Meet ten backstage heroes responsible for your favourite shows

These are some of the unsung stars that help make what’s on stage magic when the curtain goes up

When it comes to theatre, directors, actors and playwrights get all the cred – so we’re shining a light on some of the other roles and people behind your favourite shows.

Words Dee Jefferson, Kate Britton, Nick Dent, Emma Joyce, Darryn King & Alyx Gorman 
Photography Daniel Boud, Anna Kucera, Ken Leanfore & Zan Wimberley

 

 

 

↑ Nick Schlieper

LIGHTING DESIGNER

Considering they control light, lighting designers are a shadowy bunch. Lurking in the blackness at the back of the room, they perform their magic on an audience’s subconscious. You’re not really meant to notice their work. “You can have that conversation with an audience member, tell them it’s all an act of manipulation,” says Nick Schlieper, a go-to lighting designer with Sydney Theatre Company who has worked with every other major performing arts company in the country. “But the great thing about it is, if you’ve got it right, five minutes into the second act they’ll have forgotten all about that and they’ll happily be sucked in all over again.” There are even plenty of directors, Schlieper says, who misunderstand lighting as “an optional icing on the cake.” A lot can be achieved with a few choice beams of light in a dark space. Effective lighting will coax actors into the foreground of a scene. It might give an actor shadows under her eyes, or flatter her with a rosy complexion, or completely alter your perception of a space. “I always try to honour not just the text but what has been made of the text,” says Schlieper. “And the next stage of that is, if I just tweak that a little more...” – Schlieper mimes the turning of a dial – “you get an even bigger version of that response. It is like turning something up, whether you’re turning up the comedy, the tragedy, the pace, the drama.”

Schlieper’s next Sydney project is Bennelong, the latest work from choreographer Stephen Page and Bangarra Dance Theatre. Schlieper shares the half-joking adage of lighting across the performing arts: “In drama, you light the faces; in dance, you light the bodies; in opera, you light the scenery.” In truth, Schlieper generally favours generous full body-accentuating side-lighting. “What is quite different in dance is the onus on telling a story for the audience to latch onto. Whilst hopefully making beautiful pictures at a great rate, you have to be very aware of making sure that you are helping the audience as much as possible as to what the narrative thread is. Obviously I’d like the audience to think that it looks beautiful,” he says – and then, as an afterthought: “when that is appropriate.” Darryn King

See Nick's work in: Bennelong
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Renée on the set of Black Is the New White
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Renée Mulder

SET DESIGNER

It’s often the first thing you see when you enter the theatre – your first taste of the experience to follow. You might feel instantly unsettled, or reassured; you should immediately know whether you’re about to see a slice of realism, or something surreal or fantastical. Whatever you see, it started with the script. Set designer Renée Mulder reads the script before she decides to sign on, and believes in ‘serving’ it throughout the design process. “You shouldn’t impose your aesthetic on the text,” she says. A recent example: the upcoming Griffin Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre co-production Rice, directed by Lee Lewis. For someone who has produced sets both epic and fantastical (Orlando, for STC in 2015) and abstract (The Bleeding Tree, recently at STC’s Wharf 1), Mulder has come up with a set for Rice that’s almost disappointingly simple: a basic office space.

“You shouldn’t impose your aesthetic on the text”

“I went in and pitched Lee three different concepts,” says Mulder, who at the time was working on one of the most consuming jobs of her career, costuming Sydney Theatre Company’s Chimerica. “And then she just started shaking her head, like ‘Nooooooo.’ She said, ‘You’re trying too hard.’ She reminded me that we’re dealing with these two women who play many different characters and have to transform constantly in the play. What was called for, set-wise, was not something over the top or complex.” At the other end of the spectrum in terms of scale was her set for STC’s dysfunctional family Christmas comedy Black Is the New White: a split-level family holiday house, complete with a rock wall ‘nature feature’. On deciding on the style, she says, “I was reading the play, and it almost felt like you were reading something that would be on TV or film.” Dee Jefferson

See Renée's work in: Rice
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Andrew Keshan works his magic on soprano Jane Ede
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Andrew Keshan

MAKE-UP AND WIGS ARTIST

“It’s like the pit at the Grand Prix,” says Andrew Keshan, head of performing wigs and make-up at Opera Australia. “The actors just stand there while all this commotion goes on around them.” He’s talking about quick-changes, those momentary touch-ups backstage that can take a soprano from love-interest-pretty to dying of consumption in under two minutes. “The soprano usually starts out really beautiful – then the tragedy is, at the end she dies.” How do they achieve this? “Lots of shading under the eyes, under the cheeks, under the jawlines.” Even for Opera Australia’s lavish productions, there are just four make-up artists backstage at any given show. Their job is to transform the stars into their characters – which can be a tricky ask. “Opera is cast for voice type – for Madama Butterfly the character is 15 years old, but a 15 year old could never sing that role.”

