The growth of the Middle East major events production industry, particularly in the GCC, has been astounding in recent years. The opening and closing ceremonies of the recent 15th Asian Games in Doha presented a perfect illustration of local ingenuity combining with international experience to stage massive and technically complex presentations previously unseen in the region.
However, when it comes to supporting major touring stage productions, the immediate lack of fully-equipped, large-scale venues and experienced labour conspires to create challenges for event organisers and production managers.
These challenges are exarcebated when the show in question typically runs to short and strict production deadlines in venues that struggle to meet basic technical requirements.
Welcome to the world of Matt Towell. As production manager for the international version of Mamma Mia for the past three years, Towell has developed an intimate working knowledge of the complex and precise technical requirements needed to stage the show and has done so in countries ranging from South Africa to Germany. Towell's role sees him involved in every aspect of the production, from technical management - including stage set-up and tear-down - to staffing and third-party contractor liaison in each country the production visits.
"My role entails bringing the various components together to ensure a successful show," says Towell.
"I manage all areas of staffing, from production electricians, riggers and staging contractors, to lighting and sound technicians."
As Towell explains, the actual staging of Mamma Mia at any given venue represents the culmination of months of planning and consideration in conjunction with local partners. "[UK-based licensing partner] NGM has been approached by hundreds of promoters keen to stage Mamma Mia, but it's quite an expensive production, so the financial commitment is the foremost consideration," he explains. "The other primary concern is whether a suitable venue can be secured."
Mamma Mia's recent Middle East run, which took in Doha and Dubai, posed some significant challenges to Towell and his team.
"The first issue we had to consider was the actual physical size of the venues, which were much smaller than those we were used to performing in. The show generally plays major arenas with huge ceilings and large access areas that allow us to bring trailers into the building," Towell explains.
"There are various versions of the production we can stage, depending on the size of a venue and its infrastructure. But generally speaking, it's ideal if a venue has around 3,000 seats and is capable of accommodating around 22 tonnes of background sets."
The Doha venue in particular presented some major technical challenges, Towell says.
"The venue in Doha was actually an indoor tennis centre in the grounds of the Ritz-Carlton hotel," he explains. "We had to bring in most of the technical infrastructure -including generators - and we had to build dressing rooms and cover the floor with a protective coating. We were even forced to remove windows, build ramps and bring in cranes to load equipment in, because the court was five metres below ground-level.
"We were forced to erect additional drapes to improve the acoustics, in addition to blacking out the court windows. Unfortunately, the finishing of the drapes and some of the carpeting left a bit to be desired, but we made do.
"The Madinat Arena in Dubai presented a less challenging proposition. While we had access to good technical support in Dubai, a huge amount of preparation goes into a tour like this and we never take anything for granted. With no disrespect to the local promoters, we work to ensure we've got all the bases covered before we set off."
Unforeseen circumstances still conspired to create problems for the crew, as Towell explains.
"In Doha, we were loading out the equipment and there was a black-out. As it happened, the lights were on a timer and we couldn't get them back on. The local workers were unperturbed. They put their head torches on and carried on working. It was quite a bizarre sight."
The touring party presents a massive logistical and organisational undertaking for Towell and his team. With more than 92 tonnes of equipment involved and a tight production schedule, precision timing is required, which presents its own set of challenges, particularly in previously untested markets such as the GCC.
"We give ourselves 48 hours to set-up and tear-down the stage; the latter process starts immediately after the final performance," Towell explains.
"In Doha, the final show concluded around 11.30pm.
"At this point, our freight handler was coordinating the transport outside the venue. When we use road transport we have to pack the load quite specifically, but when we go by air - as we did between Doha and Dubai - it's not as much of a consideration.
"By 9.00am the following morning, seventeen containers of equipment had been transported to Doha airport, but unfortunately we were delayed as a result of a bomb scare as well as a technical issue that saw us forced on to another plane, which meant the equipment didn't arrive in Dubai until 10pm that evening.
"The crew then worked throughout the night transporting the equipment to the Madinat Arena. The next morning, we brought in 40 local labourers to unload the equipment during the day, and then a further 15 workers were employed in a nightshift to erect the stage.
"On the second day in Dubai, we employed fresh labour including four local riggers, two electricians and audio technicians, who were recruited by our local promotions partner, Done Events.
"The following morning, we completed set-up and performed a soundcheck and dress rehearsal prior to that night's opening performance."
Despite the local input, Mamma Mia boasts a self-contained international production crew.
On any given tour, Towell says he will employ 16 stage management technicians and wardrobe staff and 15 UK-based freelancers who manage the fit-ups, which are split between lights, sound, rigging and carpentry.
Nine additional labourers are flown in specifically at the end of a production run to tear down the stage. In addition, a local production manager is employed at each venue, who is responsible for managing the local labour force and arranging the necessary hardware, including lift trucks and cranes.
Towell explains that the production team is self-reliant in terms of audio and lighting equipment, which is supplied by UK-based sound design consultancy firm Autograph and Production Resource Group (PRG) respectively.
"We use a Digico D5 digital live mixing console and we employ a number of Vari-light VL5s in the lighting rig," he says.
"We source our rigging from Unusual Rigging Limited, which is based in UK, but we rely on the venue to provide top rigging so we can hang our mother trusses. We employ a number of double-brake liftcam motors in the rigging, which saves us time during set-up and space when it comes to freightage.
"We also insist that each venue works with Rocket Cargo, which is our freight handler, because the company has a handle on our logistical demands."
Despite the various technical and logistical challenges, Towell says he would happily consider bringing another major production to the Middle East. He describes the Mamma Mia tour as a learning experience both for his team and the show's local production partners.
"In Doha, the local crew made repeated references to the production of Cats, which was staged there three years ago, and in Dubai references were made to the production of Chicago. Obviously, they're both very good shows, but they're not as big or challenging to stage as Mamma Mia, nor do they move as quickly from a production standpoint," says Towell. "The local production industry needs to be more open to accepting outside guidance when it comes to staging major events. In Doha in particular, we found ourselves offering advice only to be told that they knew better, which invariably meant we ended up performing the same tasks twice.
"Ultimately, it was a bit of a shock to the system for both us and the local crew. But in saying that, it was also a great experience for both parties, and if the opportunity to bring another show to the region came along, I wouldn't hesitate, because the lessons learned would hold us in good stead for future tours."