They are the invisible heroes of any live production, but many skilled production personnel have left the sector since COVID. Image via shutterstock.
You rarely glimpse them onstage, but skilled production crew are a vital part of any live performance. Stage managers, lighting operators, sound mixers and set mechanists – all are integral to delivering a successful season of live performance.
Sadly, when COVID hit, these arts workers were among the first to be stood down or to leave the industry (inevitably in that order), which had led to a dearth of production staff for shows currently in production.
As one ex-freelance stage manager ArtsHub spoke to described it, shortages are badly affecting major seasons and core staff still working in the theatre.
‘I know of one mainstage show where, because the usual pool of experienced stage managers had gone, a far less experienced person was put in that [stage manager] role,’ they said.
‘This put a lot more pressure on senior production staff because they had to be around a lot more, to coach and to guide that new person, while still doing their own job… And that’s the sort of thing that can lead to worker burnout.’
WA-based independent theatre producer Libby Klysz has experienced similar recent challenges, and says that securing skilled freelance production staff in the current environment is tough.
‘There are simply not enough skilled, and even semi-skilled personnel available to fill these roles at the moment,’ she told ArtsHub.
Read: How do we stop losing artists from the sector?
According to Klysz, in some cases the tight numbers are leading to work being changed and/ or scaled-down due to lack of staff.
‘It’s got to the point where there are not enough staff available to support some of the more ambitious work, and so ideas are having to be scaled back from where they had hoped to be due to lack of personnel,’ she said.
Several shows Klysz is involved in touring regionally have been directly affected.
‘Making sure I’ve got enough production managers, and making sure the regional venues we’re touring to have enough technical staff in-house has been a real problem,’ she said.
‘We’ve made it work, but it’s been hard.’
Despite the current challenges, one positive outcome to emerge is that more early-career practitioners and production graduates are being offered good opportunities.
However, even this beneficial outcome is causing short-term difficulties for those on the ground.
‘It’s absolutely no one’s fault,’ Klysz observed. ‘Everyone is doing their best. But the fact is that with more inexperienced staff those on set processes are being slowed down.
‘Less experienced crew take longer to do things, and senior staff are having to conduct extra checks to ensure the jobs have been done properly,’ she said.
Read: Who gets to make theatre in this country?
It’s also becoming clear that recent graduates trained during the COVID era do not have the skills they normally would because their training lacked a lot of hands-on opportunities due to pandemic restrictions.
‘How do you get hands-on experience when you can’t be hands-on [during COVID lockdowns]?,’ one theatre worker observed.
Another concerning element of the picture is that many backstage workers made redundant during the pandemic have now left the arts and found jobs in other industries with their highly transferable technical skills.
As one arts sector employee put it, ‘If you’ve got your rigger’s ticket [an essential qualification for many theatre production staff], you can easily get a job in mining sector – and, as we know, that industry pays a lot more than the arts does.’
Fortunately, there is at least one performing arts organisation pursuing a solutions-focused approach to try to stem this outflow of skilled workers from the sector.
To do this, they have been delivering a specially-designed in-house training program to grow their next generations of crew.
This organisation is Creality – a cultural events and festival-focused organisation based in the remote Gascoyne region of WA.
Founded by arts entrepreneur and veteran aerialist Theaker von Ziarno (the company’s executive producer), Creality has been delivering live arts events and workshops to communities across regional WA for the past 10 years.
Von Ziarno says that while COVID has been hard, and that she has lost some highly-skilled production crew over that time, she can see that training-up new generations of quality production crew is vital for her organisation’s future.
‘It will take the next 12 years to fully realise our vision,’ von Ziarno told ArtsHub. ‘That sounds like a long time, but it’s not when you think about it in the context of the future arts sector.’
Importantly, Creality’s training initiative builds on their longstanding ethos of welcoming newcomers without need for prior sector experience.
‘We have always had a volunteer catchment drawn from people who we would often meet at our shows,’ von Ziarno explained.
‘We could see that they were interested in being technicians, so we’d invite them to join us.
‘It’s that real carnie spirit we have,’ she laughed.
Creality’s situation-based training is a four year program where volunteers move from being trainee interns to eventually working in paid roles.
Read: Building an arts-specific coaching system
Along the way, they acquire skills in every area of Creality’s productions – from stage building, lighting, sound engineering, site curating, and circus rigging.
‘They get exposed to everything,’ von Ziarno said. ‘But admittedly, I often use what I call their ‘smile compass’ to gauge what they are most passionate about,’ she laughed.
The company has recently recruited six new trainees (in September), and von Ziarno is setting the bar for their achievements high.
‘We are absolutely aiming for excellence in these young people,’ she commented. ‘And these are young people who live in remote and regional WA, so these opportunities mean they can stay here and help build the cultural capacity of their communities.’
For von Ziarno, the bespoke training initiative also has potential to boost the region’s position on the cultural map in the long-term.
‘I see no reason why in 12 years from now, this [Gascoyne] region can’t become a centre for circus and technical excellence, and these [training participants] could be contributing to that as high quality sound engineers, music producers, event producers.
‘It’s a really important part of how we can keep building our creative community,’ she concluded.
ArtsHub’s Arts Feature Writer Jo Pickup is based in Perth. An arts writer and manager, she has worked as a journalist and broadcaster for media such as the ABC, RTRFM and The West Australian newspaper, contributing media content and commentary on art, culture and design. She has also worked for arts organisations such as Fremantle Arts Centre, STRUT dance, and the Aboriginal Arts Centre Hub of WA, as well as being a sessional arts lecturer at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).
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