In essence, the job of the technicians at Lighthouse is simple enough – they bring shows in, put them on stage, take them down again and send them on their way.
“It’s simplicity itself in theory,” says Technical Manager Paul Coxon with a wry smile, “but rarely straightforward.”
For in between getting a show in and getting it out again at the end of the night is a world that’s fraught with potential pitfalls and pain – any number of things can go wrong and that’s before you add in the show’s cast and crew, and the audience that comes to watch.
“Essentially, it’s our job to facilitate the shows that people see at Lighthouse and sometimes we operate those shows as well. There’s always a deadline and it’s usually 30 minutes before the show goes up, but we can be working on it with minutes to spare. I remember one ETO production with a massive set and we were filling water troughs as the audience were approaching the doors. That’s very rare though.”
Nothing and nobody goes on stage at Lighthouse without utilising the hard-earned skills of the technicians. Among their number are lighting, sound, stage management and set flying specialists whose skills go back to the very dawn of theatre as we know it – the ancient Greek dramatists employed stage sets and flying as special effects.
Knowing how light and sound work and being able to construct a set is every bit as important as actors memorising lines or musicians learning parts.
“These days we are working towards technicians being multi-disciplined,” says Paul, “but most of us have a specialism – mine is lighting – and in the industry generally it’s fair to say you get more work if you’re a specialist. That said, a broad working knowledge of each other’s jobs is a good thing so, for instance, we need our sound guys to be able to set a light if needed.”
Paul came to work at Lighthouse as a casual technician in 2006, joined the full-time staff about 12 years ago and became Technical Manager last year. It’s safe to say this wasn’t the direction he thought his career would take.
“Managing people really wasn’t what I had in mind, but here I am. What I loved about the job is that I was with people, but also independent; there was no paperwork; it was the same job, but different every day; and there was a great social life – late night drinks at the George, mixing with the cast and crew, especially at panto time.
“Covid changed a lot of things and it’s a different job now to when I started. It’s cleaner, tidier, healthier and much safer than it used to be and that’s a good thing, especially for the next generation coming into the business. Some might say we’ve lost some of the grit and flavour, but it’s the price of progress.
“For instance, I would say mine was one of the last generations to learn the art of ‘proper’ lighting with halogen lamps that got really hot and had to be focussed. Today, with moving lights and LEDs there’s no need to plan in the same way. So, a lighting designer can see something in their head and know that all the lights they need to create it are available on the board – nobody has to monkey up the wall or walk along a truss to set a light these days.”
Few technicians end up in the job by accident, it’s not that kind of job. Paul explains he found his way backstage after getting involved in drama classes at school to escape the attention of bullies that dogged his life from Year 5 of primary school to Year 11 of secondary school. He found there were other actors, but no other techs, so he was given a free rein to pursue his curiosity about sound and light and stage setting. That was followed by a degree in Stage Management and Theatre Production at university and a career was born with a job at Yeovil Octagon.
“There was a lot of self-teaching in that if you wanted to learn how to do something you had to find a way to be taught. Today, we’re much more concerned with creating a pipeline for talent and nurturing the next generation, which is what our Young Technicians course and Lighthouse Academy are about. Some of our younger crew went through Young Techs in 2020 and 2021 and it’s great that we’re able to give them opportunities to work on live real-world situations.
“They all love the big, heavy musicals with the massive sets and huge casts, but sometimes it can be just a single chair that the piece revolves around and it’s all about the lighting… my kind of show!”