TAIT Talks with Nick Page about the power of automation and how shared knowledge has inspired his career in entertainment automation

Meet Nick Page. Nick is well known in the entertainment automation world – he is a programmer and operator for some of the largest theatre productions in the West End and someone we were eager to sit down and speak with to learn more about his experiences and expertise.

TAIT Talks: Hi Nick! Thanks for sitting down with us today. For those who are not familiar with you, can you share a bit about who you are?

Nick Page: Sure! Thanks for having me on TAIT Talks.

TAIT Talks: You bet.

Nick Page: Well, about me, in 1988; I was eight, recently started boarding at school, struggling with academics, and already knew I wanted to work in technical theatre. I can’t remember what drew me to it in the first place, but I know when it came to school plays, signup sheets would be posted on the notice boards and there was never an option to sign up for backstage work. I knew that was what I wanted to do, so the only answer was to work around the rules. So I managed to secure my place behind the scenes by pointing out that it didn’t have to be the adults that did all the technical work; some of us kids wanted to do it too. It was also during this year that I had been diagnosed with dyslexia, a word that to me, at the time, felt more like somebody else’s excuse for my difficulties with school work rather than a helpful prognosis. My teachers, I suppose in their naivety, decided that at the end of the academic year it would be helpful for me to be held back and retake it. I’m not sure this really had the desired affect, but to my delight it meant I was able to work on another year of school plays. A happy accident that helped springboard me further in to the world of technical theatre. My luck continued right through to my late teens as I moved on to my secondary school. At thirteen I was in a place that had some great theatre facilities, and this really enabled my desire to learn the skills required for a career in technical entertainment. At Bryanston School in Dorset (UK), they have a regional receiving theatre, and at the time I was there we had regular visiting companies such as the Welsh National Opera, Hull Truck Theatre Company, The Reduced Shakespeare Company, Greg Proops, Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, and so much more. We also had a pretty committed school arts programme, and as all the technical work was carried out by school pupils, under the guidance of a full time Technical Manager; we learned to built sets, design sound systems, rig lights and more. We made so many mistakes, but that’s how we learned. We were young, we were keen, and we worked hard. All of this was extra curricular, but to me this was where I was learning important skills and life lessons. My dyslexia had always held me back in academia, but when it came to practical work in the theatre, where I could get my hands dirty and use my brain in multiple dimensions, I found I was so much more confident. Confident enough to know this was the work I was going to do for life.

In fact when it came to deciding on University education I reached my own conclusion that I was ready to face the job market without having to put myself through higher education. At the time, I felt I’d already learned so much that University would be, perhaps not entirely but certainly partly, a waste of time. And I don’t think I was wrong. I definitely missed out on some aspects of University life, but the training to do what I now do wasn’t one of them. I went on to tour with small companies, working on operas, dance, musicals, and live music events. Following that I entered the world of corporate events, followed by several years as an Assistant Projects Manager for AJS, a theatre engineering company, where I worked under the same person who had been my Technical Manager when I was at Bryanston. But by 2003 I realised I wasn’t really working in live theatre anymore, and I missed it. I really wanted to jump back to being hands on in live entertainment. So with this thought I found myself signing up to life onboard Disney Cruise Line. I hated it. But my cabin mate kept saying to me “give it a couple of months, you’ll settle in, I promise.” And I did. In fact, as a General Technician on the Disney Wonder I grew to absolutely love my job. It truly was the best job I have ever had. The friendships I made there are still strong, some sixteen years later.

TAIT Talks: Wow! That’s fascinating. Is that how you got involved in automation?

Nick Page: It was during my time at Disney that I felt I needed to start specialising my skill set. I truly loved being a general technician. It’s what I’d always done up to that point in my career, but I was starting to realise that without a specialisation I wasn’t likely to progress any further. Not really sure what I wanted to do, I started spending some of my spare time in the ship’s main theatre, where I could observe what each department did for the set up and duration of their formidable shows.

At first I thought my interests and skills were best suited to Show Control, a role on the ship that takes responsibility for the video, lighting, and pyrotechnic effects for each performance. I was never much interested in lighting, but making things go bang intrigued me greatly. I suppose at this point, Stage Technologies (now known as TAIT) had been trading for just about ten years and Automation was not yet a common sight (in a way it still isn’t that common) and I had never even heard of it. But in the control booth at the back of the Walt Disney Theatre, right next to Show Control, was this obscure looking console with coloured wheels on it. When I discovered what it was for, and how it was able to carefully control significant pieces of machinery, I realised that this was the direction I wanted my career to head.

Automation offers a wonderful balance of pushing buttons, maintaining heavy and delicate machinery, understanding complex circuitry and signal paths, computer programming, responsibilities for people’s safety, as well as stunt rigging and performer flying. It has the ability to truly astonish people with the effects it can create. To me, this still had the feel of a general technician job, but was clearly more specialised, and way more fun. It was exactly what I was looking for. And Disney Cruise Line offered me a phenomenal opportunity to learn this new trade, setting me up perfectly for what continues to be an exciting career.

