War Horse – seen by five million so far – is an international team effort, but a former Priestley College student and Warringtonian has played a vital part in this tale of success.
Graham McKnight, who studied at Priestley for three years, is one of two master carpenters responsible for recreating the sets that have helped draw audiences into the First World War epic.
“It’s incredible to be a part of something that has been so successful and is so well respected,” said Graham, who is from Great Sankey.
“We find the design aspect really engaging. For me it was always the idea that if someone was on stage I could enhance their performance with the technical elements.”
Graham’s passion for production arts developed during his time at Priestley College where he took A Levels in Drama, English Language, Film and Media Studies.
He quickly developed an interest in working behind the scenes on the college’s ambitious productions.
“The skills were there but as a kid I was easily distracted,” said Graham, who is now 27.
“After two years I wasn’t ready for uni so stayed on at Priestley and it helped me to confirm the direction I wanted to go in. The tutors at Priestley are great at spotting the potential in young people and they were pivotal for me at that time in my life.”
Graham’s former Tutor Helen Lowe said: “Graham really grew in confidence in his time with us and gained a drive to do well in life. He took the opportunities offered to him to develop his skills base and worked hard to get himself on the road to an amazing career.”
After Priestley the former Penketh High pupil secured a BA Joint Honours Degree in Technical Theatre and Drama at the University of Cumbria.
While at university he worked at the Sands Centre Theatre in Carlisle, going from casual stage hand to stage manager in just three years.
After 18 months one of the touring theatre companies who had visited his theatre called and offered him a job.
“I’ve learned that above anything else you need to be a people person and good at networking,” he said.
“I stayed in touch with the people who came through the theatre and one of them called to ask if I would be interested in touring work.”
It was a call that changed everything as he accepted the offer and has since gone on to work behind the scenes on national shows including High School Musical, the Strictly Come Dancing tour, Fame and Lord of the Flies.
One of his best assets was a knowledge of all aspects of production from sound to lighting and eventually he added carpentry skills.
Disney spotted his all-round talent when they recruited him for a cruise ship tour that took him as far as Florida, Mexico and the Bahamas.
Graham’s skills were even put to good use at the London Olympics where he helped build the walkways in the athletes’ village before he was asked to join the Dirty Dancing tour.
“It’s very exciting industry to be in, but it is very competitive,” he said.
“During a tour you become close enough to feel like family then after the run is over you may never see one another together again. Being a nice person to be around is as important as your skill set because if someone doesn’t like spending time with you they are not going to take you on.”
For the rest of this year he will be responsible for building the wood and metal sets that help make War Horse such a special experience for the audience.
First he will be closer to home when the production comes to the Lowry in July and later this year will tour South Africa.
At each stop he will be responsible for building the sets. Depending on whether they fit, he has to make certain adjustments to the scenery.
“It’s like a copy and paste scenario,” he said. “Every time it has to be perfect so that every audience member enjoys the same experience.”
For details about the War Horse tour and to buy tickets go to www.warhorseonstage.com