'If you can show call opera, you can show call anything': Meet Will Barker, Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) graduate

Will Barker stands in the seating banks at the Sydney Opera House. In the background, the stage has been set for a performance of La Traviata.
Will Barker in preparations for Opera Australia’s performance of La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House. (Image supplied.)

It might seem like a long road from your living room to the Sydney Opera House, but for Will Barker, the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) helped him make that leap.

Will talked to us about his study experience and the hustle of a creative career – and how he went from miniature set models to show calling for Opera Australia.

I was that kid that put on shows in our living room with my siblings. I watched every backstage tour from broadway.com on YouTube and recreated miniature set models of every show I saw with cardboard, paint and my trusty hot glue gun.

When I was finishing up high school there was no doubt I was going to pursue a career in the performing arts; I was (and still am) an absolute theatre geek! The trickiest part for me was figuring out what area I wanted to ‘specialise’ in. I had grown up training and performing in music theatre, but I was also really into design, theatre tech and the logistics behind putting on a show.

In year 12 I studied four folio subjects for VCE: Drama, Art, Visual Communication, and Media (plus English). Eventually I decided that stage management would be a good place to start my tertiary studies as it would give me a  holistic perspective to theatre making.

Will Barker stands outside at night, pointing at the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background.

Will Barker celebrating opening night for Opera Australia’s performance of La Traviata at the Sydney Opera House. (Image supplied.)

I was attracted to studying stage management at the Victorian College of the Arts due to the range of disciplines within the uni – as a stage manager you have the opportunity to work with all of them. I love collaborating with people and finding what I admire about my peers; whether it’s their creative process, their communication skills, how they react to challenging situations or just admiring the type of energy they bring into a room.

Through studying the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) specialising in Stage Management, I was able to work across so many disciplines and with such a range of diverse, creative people. It made me realise that an interdisciplinary range of skills is something to be proud of.

While studying I got to explore how versatile the skill set of a stage manager is and got hands-on experience working on everything from large scale events to intimate cabarets. There were theory classes in my degree, but the bulk of the learning took place during placements, putting on productions within the VCA, observing and meeting professionals, and undertaking internships. I built so many professional relationships and was surrounded by such diverse artists who I continue to work with to this day.

While starting out in the industry, saying yes to different projects opened so many doors. When I finished at the VCA I worked a lot on small-scale, profit-share and very hands-on productions and I organically made connections – and then within the next year I was show calling a main stage opera at the Regent Theatre (which was my absolute childhood dream)!

I’ve just finished up my first contract show calling for Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House and I’m going on to be the Stage Management and Props Swing on Phantom of the Opera later this year. I had no prior experience with opera before studying at VCA but now I spend the majority of my career working in both opera and musical theatre.

My stage management lecturer at the VCA would say: “If you can show call opera, you can show call anything.” Show calling main stage opera has many factors that make it both epic and challenging; opera often has elaborate design elements, large casts and complicated music which is frequently sung in a different language.

A portrait photo of Will Barker.

Will Barker, graduate of Bachelor of Fine Arts (Production) at the University of Melbourne. (Image supplied.)

Overall I did six years of full-time study so it just feels good to be out there working in the industry. After finishing up my Bachelor of Fine Arts at the VCA I went on to study dance full-time and then went onto studying musical theatre, all while continuing to work as a stage manager. I want to continue working across different disciplines – I can absolutely see myself merging my management and performing skills, such as being a dance captain or a director.

When I’m not working I love walks with my family dog and playing my drum kit; honestly, I think that’s how I’m able to so stay calm on the job!

My advice to anyone thinking about a career in stage management is to just be open-minded and be okay with making mistakes – and owning up to them. Putting on a show is such a team effort, and the industry is small, so find the qualities within yourself that will make people want to work with you again and again. At the end of the day, putting on a show should be fun.

I’m just happy to be able to fully support myself in a creative industry. Yes, it’s an absolute hustle making it work (like going from a morning singing lesson, to a production meeting, to a rehearsal then to an evening dance class) – but I can’t imagine myself doing anything else!