Typically, the singer will be in her thirties or forties. “To make them look really young is smoke and mirrors, make-up and lights… The good thing with theatre is we have distance on our side.” Meanwhile, armed with a “bag of goodies” and a photographic reference, the extras do their own make-up. Keshan has been with Opera Australia for 22 years. It’s his job to execute a costume designer’s vision.For a new production, this process can take over six months – a single wig takes over 40 hours to make, must be individually fitted to a singer’s head size and hairline, and costs upwards of $3,000. That’s why, whenever possible, they’ll pull from Opera Australia’s extensive archive – a forest of hair so deep not even Keshan knows where everything is. Thanks to an improvement in LED lighting technology, Keshan has noticed make-up is far lighter than it used to be. But in two decades, one rule hasn’t changed: “At the end of the show the wig comes off first. We’re always trying to protect the wig.” Alyx Gorman

See Andrew's work in: Madama Butterly
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Photograph: Daniel Boud

Liza-Mare Syron

DRAMATURG

It’s one of the newest roles within the theatre-making process, and most theatre-makers can’t even tell you what a ‘dramaturg’ does. After talking about it with Liza-Mare Syron, we can understand why: dramaturgy takes many different forms, and can depend on the kind of work being made, the person doing the dramaturg-ing, and the needs of the team making the work. Some dramaturgs work at the script development stage; others work at the production stage, in the rehearsal room.

Syron’s particular wheelhouse is what she describes as loosely “Indigenous dramaturgy”. Sometimes it has involved finding Indigenous interpretations of existing work (for example, she worked with director Kristine Landon-Smith on a NIDA production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding); other times it has involved nurturing new works through development (most recently, on playwright Andrea James’ section of the Urban Theatre Projects show Home Country, at Sydney Festival).

“A lot of dramaturgy is about asking really hard questions – about a story, its intention, the characters, their journey”

“A lot of dramaturgy is about asking really hard questions – about a story, its intention, the characters, their journey, those types of things,” Syron explains. “Because often when someone writes a play, a lot of it is in their head. Getting it out on the page is sometimes about teasing out ideas through questions.” This is the role she took in the development of James’s short play for Home Country. “It was especially, for me, about cultural material: what is ‘home’ for Aboriginal people? We had lots of conversations about that. And there was a lot of assumed knowledge that we had to tease out through conversation.”

Syron trained as an actor at Victorian College of the Arts, moved into directing theatre, and co-founded Moogahlin Performing Arts in 2007, where she remains co-artistic director. She’s also a creative producer part-time with Urban Theatre Projects, and a research fellow at Macquarie University; she’s previously studied playwriting. All these aspects of her career inform and aid her dramaturgy, as does her knowledge of Aboriginal theatre and culture (incidentally, her uncle Brian Syron was active in the National Black Theatre in Redfern in the 1970s). “Basically, a dramaturg is a multi-skilled person in the room who can assist in a variety of ways.”Dee Jefferson

Syron is currently in development for Broken Glass, a collaboration between Moogahlin and Blacktown Arts Centre that explores NSW women’s Aboriginal mourning practices. It’s due to premiere in 2018.
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Photograph: Daniel Boud

