MTC's 2018 production of Twelfth Night, at the Southbank Theatre. Photo: Jeff Busby
MTC's 2018 production of Twelfth Night, at the Southbank Theatre. Photo: Jeff Busby

Southbank 10

Ten years behind the scenes at Southbank Theatre

Kerry Saxby, MTC’s Technical Manager of Lighting and Sound, tells us about the scope and complexity of working backstage at Southbank Theatre.

By Sarah Corridon

In his three decades as a valued member of MTC’s production team, Kerry Saxby has seen many different ambitious productions come and go. ‘It’s never boring,’ he says laughing, ‘and I guess that’s why we like it so much.’ There’s always a problem to fix he continues, and before you can catch your breath, the next show is hot on your heels with the next pile of problems.

Saxby is one of a handful of employees at MTC who remember the days when the Company’s HQ was a crumbling down building on Ferrars Street in South Melbourne. Bump-ins were conducted in the laneway next to the Russell Street Theatre where MTC performed, a venue which had one entry and one exit. The acronym ‘OH&S’ was not yet in the lexicon. They’re vivid and nostalgic memories, Saxby acknowledges. ‘We worked in the dirt underneath the stage; literally on a dirt floor.’

Today, life at Southbank Theatre is much more accommodating. The two auditoriums, the Sumner and the Lawler, boast some of the best facilities for a performing arts venue in the Southern hemisphere. In terms of their sound and lighting configurations, the options are endless, Saxby says. He was a key liaison and worked closely with the architects who designed the space he now works in.

The facilities and infrastructure at Southbank Theatre may be world-class, but production bump-ins are still conducted in three-day periods, in comparison to the three-month bump-ins enjoyed by touring musicals like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is currently playing at the Princess Theatre. When you stage seven productions a year in the one venue, like at Southbank Theatre, bump-ins are necessarily on a tight schedule.

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MTC's 2017 production of Macbeth. Photo: Jeff Busby.
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Obstacles and unknowns

‘It doesn’t matter how much you plan, throughout those three days of bump-in there will be obstacles and unknowns. You have to be able to work within the time frame, and rearrange the systems of work, because the schedule doesn’t change. If one element of the set doesn’t fit, it will blow out all of your deadlines, but they still keep coming.’ By the time Opening Night rolls around, it’s just a relief, he laughs.

When Saxby finished school at the very top of the country in North Queensland, he started an apprenticeship in industrial technology and went to work in the mines. ‘When you’re on the edge of the Tanami Desert in the backblocks of the Northern Territory, you think about what else you could do with your life. I saw an advertisement for NIDA in The West Australian, and applied.’ Saxby started seconding for MTC after he graduated from NIDA, and excluding one year that he took off to ‘catch fish’, he’s been bumping-in productions and solving problems in tech week ever since.

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MTC's 2017 production of Vivid White. Photo: Jeff Busby.
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Saxby has worked on technical elements of approximately 350 shows. Every season presents a plethora of new challenges and innovations for the production team to crack. Some directors, however, are guaranteed to bring an element of difficulty to the stage every time. One such person, Saxby reveals while laughing, is former Artistic Director Simon Phillips. Productions like Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Shakespeare in Love, all directed by Phillips, are masterclasses in difficult production schedules, Saxby says. Twelfth Night, especially, required five lifts under the stage, with a flying couch, flying harp, a revolve built into a thrust with a wrap-around set. ‘You have to get yourself ready mentally for those bump-ins,’ Saxby admits. ‘Those days are what we’re working up to for the whole pre-production and rehearsal period.’

In Kiss of the Spider Woman, the most recent production to appear in the Sumner, Saxby’s team developed 700 lines of code for video, 5,000 lines of code for sound and 500 lines of code for automation, entirely from scratch. Senior Production Technician Allan Hirons even designed and 3D printed the shell of the imitation firearm used in the production. Saxby and Hirons’ team have developed automated, autonomous chairs that can drive themselves around stage and hotel rooms that disappear in a number of minutes through traps in the floor. They’ve poured 40 litres of water on actors, flown people off stage in four seconds and even made actors disappear through concealed traps in the stage-floor.

Fake Blood and Pink Mud

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MTC's 2016 production of Lillith: the Jungle Girl. Photo: Jeff Busby

Every year, without fail Saxby says, there will be fake blood on stage that presents a nightmare to clean up. Shows like Vivid White and Gloria saw litres of fake blood cover the stage eight times a week, which required a superhuman effort from Stage Management to deal with. In Lilith: the Jungle Girl, the Stage Management team was required to clean 50 litres of pink mud off the set after every performance.  ‘We tried to make life easier by building washing stations backstage,’ Saxby says, ‘You just feel desperately sorry for them.’

Besides the steady encore of mess, Saxby says he loves working with directors and set designers. ‘I admire the creatives who push and push again to achieve an exceptional level of quality.’ Every creative brings something different to the stage. As a sound designer himself, he’s especially loved working closely with the composers. ‘The acoustics are world-class [in the Sumner] and the potential for lighting options are also unlimited.’

Southbank Theatre’s options and solutions are practically infinite. It’s a space that is malleable to the ideas and innovations of the daring creatives. And thanks to people like Saxby and his team, and MTC’s endlessly inventive production department, these ideas become a reality.

Learn more about MTC's 10 years at Southbank Theatre

Published on 20 December 2019

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