Sets Drapes Screens


Backstage Boy: The Journey of Set Building Expert David Smith

We are saying goodbye to a remarkable man Backstage Boy: The Journey of Set Building Expert David Smith Meet David Smith, a man whose career has spanned an incredible 50 years in the world of set building. But now, as he embarks on a new chapter of his life, he’s ready to shift his focus from the bustling set-building environment to something he’s equally passionate about – woodturning. Adventurous beginnings David’s journey began in Port Elizabeth (PE), South Africa, where he spent his formative years before moving to the UK for his last two years of school. His adventurous spirit led him to dive into the world of work at the age of 17 in 1973. He explored various occupations, from working in a clothing shop to selling encyclopedias door-to-door. However, destiny took an exciting turn when he heard about the spectacular show Disney on Parade’s imminent arrival in South Africa. With unwavering determination, David made his way to Johannesburg in 1976. He knocked relentlessly on Film Trust’s doors, visiting their offices daily, touting for a chance to join the team led by Andre and Philo Pieterse. Eventually, they relented, offering him a role as a stagehand for Disney on Parade. This show was a colossal musical extravaganza, featuring everything from stunning costumes to props, with cast and crew imported from America. David was among the few South Africans amidst this international extravaganza, debuting in a 6000-seat raked tented arena. He found himself amongst a range of colourful characters, including, he recalls fondly, a tent master who doubled as a sword swallower. The fever of the entertainment industry quickly infected him, and he stayed on as Stage Manager after Disney, overseeing a wide range of events, from boxing matches to political rallies and circus acts. But as the Film Trust Arena days faded away, David spent a few more years working in “regular theatre”. However, he soon realised that while he enjoyed the thrill of rehearsal and setup preparation, he found the daily running of the show tedious and craved more of a challenge. He changed course and spent 3.5 years as a computer operator and programmer, leveraging the unique blend of analytical and hands-on skills that he is known for. Little did he know that these skills would later converge in the world of set building. The bug bites “As anyone who works in events will testify, once the theatre bug has bitten, it never leaves you,” he testifies, “So in the early eighties, I returned to a different aspect of theatre and began working at Kevco studios in Braamfontein, a set-building workshop run by Kevin Maybury and Steve Collins, whom I had met during the Film Trust Arena days. That is where I discovered my love of set building.” He reminisces about his early days at Kevco, where he embarked on some standout projects like creating multi-staged car launches that toured the country, complete with revolving platforms and other captivating features. Kevin and Steve set a benchmark in the set-building industry, seeming to achieve all the best jobs by being solutions-focused with a penchant for ensuring it was done “exactly right” and without compromise – a trait that David shares. “Carpenters know that when I run my fingers over a joint, I am expecting not to be able to feel the joint”, he laughs. “However, I am also quite patient. Many of the people I have worked with did not have the same access to learning that I had, so I enjoy passing on the knowledge.” With a side serving of adrenaline The journey didn’t stop there. In 1984, David joined Multivisio, a leading audio-visual company in South Africa at the time, where he got to explore the innovative realm of slide projection, contributing to groundbreaking car launches and shows that left a lasting impact. “We did pretty much every car launch in the country over the next six years”. Johann Kruger was very innovative, introducing audio-visual trends from Japan to South Africa, using giant screens and a host of projectors together in ways that were new on the local scene.” After a brief return to PE, David felt the pull of Johannesburg once again. He ventured into Audio Image, a company making waves in the car launch market, competing with giants like Multivisio. Audio Image was just starting to use video and slide combinations for large-screen multi-image projection exhibitions and launches. It was an exciting time to be at the leading edge of audio-visual “show packaging.” Like the rest of the team, he was also deeply involved in building the theatre on the Track in 1994. “I can tell you that on the day that theatre opened, everyone who worked at Audio Image at the time was still putting the finishing touches to the venue, laying carpets, and doing everything necessary to prepare it for opening. This is just part of the adrenaline rush we love about this career choice.” A “backstage boy.” “After I left Audio Image, which by that time had become O’MAGE, I started up The Redbox corporation with Kevin Glover, providing audio-visual equipment and technical services to event managers”. That lasted around three years before I became General Manager at Joburg Set Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of O’MAGE.” Joburg Set Company built a lot of exhibition stands and hospitality areas for the Johannesburg International Motor Show, Electra Mining Show, BAUMA construction industry show, the Aerospace and Defence Show held at Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria as well as corporate events. David’s heart lies backstage. “I’m a backstage boy and always have been,” he says. “I thrive on working with clients but prefer to remain in the background on the whole”. He embraced the role of Branch Manager, JHB, when approached by Pieter Joubert and Craig Pretorius to join Sets Drapes Screens (SDS) in 2015, choosing to support rather than take on a more leading role. Over the past eight years at SDS, David has weathered the challenges of the COVID-19

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