Gabriela Tylesova

COSTUME AND SET DESIGNER

Gabriela Tylesova’s house is littered with tiny paper worlds. They look like dioramas made by a precocious student: assembled from cardboard and promise. This is how the freelance set and costume designer – who works for every mainstage company in the country, from the Australian Ballet (Sleeping Beauty) to Sydney Theatre Company (Muriel’s Wedding the Musical) and Queensland Theatre (Ladies in Black) – begins her process. Working closely with the director, her designs will drive an audience’s first impressions of a production – then the acting will either subvert or reinforce them. This is particularly true for villains. “You don’t have to use black to show someone is evil – sometimes it’s stronger to have a blonde, beautiful woman who’s absolutely horrendous.” When a production is in the planning stages, Tylesova is one of the director’s earliest recruits. For a classic ballet like Sleeping Beauty, where every inch of both the sets and the tutus is painstakingly elaborate, she begins working a full 18 months before a single pointe shoe touches the stage. “We go for it initially. We drive through the vision.”The Czech- Australian designer loves analog – sketching costumes in charcoal, building card sets – but she’ll transfer her work into digital to begin the back-and-forth process of turning imagination into reality. “Then the technical director comes in and costs it all. Then we have to reduce it, they cost it again, we reduce it again, it can go on for months.” After this comes construction – either inside the company’s set and wardrobe departments, or for independent productions via a specially assembled team. As the set is built and the costumes sewn, budgets are finalised and the paring back continues. “It’s like Marie Kondo with cleaning: you get the core and simplify it. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but sometimes I wish I had a bit more.” Tylesova works right up until the final dress rehearsal. “The show before opening night should be [the same] as opening night. You don’t even add a piece of jewellery – even giving someone earrings could affect the whole flow of the play. With dance if you have a single feather fall on the ground, it could be lethal.” Alyx Gorman

See Gabriela's work in: The Sleeping Beauty
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Photograph: Daniel Boud

Paige Walker

DIALECT COACH

“When I listen to people talk I can feel what it would sound like in my mouth,” says Paige Walker, a dialect coach for American accents – one of the busiest in Sydney. Walker talks about vowels and consonants in shapes and textures, and when I ask her a question she tilts her head to watch the roof of my mouth. “I ask everyone to look at their own voice and give it an image,a colour, a weight. If you could throw it in the air, what would happen to it?” Since moving from the US to Australia in 2000, Walker has worked with actors to prepare them for roles in theatre shows like Angels in America, The Glass Menagerie (directed by Eamon Flack) and Mr Burns (directed by Imara Savage). She also gets TV and film clients through her role as resident dialect coach at the New York Film Academy’s Sydney campus. Delta Goodrem, Hugh Sheridan and Stef Dawson (The Hunger Games movies) have all consulted Paige at one time or another in their career. What makes Walker so popular with directors is her attention to detail; she’s mostly called in to do ‘general American’, a homogenised west coast accent, but when she’s given the opportunity she’ll explore cues in the script as to the character’s regionality or socioeconomic status.

“People think if they watch a lot of movies they can do American accents”

She says, “The devil’s in the details. With me, people get an authentic accent in their ear.” What brings actors back is her dedication. She’s there on-set or at the end of a phone before an audition or on opening night: “I am a huge cheerleader.” Walker says her theatre background means she can empathise when actors are anxious about their scripts. She has the bedside manner of a counsellor, coaxing her clients into a vulnerable space in order to dissect their own vocal sounds before training their mouths and ears to play with new ones. She doesn’t want people to “simply learn their lines and set bad habits”. It’s not about mimicking, but developing a sound bank in their muscle memory. “People think because they watch a lot of movies they can just do the accent, [but] it’s a skill. People tend walk into accents with preconceived ideas of what they sound like – and tend to pitch up high, nasal and twangy, with American. I think Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet do a phenomenal job with accent work. [They] work from the inside out with their characters. It’s my concern that a lot of people play the accent instead of the character, but those two find the voice of the person they’re playing.” Emma Joyce

Hear Paige's work in: Hir
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Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Khym Scott

STAGE MANAGER

It’s tempting to think of a stage manager as a sort of ‘conductor’ of a show: calling out the lighting, sound and technical cues, marshalling the backstage movement of actors, costumes and props. Khym Scott offers another, more prosaic analogy: stage managers are like the flight control centre. However you look at it, they are the people whose hands you’re in every night at the theatre, as they oversee the roll-out of the show from beginning to end, following the vision of the director and designers. If they do their job well – and if there are no technical or human glitches – you’ll never give them a second thought. When things do go wrong, they’re the chief troubleshooter and triage nurse. Scott, who had been involved in high school theatre productions, knew he wanted to be a stage manager by the time he was involved in Sydney University Dramatic Society; he subsequently enrolled in NIDA to refine his craft. Loving theatre, but not loving the spotlight, was part of his decision; he also says, “my skillset suits organising people and things.” There’s something more fundamental at work, however: “I like supporting people – the people who do want to be in the spotlight – to make what they want to happen, happen.” Scott has been assistant stage manager for the Australian Ballet for four years, alongside another ASM and working under the stage manager.

