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A life in the theatre: Automation

Published February 25, 2016

Ever wondered who looks after the nitty gritty of a production’s props, mechanics and all those amazing effects that make West End shows so special? We did, so as part of our regular A Life in the Theatre series, which peeks behind the scenes to explore the hundreds of roles quietly taking place every day, we wanted to find out.

Where better to start our search than at London’s vibrant Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, which boasts everything from chocolate waterfalls to robot squirrels? The show’s Head of Automation Danny Garth was just the man to speak to and filled us in on what is one of the most physical roles in theatre from scaling ladders to crawling around under a 200-year-old stage…

The first thing I do every day is:

The first thing we do is to power up the systems, log into the control desk and then check each and every piece of automated scenery. Before we can allow any of the scenery or practical appliances to be used or moved with the company present, i.e. during a rehearsal or a performance, the automation team has to check everything is in correct working order. In total over 70 different moving components all need to be thoroughly inspected before we can allow them to be used.

My place of work looks like:

“A world of pure imagination”! Working on Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is a little bit like actually being in Willy Wonka’s factory. Behind the scenes, all the props and scenery utilise all of the space available. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is one of the largest theatres in the world and the backstage area is massive in comparison to most others. All of this space is “choc” full of weird and wonderful things used to create Wonka’s Factory. It’s fun, the set is amazing.

An average day for me involves:

After completing our daily checks which can take up to an hour and 15 minutes, we go through our list of “work to be done”. This will include little issues we have found during the previous performance (small things that, if we keep on top of them, will ensure constantly smooth performances). After any outstanding work is completed we will break to allow the other departments to perform their checks unhindered. Once all departments have concluded and the cast have finished any rehearsals and warm-up sessions, we will “preset” the stage for the start of the show. We refer to this as “Drop In”. This will usually be completed as the House opens 30 minutes before the performance is due to start. At this point we change into our blacks and prepare for the show. During the show we will carry out our duties to ensure a smooth performance and, once the show has finished, clear the stage of all scenery and re-set some pieces in order to be ready for the next day.

The people I work with mostly are:

The rest of the automation team. We could not perform our daily duties alone, it is a full team effort. One of us will be positioned at the control desk operating any equipment necessary, but because of the size and scale of our set we can’t see all potential hazards from our position (for example moving people!). A second member of the team is therefore positioned by each piece of scenery to communicate to the operator that they are “clear” to move in a specified direction at a specified speed or to a specified position. Communication is key if we are to safely perform our duties; it is without doubt the automation “team”.

The kit I can’t do without is:

We have small tool kits positioned around the backstage area for use on a daily basis. These are used actively during the show for specific jobs (bolting this to that or setting things with a screwdriver). We even have cushioned mats for when we work on our knees (which is a lot) but, and this is probably everyone’s answer who works backstage, I would be lost without my head torch. It is by far the most important thing I carry around with me. The backstage area during any performance is dark to allow the lighting to be effective on stage; I would not be able to perform any of my duties without a torch and as I often need both of my hands, a head torch is perfect and indispensable.

The best part of my day is usually:

Show time – it’s why we do what we do! I don’t think I could work in a workshop or a factory – although fixing and maintaining equipment is a huge part of what we do and I thoroughly enjoy it – in theatre I can see the goal, the end product, on a daily basis. When you see something you have had to fix working in its proper fashion, as it was designed to do, and hear the audience applaud as the scene finishes there is a massive buzz for everyone involved.

The worst part of my day is usually:

Grid checks! The grid is the structure above the stage that all of our scenery hangs from. We have a lot of equipment up there to allow us to fly the scenery in and out. It includes all the lifting ropes and winches that need to be checked. The grid sits 20 meters above the stage floor and is accessed by a really long ladder. I don’t think anybody enjoys going up there, especially in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. As I said before it’s massive so that’s a long climb. I need about five minutes to get my breath back before I can start working.

I usually finish work at:

22:30. And then? Headphones in, iBook is open and head home. I enjoy reading and it makes the commute fly by. If one of my friends is having a drink after work I will often stay in town and join them. There is a very close community within the West End and it’s nice to catch up on current affairs (or gossip).

The most glamorous part of my job is:

It has to be the parties. Our Producers and Management do like to make a fuss of us, from the star-studded opening night party to our annual Christmas party or an impromptu “thank you” party. It is very glamorous and you do feel like a mini superstar for a couple of hours. It’s nice to be appreciated and our Producers make a point of making us feel that.

The least showbiz part of my job is:

Maintenance. From climbing around under the 200-year-old stage to rubbing grease and oil inadvertently into your eyeball whilst working on the mechanical components of the rig, it’s dirty work, but someone has to do it. Grazed knuckles, bumped shins, the coffee you didn’t get chance to drink tastes alright when it’s cold too. That’s showbiz…

My work mantra is:

Don’t put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Within no time at all you will be drowning in jobs that all need to be done NOW. If you see it, sort it. It’s the most important piece of advice for anyone working in large scale automated shows.

The advice I’d give to anyone wanting to do my job would be:

A good understanding of electrical and mechanical engineering is a massive bonus to anyone who wants to excel in this discipline. Stage Technologies are the world leaders in automation for theatre and the West End and offer specialist introductory courses focusing on automation for the entertainment industry.

To do this job, the attribute you have to have is:

Common sense. A bit of a cliché but so true, most other things can be taught. In automation you are ultimately responsible for a lot of people’s health and safety, you have to have common sense due to the uncontrollable factor of human nature. Just because you are watching heavy scenery move doesn’t mean anyone else is, so you have to watch them too… common sense.

Charlie And The Chocolate Factory is booking at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to 7 January. You can book tickets through us here.

The show is eligible for the Olivier Awards 2016 with MasterCard’s Magic Radio Audience Award. You can vote for your favourite long-running show to win here.

"The grid sits 20 meters above the stage floor and is accessed by a really long ladder. I don't think anybody enjoys going up there, especially in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane..."