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Backstage interview: Technical Director, Oli Clark on South Pacific

August 3, 2022

Sadler's Wells Technical Director Oli Clark standing backstage amongst various technical equipment

This summer, we welcome Chichester Festival Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific to the Sadler’s Wells stage. This powerful love story, set on a South Pacific island during World War ll, features a sensational cast of over 30, led by Gina Beck and Bridgeton’s Julian Ovenden. Boasting a full orchestra playing one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most memorable scores, this much-loved Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical is not to be missed this summer.

On opening night, the excitement was palpable as the theatre came alive with the buzz of exhilarated theatre goers. The actors were preparing, the orchestra poised, and the audience eagerly awaited the overture signalling the moment they had been waiting for…but what really happens behind the scenes?

Backstage there is an army of technicians and professionals working tirelessly to ensure that, as they say, ‘the show must go on.’ Join us as we take an exclusive look behind the scenes at the inner workings of hosting a large-scale touring musical. Sadler’s Wells Technical Director, Oli Clark has a wealth of experience, spanning over 20 years, including technical management roles at Royal Albert Hall and The Roundhouse. Here, he answers our burning questions and gives us a unique insight into life behind the curtain.

SOUTH PACIFIC by Rodgers, Director - Daniel Evans, Set & Costume Designer - Peter McKintosh, Choreography and Movement - Ann Yea, Lighting - Howard Harrison,The Opera House, Manchester, 2022, © Johan Persson
Picture the scene – It’s the opening night of South Pacific and you arrive at the theatre in the morning. What does this day typically look like?

The day generally starts with a strong coffee! I walk around, ensuring the in-house teams have all the information needed and check that all equipment is functioning and we are set. The visiting production team, stage managers are next to discuss any schedule clashes or safety concerns. The period from the load in, to opening night is usually very busy for all backstage staff. This means long days and everybody is getting to know each other’s way of working.

Technical rehearsal time is precious. There are usually anywhere between 8-10 large tables dotted around the auditorium with all sorts of technical control desks, computers and littered with cue sheets and schedules . Production managers, producers, in-house tech teams, sound & lighting teams, dancers and company managers all try to maximise the little time we have left to polish the key elements of the show. Within the last 2 hours, everything is cleared away and the teams get some well-earned rest and nourishment before the house opens to the audience. The backstage calls go out from the stage management teams, the actors and cast make their way to the stage, and it’s show time.

Sadler's Wells backstage
Sadler's Wells technical © Ana Lečić
Tell us about your role as Technical Director at Sadler’s Wells. Are there any misconceptions around working as a theatre technician?

I have been Technical Director here since March 2020, two weeks before the first lockdown commenced and everything ground to a halt. It has been an unusual introduction to an organisation that is renowned for celebrating human creativity and welcomes over half a million people a year to its theatres. As Technical Director at Sadler’s Wells, I lead the technical teams ensuring the department, its resources and equipment are fully operational enabling the practical delivery of the technical elements of artistic visions and events programme. No two days are the same and it can take many months of planning and preparation to ensure the productions are met with technical precision, the highest safety standards and within budget.

A common misconception about technical teams is that they do not interact with each other and are separated by skill set (light, sound, stage, wardrobe etc). This is simply not the case here at Sadler’s Wells. The collaboration that occurs between the departments is key to executing the pre-production, planning and varied delivery of the productions and presentations. The production and technical teams across the organisation are some of the best in the business and well known in the industry. They are welcoming and dedicated experts in their fields, offering a knowledge and precision of theatre craft that is comforting to visiting companies.

How does welcoming a large-scale musical differ from working on dance productions which typically have shorter runs?

The larger musicals are usually in our buildings and on our stages for longer periods. This often means more set to construct, larger backstage teams, more equipment to hang over the stage, larger casts with more costumes, more dressers and longer hours needed to get the show up and running.

Longer running shows can also mean a bit of stability in working patterns for the technical teams. The teams have seasonal bursts of activity, which can see a higher turnover and volume of shows moving through the venues several times per week. The longer runs mean we can use the time for vital off show activity such as training, advancing the next season and maintenance tasks.

What are the main challenges of receiving large touring shows, such as South Pacific?

One of the challenges of receiving large touring shows is having enough space in our buildings and wings to fit all of the fantastic props, costumes and flight cases, let alone the teams, crew and cast. Somehow, we all fit in and get the job done with memorable results for the shows and audiences.

Nellie, a young female nurse, and Emile, an expatriate French planter, stand in front of one another closely.
Gina Beck (Nellie) & Julian Ovenden (Emile) in CFT’s SOUTH PACIFIC © Johan Persson
The wonderful set for South Pacific was designed by Peter McKintosh. Were there any challenges or surprises with this particular set?

The set has been well designed and constructed with touring and portability in mind. There is a lot of it, and it takes a masterpiece of collaboration between the technical departments to fit the set, scenery, lighting, and automation onto the stage. All credit to the designers and fantastically professional teams that have worked together calmly and in harmony to meet the schedules.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a stage technician on a show like South Pacific?

The most rewarding thing is being part of a huge team, sometimes around 30 people backstage that are unseen by the audience but are all vital to the running of the show. It is busy, and timings and deadlines are tight, but it often feels like our expertise is an unseen gift to the thousands of people who are here to enjoy the show.

Do you have a favourite song/moment from the show?

My favourite moment of all shows is the split second before the curtain goes up, that moment at the beginning where the house lights go down and the entire audience are in absolute silence. You know they have waited months or years to see the show and we have been planning, waiting, and working hard backstage to get to this point as well. That moment of anticipation is finally here, the audience are in muted excitement and there are goose bumps in the room. You can really feel the electricity in the atmosphere for those few seconds. That bit…

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until Sunday 28 August.