TAIT Talks: Your automation experience is incredible. We noticed that you really enjoy sharing your experiences with different automation, what keeps you motivated to continue to share your experience?

Nick Page: Sharing in my experiences has always been at the core of how I work. I’ve gained so much knowledge from what other people have shared with me over the years and it’s great to be able continue that tradition. But also I find that the process of sharing helps me understand more about what I’m doing myself. In order to explain something clearly, I must first understand it myself. Sharing knowledge helps build teams to be more experienced and more productive. And with that; we can have more fun.

TAIT Talks: What types of skill sets would you recommend for students to learn so they can get involved in automation?

Nick Page: Automation can require a lot of disparate skills, but to be fair; you don’t need to be an expert in them all. If you have an interest in mechanics or control systems, then you’re in a good place to learn the basic theory behind automation. Keeping aware of safety standards in the workplace and understanding how we sometimes have to work with or around them in our industry is important too. Communication and responsibility are key. When you’re operating the control desk, you’re the person with the final say on whether or not it is safe to move something. It’s your call and you need to take on that responsibility. There will be times when you have to explain this to people above your pay grade.

TAIT Talks: Alright, let’s jump into some fun facts that people may not know about you. What would you be doing if not in automation?

Nick Page: Technical theatre has always been a way of life for me, so it stands to reason that if I wasn’t in Automation I’d be elsewhere backstage. By the time I was leaving school I was really interested in sound design and would have liked to have become a Foley artist, but I never seriously pursued that path. If I couldn’t be in entertainment at all though, well that’s a harder question. I seriously considered joining the police force once. I was younger and fitter then though.

TAIT Talks: What blogs, podcasts, etc. do you listen to or read to learn more about your craft?

Nick Page: Theatre Automation is so uniquely bespoke to each production that it’s still not really a stay in mainstream technical media circles, but if you’re looking for some interesting reads from industry professionals, I’d definitely recommend Theatre Art Life.

TAIT Talks: We love them. We work with them regularly – they are a wonderful group of people and publication.

Nick Page: Agreed. I’m lucky to have worked with some great people in this industry, and keeping in touch with them is a great way to stay engaged and enthusiastic about what we do in Automation, but it’s not always easy for those wishing to get into this business to get that level of direct involvement. Finding work experience placements or even full time jobs can be hard when you don’t know the right people to talk to. It’s for this reason that I set up Automation London. Primarily a jobs forum, we look out for any Automation roles that need to be filled in the UK, and where possible we’ll post or re-post advertisements on the jobs page. This site is free for anyone to use, whether you want to post an available opportunity or find your next job. You don’t even need to sign up for membership if you don’t want. As an extended part of Automation London, I have also set up a Slack work space. Currently very much in an experimental phase but the thought behind it is to create a space where Automation professionals around the world can easily exchange information and stay engaged. You can sign up through the Automation London website, if you’re interested.

TAIT Talks: That’s brilliant. Thanks for doing that and creating a space for individuals to find jobs. It’s incredibly powerful. That being said, what words of advice do you have for up and coming Creative Directors, Show Directors and Designers?

Nick Page: If you’re creating something new, and you’re able to budget for some automated elements, consider more than just what you’ve seen as being possible. With the right vision and enough planning to figure it out, automation can help to create another, unspoken, character to your production.

In Matilda the musical, there are moments where the set almost feels like it’s taking a breath, with a small and gentle opening of the sliders. It’s the sort of effect that can only be achieved with precise synchronised control and that’s made easier with Automation.

For Groundhog Day the musical, we achieved some incredibly complex motions that could, at the time, only be achieved by putting in thousands of hours of programming work between myself and Adam Morley, under the brilliant direction of Matthew Warchus. It takes courage to break the mold, but if you take the time to figure out what you really want, you can achieve some truly magical moments.

TAIT Talks: Alright, if you had a playlist on your phone right now, what would be your Top 5 favorite songs at this very moment?

Nick Page:
1. Liquid Spirit by Gregory Porter
2. Green Onions by Booker T & The MG’s
3. Cantaloup Flip Fantasia by Us3
4. Mannish Boy by Muddy Waters
5. Walking in Memphis by Marc Cohn

TAIT Talks: Awesome songs! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. It was wonderful to learn so much from you. We hope to see you soon!

To learn more about Nick, you can find him on his social media: @nick_automation. He is currently the Head of Automation for Touching the Void, the play, at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London (playing through 29th February 2020).

Nick’s Previous credits include:
Big the musical (Dominion Theatre)
Life of Pi (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield)
Motown the musical (Shaftesbury Theatre)
Groundhog Day the musical (Old Vic)
Elf the musical (Dominion Theatre)
Secret Cinema – presents The Empire Strikes Back (London)
Shakespeare in Love (Noel Coward Theatre)
Fatal Attraction (Theatre Royal Haymarket)
Finding Neverland (Curve Theatre, Leicester)
Mamma Mia! (Prince of Wales Theatre)
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Adelphi Theatre)

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