'Be a polite, positive person' Royal Opera House's Chris Wilkinson shares his success story

The Royal Opera House is one of the largest theatrical spaces in Britain with an auditorium seating 2, 256 people and home to prestigious production companies The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet. Here Mandy News has the pleasure of talking to talented lightning department technician Chris Wilkinson about how he rose up the ranks to work in one of the world's leading opera houses and what aspiring crew can do to get there.

28th February 2018
/ By Andrew Wooding

Royal Opera House's Chris Wilkinson ANDREWWOODING

Tell us who you are, what you do, what led you here and how you went about getting the experience necessary to work at this level.
My name is Chris Wilkinson and I work in the Royal Opera House, in the lighting department. I grew up in Kent and went to school there.

When I was younger I always loved the theatre and was in theatre clubs. I loved doing it at school and always had a really big passion for it and, like many people, I wanted to be an actor when I was a child.

The technical side started when I went to university and read Theatre Studies. In the first term, we put on a show, just to get people to know each other. We all did a big ensemble show and they asked if anyone had any technical experience. In the little theatre club that I’d been to when I grew up, I’d had a go at programming a few shows and focussing lights and I said “yes” and they asked if I could be a technician for the show. It transpired that it was at a professional theatre on the campus, the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster and, afterwards, the Chief LX said “You’re not bad at this, would you like to have a part-time job here while you’re at university?”

My degree was an academic one but we had to do practical work as well and I ended up tailoring my degree to start being marked for any technical work on the practical production units, rather than the performing, which was great. I carried on working in the Nuffield Theatre throughout my three years and came out of university with my degree and, I guess, much like other graduates, I didn’t really know what to do so I started applying to random graduate schemes with big corporate companies like Unilever and my girlfriend (now wife) said “why don’t you apply for theatre as well?”

So, while applying for graduate schemes, I wrote to about 50 theatres in the West End, sending my CV and asking for a job. I got one reply saying that it just so happened that their follow-spot operator on Buddy Holly at the Duchess was away, and could I do some Summer show cover.

I turned up at the Duchess with no knowledge of anything to do with West End Theatre because the theatre that I’d worked at university was a completely contemporary theatre and I’d done no traditional West End musical-type work. But I just jumped on a follow spot. I was told “here’s the spot, here’s the plot, watch this operator do it for the first time”. So I watched the operator do the first show and then, after that, they said “here you go, go for it!” So I did and it was a great show – a really good show – and everyone there was very nice to me.

I used to just turn up at six thirty in the evening, turn on my follow spot, do the show and then go home. It was really good and they offered me the position full-time but unfortunately it was not enough. I think that’s one of the big things that you find in technical theatre, that some of the jobs aren’t solely sustainable as a full-time job. Financially, it wasn’t enough money and I’d of have had to take a daytime job and then do the evening calls. I turned it down. I had really enjoyed it so I started looking on theatre job sites to find other jobs.

I actually applied for and got a job at Trinity Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, went for it, went to the interview, got the job and was all ready to start on the Monday. On the Friday night I got a phone call from the technical manager, saying that the council had cut their budget and some of the jobs were going, including mine which was to start on the Monday.

Luckily, I had another interview on the Tuesday for a job that I hadn’t yet cancelled, for the Secombe Theatre in Sutton. So I took that interview, got that job and moved on to the Secombe Theatre and the Charles Cryer Studio. I think that sort of place is a really good place to start your theatre career, in some ways, because it’s a very small theatre so you work on all aspects of staging, lighting and sound but you also have to be a handyman as well. I was changing foyer light-bulbs and lighting shows. I changed toilet seats in the rest-rooms, sat in on people’s 60th birthday parties when they hired the back hall and locked up at the end of the night. It was a real case of doing everything but a great experience because you learned to pitch in.

From there again, using another stage job site, I moved on to Bournemouth to the BIC and the Pavilion which was a massive leap – that was really great! The Pavilion takes in touring West End shows and the BIC is a big concert arena, so I was working on arena that takes up to 10,000 people, working on pop concerts and things like that. Everybody in Bournemouth was great and made me feel really welcome, but I was living on my own, a long way from my family and girlfriend.

Before I was working there, I had gone for an interview with the Royal Opera House to join one of their schemes as a technician. I hadn’t got the job but I had scored highly enough in lighting that they asked me whether I wanted to be added to their freelance technician list. I started getting calls and rejected a few because I wasn’t really confident enough in my experience to come here. Eventually a nice man called Norman Gordon phoned me, he was the head of one of the shifts on lighting and asked me to come up and have a look around and I did. He was such a nice guy, it was a great place and I said ‘Ok I’ll start taking some casual work here please.’

From there, I ended up commuting from Bournemouth all the time because my partner (my wife now) was up here in London and I just turned round to Norman at the Opera House one day and said “Is it worth me relocating and just going for it as a freelancer with the opera house?” and he said “Yeah, come up and make a name for yourself.”

So I moved up here and I was a freelancer, just covering sickness and holidays, which with a large crew I was getting enough work to survive. I free-lanced in the lighting department for about two years, which is quite a common way into the opera house – to work here as a freelancer first. When jobs came up, I applied for them. It took me a couple of goes until I found myself on the staff at the Royal Opera House in the Daily Lighting Department. Since then, I’ve moved on to the Project Team department which puts me in charge of the focussing of some shows.

