The World's a Stage

Technological innovations are transforming the live events industry.
U2 live.
U2 live.
The 360 degree stage.
The 360 degree stage.
PRG's Britney Spears world tour automation prep.
PRG's Britney Spears world tour automation prep.
Showtex's ShowLED Animation in action at the Mawazine 2009 festival.
Showtex's ShowLED Animation in action at the Mawazine 2009 festival.

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Technological innovations in the stage rigging and dressing sectors is transforming the live events industry and opening up a whole new world of possibilities for production teams in the GCC. Here, we profile the key players and technologies changing the way crews are doing business in the Middle East.

The rapid development of stage rigging technologies has had a profound effect on the way live events have been presented in recent years.

Whether it be a small theatre production or a major stadium-style concert event, the introduction of automated technologies such as motion control systems and motorised rigging structures has not only simplified the tasks facing production crews but also revolutionised the experience for audiences, opening up a whole world of production possibilities as a result.

Coinciding with this has been the development of new stage dressing materials such as starcloths and drapes, and the application of LED-based technologies in traditional stage designs, which have in turn revolutionised AV presentations, particularly at large-scale rock concerts and festivals.

The vast majority of the industry’s leading suppliers are based in the UK and Europe, but most boast a presence, whether directly or indirectly through a distribution partner, in the Middle East.

Stagetech
One of the top companies in the sector is London-based Stage Technologies, otherwise known as Stagetech. While the company does not have a permanent presence in the Middle East, it has completed a number of high-profile projects in the region, including the Dubai Mall in the UAE and other venues in Qatar.

Stagetech marcoms manager Louise Sheffield says the company may consider opening an office in the region in the future or at the least, securing a partnership with a local supplier.

“We currently do not have a direct presence but our staff base of more than 160 engineers and support crew means that we have the capability to deliver numerous projects simultaneously in different parts of the globe,” she says.

“We have enjoyed working in more than 30 different countries and there is always something new to inspire us.

“We feel that there is a huge scope to share our technology and knowledge to provide Middle East-based performance venues a competitive edge.”

Sheffield explains Stagetech’s roots lie in West End London theatre projects, providing theatre automation technologies to venues such as the Adelphi. It now operates a “thriving” rentals department that caters to worldwide events from rock shows to corporate launches and touring theatre productions.

Recent projects include Viva ELVIS in Las Vegas (Cirque du Soleil), Love Never Dies in London’s West End (Andrew Lloyd Webber), the P!nk Funhouse tour 2009/10, Grammys and MTV Music Awards, Mika and Katherine Jenkins.

The company’s product range includes plug-and-play style touring control technologies, and advanced wireless control and rigging systems.

“We also supply a range of portable control desks and handheld controllers; advanced wireless control technology (including stage trucks, tracks and trolleys, seating wagons and lifts); eChameleon software and optional joystick programming control for precision 3D performer flying and complex motion plotting; and a wide range of winches and point hoists built specifically for the stage environment with robustness, longevity and safety in mind,” says Sheffield.

Showtex
Another company that has carved a formidable niche in the Middle East market is Showtex, whose local operation based in Dubai is steered by industry veteran Sven Peeters.

 

The company’s ShowLED starcloths and extensive range of draping technologies are impressive in terms of quality and are particularly well-designed for outdoor applications, making them ideal for use in the Middle East.

Showtex has found considerable success supplying kit to recent high-profile events staged in the region.

It supplied all custom-printed and decorative fabrics for the Meydan opening ceremony at the Dubai World Cup, projection screens and a 1000 m2 roof covering in printed banner drape for the recent Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC) in Abu Dhabi, and printed inflatable start and finish banners for the Tour of Oman.

ShowLED starcloths featured onstage at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco, the Miss World pageant in South Africa, the Star Awards on Al Watan TV, and the Dubai International Film Festival.

According to Peeters, the live staging market accounts for at least half of ShowTex’s overall business.

“We’ve focused on fabrics all these years because the possibilities onstage are endless. Designers keep coming up with amazing concepts and innovative textiles are the perfect medium for making them a reality. ShowLED starcloths have quickly become the standard here for everything from stage backdrops to venue animation,” he claims.

ShowTex Middle East recently moved to a significantly larger workshop and office space, Peeters explains.

“We are extending our focus to export sales and will soon have a regional manager who knows the ShowTex product range inside and out as well as being a ShowLED specialist,” he says. 

“ShowTex’s roots lie in Europe. The European offices have been operating for 150 years. This means we’ve already established good relationships with many of the other companies in the industry that are now operating in the Middle East.”

Peeters stresses that it was essential ShowTex Middle East be a full service location and “not a distributorship”.

