In National Work Experience Week, PETER BARRON tells how volunteering backstage with Darlington Operatic Society led to a young man finding his dream job at the town’s historic Hippodrome Theatre

HIGH above the stage, surrounded by ropes, levers, and rigging, Adam Martin’s passion for his job shines as brightly as a theatre spotlight.

“This is where I want to be – I feel at home here,” he smiles, as he stands on what’s known as the “fly floor” at Darlington Hippodrome Theatre.

The ‘fly system’ comprises a collection of ropes, pulleys, and counterweights that enable a theatre crew to “fly” the elements of a show in and out – curtains, scenery, lights, stage effects and, sometimes, performers.

As a senior technician at the beautiful 117-year-old theatre, managing the flies is part of Adam’s wide-ranging role.

Since landing the job in 2017, he’s become an important member of the Hippodrome’s backstage crew, and he’s quick to acknowledge the importance of work experience, as a teenage volunteer with Darlington Operatic Society, in helping him choose his career path.

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“It gave me an invaluable insight into what working behind the scenes in a theatre is really like, and made my mind up,” he says.

Adam’s interest in the theatre goes back to when he was a Year 8 pupil at the Education Village, in Darlington, and the school was staging Bugsy Malone.

“A friend was helping out backstage, so I thought I’d see what it was like, and it blossomed from there,” he recalls.

“I instinctively felt comfortable with the type of people who got involved in putting on shows.”

His job on Bugsy Malone was sorting out the props, most memorably the “splurge guns” that fired theatrical foam.

A technical group was formed for the school's annual shows, and Adam’s involvement grew through productions such as Little Shop of Horrors, Grease, and Guys and Dolls.

By the time he left school, he was unofficial ‘technical director’, and he credits his music teacher, Jo Rose, as being an inspiration. Although it wasn’t a course provided by the school, she made special arrangements for him to study performing arts (production) at GCSE.

“She saw something in me, believed in me, and made it happen for me,” he says.

Further encouragement came from Adam’s mum and dad, Derek and Deborah, who loved taking him to shows at the Hippodrome. “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat was always being played in the car!” he recalls.

Adam joined Darlington Operatic Society (DOS) when he was 16, starting backstage with Beauty and the Beast, and being asked if he fancied helping with the fly system.

“I just found it fascinating, seeing how a show came together, and I was hooked,” he says.

“I never had the urge to perform on stage – I just like making it all fit together.”

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While taking his A-levels, he also volunteered on DOS productions of 42nd Street, The Producers, and Titanic.

The theatre managers obviously spotted his potential because he was also drafted in to help out with the pantomime, Cinderella, starring X Factor singer Ray Quinn, Emmerdale’s Deena Payne, and comedian Jimmy Cricket.

“Jimmy Cricket always said ‘Hello Adam’ – it meant so much that he knew my name, even though I was on the bottom rung.”

Convinced that he’d found his vocation, Adam went to the University of Huddersfield to study technical theatre, specialising in stage management, not only achieving a first-class degree, but an outstanding achievement award.

After graduating, he got a job as an audio-visual technician at Butlins, in Skegness, before becoming stage manager at the holiday resort, overseeing a wide range of shows.

After three years, he returned to Darlington for a job as a stagehand at the Hippodrome, before progressing to become a technician, and then a senior technician.

As a real all-rounder, Adam stage manages a variety of shows, including the panto every year. Working with touring companies to make sure productions come together, his responsibilities include health and safety, and logistics.

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The theatre’s core backstage team comprises a technical manager, plus four full-time technicians, and one working part-time, with casual staff being drafted in for bigger shows.

As well as working professionally for the theatre, Adam rejoined DOS in 2018 when he was asked to stage manage Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and he’s been stage manager for the society’s two shows a year ever since.

“It was DOS that helped get me started so, when I came back to Darlington, it seemed the natural thing to do to get involved again,” he says.

“Right from getting that first work experience as a 16-year-old, the biggest thing you learn from being part of DOS is the professionalism that goes into everything they do. That’s stood me in good stead throughout my career.”

DOS is this year celebrating 100 years of staging shows at the Hippodrome and, throughout that time, it's been a springboard for many members to pursue careers onstage and backstage.

“We’re always keen to work with young people with an interest in the theatre, and Adam is proof of where volunteering and work experience can lead,” says DOS chair, Julian Cound.

Another example is the way the society has sewn strong connections with Queen Elizabeth College, so that textile students get to work with the DOS team preparing costumes for shows.

And, in a case of life turning full circle, Adam, now 29, plays a leading role in managing applications from students seeking work experience with DOS.

"Working experience with DOS was such a big help to me, so now it's my turn to do the same for other young people who are  interested in careers in the theatre," he says.

Kinky Boots is the latest DOS show, opening on May 1, and Adam promises it's going to be "spectacular".

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As always, he'll be out of sight, but his role will be every bit as important as any of those displaying their talents under the spotlight.

It all started with work experience at his local theatre. Now, it's fair to say that Adam Martin has made himself part of the scenery.