Touring with Stage Automation

by Stu Cox
in Feature
American Repertory Theatre used Creative Conners Spotline Hoists to fly projection screens for Notes from the Field, created by and starring Anna Deavere Smith.
American Repertory Theatre used Creative Conners Spotline Hoists to fly projection screens for Notes from the Field, created by and starring Anna Deavere Smith.

Manufacturers weigh in on how innovation—and old-fashioned planning—make automation work on the road

Most of us have been to or worked on shows with stage automation. We’ve all seen it become more commonplace and more complicated—hoists, tracking platforms, revolving stages, synchronized curtains and wall reveals. We are all aware of the planning and build time that goes into these effects, and the time needed for programming, for making small mechanical tweaks, and ensuring it all works smoothly and safely with the rest of the show.

But what about traveling with stage automation? Taking all that techno-wizardry on tour from venue to venue? That joint production onto its second performance space? Or the well-received premiere that is now Broadway bound? I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that traveling with automation comes with its own challenges. In this two-part series we talk with four of the leading stage automation providers—Peter Veal of Creative Conners; Royal Marty of eZ-Hoist; David Bond of Kinesys USA; and Brian Levine and Jimmy Love from Tait—as they share their thoughts and solutions for getting stage automation on the road.

The Problems

There are a few overarching things to take into account when touring: local regulations and infrastructure (like power); accomodating the wear and tear of the road; being flexible enough to ensure the show is the same; and making sure load-ins can happen on schedule and hassle-free. 

When touring, it’s important to remember: It’s their city, so it’s their rules. You have to be sure the gear is compatible with the requirements of every local jurisdiction. In the USA there’s ANSI E1.6-1 for machines and UL508A for electrical components. Canada has CSA requirements, and Europe has the EU Machinery Directive. And we can’t forget the BGV C1 and SIL3 acronyms which, “are often quoted and requested but sometimes with only a partial understanding of the reason why,” says David Bond of Kinesys. “It is more complicated than just having a BGV C1 ‘ready’ hoist to truly meet that requirement. The control and safety systems also have to meet the same criteria in many cases.” Knowing which regulations are in effect, and having proper documentation for the automation gear ahead of time is critical.

The Kinesys Elevation1+ variable speed chain hoist control system—on location aboard truss.
The Kinesys Elevation1+ variable speed chain hoist control system—on location aboard truss.

And don’t forget power. Stage automation runs on power—specific voltages and currents depending on the equipment. This means verifying that a venue’s power is providing the correct and consistent voltage, having solutions for the global differences—in the US we use 200V class power and in Europe they use 400V class power—and even making sure the venue can supply enough power without needing secondary sources, such as a generator. 

Touring can be as brutal on the gear as it is on the crew. Shop-made components and quick fixes that make do for a single run in a home theatre are not likely to survive the rigors of the road. All the machines, components, and electronics need to be manufactured to handle the constant loading, unloading, set-up, teardown, and those bouncy rides in the truck. Peter Veal from Creative Conners puts it nicely: “A precision instrument often needs pristine conditions to operate properly—and theatre ain’t pristine. Gear gets dirty, dusty and knocked around.” Touring automation gear must be rugged gear, with solid construction, as well as have labels you can still read after halfway through the tour, and durable finishes that protect the materials and prevent rust.

Promoters and patrons expect to see the same show at each venue. In order to maintain that high level of performance in every city, cast and crew need the same repeatability of movement, system safety and operational consistency as a permanently installed show. This means gear, software and operators that are adaptable and efficient.

Load-in, cue to cue, tech rehearsal—these all have pressing schedules for every department but they all end when the doors open. There may only be a few hours to get a show ready for the audience, so the stage automation—especially the software—must have what Jimmy Love of Tait refers to as “the flexibility to manage challenges and issues in real time.” There must be multiple solution options for all the differences that can occur when setting up in the new venue, and they have to work quickly.

