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Memories of Merrigong – James Clarke

Facilities Coordinator at Merrigong Theatre Company

James ‘Nobby’ Clarke doesn’t consider himself a ‘theatre person’, but most would disagree.

In the early ‘80s, James Clarke was engineering prawn trawlers on the Gulf of Carpentaria before moving to Wollongong, where a radio segment alerted him that Theatre South was looking for someone to assist with the set of the 1984 production of Tommy at Port Kembla Leagues Club.

“I ended up doing follow spotting on that show and then became their set builder,” said James.
“I just sort of fell into it.”

By May 1990, James had joined the ranks of Illawarra Performing Arts Centre as Head Mechanist. Now after 31 years at Merrigong, Nobby has seen and dealt with almost every stage mishap or technical scenario imaginable, but thanks to many fine production crew members like him, the show goes on!

“There’s always incidents with live theatre,” he said.
“Shows have never been stopped unless there’s been a power blackout and even then we have brought in a big generator and stuck it in the loading dock.”

Seeing shows is a perk of the job, with Nobby counting annual shows from The Wharf Revue team among his personal standouts, as well as numerous school and community performances, and Skylark Puppet and Mask Theatre and Anketell Theatre Productions’ show The Hobbit (1997).

“I think The Hobbit was the best show I’ve seen. It was challenging because I was working it,” he said.
“The whole show was around trying to pick up the Hobbit, lighting up his body without lighting up the puppeteers. It was a really, really clever show and challenging at the same time.”

Of the many actors and performers to tread the IPAC boards, one has stood out for Nobby.

“Sir Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell was such a gentleman and down to earth, which was a total contrast from some actors I’ve encountered.”

Nobby’s immediate advice to young techs looking to work in theatre is “don’t do it!” followed by the knowing smile that is part of the dry sense of humour he shares with his work colleagues every day.

“Meching a show or being part of the show crew means that Saturdays are just a normal workday. It’s more of a young person gig, not the smartest, but they need to carry heavy things.”
“When I first started, after building a set and having a major part in a production, I used to get a real buzz when I heard the audience applause at the end,” he said.

In recent years, James has gone from Head Mechanist to Facilities Coordinator, which has given him a more normal working day. He also enjoys getting his weekends back now and so he can play Pennants at his local bowling club.

“Things seem to be getting heavier as I’m getting older. Stuff I used to carry around, I just physically can’t do it anymore.”

Among the myths and legends, Nobby answered a couple of burning question for many theatregoers.

Where does the nickname ‘Nobby’ come from?

James said the nickname has been passed down through generations, in reference to the nob hat uniform historically worn by Clarkes (or clerks).

“Most the blokes in my family who have been in the Navy or to sea like my father, who was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, had the nickname.”
“It goes back to the old days when you were called by what you did like, Smith or Farmer.”

Are there ghosts in IPAC?

“There’s only one, female and only in a particular part of the building. She doesn’t wander all over the place.”
“People have actually been touched by her. One stage manager refused to go back and collect her things because she was tapped on the shoulder and turned around to find there was no one there,” he said.

1984 program brochure for Tommy here courtesy of The University of Wollongong and Theatre South.

Tommy Credits1984

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