"You have to be quite diplomatic, and attuned to ‘creative temperaments”

The SM/ASM swap roles for each performance: sometimes Scott will be ‘calling the show’ from the wings, through a headset; on ‘ASM’ nights, he’ll be backstage, making sure props, costumes and dancers are in the right place at the right time, and troubleshooting things like missing or dysfunctional pieces. Khym points out that a full-time gig is rare; it’s more common for stage managers to be freelancers. Bigger theatre companies – STC, Griffin and Belvoir – will hire them around the same time they launch their seasons for the following year, but then generally the stage manager will start the job a week before rehearsals commence. As they read the script, they’ll make ‘extractions’ – notes on costumes, props, lighting and sound mentioned within the text, that will be passed on to the director and creative team. They’ll also draw up and distribute the schedule in this first week, and talk to the director and designers about what they want set up for rehearsals. “At every stage of the production, you’re running the engine from behind the scenes, and making sure everything runs smoothly.” Besides being organised, meticulous and a good communicator, he says, “you also have to be quite diplomatic, and attuned to ‘creative temperaments.’” For his first professional gig, Scott was stage manager for This Heaven in Belvoir’s downstairs theatre; because the tech booth is tiny, and the budget and team are small, the stage manager will operate the lights with one hand, the sound with another – and for that show, Scott also had a foot pedal to turn off the Exit signs to achieve a blackout. “You have to be very ‘on’ in those situations, and know the show back to front.” In another Belvoir show, Miss Julie, he was assistant stage manager, and part of his backstage wrangling included loading a gun each night and cooking food that appeared on stage. Director Lee Lewis, who hired Scott to work on her shows at Griffin Theatre Company after working with him on a NIDA student production in 2011, says: “The great stage managers are calm, clear, caring, rigorous, strategic thinkers who are always three steps ahead of everyone else. I think Khym is one of the great ones.” Dee Jefferson

See Khym's work in: The Sleeping Beauty
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Photograph: Anna Kucera

Hayley Forward

SOUND ENGINEER

“When you’re mixing a band, you get to the moment when you get goose bumps. And all of the audience gets goosebumps. You just see the faces, they smile and grin and shake their head like, ‘This is the best experience I’ve ever heard.’ That is it.” For sound engineer Hayley Forward, the moment when an audience is completely transported by what they’re hearing is success. Forward works as a sound engineer, designer, composer and artist for organisations like Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Campbelltown Arts Centre, among other independent and smaller projects. The role of a sound engineer is make or break for live performance across forms – be it theatre, classical music or rock’n’roll. It’s a high stress position, managing not only what audiences hear, but in the case of music, what every person on a stage hears – in-ear or via individual speakers. At any one time, Forward may be mixing dozens of inputs together to create multiple outputs. In theatre, that often includes managing individual ‘hairline’ mics (often hidden at the hairline). “Mic’ing the performers is a tricky job: it’s difficult to get a nice, clear sound, because they pick up everything around them – and then the performers’ mics interact with each other. So [the sound engineer] is using faders for every single line of dialogue. And then if it’s a musical, you might have the orchestra on top of that; there’s also playback [of pre-recorded sound].” When things are going right, she says, it’s a perfect balance of science and art. “I’ve always been very creative, had a big imagination. I also just loved the science of things. So it’s from a fluid, sensory, very emotional side, combined with a very technical, precise side.” Kate Britton

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Photograph: Ken Leanfore

Steve Toulmin

SOUND DESIGNER AND COMPOSER

In a sunny Belvoir rehearsal room, an old pipe organ is gathering dust in a corner while from next door comes the muted clicketyclack of somebody vigorously tap dancing. Steve Toulmin, a leather biker’s jacket wrapped tightly around his slender frame, is hunched over his MacBook, manipulating sampled instrumental sounds in Logic Pro X. He indicates a series of dots that represent pizzicato violins. “You can move a note down here or up to here,” he says, altering the note’s pitch. “A colour scale indicates the volume of the note... The trick is to sell it as natural, that a human did it, with all the tiny mistakes. That’s where most of my time goes.” This is how Toulmin simultaneously composes and records music for the theatre; this year alone, STC’s Black Is the New White, Ensemble’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bell Shakespeare’s Richard III, Griffin Theatre’s The Homosexuals, and Belvoir’s Jasper Jones. “I remember one of the shows we did before this technology, The Seed in 2008. We went into the studio with musicians and recorded everything. And then the show moved into the theatre and we realised we needed something extra, but all we could do was re-edit something. Whereas now, I can have the answer the next day.”

