By XIN XUAN SONG
Published: April 10, 2015
When I first learned that we needed to conduct an interview with a practitioner from our own area of study/interests, I made the decision immediately that I was going to ask DK as my interviewee. Just as I expected, he said yes without hesitation. I come from theatre production background, where my primary focus lies on stage management and production management, and DK has been active in these roles for almost two decades. Therefore, I’m very interested in hearing his perspectives and knowledge.
I met DK through the internship program of School for the Contemporary Arts. Among many local theatre companies, I applied to work with PuSh International Performing Arts Festival this year as a production intern. I was lucky to be selected by DK as one of the two interns for the festival.
Xin Xuan Song: How would you describe your job as a production manager?
David Kerr: I like to think of it in a very practical way. The production manager is someone who gathers all the pieces together.
XXS: What do you mean by pieces? Can you talk more about it?
DK: That would be the right people with right skills, the most suitable venues, equipment that is affordable but also able to function, the ability to manage money, etc. Another part of my job would be pass on all the right information to technical directors, and make sure rental equipment get returned properly.
XXS: What’s the difference between a technical director and a production manager?
DK: I gather the pieces/information; the technical director takes care of building the pieces.
XXS: How did you start your career?
DK: I went to University of Saskatchewan studying math at first, and then I took a theatre course, which was a lot about hands-on skills. I really enjoyed it so I changed my major. In my second year, I stage managed a musical show Fiddler on the Roof, and I loved the atmosphere. Although it gets stressful, I have a good temper, which is probably why I am still in the business. I found a way to deal with the anger, the pressure, and I gradually enjoyed seeing the whole picture and making it work.
XXS: It’s a very intense job with a lot of responsibilities, especially for festivals. How do you balance from the stress and remain calm with unexpected crisis?
DK: Just be prepared, and don’t push things off. I may get hundreds of emails per day, so reading them and replying to them right away is very helpful and important. And if anything goes wrong, usually I can just sleep it off (Laughs). A positive attitude is very important, because something will always come up and your ability may be limited by circumstances.
XXS: That’s a really good note, but how do you handle negative feelings or pressure from the people you work with? I’m still struggling with pressure coming from co-workers whom I’m close with.
DK: Patience is critical and don’t take it personally. It’s very important to not take things personally. Once when I was still a student, the director yelled at me for no reasons, I laughed, and the next day I got kicked out of the class. That didn’t affect me or stopped my passion.
XXS: I know you have worked both as a stage manager and as a production manager for many years now. What’s the biggest difference between these two roles?
DK: That would be budget. Both roles deal with schedules. The production manager deals with the entire production schedule, including technical elements. The stage manager deals with the rehearsal schedule. In terms of PuSh Festival, my job expands to schedule every group coming in from different cities to different venues.
XXS: May I ask which one you enjoy more?
DK: I have to say I like both. As a stage manager, I love to create a welcoming atmosphere when I run rehearsals. Overall, production management is more stable and you get to see a bigger picture. If I do a good job of managing a festival, I usually know I will be back next year. With stage management, you always have to find your next gig.
XXS: Is it why you moved from stage management to production management?
DK: It’s more of a career flow rather than my own personal decision. I still stage manage occasionally, as I like to participate in the development process. I started working as a technical director, and I found I had to sacrifice the job to make it fit the budget. As a production manager, I create budgets, and decide whether the artists and design teams have to sacrifice or not. I think budgeting is the most challenging part of my job, but it also gives me a lot of joy when I’m able to make an artistic choice work within the limited budget.
XXS: There must have been a time when you were still finding the rhythm of production management, adjusting yourself from your comfort zone in stage management. When did you start to enjoy working as a production manager?
DK: I like the logic of the position, and seeing the whole picture. The first time I realized that I liked it was when I worked on a music festival. I found things were done stupid, not logical, and I left. I came back the following year as a technical director, and I waited for my chance to make things run in a right way. I slowly moved up and realized that I like production management because it allows me to make more choices and adjust the structures that will make things work better.