Once you’re in, people know people and are always willing to help you out – if you work hard, they’ll always help you out.

Amazing! So tell us a bit about what your duties are, day-to-day here? What does a typical week look?
Well, for me it’s really varied. The opera house is a rep theatre, so every day is completely different. I’m on a small project based team. There are four teams, three lighting technicians, three stage technicians and one prop person. We pick up shows from the beginning to the end. Our teams are show specific.

We’ll check the show in our warehouse in Wales, it’ll come to the building and get built here. I’ll be involved in that, prepping the lights, putting them in, doing the paperwork ready for it to go on stage. It’ll then go to the rehearsal room. From there it’ll go on to the main stage for morning rehearsals and then, eventually, it’ll go live for its first night and do a run. Then I’ll see it through to breaking it down and packing it out of the building.

Normally, there’ll be a bit of overlap, my next production will already be in the building by the time the other show’s gone, so I’m constantly working on different shows at the same time. It’s an incredibly busy place.

If you want to work in the theatre industry, you will definitely work odd hours any day of the week. I can work anywhere from 7.30 in the morning, which is when work starts here, till 11.30 at night. I can do a 15-hour day so I can’t quite do all those hours but within those hours I do something. It can be any day of the week. Apart from Christmas and one day either side of it, or around Easter, we’re open.

I get my shift given to me on the Thursday of the week before for the following week. I have a family but you just get used to that way of living and we can roughly tell what I’ll be doing from an advance schedule – but I could be called at any moment to work at a different time!

What are the challenges that you face doing multiple shows? Or just doing a show?
The most difficult thing about my job is time because working at the Royal Opera House is very fast. For example, today, at half past two, the rehearsal on now will finish and there’ll be a completely different show in the evening. If that’s my show, I’ll be coming in and we’ve got between half past two and half past seven when the show starts to clear the other show away and put the other one on, including focussing all the lights, making sure everything works ready for the evening performance and setting the stage.

In the opera house, because of the size of it, each show usually has three acts and each act has a completely different set so, in a 25 minute interval, we’ll have to re-focus many of lights and change the sets over. So it’s a very high-pressure job for very short bursts of time.

Obviously, when that show’s not on then I’m working on another show. For example, today, I’ve been doing all the paperwork to get ready for the technical which is on Sunday for a new triple-bill ballet that’s coming in.

Is your job similar to something that you would experience outside in more regional theatres?
Yes, the opera house is essentially a very large and very quick version of what you get outside.

Outside you tend to put a show on, it sits there, you tech it, rehearse it and focus it. We just do it all in a really short space of time. Essentially, it is just the same thing. You still have people not standing in their light, you have to get your focuses right and things like that.

Although we rotate, my job, when I’m in charge, is to stand in the middle and make sure the focuses are the in the right places for those acts so that we can re-create what the lighting designer originally intended for the show. If I’m not in charge, I’m in the wings, supervising what’s happening to make sure that everything goes right. It’s such a big place that each side of the stage is a department on its own.

Do you still manually move lights too?
It’s 50:50, we still use moving lights a lot but, again, they take a lot of time to programme and get right so it’s quite time-consuming to use moving lights. Especially if you’ve got a set like us which is constantly changing. So we have a good 50:50 mix of good old generic-style lanterns that are hand-focused and they’re the ones that I’m making sure that they’re in the right place.

The moving lights are plotted into Presets on the Sundays Technicals and during rehearsals and they should, hopefully, come up into the same position as long as they don’t develop faults, which they do occasionally!

Who do you communicate most on a day-to-day basis?
It’s an interesting job, in the way that it works, because one of us is in charge, one of us on each side and we tend to be solo workers within a team. There’s quite a lot of independent responsibility.

I suppose, on a daily basis, as a small team, we communicate the most because we know what’s going on. We’re working together to achieve an aim but there’s also 11 electricians on stage that are also helping to put the show on.

We communicate with the daily team to check the focuses and what we’re going to achieve for that day and what’s going to go up. And, on the other side, we talk to the lighting designers about what they want and what their aims are; and the lighting managers, who facilitate that between them and us.

It’s a very sociable job. There’s a lot of talking!

Is there a most challenging show you’ve done?
There have been some pretty challenging ones! Alice in Wonderland was challenging in that there were so many scene changes going on in that show. The choreography of the movement off-stage – to try and get the different pieces of scenery and lighting on – were in my opinion, almost as impressive as what was going on on-stage. It’s a great show to work on.

What sort of advice would you give to people wanting to start in theatre? What attracts you to somebody wanting to work in the theatre in terms of their ability or attitude?
You have to really enjoy the theatre to want to work in it. It is a bit of a lifestyle as well as a job. A passion. I was one of the fortunate few that came through without technical theatre training and worked through the smaller venues to get into the larger venues. I think these days, it has evolved a lot. It has become more of an dedicated career path.

There are a lot of courses and colleges you can go to which do give you excellent training and will definitely give you a boost. Places like Central, RADA and Rose Bruford to name a few do good courses in technical theatre. Just get out there as well and get some experience in local theatre and volunteer in places. I think that’s the best way in.

I think it’s probably the same for any job everywhere. People like people who are enthusiastic, work hard and don’t just watch other people work, even if you don’t know what to do, join in and try and help.

One of the biggest rules, here, is don’t be late. Never miss a cue, never be late for work without good reason. Just be a polite and positive person and that goes a long way to helping you get through things.