"He’s a composer who can leap across styles and genres”

In Virginia Woolf for director Iain Sinclair, a sugar-glass bottle breaking wasn’t cutting it dramatically, so Toulmin layered over it the sounds of six glass bottles smashing. “[Sound designer] Paul Charlier told me that in every sound effect there is a utilitarian need and an emotional need. So if a character has a doorbell, you need to find a doorbell that matches what that character might pick as their doorbell.” Toulmin graduated in Technical Production from NIDA in 2006. Through a classmate he heard about a job assisting sound designer Basil Hogios on the original Griffin production of Holding the Man. “It snowballed from there... I feel like, at first, the independent scene started asking me purely because they could put Holding the Man next to my name.” Back then, Toulmin would source music online; he only began writing music when he couldn’t find what he was hearing in his head. “If it exists, I’m not interested in writing it. I’m not desperately trying to establish myself as a composer.” Across the hall, Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack is blocking out a scene from Aphra Behn’s Restoration-era comedy The Rover, opening this month. “There’s no doubt that Steve’s a fantastic composer,” Flack tells Time Out. “And he’s the kind of composer who can leap across all sorts of styles and genres. You give Steve these impossible tasks because you know he’s going to do them.” Nick Dent

Hear Steve's work in: The Rover
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Photograph: Daniel Boud

Polly Rowe

LITERARY MANAGER

When it comes to what you see on stage, artistic directors get all the public credit. But Australian playwrights know that Sydney Theatre Company’s literary manager Polly Rowe is a key player – and someone whose radar they should be on. Rowe has been there for nearly ten years – longer than Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, and current artistic director Kip Williams. She’s nurtured many scripts from a gleam in their writer’s eye, through creative development, commissioning, various drafts, production teething (giving notes in the rehearsal room), and onto the STC stage. She is an integral part of their programming team, particularly in terms of new Australian work. “We have a number of playwrights under commission at any time,” she says, “and so I’m always reading drafts, and working on getting those plays ready to present to the programming team – and advocating hard for the ones that I think will work the best [for us].” A step earlier than that is the scouting part of the job, where Rowe will be following playwrights as they develop (which involves reading and seeing a helluva lot of theatre), and recommending them for the commissioning stage. Black Is the New White’s journey to STC’s stage in May began with a conversation between Rowe and writer Nakkiah Lui in a bar in Dublin.

“I prefer to think of myself as ‘A&R’”

STC’s forthcoming premiere, Australian Graffiti, came to Rowe’s attention through Playwriting Australia’s Lotus playwriting project, where she worked as a dramaturg during their week-long Sydney ‘salon’. “I met Oakkie [23-year-old writer Disapol Savetsila] during that week, and he really stood out as a theatre beast and a great theatre mind,” she recalls. “He had this ability to absorb notes and rewrite really effectively.” She organised for Savetsila to do a Rough Draft (a staged reading, with an audience) in 2015. “The strategy was to show him that theatre is a great career, and writing for the theatre is fun – so I got Paige Rattray to direct the staging. And then everyone [at STC] just fell in love with the play when they saw that.” Rowe started out as a writer, and earned her MPhil in Playwriting Studies from the University of Birmingham (UK). But by the time she got to Australia, she knew she wanted to be a literary manager. “Lots of artists describe people like me as ‘gatekeepers,’ she says. “I prefer to think of myself as ‘A&R’, where I’m going out and looking for talent in all kinds of places.” Dee Jefferson

See Polly's work in: Australian Graffiti
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See them in action

On stage in July

From new Australian work to fresh takes on the classics and alt-cabaret – this is your guide to Sydney's stage highlights this month.

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By: Dee Jefferson

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