“Our giant projection screens and ShowLED starcloth systems have done very well in the region,” he claims. “The climate and open spaces in the Middle East lend themselves to outdoor performances and grand scale productions in a more pronounced way in comparison to a market like Europe. 

“The architectural element and many building projects in the region are also an exciting aspect of the Middle East market. Instead of designing for existing venues, we’re often involved at the concept stage of a project.”

Production Resource Group (PRG)
London-based Production Resource Group (PRG) is also making its mark in the Middle East.

“It is a market that is very important to our long-term strategy,” says PRG’s VP of Marketing, Anne Johnston.

“Through our acquisition of Procon last year, we have expanded our presence in Europe, which handles much of the business for markets in the Middle East. PRG is very committed to developing and continuing to support our staging partners in the region.”

PRG supplies a range of stage automation solutions, including winches, turntables and lifts. “We work with the latest technology and have an in-house staff that handles all of the design, engineering and fabrication for scenery, effects and automation,” explains Johnston.

“One of the more recent products we have developed is our Commander automation control console, which can control flying automation and effects with much greater precision and repeatability coupled with the highest levels of safety.

“It is designed to replace older automation and flying effects that many in the live staging business have been accomplishing with chain motors or other less refined methods.
 

“A chain motor is great for lifting truss into place on a temporary basis; it is not the best method to fly a member of the cast or crew on a repeatable basis.”

PRG has numerous projects in the works including casinos and theme parks located around the world.

“We are handling all of the flying and automation on multiple theatrical productions including Mary Poppins; Shrek, The Musical; The Million Dollar Quartet; Memphis; and South Pacific,” explains Johnston. “We also work in the concert touring industry where we handled all the flying automation for Britney Spears’ last world tour, The Circus.”

Kinesys
UK-based Kinesys is a leading manufacturer of specialised automation systems. The company was formed in 2003 by Dave Weatherhead and Andy Cave, who spotted a gap in the market for standard automation products that were compatible with other products in the range and therefore expandable.

“Until then, automation had been very much focussed on customised solutions to everything, which was expensive and limited your options in terms of future-proofing,” says Weatherhead.

Kinesys is based in London, and currently has a full time staff of eight, working in sales, manufacturing, technical support, hardware and software design. Products are distributed worldwide through a rapidly expanding network of dealers and agents.

Kinesys’ is tradtionally known as a supplier of chain hoist technology – both fixed and variable speed motors.

“We produce everything from the computer software to the conversion kits designed to update all the leading models of existing hoists. The process is a quick and seamless operation that integrates automation into existing productions as well venues,” says Weatherhead.

The company’s highest profile project to date is U2’s ongoing 360 world tour. It has also been involved in major concert productions by other international artists including Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Depeche Mode, Take That, Snow Patrol and Kings of Leon. For the recent 2010 Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo, 80 Kinesys hoists and K2 control were employed.

Kinesys is currently working to establish a global dealer network and is on the hunt for a suitable partner in the Middle East, says Weatherhead.

“Service and support are central to our philosophy, so it’s vital we collaborate with a partner who shares these values,” he says.

Architen Landrell
One of the best known innovators in the high-tensile design industry, Architen Landrell has worked on a range of high profile projects, including world tours for U2, Muse and Madonna.

For U2’s 360 Degree world tour, the company designed a tensile fabric structure that formed the major element of the band’s eye catching stage set. In addition to the dramatic fabric membrane, the centre of the stage structure also housed a vertical LED-covered pylon and an elliptical, retractable high-resolution video screen, both designed to act as interactive elements during the live show.

According to Architen Landrell’s sales and marketing manager, Amy Wilson, rock and pop concerts contribute 15% of the company’s business worldwide.

“It’s generally repeat work making it highly efficient and cost effective and as a result very important to our business,” she says.

Wilson describes the Middle East as “of medium importance” to Architen Landrell’s business. “The Middle East has always been an important market to us and continues to be so, [however] we do not anticipate a drive to expand our business there at present,” she says.

STAGING TECHNOLOGY TRENDS
LEDs TO THE FORE

“We’re seeing more and more performances that integrate giant glassless mirrors, HiSpeed roll ups with spaghetti string curtains, and digitally printed backdrops and canvases,” says Showtex’s Sven Peeters. “Our workshop is now able to print screens up to five metres in width, which creates an infinite number of imaging possibilities for stage or trade show decoration.

“The ShowLED components can be added to all kinds of fabrics, drapes, or three dimensional soft goods and we’ve achieved some amazing results combining sheer- and semi-sheer fabrics and foils with the ShowLED system.

