Sacha Savenkoff’s Journey to Technical Director – Part 3
By Liam Klenk
From hobby technician and DJ in the clubs of his youth, Sacha Savenkoff’s journey to Technical Director led him through theme parks, ice skating shows, to cruise ships. His first contract was with MSC. Then, in 2010, Sacha began working as a lighting technician for Royal Caribbean. In this final part of our interview find out how Sacha kept growing towards Technical Director…
In 2010, in Rome, I embarked on the Navigator of the Seas.
Like most crew members who start working on cruise ships, I thought I’ll do 1 or 2 contracts. 2 if I like it. 1 if I don’t. Now I’ve lost track of how many contracts I’ve done. 15 maybe or 17.
I immediately enjoyed my work environment on the Navigator. The ship had several entertainment venues, one was an ice rink.
I was surprised about the amount of top-of-the-line tech we had. And, I didn’t expect the theatres and the team on cruise ships in general to be that big. During my first contract with MSC everything had been much smaller in size.
I was off to a good start. I also immediately felt like I was ready to start taking on more responsibility. This is something I had begun to increasingly feel during my previous work experience already.
By 2010, I had acquired quite a wide technical knowledge base. I had worked in sound, lighting, programming, and designing. I felt like I had a good overall understanding and was ready to lead.
After 5 months on the Navigator, I was promoted to Head Sound and Light. It was my very first supervisory role. We were a small team of 6 technicians, but it was an important step forward.
I did this a couple of months. Then, our Stage and Production Manager (SPM) was scheduled to go on vacation, but his replacement wasn’t able to join.
I had already shown interest but I still had a lot to learn. Nevertheless, the SPM approached me and asked, “Do you think you can handle it?” We only had 2 weeks left for the handover. But I had already spent 8 months on the ship at this time. I knew the theatre well.
Shoreside interviewed me and we went into a handover/fast-track training.
The priority was for me to be able to get through shows for 2 months until the SPM came back. Everything else as far as admin had been organized already.
So, I became the interim SPM and my contract became a 10-month contract which is the maximum length which is allowed without a break.
This first contract with RCL was a very big deal for me. You do not only learn the shows but also all the other ship-related things. The marine side. The safety training. And, you automatically get enrolled in the corporate in-house leadership training.
One thing I really appreciated with RCL, which is part of the company culture and expected, is to share knowledge and help other crew members grow and develop.
I realized, as a manager you are even more expected to do that, because it is in the interest of the company.
Also, RCL will try their best to give you offers so you can match your contract with your partner’s. My wife Audrey who was an ice skater and I went on to work on quite a few different Voyager Class and Freedom Class ships together for the following 5 years.
From 2011 onwards, I was hired as Stage and Production Manager. I slowly got comfortable with the role. It was a big change. You might think you know a lot. But once you start as a manager there is a whole new dimension to everything.
Also, on ships you have work relationships in management that you wouldn’t have on land. With the cruise director, the captain, the officers, etc.
As such, the cruise industry brings additional challenges to your work environment. And then there are the sea conditions, etc. There is a lot to learn.
One of the cool ship-related things I got to do as an SPM was to be one of the life boat commanders. I had to learn how to deal with 150 crew members during crisis. How to lower the boat and get it back up.
For these things, you work with people you don’t normally work with. It’s fascinating. You can learn management principles and practices from the marine officers that can help you deal with an emergency in your show venue.
It felt like the first contract I did with RCL was the toughest. From the 2nd contract onwards things became more natural. I had more time to enjoy the ship lifestyle. The traveling was a big part of the enjoyment. You possibly wake up in a different country each morning.
One time, we took a ship from New Orleans to China. We did a 57 day cruise to span the distance from the US coast to Singapore. From there we sailed to Shanghai. We cruised only with Chinese guests, to South Korea and Japan. That contract was so fascinating.
It is immensely enriching on a personal level to experience different cultures and demographics and to be in an international work environment.
My wife and I fell in love with Japan. Having the opportunity to go there regularly was exceptional.
Within 5 years, we saw most of the world.
