All-Female FOH at High-Calibre SPAA Show

Aida Allowch and Valerie Gard.

Produced and performed by students and staff at world-leading performing arts education and training institution, Sharjah Performing Arts Academy (SPAA), alongside a team of external creative collaborators, Nimrod was a world away from your typical ‘school show’. 

One such external collaborator was Valerie Gard, a freelance audio engineer who filled the role of FOH DiGiCo Quantum 225 Operator. 

“Many industry colleagues informed me that Valerie was an ideal candidate for this role, and they were not wrong,” said SPAA Lead Sound Tutor and Sound Supervisor, John Parkhouse. “From the moment Valerie arrived, her approach to the show and to the students was fantastic.” 

Gard shared more details of her role with TPMEA, explaining that as well as mixing the show as FOH Engineer and overseeing all audio aspects of the production, she took time out to interact with the students, sharing her knowledge and methods. “Students played various different roles at every step,” she described. 

“John also helped a lot and was always there if we needed him, but at the same time he gave students the freedom to work on their own as close to the ‘real world’ as possible.”

Also integral to the production was Fourth Year Production Arts student Aida Allowch, who filled the role of FOH Assistant and Playback Technician. “My responsibilities were to operate QLab and work on panLab 3 to plot the foundations of the sound design,” she explained. 

“I had to work closely with the Sound Engineer and crew, arrange meetings, handle paperwork, work with the show-caller to put the cues in the script, and develop the process of mic-up for the cast.” The production showcased some interesting technical solutions. “We managed to create an immersive sound experience using panLab 3 and Qlab and panning playbacks’ channels between different loudspeakers around the room,” Gard explained. “The playbacks weren’t static – they were programmed to move around, which amplified the emotions the actors were creating on stage.”

The rest of the audio department was made up of Third Year Production Arts students, Mohamed Froukh, Mahrdekar Omran and Maki AlOwa, who filled the roles of RF and Mic-up Technicians, respectively; Second Year Production Arts students and Backup Technicians, Bahr Farha and Fady Moawad; as well as SPAA Sound Engineer, Febin Thoams, who provided technical support. “The whole team gelled well. The time spent in pre-production and planning meant that when it got to the sharp end of tech, dress and finally shows, the delivery was exemplary,” Parkhouse commented. “When we did this show last year, I was heavily involved in all aspects, whereas this year I was happy to be the ‘fifth wheel’. It shows to me that the students are progressing very nicely in what is likely the highest profile show at the academy.” 

SPAA’s existing sound inventory was augmented by a significant amount of other technology, which was hired from Creative Technology Middle East (CTME). “Wissam [Shaheen, CTME’s Head of Audio] generously facilitated several students going to CTME to do the prep, which is a fantastic opportunity for students to see how things are done in the industry, as well as get more valuable access to expertise,” Parkhouse recalled. The combination of Gard and Allowch represented an all-female audio FOH, not only operating sound for the show but also in the organisational and planning the backbone of the sound production run and crew – a source of immense pride for Parkhouse. 

“The industry still suffers from being male dominated. So, I feel strongly that it’s something to celebrate and take note of that we had Valerie and Aida in full control of delivering this high-calibre show,” he stated. “The sooner there is more gender parity in the realms of live sound, the better.”

Allowch added: “SPAA provides us with the best facilities and equipment to learn and practice, and we are getting our education from professional tutors who have vast experience in their industry. Working in this production enhanced my ability and helped prepare me for a career working in sound.” 

For Gard, the importance of education for the next generation can’t be overstated. “The young generation should see as many industry professionals as possible,” she said. “Theory is important, but it has little to do with the real-life industry. John, as one of the most experienced engineers in the region, gives the students an amazing example of what they can achieve, but at the same time by inviting his colleagues to the academy, he shows different approaches and sets of skills that students can adopt in their future jobs. I believe it’s the best way to develop one’s career, by meeting people, getting inspired by them and following their steps.”

Photos: SPAA