Technical Manager Sacha Queiroz: “I’m a dinosaur – grab tools, get out there!”
by Andrew Wilson
Testing the computerized lighting system.
“I can only ever hold four shows in my brain at any one time”, says Sacha Queiroz, Park Theatre’s Technical and Building Manager: “The two that we have running and the two that are coming next.”
Because each show has different requirements, there is no such thing as a typical day in the working life of a theatre technician. But there are cycles “as regular as sine curves” he says, which peak when one show finishes and another is being built.
“Shows run for five weeks in Park200 and four weeks in Park90,” he explains. “They always end on a Saturday night, but we can’t load the set out then because the foyer will be full of people drinking and celebrating the end of the run.” Instead, he arrives with his staff at 10:00 on Sunday morning.
“Everything on stage we’ll get out in the first four hours. Between 2:00 and 6:00 I’ll do any larger sort of maintenance jobs throughout the building that I can’t do during the week. From 6:00 till 10:00 we’ll start building the next show.” The following week is a punishing schedule, with 12-hour days as the show is readied for the first performance. Things then calm down until what he calls the “stagger,” when a new show comes into the other theatre.
However, having theatres on two different cycles is a challenge: “Four times a year there will be a double get-in and a double get-out – horrible days!” he says surprisingly cheerfully.
Theatre in the blood
A life in the theatre was almost inevitable for Sacha, who insists that “you don’t choose the theatre – it chooses you.” His father Carlos was an established actor (and former child star) in Portugal before coming to the UK and reinventing himself as a theatre technician. In 1992, Carlos became technical manager at the newly-opened Wycombe Swan, while Sacha’s mother Rosslyn, a former dancer, served as box office manager. Sacha and his brother Yuri spent their formative years in Wycombe, and both learned the technical basics at the Swan, working there during holidays.
After studying film and sociology at Brunel (“my attempt to put off the final decision to work in the theatre”), Sacha worked at a variety of British theatres. The largest was the 2,000-plus seat Dominion in the West End, the smallest the 300-seat Trinity in Tunbridge Wells. He remembers the latter with affection: “It’s a church turned into a community theatre, with beautiful acoustics and a huge stained glass window that has to be curtained off whenever you do a play.”
Theatre technicians are often transitory creatures, he says: “They move on. They learn what they can from each venue, the unique aspects of it, take that knowledge and move to a different venue.” Some get promoted to management level if they demonstrate the necessary skill sets; many leave the theatre because technical work can take a physical toll. “There are still risks,” he says. “It is still exhausting, and it doesn’t pay very well. So often reality catches up and you have to make different decisions than you would have made when you were younger.”
“My brother is a technician at the Lyttleton Theatre now,” says Sacha. “He’s actually ten times the technician I’ll ever be, but he isn’t interested in management.” In contrast, Sacha’s career path led him to ever-greater responsibilities for staff and entire buildings.
2012 found him working at the still-under construction King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Saudi Arabia, a massive futuristic complex near the Persian Gulf. He shakes his head at the memory, as if it were a dream: The original job was “spec’ing out” the technical aspects of the centre’s theatre and working with the build companies to make sure it worked as a theatre rather a design concept. He also took on other tasks like building infrastructure for cultural festivals out in the desert: “I’d come to my bosses with purchase orders for their signatures , slightly terrified that I was spending $10 million – and they’d laugh me out of their offices and tell me to come back when the budget reached $60 million!”
After two years, he returned to the UK for a second stint at the Dominion Theatre. He helped strike We Will Rock You when it finally closed after 12 years, participated in the theatre’s £6 million refurbishment, and tech’ed big shows like Evita and Lord of the Dance. But he also found commercial theatre to be a relentless “machine”, with diminishing job satisfaction and a rising danger of burnout. It was while he was in Turkey on holiday – one insisted on by his partner that he got a call to interview for the job of Technical Manager at Park Theatre.
“As soon as I walked into the foyer,” he remembers,” I completely fell in love with the building.” He got the job, and almost three years later is still here.
Above Park200, with Rachel McCall
“If you are prepared to lift and shift...”
