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Audiences watching Sydney Theatre Company’s recent production of The Picture of Dorian Gray didn’t just see a breathtaking performance by lead actor Eryn Jean Norvill, they also witnessed a prime example of the range of jobs behind the scenes in the performing arts.
“There’s one performer, and 19 people supporting that show,” says the STC’s director of technical and production James Wheeler
“[The performing arts] requires the work of a lot of people who are not necessarily seen.”
The spotlight was on lead actor Eryn Jean Norvill, but it takes many people to make a production such as The Picture of Dorian Gray happen.Credit:Daniel Boud
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to the industry, and getting back to pre-COVID staffing levels is proving complicated. While theatre companies like STC have a small core staff year-round, they also rely on a skilled but casual workforce that can scale up before productions.
“People go from show to show across mainstream theatre companies and the commercial theatre world,” says Wheeler.
Skilled workers are now in high demand, in part because musical theatre is booming. But many of the old hands switched careers after work dried up in 2020. Set builders joined the construction industry, project managers moved to corporate roles.
‘[The performing arts] requires the work of a lot of people who are not necessarily seen.’
“We’re finding that pool of skilled, experienced workers is reduced. Furthermore, they’re all pretty busy,” says Wheeler, pointing to industry shortages in specialised fields such as stage management, lighting, scenic artists, wardrobe. There’s also a lack of experienced production managers, he says.
James Foster, the head of orchestral operations at Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, says the COVID crisis is still being felt across the arts industry.
“From production crew to musicians to bar staff, ushers and technical staff, we are still finding it difficult to find good and available people,” he says.
Foster’s own career began in stage management. He found his passion in working with orchestras, and now oversees the MSO’s orchestra management department – whose tasks include booking casual musicians and rostering full-timers – as well as managing its production department, which looks after everything from lighting and audio requirements of performances to the logistics involved in moving instruments.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra playing Rachmaninov: There is plenty of demand for skilled workers in the performing arts sector.
“Balancing how and when [all these tasks] are completed is the biggest complexity. But it also feels like an accomplishment when it’s done,” he says.
Foster says there’s plenty of demand for good and new people in his industry.
“With only eight full-time orchestras in the country, there isn’t a huge pool of people to choose from. We often joke that people in orchestra admin jobs just switch orchestras every couple of years,” Foster says.
University courses in arts administration are the best way to get into these types of roles, he advises, but the opportunity to transfer skills into and out of the performing arts isn’t straightforward.
“All of the creative industries are quite niche and specific,” Foster says. “But if you look at the general organisational skills such as good time management, analytical thinking, passion, patience and a strong demeanour – then yes, absolutely these could be transferable.”
Back at the STC, transferable skills are something Wheeler has thought a lot about. While those at the start of their career can ‘test out’ the arts by taking on a casual role behind the scenes (perhaps helping to bump in or bump out a show), bringing in qualified staff at higher levels is more complex, he notes.
He believes the industry needs to create pathways to bring in people from outside the arts. These people may have many of the right skills, but need opportunities to apply them to a theatrical environment. Structured training, like a Certificate III or IV may hold part of the answer.
“[That would work for] someone who is really keen and motivated, but perhaps hadn’t had the [specific theatre] experience,” Wheeler says.
While the challenge is a short-term one, solving it will have long-term impacts. Wheeler talks of a stage carpenter at STC who recently retired after 35 years with the organisation.
“That’s a fantastic milestone. [But] you think of that history walking out the door. We need to make sure we keep those skills,” he says.
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