

Community Theatre

My first effort at slowing down came about through a local group staging a production of Moliere’s L’avaro (a French play being performed in Italian). Speaking only English, I don’t know how I got the gig but felt right at home with the cast, crew and director and found it easy enough to follow the script and hit my cues. I designed a rig that had everyone in awe and rehearsals went well.

Opening night to a packed house and the curtains parted to hushed appreciation. Lights faded in, the first characters entered from stage left and started flawlessly, until I saw a wisp of smoke rising from the footlights. Not good. I got on the comms to the stage manager, they looked out in horror and we had to stop the show, not even 5 minutes in! Extinguishers came out, fire was quelled and everyone looked embarrassed.

Apparently, one of the old dears had decided that the on-stage PA speakers were ugly and hung plastic lace over them without telling anyone. These dislodged onto the uplights when the stage curtains brushed past and promptly met with 500W of hot luminaire. It took my best diplomacy to point out that, “No, lighting gel does not spontaneously combust and perhaps it was the unauthorised doily flapping about.”

There were a few steely glares pointed in my direction that night but they must have forgiven any issues, as the company invited me back for their next production.

Regular Commercial Theatre

A few gigs later I got on a crew renovating the Forum Theatre in Melbourne. This magnificent venue had spent years rotting away into disrepair. We spent several months wandering through the rabbit warrens backstage, fixing or replacing lighting and rigging throughout the building while the builders worked their magic. I love the musty dry smell of old theatres, with their dust and creaky antiquity, their ghosts and quirks. Walking along the ancient timber ‘safety’ ramps groaning in the ceiling was ok but the thought of a 40 foot drop through the lathed plaster dome downstage of the proscenium was ever present. With plenty of harnesses and ropes, we managed to replace all of the famed twinkling starlights in this impressive span but still held our breath a lot. The whole building has recently undergone a much more comprehensive renovation and is looking spectacular.

This grand old dame also had the coolest feature – a circular water hydraulic activated lift that originally had a large organ on it. The organist would magically appear in a sculptured cutout offstage right as the power of the Yarra pushed on the riser. Long decommissioned, it was still a fun place to have lunch. I stayed on with the Forum for its first show run after the remodel and grand opening. It was slick and professional musical theatre but not really my cuppa (I was getting tortured by show earworms), so I handed my dome operator role to a mate and headed elsewhere.

Circus Oz Poster artwork by Reg Mombassa

I ended up doing both short and long runs in some other hallowed spaces too. A season of Circus Oz as lighting rigger/dome operator/ general hand was a hoot in the Melbourne Town Hall. The whole circus ethic of multi- skilling was heaps of fun and the venue has the gravitas of much history. Apart from my core show duties, I’d often find myself seating the elderly, running the popcorn machine or spruiking for punters in the street. No scripts, just sheer bravado & chutzpah and getting paid to act the fool. A bit like the nearby council chambers during the day…

The Athenaeum, The Universal and The Botanical Gardens also became familiar workplaces for me. Comedy festivals, ensemble productions, comedic satire and even the venerable Shakespeare provided the dramatic content. Countless fresnels, profiles, washes and sometimes dinky domestic lamps provided the illumination.

Lighting and fly bars

Same-Same, but Different

I found a lot of parallels between the different genres of theatrical performance, particularly in regard to tech. Some approaches may be slightly different but it still comes down to getting the show on, on time and every time. The black boxes don’t care which type of performance they are being used for either, they still work the same and still fail at the most inconvenient moments. Concerts are paciest but quite ephemeral; theatre has a more drawn out schedule but is no less intense come show time and without an understudy, you really must be there for the show to go on; and even corporate events or product launches can be very theatrical. They generally have better budgets for more funky toys too.

The intense clarity of the show buzz never changes, but it does relax a bit, although maybe that’s just the wisdom of experience. Theatre gets the win for matinees at a civilised hour, especially when the cast’s nonnas are providing lashings of fine traditional Mediterranean foods for the break before the evening show. (Thanks Wogboys.)

I eventually tired of the demands of theatrical life too. I was well into a 6-month run of a 6 days and 8 shows a week, every week, the show MUST go on-production. My back had crapped out (again!) and I was writhing in pain on the floor of the bio booth while reaching up to the board for the next cue, wondering where to next in life. ‘Next’ was still black boxes but in a corporate context. Retrenched a year later during a buyout reshuffle, I found myself sitting in a Thai forest again contemplating going back to school to get a piece of paper. Which I eventually did, doing my homework at the FOH consoles waiting for the nightly show to start. Then I moved sideways once more to another stage of life.

On to the next stage…


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