Sacha’s duties include looking after health and safety, and security. It also requires working with the different companies that bring productions to Park Theatre. Depending on their needs, he can have a lot of involvement, or little more than showing their own technical staff where the equipment is located. But, he says, controls are rigorous. Companies must arrive with risk assessments and method statements saying what they want to do onstage.
“Nine times out of ten those are simple,” he says. “But sometimes a play requires fire onstage, or a small pool of water like in What Shadows, you have to manage them carefully in order to avoid slip hazards or burn hazards. So we work hand in glove with producers so those risks are mitigated before they even set foot in the building.”
He has a soft spot for Park90 because the companies who perform there tend to be smaller, with greater need for technical assistance. The short, intense periods of collaboration with visiting technicians can lead to durable relationships between individuals and companies, a valuable asset in the theatre community and therefore something he takes care to cultivate.
Sacha feels that one of his principal contributions over the past few years has to been to create a more stable technical team, rather than a collection of transitory employees. In addition to Neal Gray, his deputy technical manager, he has a pool of approximately eight technicians who work in other theatres as well. Two of them – Lorna Heap and Celia Duga –principally work at Park Theatre, and reflect another aspect of Sacha’s approach: his willingness to train people from other departments like box office or bar staff: “If you’re prepared to lift and shift and learn, then I can teach you everything else.”
Of Lorna, he says, “She doesn’t have a large technical background but she’s one of those people who sucks things up and can apply them very quickly. She’s also the theatre’s Access Officer. In fact she’s done everything, at Park, including working as Melli’s assistant.”
|With deputy technical director Neal Gray|
Building a team is not just a question of opportunities and relationships, of course. He mentions that it is Park Theatre policy to pay casual workers a decent wage that is higher than the average. “I’m proud that we’ve taken that stand,” he says, “but it also engenders a sense of loyalty among the staff which can only benefit the theatre.”
Computers and camaraderie
Thinking about the new wave of technicians and the increasing computerization of the theatre industry, he laughingly calls himself a dinosaur. “I fix things by hand – grab tools, get out there, do the job. That’s how I learn. I could not do what some of the technicians now do.”
He calmly volunteers that his weakness as a technician is working with sound. “We had a technician here for quite a long time, André Teresinha who is a magnificent sound engineer. He left us to work for the Tate, and recently mixed the Proms. You only get to do that if you are remarkable at what you do.” But even more important, he says, is that Park Theatre continues to have a relationship with André. “He comes back in to take care of some of the trickier sound problems, as a subcontractor. So that ties back in to what I said earlier about maintaining relationships with people, not just the companies and the public but the contractors who come in and out.”
How computerized is the Park? He gives an example. “On a west End show like We will Rock You, there are about 30 people backstage to operate it. Most shows in Park200 and the 90 require one person and a Mac laptop computer.” That is possible because of Queuelab, a digital trigger system for lighting and sound and video.
He contrasts that with his early days, when even a small production would require three or four people doing a set of very specific, skilled jobs. As in other industries, he says that automation has reduced the manual skill sets of people in the industry, while creating new opportunities. “If you come out of theatre school now with abilities as a computer programmer, you will potentially accelerate your career faster than someone who has come up as a traditional set builder or fly man or spot operator.” It worries him, but he allows that “The flip side that automation allows us to do things in shows that we otherwise couldn’t afford.”
Asked for recent examples of using the traditional skills, he describes creating a small flying system with pulley blocks for Madame Rubinstein to move objects up and down, and which required a human operator.
Fifth birthday refurbishment
There are some things he can’t do much about, particularly the lack of a loading dock (everything has to come in through the front door) and the paucity of storage space. But, he says, “The biggest challenge is not to be here, in the building. I have fantastic staff and support from colleagues, but not being here drives me crazy – which drives people in my personal life even more crazy. I’m the guy who’s awake at three in the morning staring at the walls trying to solve problems that haven’t happened yet.”
Going on holiday is still difficult for him, but it’s important – and not just for him: “I try to make sure my staff get a reasonable amount of holiday time and that they take it at regular intervals so that they don’t get burned out.”
As Park Theatre’s fifth birthday approaches, the building needs what he calls “a bit more love” than before to keep it looking great, and to deal with accumulated wear and tear. In January the theatre will have its first ever “dark” week, and the chance to do a lot of building refurbishment. No performances... but the Technical Department will be busy.