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After Hurtwood: the Technical Director of Theatre, Elliot Matthews

So back in the late 1980s, one Elliot Mathews found himself at Hurtwood with a handful of GCSEs, a less than positive attitude to school, and with only one clear idea in his head. That idea was a love of theatre. Ask what he is doing now, and prepare yourself for an explosion of lively enthusiasm and praise, much of it directed at that key moment of epiphanic change. Taking time in what is clearly a massively demanding role as Technical Director of Thomas’s London Day Schools, Elliot recalls his journey from disillusioned schoolboy to his present responsibilities, running 4 fully occupied theatre spaces for this impressive (and highly successful) group of schools. On his own admission this is a job that he could not even have dreamt of achieving back then: even now, he says, he struggles to comprehend the process by which he achieved a job that feels like a personal ideal. Even early in this interview it is clear to me that the key here is enthusiasm, commitment, talent and hard-work; all will be revealed.

So the journey I ask? Well arriving at Hurtwood, Elliot lost no time in hunkering down in the theatre, then in its very early days, beginning a ‘hands-on’ policy that has been instrumental in shaping his success. Rapidly making himself invaluable, in all the various productions, small and large, responding with gusto to the principle that everything IS possible, if you want to make it so, he soon attracted the attention of a visiting Course Director from Mountview. He was offered an immediate place, and moving there directly from school, he accomplished his Theatre School Diploma within two years. He moved straight into working on secondment with Roger Frith on amazing projects: working as assistant light designer at The Royal Opera House and then on open-air summer concerts in Wimbledon’s Canazaro Park. In turn this led on to work with the company behind some of these performances. Court Productions specialized in translating opera into English, and allowed him to work with, and learn from, great talents, like that of Producer Margaret Powell. He soon found himself meeting many of the big names of that world including Humphrey Littleton, Lesley Garratt, a young Charlotte Church, and he loved the vast scale of the enterprise. As productions became more spaced out he moved on again. A spell of working at The Brit School followed from this and then back to his Alma Mater, Hurtwood, where he spent a very happy two years as technical manager, earning more experience, often, he tells me, working throughout the night to ensure the smooth transition required for the staging and execution of A-level theatre examination performance work. He recounts with pride that he was able to shape part of the GCSE Drama syllabus for the small but important group of students, leading to the inclusion of lighting and technical skills.

The next move took him permanently up to London where for three years he gained experience with Whitelight, the biggest theatrical lighting company of its kind, eventually leaving to form his own business, Light’s Up. This presented problems that he had not foreseen and which he swiftly analyses, in terms of financial investment. A rapid flow of events saw him take time out to travel the world, fall in love (not the right order) return home and become… an Estate Agent. Hmm. Ever adaptable? The point was to evaluate his love of theatre and the ability to earn. Apparently the other choice was a car salesman, both potentially featuring elements of performance and persuasiveness? The need was to earn money of course, and he committed himself to a year and a half, even though he knew at once that it was not for him. It also highlighted the absolute calling of theatre, and the old contacts were soon back on the phone. All doubts now gone, Elliot soon found himself back, his multifarious skills befitting an initial freelance role as lighting director working at Thomas’s London Day Schools, managing around 30 productions a year as well as other big events. After five years his role was made permanent and he has been there as Technical Director for 15 years. The role now involves around 42 productions a year as well as other big events at places like the Royal Albert Hall and Cadogan Hall as well as charity events. It is with great pride that he tells me how he has consolidated his role, involving a number of technical experts, building the department with various innovations, including setting up base in West Sussex to manufacture the scenery and sets which are then transported to whichever of the 4 spaces involved, and to store the 12,000 costumes which are indeed the realm of his wife (remember the gap year?). It is, as he calls it something of ‘A massive beast.’

A busy man, but a very happy one, I think, who has created his perfect role, or so it seems, and has made it his own. ‘It’s been a great journey,’ he tells me, the only exception being ‘the year when I had to do something that wasn’t theatre.’ Lesson learnt. Now he knows that he can go through life ‘doing something that doesn’t’ feel like a job.’ Impressive again. He has repeated several times already how he owes it all to the encouragement and shaping philosophy of Hurtwood, that life is what you choose to make it. His best advice? Always take the bull by the horns, just go for it, take every opportunity and never look back, especially not on mistakes, which are of course part of the journey. Make your own opportunities from what you see. Watch what others are doing and learn from them. I would add a running theme of commitment, flexibility and expertise.

What is he most proud of? Building the whole department from nothing, growing it year on year, running every aspect of it, logistics as well as its creative elements. ‘Everything that I gained from Hurtwood and the whole ethos is what I have employed at Thomas’s and it is to give people the opportunity to say: ‘we can do this.’ There is nothing we can’t do. This is what can open children’s eyes to the amazing things we can do in theatre…flying children included.” Theatre: the magic of.

I ask for a funny Hurtwood memory. A random one: waking up in a bed on set in the theatre, having fallen asleep on yet another all-night stint of technical creativity, as ever making the impossible happen. Hard work then, but good work. Nothing has changed in that respect. It took some juggling to arrange a time to hear Elliot’s post-school journey, we have packed a lot of detail into a pretty short time and I have resisted the desire to ask whether the most famous attendee of his group of schools, our very own Prince George , has yet made his debut on his stages; it would surely be vulgar, and anyway there seems to be no shortage of excitement in his working world.

It has been worth waiting to hear about Elliot’s career path. Theatre is such a central passion to so very many students who have passed through Hurtwood, and it is a real pleasure to hear how this has translated into ‘work that doesn’t feel like work.’ Not sure any of us can hope for more.


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