“So customers can use LEDS in the traditional way, or alter the definition of light and colours with other fabrics like our X-Foil and CycloLED, or even use DropPaper and Voile to achieve softer light effects.”

Automated Control IS KEY
“We’re seeing more and more shows with automated controls and expanded use of automation,” says Anne Johnston. “Also the use of variable speed chain motors is increasing. If someone can dream it up, we can automate or fly it. We pride ourselves on pushing the technology to provide solutions, with both custom and stock components that act as building blocks. By having key stock components, we can engineer a more cost-effective solution. Many of these technologies are becoming increasingly smaller.”

Wireless wonders
“More venues and production companies are embracing wireless technology for improved safety and flexibility,” says Louise Sheffield. “More companies will move towards standard components. For example, we use Siemens industrial components in our control racks to ensure repeatability and availability of parts 24/7).

“Education and understanding what can be achieved with automation will improve as a new generation of technical theatre students and set designers join the professional market. In the world of virtual reality and interactive gaming, performers and producers will want to compete for audiences with more daring and sophisticated entertainment technology.”

Convergence is the future
“With the ongoing ‘convergence’ between lighting and video, automation is also becoming a highly creative tool for visual designers of all types, and ‘movement’ is emerging as an imaginative show element in its own right, particularly in relation to lighting, video and scenic/set pieces,” claims Kinesys’ Dave Weatherhead.

“The ability of digital media servers to now render and map video content in real time and keep pace with moving screens is also opening up many exciting possibilities.

“Stage automation has reached a level of sophistication where it can be viewed as an essential component by any production team.”

Weartherhead adds that staging automation technologies also help reduce demands on venue staff in certain areas, reducing stress, enhancing safety standards and facilitating faster turnarounds between shows.

TOP TECH
Production Resource Group (PRG)
PRG is best known for its work in theatre environments, particularly in regards to automation technologies. Its Stage Command system, which automates scenery and effects, has found favour in a number of major theatres, particularly on Broadway and London’s West End.

The company claims the technology currently controls more than 2,000 scenic effects every day for Broadway and touring shows, Las Vegas spectaculars, corporate industrial shows, theme park attractions and special events.

“It was designed by stage technicians for live performance environments and provides the greatest degree of precision and reliability for the widest range of applications,” claims PRG’s Johnston. “The cue-based system can create precise and seamless cinematic transitions in full view of the audience.

“We have created an easy-to-operate system that features an intuitive user interface, user-friendly software, auto-follow cueing for seamless transitions and proven safety and reliability.”

ShowTex
According to Sven Peeters, Showtex recently upgraded its workshop enabling it to manufacture “the world’s largest projection screens”.

“We’re bringing out six new screens with even more precise light yield and viewing angle capabilities,” he explains.

“Along with the basic Classic system for white LED backdrops, the Chameleon system for full colour LEDs, and the Animation for video loops and graphics, we can now offer high output LEDs, LEDnets, and waterproof LEDs.

Combined with deco fabrics and studio cycs, you can achieve almost any effect with the ShowLED components, both indoors and out. Our range of starcloths are plug and play, controllable by DMX and now, with the v-box interface, they’re compatible with any media server.”

Mutual Interests
In the market for discounted or rare rigging equipment? US tech distributor Mutual Hardware recently went global with the launch of its improved e-commerce website catering to international markets. The company specialises in supplying hard to find staging materials and other equipment for live events.

“We have only recently started supplying international markets,” says company representative Mary Piotrowski.

“Because of the time difference with the US, the website is critical for placing orders. We typically send
parcels via the post, but for those in a rush, UPS and FedEx service deliveries are available.

“We are hoping to build on our initial success internationally.”

The company also distributes a catalogue of hard-to-find items which can be downloaded from its website, located at www.mutualhardware.com.

“We sell all kinds of crazy, hard to find hardware,” says Piotrowski. “We have an extensive catalogue that can be downloaded or we can send it via snail mail to clients anywhere in the world.”

J&C Joel and IBS Decor
J&C Joel is recognised as one of the world’s leading theatrical drape manufacturers. In May 2009, in partnership with IBS Decor, the company established its first overseas office in Dubai, in a bid to tap into the booming GCC market.

As well as expanding geographically, J&C Joel has broadened its customer base and now caters for live events, product launches and exhibitions.

In January 2004, IBS Decor (in association with S+H Technical Support Ltd. UK), introduced starcloths and other lighting effects from the S+H range to the UAE and Middle East.

Since then the companies have merged under the IBS Decor banner and welcomed three new partners: Alan Scoley, Terry Murtha and Nigel Smith.

The wealth of knowledge and experience each individual brings to the company provides an opportunity for future growth and long term development, a company spokesperson says.

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