Hi Jamie, thanks for your time! What do you do?
I’ve been a Senior Technician at the Howard Assembly Room, a music venue in Leeds, since 2015, working for the Opera North Company. We have all sorts of musical acts - Folk, World Music, Classical, Classical Indian Music - all kinds of stuff! I’m actually a bit of a metalhead, but I like everything, so it’s a great place to work.
Within Opera North I’m also the sustainability champion and lead on sustainability; doing all of the carbon footprint assessment and delivering lots of training sessions. I’ve also started a not-for-profit company to try and get all of the sector working together to reduce our carbon footprint. So, I like to think I’m doing my bit to solve climate change at the same time!
How long have you been working for Opera North and the Howard Assembly Room?
I was first a contracted technician for Opera North about 10 years ago, then a touring sound and video engineer for a year, but I realised that I didn’t like touring that much and preferred working at the venue. If you go on tour, usually you’re taking the same show, so the only things that change are the venues; I prefer it the other way round! What I really love about the Assembly Room is that you’re facing a different thing every day with its own challenges, its own bespoke requirements, which I find really interesting!
Why did you decide to become a technician?
I used to be in a metal band and when going to gigs I found myself hanging out with the technician at the back and asking lots of questions. I was hanging out with them so much, they said: “do you want to help?”, so I did!
After that, I went to college to study music technology, followed by Sound Technology at uni, and then I went on to work with Opera North at the Assembly Room.
There’s kind of no sugar-coating the fact that it’s going to be rough for a while, but the entertainment industry is very good at bouncing back. It always has been.
Which skills have you developed which are key to the job you do now?
Definitely my people skills and humility. I think that when I was younger, I had the tendency to think: “I’m right, I’m right in everything”, which really annoys people!
I’ve learnt that, I don’t know everything, and it doesn’t reflect badly on you to admit it – actually, it’s a good thing. It’s also good to be forever curious, try to figure things out, and to take other opinions on board. Now, I’m a bit older, and hopefully a bit wiser.
Good levels of organisation are also important. I think I am naturally a bit scatter-brained. I tend to work on loads of things at once and forget where I am, so I’ve learned ways of countering that tendency to that I remain productive. I have reminders on my phone for instance, telling me what to do and when. Sometimes I’ll be in bed at night and I’ll think, ‘Oh I’ve forgotten that thing!’ and send myself a reminder!
Have any of your technical skills come in use in your fight for the environment?
Yes; for instance, technicians are problem-solvers – everyday, we fix things and try to figure out why things don’t work. And, maths skills come in handy when calculating the venue’s carbon footprint for example or figuring out how to get the correct data and into the right format.
Additionally, as a technician, we have to have quite good people skills, because we liaise with a lot of people and you have to know how to translate things from ‘technical babble’ into ‘normal’ person speak. Those kinds of skills are helpful when it comes to sustainability.
Tell us more about the communication skills you use
Communicating sustainability in a way that means something to people is really difficult because people quite often think that it’s this distant, far-away, problem. Being able to take raw data and present it to people in a way that makes sense and makes them care, is a really valuable skill and I think that technicians are really good at that because we have to do it all the time.
Where did your passion for sustainability come from?
I think it comes from my grandad taking me to his allotment when I was younger, and I also grew up playing with my best friend on this nature reserve in York close to where we lived; so, I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors. When Opera North were looking for someone to be an advocate within the company to try and make it greener, I thought: “Oh that sounds really cool, I want to have a go at that!”
Technicians are going to be key to achieving that. Who else is going to figure it out?
What does a typical day as a Senior Technician at the Howard Assembly Rooms look like for you (pre-COVID-19)?
So usually, if it was a gig day, I would come in at about 10am and meet my team, then we’d get the venue ready.
The really cool thing about the Assembly Room, is that it’s really, flexible – everything is completely removable, and you can put anything into a different configuration; you can have multiple events a day with turnarounds that are really fast.
On a gig day, and we were working from scratch; we would need to put the staging and the technical equipment in the morning, go for lunch, come back, and then do some more testing. Then the band would come and do the sound check; we’d make sure they’re alright and they’re happy. Then go away for dinner, come back, do the gig, and then undo everything so it’s a blank canvas again. It’s intense, but it’s really fun!
During a performance I would usually be making sure that everything’s going to schedule and that touring engineers are happy and set up. One of my team would be on lighting, one on sound, and then we’d usually have a technical runner, who would be keeping an eye on the tech set-up onstage.
One of the fun things about being a technician is that you get to solve the problem when things go wrong – like a mic not working; you get to be the person who runs in in their super hero cape and say; “I‘ve solved it!”
If there’s no gig on a particular day, I might be working on the technical specification (tech spec) for an upcoming performance. Some people also call it a rider, but I usually think of a rider as; “Give me some M&Ms, but just the blue ones.”
Usually the tech spec outlines what the band thinks they will need, which I go through and review against what we actually have. There’s a lot of “Right, we can do that, we can’t do that, we can substitute this for this”, and then going back to them to ask; “Will this work?”
Every single event needs high attention to detail. In addition to looking over the tech specs, I make sure we are adhering to all regulations, oversee the team scheduling to make sure that the right people are in place, and manage hiring in extra equipment if it’s needed.
...be curious, learn loads of different sorts of things and just see what interests you.
What does a typical day look like in lockdown?
The Howard Assembly Room is closed for refurbishment, and my manager is the project manager for the building project; so at the moment I’m helping him put together the technical infrastructure for the space. It’s been quite fun; I have had to think in new ways and ask myself a lot of questions: “What would we like to do in the future, that maybe we haven’t done before?” or “What kind of technical equipment would it need?” I often find myself thinking: “I don’t know how to do that yet, but if I have to learn it, then I will.”
What advice would you offer a young person considering a career as a technician?
Learn about everything you find interesting. I remember seeing this commencement address that Steve Jobs gave, where he said: “You can only ever connect the dots going backwards.” You have no idea where you’re going to end up, but once you connect the dots backwards it kind of makes sense. Do things that interest you, dabble in stuff, and if you’ve heard of something, just go and try and find out more about it because later down the line, it might become really helpful. In a nutshell be curious, learn loads of different sorts of things and just see what interests you. Learn about everything!’
What would you say to fellow technicians in live events and the creative industries who are facing difficulty in the face of COVID right now?
There’s kind of no sugar-coating the fact that it’s going to be rough for a while, but the entertainment industry is very good at bouncing back. It always has been. I imagine that in a post-COVID-19 world, people will want to be going outdoors and being entertained, you know? Theatres, festivals and everything – they will open again. And technicians are going to be needed to help cheer people up and reconnect people.
Do you feel technical solutions are going to be key whatever our post-COVID reality is going to be?
Absolutely. In the Arts, a lot of organisations are now asking themselves, how can we make our art digitally accessible? And, figuring out how to deliver that is a technician’s forte! A lot of arts organisations have come to realise is that it’s not as simple as sticking a camera in front of what you would normally do.
Hamilton, on Disney+ for example, people are hailing that as a really fantastic show. And people think that that was easy? But, no actually, that was really hard. I think they did three or four performances with; three or four different takes, different close-ups, remote cameras, all the cast were miked up … it’s a massive achievement
Post-COVID-19, I think that that kind of performance delivery and making art that’s digitally native is going to be really important. So, not just, here’s a show and we’re going to record it – it’s about creating something specifically for a digital platform.
Technicians are going to be key to achieving that. Who else is going to figure it out?