Road-Ready Gear

Making sure the gear survives the transit from Point A to Point B requires a good truck pack, and manufacturers that have have anticipated everything that go wrong. Compact, modular components with streamlined, heavy duty electrical connections are par for the course with today’s professional stage automation equipment, all aimed at speeding up and simplifying the load-in process. 

eZ-Hoist ensures its machines can be easily lifted by either having machinery fully enclosed within a frame, or with built-in lifting points. They also use a standard bolt pattern on their machines to allow installers to easily secure them to the floor, catwalk, or truss.

Creative Conners touts its Rhody, an automation command center including controllers, E-stop, and all the electronics for up to four axes of automation–all rack mounted in a road case. They say it can roll off a truck, park backstage, plug into their machines, and start programming, thus reducing load-in time exponentially.

The Tait Navigator is described as an automation system that is both distributed and easy to wire. Built with smart plug-and-play devices, and relying on Ethernet cables for all the data connections, means that not only is the equipment immediately ready to test, but that load-in can happen in any order. “The system can split into many sections, teams can work independently, and when it’s show time, it all works together as one system,” says Levine. 

Sometimes it’s the stage automation provider’s resources, and not just their gear that makes touring easier. Kinesys draws from a world-wide customer base, so getting rentals and sub-hires is easier, as well as getting a replacement system to match the local voltage when moving from continent to continent. When having to carry along a large transformer is not ideal, Kinesys offers 208V and 400V systems for different regions.

eZ-Hoist scenic hoists are built tough to withstand the demands of the road.
eZ-Hoist scenic hoists are built tough to withstand the demands of the road.

Making Changes

Once the gear is placed, rigged, plugged in, safety checked, and commissioned, it’s left to the automation control software (and the operator/programmer) to make the necessary changes to get the show moving in the new venue. Whether it’s Creative Conners’ Spikemark, Raynok used by eZ-Hoist, K2 from Kinesys, or Tait Navigator, manufacturers have made making changes simple. The methods are varied, and differ from system to system, but operators and programmers can use multiple tools and approaches to tweak the movements into the new venue. 

The show file is loaded, and changes are made to accommodate longer tracks, wider stages, or higher grids by inputting new overall show dimensions, relying on referenced presets for target positions, or even programming cues to complete in a certain time rather than at a certain speed. The goal is to make adjustments in places that can update a whole string of cues, as opposed to manually editing every cue. According to TAIT’s Jimmy Love, “Without this flexibility, projects and events don’t happen, or they happen, but at the cost of the creative integrity and vision of the project.”

 

Loading In

Though it can vary depending on the show and the amount of automation, many tours will get down to a single day for all departments to get their gear loaded-in, adjust their programming, and be show ready. Even in the more luxurious tech “week” there is rarely extra room in the schedule.

You always need more time at the beginning. Installing and commissioning stage automation the first time for a show usually takes a few days. Then there is the initial programming, which can be a few days to even a couple weeks. And most tours expect the first couple of stops to take some extra time for adjustment and tech.

An advantage many of the serious stage automation providers have is being able to mock up the actual gear, or an identical set, in their own shop before even getting to that first location. Even if they cannot realize the full show dimensions in their own space, they can get what they need to make sure the gear works, and get most or all of the programming entered. Whatever can be done ahead of hitting the stage, ultimately buys stage automation more time. Royal Marty of eZ-Hoist says “I see it time and time again that the automation department is the first department to get their time cut, and they need time to ensure everything is running correctly and safely.”

Organized and well-labeled gear and components, along with manual controls for individual machines will speed up load-in. Programmers can utilize simulator modes in their software to build the show virtually before any equipment has loaded in. “This means that you can start creating the looks and movements on a virtual stage days or weeks before load-in begins,” says Peter Veal of Creative Conners. Prep work and homework always pay off when touring.

Stage automation has become an integral part of shows big (and increasingly) small, due to its repeatability, greater capacity for speed and distance, need for less physical labor and, of course, its ability to add spectacle to a production. Making it part of a touring or traveling show takes serious gear with some serious planning, but the professional resources available make it a lot easier.