XXS: What’s the most challenging part as a production manager?
DK: It really depends on the situation. I work as a production manager for the Vancouver International Children’s Festival, Vancouver Folk Music Festival and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Each festival has its own characteristics and that leads to different challenges.
When Children’s Festival changed its artistic vision, we had to move the entire festival to Granville Island, and make sure the venues were accessible and safe for kids and family. There are a lot of vehicles on Granville Island because it’s a tourism site, so that made things a lot more difficult.
In terms of Folk Music Festival, we have to build the tents and take them down after the festival. The challenging part is efficient communication between the production team and the administration team, since the administration team doesn’t physically work on site. Because of different working locations, adequate communication between departments becomes problematic sometimes.
The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is the artistic drive. You don’t know what are the challenges until you see the technical riders, and the technical riders may get updated from time to time. PuSh Festival is very ambitious in terms of the range of performances, venues, etc. Things change from year to year, so you have to work really hard to stay on top of everything. A lot of my work is about finding the most suitable venue for a specific show, and have back up plans if it doesn’t work.
Yet, all of these “challenges” make my job an exciting one, and each festival leads to a different vision.
XXS: Indeed. So how much artistic choice is effected by your decision-making?
DK: The curatorial team definitely considers production elements when they select performances, but my production point of view would always be slightly different. I look at the budget and the technical riders for each show, and the availability of venues we have. So my decision-making involves the budget and venue scheduling. My decisions could determine what shows we put on as a festival. There were times we called off on a show because I knew it was going to cost too much by looking at its technical rider. So yes, my decision-making does effect the artistic choices of the festival. It’s part of the structure, and my job is to make a call on such things.
XXS: What do you like the most about your job? Given the fact that it requires a lot of time, attention and a rational mind to handle the chaos at pretty much all the time.
DK: Mostly it’s the people I work with and its social environment. For instance, I like Folk Music Festival because there are 25 of us working together for 3 weeks in a park, and we’re allowed to party outdoors in the city and have a tent of our own. I’m telling you that it feels like I’m on a vacation (Laughs again).
I like PuSh Festival a lot, mainly because it’s organized and well run. It has a wide range of shows that bring a lot of challenging performances to the audience. It doesn’t only put on shows that are text-based, so it’s always dangerous and exciting.
My job also allows me to put together a good team. It’s really important to bring the right team with the right skills, and I want to make people I know work on things that they are capable of. A lot of it is about atmosphere and teamwork. Plus, these festivals and these people put on the best parties!! (Laughs again)
XXS: Luckily we live in a city that appreciates theatre, music, dance, yet it is an expensive city and theatre doesn’t make us rich. What keeps you going?
DK: I don’t worry about it. I do whatever comes next. I do what I enjoy, and I get enough work to go by. My job makes me enjoy my life and that’s what keeps me going, not the financial aspect of it. I’m just a hippie guy who likes parties, and I can’t imagine myself doing 9-5 shifts every day of my life.
XXS: Given the number of shows you’ve seen and worked on, what kind of theatre do you think is missing in Vancouver?
DK: Definitely professional clown.
XXS: Do you have a final note to our community?
DK: Vancouver is an international city that is very aware of its cultural identity and open-minded to the variety of art forms. Personally I think we’re doing very well and still improving. My suggestion would just be to keep making it more accessible across our diverse populations.
DK (David Kerr) is the Production Manager for the Vancouver International Children’s Festival and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, as well as the Site Production Manager for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. He has stage managed for numerous Vancouver companies including: Theatre Replacement, Theatre Conspiracy, Neworld theatre, Urban Ink Productions, Touchstone Theatre, Rumble Productions, and Pi Theatre. He has also toured the world with LaJoye Productions’ Snowflake.
PuSh International Performing Arts Festival http://pushfestival.ca/
Vancouver International Children’s Festival http://www.childrensfestival.ca/
Vancouver Folk Music Festival http://thefestival.bc.ca/