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Jul. 31, 2021 | Saturday
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Jean St Onge
Jean St Onge in his backyard treehouse

At any given moment during every performance at the Shaw Festival there are dozens of people you can’t see working, so the ones you can see — the actors on stage — can keep you entertained.

Jean St Onge is one of these invisible people, working as First Spot Operator from his perch high in the ceiling of the Festival Theatre.

St Onge was given his 20-year pin by the Shaw last year, and has worked in a variety of support positions, including Deck Electrician, Flyman and Rigger.

“Spot Operator is one of my new favourites: I’m directly involved in the show, I have to stay focused the whole time, and some people can really tell if I’ve had a good or a bad show. Plus, I actually get to see the play.”

Most of the people who work in the dark backgrounds of the theatre never actually get to see the performances. The musicians, dressers, electricians are all moving around invisibly literally behind the scenes, following their own complex choreography. So St Onge’s opportunity is a rare one — and one he cherishes all the more because one of the actors in the play he gets to watch this year is his wife, Jenny Wright.

“I’m just up there in my booth — really just taped lines marking my space — with a photo of my family taped on the air vent behind me, listening to the stage director on my headphones. I get to hear, ‘Where’s Jenny Wright?’ when she’s taking too long for a change, and I can make fun of her about it after the show.”

St Onge sits in their family home’s back yard, which is teeming with life: two kids, a dog, cats, a flock of hens, and greenery everywhere. He and Wright are packing up the kids and themselves for a very rare treat: A two day camping trip. “We haven’t both had two days off in a row at the same time in years,” says Wright. “This is such a luxury.”

Above his head is a double-layered treehouse which he built himself, replete with wrought iron railings from the dismantled set of a Shaw production. The structure is sound, with professional caliber cables and clamps; from it are suspended swings and aerial silks.

“I like to make people and things fly,” he says, referring to his work as a flyperson, rigger and stage crew member — and this clearly applies at home, too. Daughter Josie is an accomplished aerial silks acrobat, and Wright was recently certified to teach aerial acrobatics.

When the couple met, St Onge was travelling with the Cirque de Soleil as a rigger. “I do miss the excitement, the people, the travel.” His job there — as it is at the Shaw — was to keep people safe. This is something he takes very seriously. St Onge is in the minority of theatre workers who have ETCP (Entertainment Technician Certification Program) certification. This is a demanding accomplishment, requiring constant learning and training to earn credits for recertification every five years. Their motto is “Setting the stage for safety.”

A man of many hobbies including sports photography — “When kids see themselves in action shots it makes them better athletes because they see themselves at their best and think, ‘I look like a pro!’” — he recently added leatherwork to his large set of skills. “I saw a beautiful leather bag, but it was six hundred bucks, and there was no way I was going to pay that for a bag. So I went online and watched a couple of videos.”

That little bit of self-teaching has led to an impressive array of technically complicated and aesthetically dramatic bags, purses and tool holders. St Onge does all the work by hand from start to finish, dyeing and cutting the leather, punching the holes and stitching pieces together (he is a particular fan of the baseball stitch). He molds thick pieces of leather to hold complicated shapes, and sources and attaches striking fasteners. His leather hobby is now turning into a small business, with orders lined up from his many fans.

It seems Jean St Onge has found a way to not be invisible.

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