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Women Of Automation Part 4: Kirsty Jane Hickman

By Anna Robb

Kirsty, what is your location, job title and job responsibilities day to day?

I’m an Automation Technician with an emphasis on show controls console operation and programming. I am currently based in Dubai where I am employed on Franco Dragone’s new aquatics show production La Perle. I am assisting with the installation of the show and once the show opens, I will run automation operations for Dubai’s first permanent resident show.

I’ve been in Dubai nearly a year now and my day-to-day responsibilities have changed over the past twelve months dependent on the status of the show installation and creation process. The theatre has been custom built for this show, so when I first arrived it was still in a state of construction.

My initial responsibilities focused mainly on working at the offsite ‘Training and Formation’ location which was built inside a huge sound stage at Dubai Studio City. The site was rigged to accommodate everything needed for our training requirements, including the automation console and mechanical stage winch provided for performer training in acrobatic flights, along with rehearsals on other moving equipment. I worked closely with the performers, coaches, stage and production management to program, validate, and operate all automated winch movement. The culmination of this process resulted in the creation of blueprints for scenic movement and aerial sequences that we could use in the completed theatre space.

When my time at the training site was completed, I rejoined the rest of the automation team at the theatre to assist with the on-going installation. During this time, every day was diverse and industrious. A considerable amount of maintenance work, testing of equipment, and inspections were required, with all the focus centered on ensuring the space was ready to be safely utilised for the beginning of show creation once our Artistic Director arrived.

Currently, we have been in ‘Creation Mode’ for a couple of months. Now, I spend my days Front of House in the auditorium with the Automation Production Programmer. Mornings and afternoons are spent operating training sessions for the performers with various automation controlled apparatus, and programming new show sequences for Production and Artistic to display to the Artistic Director later in the day.

The evening ‘Creation’ sessions require a large amount of focus as Automation is called on to move numerous scenery elements efficiently, often with little warning which can feel like a lot of pressure but it’s all part of the process.

I find it very stimulating and I enjoy the experience that comes with it, and I think it makes me a more effective operator.

How did you get into the field of Automation? What were the steps that lead you into this area?

I’ve invariably learned on the job. After graduating my BA (Hons) Degree in Drama & Theatre at University, my first professional employment was working as a backstage technician at the Manchester Palace Theatre in the UK; a large receiving house for many long-running Number 1 UK Tours. The shows I worked on included Miss Saigon, My Fair Lady and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. While working on Chitty in 2006, I had my first real experience working with large scale automation with the huge mechanical arm that ran up and down stage to power the flying car. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, and from that moment on I was very intrigued by what automation could do, though at the time, I didn’t have any idea how to break into that field of work.

After a few years of touring the UK in Technical Stage Management roles, and DSM’ing a number of Christmas pantomimes along the way, I was offered a job as Technical Stage Manager onboard the P&O Cruise Liners. I arrived at the appropriate time as ships’ theatres were becoming more technologically advanced to compete with land-based shows, and I was soon training in the use of various automation desks and software including the Waagner-Biro CAT Stage Control System, Mechatronics, and Stage Technologies E-Chameleon software. This training and experience culminated in my becoming the Head of Automation on what was then the newest and largest ship in the company. I was the only female TSM/Automation Technician in the fleet and I stayed in this employment for several years, training up other employees who showed interest and competence in automation operation.

When I resigned from ships I accepted a role as Automation Operator at The Han Show, a new Franco Dragone production situated in a custom-built 2,200 seat aqua theatre in Wuhan, China, and was trained in the operation of the aerial console. This was my first experience working on a Cirque-style show. I gained skills and knowledge from the people I worked with and became Lead Board Controls Operator. The Han Show also gave me the opportunity to work in Dubai on another new Dragone production, and so here I am working on La Perle.

What is the best part of your job? What is the worst?

Working in automation is time-consuming and there tends to be a lot of high pressure moments. This discipline comes with substantial responsibilities and there is a considerable amount that could go wrong. If it does, it’s our job to safely deal with the issues, often mid-show with a full audience watching, and hoping not to break the illusion for them.

Communication can also be a problem. Automation is still a slightly obscure ‘dark art’ of the entertainment industry. And it’s not widely understood by those who work outside the field, and consequently, there can be difficulties with interpretation of information regarding what is expected in contrast to what is feasible and realistic to achieve.

I find a lot of job satisfaction working in a highly demanding role. I enjoy having the chance to work with people at the top of their game and being part of the technical machine that can bring these creative ideas to realisation.

I feel like I’m constantly gaining new insights into how automation can be accomplished, and because of this, it’s difficult to become complacent. I still very much feel like a ‘newbie’ in this world, so exceeding people’s expectations is satisfying, and being female in what is still a fairly unknown and male-dominated industry is a good feeling. Ultimately, I’m employed in a role I didn’t even know existed when I began to work in technical theatre after University, and I’m looking forward to the challenges that lie ahead.

What skills do you need to have to be part of the Automation world?

You need to have a decent understanding of mathematical principles in order to apply them to the requested design through the operation of the automation system.

In Automation you have to be decisive; good at problem-solving, thinking on your feet and keeping focused in a crisis.

I believe that to be a high-quality operator you need to tread a fine line between staying on edge and remaining composed; always thinking a step ahead and being aware of everything that is active in the space so you’re ready to deal with the technical or performer problems that may arise, but then keeping a calm and focused head if and when any issues do happen and dealing with them accordingly in a safe manner. The natural reaction is to panic when something unexpected happens as there is a lot of pressure to deal with complications and apply the knowledge you have as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to keep the performers safe and, ideally, for it to be unnoticeable to the audience. However, panicking will cause that knowledge to fly out of your head at the time you need it the most and could cause unsafe and uncontrolled operation of the automation console.

High-quality communication is also key; whether as a programmer interpreting the artistic visions that the creative team have and turning that into technical calculations and production reality, or as an operator who may need to explain technical complications to a full show controls team while attempting to source and secure the problematic fault in the system; it’s clear that steady and direct clarifications are essential.

Name a person who inspires you and tell us why

In terms of a very direct and personal level of inspiration I would have to mention two gentlemen I have worked closely with on both La Perle and on The Han Show: David Ball (Automation Production Programmer) and Steven Snow (Head of Controls Systems at Stage Technologies). They have been a substantial influence on me simply for being so adept at what they do. It’s very inspirational to have access to people with a great deal of knowledge, experience and intelligence who are willing to share that proficiency. David and Steven are individuals that others have an unfaltering trust of their capabilities, and I find that galvanises me even further to produce a high calibre of work myself.

Cover photo by Janusz Ciechowski
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