We’re going behind the scenes with Director of Production and Operations Derek Mack. Derek has been with Ballet BC for 11 years, longer than any other current employee, seeing the company through an era of many changes. He met with Kristen Lawson to discuss his experiences working backstage and reveal how operations work at an internationally renowned performance company.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
A typical office day could range from eight hours with a computer, a schedule, budgets, and research, to helping with development, to doing grant applications and reporting. It could be working with the artistic department, discussing programming and pieces we want to acquire. Sometimes I have days that are split up with office work and going out to purchase things or have meetings off site. Then I have days when I never step foot in the office, but spend the entire day at the warehouse.
In the 11 years I’ve been here, every single year, the job’s different. That’s an indication of how quickly the company has grown. There are a few things that repeat — the programs and touring. When we were at full speed with touring, anywhere from 10-15 weeks a year, I spent about 75% of my time prepping for touring and then being on tour. Hopefully we get back to that place. It’s never quiet when we’re working at that pace, which is where I thrive.
What’s the biggest difference between when you started and now?
The company is no longer in a precarious place. I came into the organization at a time when it was unknown how the company was going to succeed. It was under new leadership. It had a new board. Most of the dancers returned, but the production team mostly changed. It was like starting fresh. Now the company’s reestablished itself. It’s been a quick transition from where we were to where we are, but it was not without a lot of hard work by a lot of people.
Ballet BC was built on being a creation company. Being able to work to create art is awesome! I’m really lucky because that’s what I wanted to do with my life. It’s quiet and kind of boring right now because of COVID, but the truth is that when everybody in the arts gets back to working they’re going to find that as much of a drag as this two years is going to have been, we’re going to look back on this fondly, as the opportunity to recharge ourselves is a blessing.
What’s it like going on tour around the world, and how do you balance being away for long periods of time with having a young family at home?
When we leave our own environment we give up a huge measure of control. Theatres are generally the same so there’s some predictability, but there’s always something different. Sometimes people don’t have the bandwidth or the time to answer your questions to your satisfaction, and then you get there and you’re surprised by something. We have to be flexible.
Even when we’re conceiving the sets we’re keeping in mind that anything we do could become part of a tour and we might need to fit it on a plane. We try to make sure everything fits into a 2’x4’, or 4’x4’, or 4’x8’ footprint so that when we pack a truck we fill all the space. Every inch that we don’t have something jammed into is a lost opportunity.
It’s funny, part of my taking the job at Ballet BC was because I had spent years on the road before, and for my personal life I felt I needed to stay in Vancouver a bit more. The irony of it is that as this company’s grown I’ve gotten back to where I was previously. There’s a lot of away time. I’m very fortunate that I have a partner who intimately understands what the responsibility is, and what the sacrifice is, to have a career in this industry, because she had a career in performing arts. It allows me the opportunity to do things like go away for a month knowing that there’s support at home.
Which productions have been the most memorable for you and why?
I don’t think there’s any one single work that stands out. That’s not me being diplomatic — I’ve completed over 50 works with this company.
There are a couple of pieces that I really enjoyed watching. I’m not going to give those up, because it’s not my job to provide a form of criticism towards the work, even if it’s positive. The role that I have in the company requires my undivided attention to all the pieces. Choosing to single out one or two is unfair to all the other pieces that we’ve worked equally hard on.
I will say that Romeo + Juliet was well outside of the regular sort of production we were doing with shorter works, doing three pieces in an evening. It was a good experience to go back to that environment where you’re making a full evening from a single piece.
What do you wish people understood about working behind the scenes that they don’t?
Oh, that would be giving up all the magic!
There’s never enough time to put the works in place to a level that would satisfy me from a presentation and production point of view. Not for a lack of planning or preparation, but simply a lack of time. The way we create is influenced by the amount of time we can spend in a theatre. It takes a tremendous amount of man hours and a huge number of people to put an entire show in a theatre. On our loading day we push 40 technicians to get the show prepped in one day, to be ready for the artists the next day. That being said, when I say I only spend 25% of my time focused on shows here in Vancouver, you can just imagine what it means to prepare for tours.
In the case of the Romeo and Juliet scenery, it’s over 12 feet tall. It’s 1.5 meters wide and 1 meter deep, but was originally designed to be much larger. We needed to fit it into the elevator at the Dance Centre to rehearse, so I 3D CAD drafted the inside of the elevator, and spent a day cutting up the scenery in different shapes and configurations, adjusting the size, until I could fit the largest possible object into the space and still close the door. Now the scenery comes in two pieces shaped like J’s that fit in the elevator at 32 degrees. That’s the kind of stuff I’m thinking about.
By Kristen Lawson, Ballet BC Marketing Coordinator
Support for this interview series is generously provided by ZLC Financial