I worked in all types of entertainment venues on ships. One challenge that still remained was managing an aqua theatre. Around 2016, there were only 2 ships who had one. One of these ships was the Allure of the Seas.
That same year came the opportunity to fill in for someone. Of course, I said yes and transferred from the Mariner in Asia to the Allure in the USA.
I instantly fell in love with the venue. It was just refreshing and a new challenge to work with divers, the pool, the hydraulics, and a different kind of cast.
After this, the Allure became my home away from home.
However, while the ships were the core of my work life, I also enjoyed now and then doing a gig on land. I went back a couple of times to work with the Russian Ice Stars. 2014 in Portugal for a few weeks.
And in 2017 in Serbia and Italy. Both these times, I also took on more responsibility there and worked as Production and Stage Manager for them.
It was good to apply my skills and competencies in a different environment. Balance is good. To not just work in one place. Every show you do, every step you take, you learn something new. It just makes you more complete.
Around the time I took on the Aqua Theatre was also when I began thinking about what I want to do later in life. Looking at my skill set, to work towards becoming a Technical Director seemed the logical conclusion.
I looked at my resume. I had done a lot but lacked the formal education which in my home country France is still pretty much a requirement.
So I looked at options of what to do. My first step was to get my Bachelor in Stage Management in 2018.
At the same time, I applied for a 2-year course in Technical Direction in a technical theatre school in Avignon.
It is called ISTS and is quite different from mainstream entertainment. The reason I chose this school in particular is because Avignon is the Mecca of theatre. It has the largest theatre festival in the world which happens every summer.
ISTS is also the only school of this kind in France where the course is split in 4 modules over 2 years.
This allowed me to keep working on ships and attend the course between contracts.
I did this from 2018 until 2020. The course modules are done, yet we got cut short due to Covid, and I still need to finish some elements such as the thesis.
In 2018, Royal Caribbean revamped their technical organization. They created the onboard TDE (Technical Director Entertainment) position. One step below cruise director and in charge of all technical and artistic staff of the entertainment department.
The position was established on only a select few ships at first.
Then, in summer of 2019, came my opportunity to join the Harmony of the Seas to run the aqua theatre there, because someone had left and there was no replacement.
I volunteered to transfer, because I thought it was a great opportunity to meet people and get more exposure after being only on the Allure for quite some time. There were other reasons as well, such as wanting to get experience with 3D flying and slack lines which I hadn’t worked with yet.
The transfer also gave me the chance to see what the role of TDE was all about, because Harmony was one of the ships where the new position had already been installed.
A couple of months later, the technical director signed off and there was no replacement. I jumped at the opportunity and applied for the position.
Shoreside management gave me a chance to fill in and prove myself during the TDE’s vacation.
This was in August 2019. It worked very well for both me and the company.
Afterwards, I went back to the Allure and kept running the aqua theatre onboard.
The company’s plan was for me to roll out the TDE position there as well. This was supposed to happen during the big revitalization of the Allure, in dry dock, in 2020.
Of course, because of Covid19, everything came to a halt until further notice…
One important thing I want to point out is that during my entire work life, things were not always easy. There were ups and downs. I wasn’t always successful. I had some hard times. Made mistakes during shows.
For example, when I took over the aqua theatre on the Allure, it was a new beast even though I was an experienced show caller and automation operator by then.
With the amount of shows that we do and the amount of risks that are involved, it requires a lot of focus. Sometimes mistakes can be made that can have potentially disastrous consequences.
You are going to make mistakes. But don’t doubt yourself. What’s important is how you react to them.
Because, when everything goes well, you don’t actually learn as much. When something goes wrong it gives you the opportunity to grow. Own up to it. Explain yourself. It is not going to give a weak impression. It’s going to show that you care and it makes you a better person.
We all have bad days. You have to keep going. It’s important how you deal with those days and that you do not let them bring you down.
One advice I can give people is to not be scared to do something new or take on a challenge. Not trusting yourself or limiting yourself because you are scared can be the biggest road block.
Everyone else you see in their positions wasn’t born into them either. They grew into them as well.
If you are not pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, if you restrict yourself, then that’s the end of it.