Touring with Stage Automation Part 2

by Stu Cox
in Feature
Stage automation – and its attendant winches, hoist and truss –require some special considerations when touring.
Stage automation – and its attendant winches, hoist and truss –require some special considerations when touring.

Answering the questions theatres have about touring with automation

Last issue we started a two-part series about taking stage automation on the road. We focused on the challenges and solutions with input from 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. In this second part, we share their advice and tips to theatres and production companies on the common stage automation questions and issues encountered when planning their tours.

How easy is it to combine equipment from different manufacturers?

Whether you’ve got an existing inventory of stage automation machines, or a show with multiple automation effects that you feel are executed best with equipment from multiple manufacturers, this is one of the most common questions coming from theatres and production companies when they are looking at their budgets and logistics. Simply put: Yes, it can be done, but there will be some major considerations to keep in mind. 

In many cases these days, differing automation software, controllers, and machines (even some home-built ones) can be configured to work together. Royal Marty from eZ-Hoist says it depends on the equipment that is being integrated, but that they can usually accommodate.

According to Tait’s Brian Levine, as a distributed system, the Tait Navigator controller and software was built with the notion that it should be capable of automating anything, so they work with many different manufacturers, and are constantly adding support for more hardware. “Our focus is delivering a set of tools to a project that can surpass the technical needs of the project,” relates Levine.

Creative Conners has even been able to upgrade key components of older automation systems to operate with their equipment—but Conners’ Peter Veal follows up this affirmative with some prudent advice for anyone who wants to try: “It is not easy (sometimes almost impossible) to use a patchwork of automation manufacturers to create a reliable system. Some components may look similar from one supplier to another, but the guts of the system are often apples and oranges.”

David Bond of Kinesys USA says they make it work by offering numerous brands of machinery to go with their automation systems—so they can hopefully match the gear theatres already have. They have been called upon to drive various devices produced by other parties including hydraulics, chain motors, wire rope winches, revolves and trolleys. “The issue comes when support is required. It is better to have one manufacturer or supplier provide the system as a whole and then support the entire system,” says Bond. “The concern is who is responsible for support if there is an issue.”

All seem to think that this trend toward stage automation interchangeability is inevitable as manufacturers respond to client needs, programmers and operators become experienced with multiple systems, and system developers and technicians move between automation companies. Still, safety and reliability need to be paramount to everyone as we move that way. 

Can touring stage automation be tied into a venue’s automation, E-stops, lighting, sound, etc.?

Sometimes these requests come from the venue. (I personally got one from a cruise ship requiring all E-stops to be linked.) And sometimes they come from the tour’s production team, possibly hoping to reduce the amount of shipped gear by utilizing the venue’s. Regardless, these really have to be considered on a case by case basis. 

Levine points to the incoming automation’s flexibility being key for venues that need to rent equipment to augment their systems capabilities for a project. House systems are often built, installed, or wired differently from touring automation gear. That rising interchangeability discussed in the previous section does not necessarily carry over to an automated batten system or a lighting board.  And Marty reminds us that manufacturers use different connectors, pinouts, and technology for their equipment, “So there is no cut and dry way to tie the tour’s automation system” into the theatre’s automation system.

Veal concurs, recommending that touring companies, “bring everything they need, and they may get lucky and not have to unpack a particular crate at a particular stop if a theatre is well equipped.” He also points out that Creative Conner’s Spikemark software allows for UDP output to talk to many popular media servers, as they have seen the trend in cross system communication recently with more people wanting automation to work with their lights, sound and projections.

Supporting the need for case by case evaluations, especially with E-stops and high speed machinery, is smart, Bond points out, as “An E-Stop for a lighting bar might not warrant the stoppage of a performer flying system for example and vice versa.”

How should a theatre approach touring stage automation versus one-off stage automation?

The good news is that no matter what a production is—a self-produced show for a normal four-week run in your home theatre, a one-off production, a touring show—the automation machinery and control is likely very similar for all of them. For a self-produced show in your own theatre you may use more automation since the space and crew are known, shipping costs are not usually part of the equation, and the need for documentation of effects and equipment is not as great. The planning for this type of production is based mostly on budget, design, and safety.

Once the show is happening in another venue—whether as a one-off or the first stop on a tour—planning and communication plays a major role for both the visiting and hosting theatre. And that planning needs to be done before the day of load-in. Questions to consider include: What automation equipment will be used? How will it be used? What forces will be imposed on the venue’s structure? What are the safety concerns? 

Furthermore, documented risk assessment, gear specifications, possible engineering reviews, and rescue plans all need to be part of the two-way conversation between tour and venue. Bond remarks, “If the incoming production can provide or – even better – offers without being asked, all the appropriate documentation without hesitation, then there is good chance they are giving the automation the attention it requires.”

Veal notes that the crew at Creative Conners are veterans at moving a lot of scenery, and he advises theatres to take a hard look at their set pieces. The machinery can be rock solid, “but if your scenery is finicky or persnickety, then there is no deck winch in the world that will fix that. Flaky scenery will only be magnified once you start to automate it. Make sure your scenery is built and packed to live on the road and come out ready to move,” says Veal.

When automation is going to be a tour, perhaps the biggest aspect is set up and take down. Time needed for load-in and strike, and how the gear is packed all plays into how successful the tour will be. “If the show is installed in a regional theatre for just one run then it probably does not make sense to have custom cases made just to pack up the equipment,” says Marty. “But, if the show is in a different theatre every night for three years then it makes sense to streamline everything and make the investment of custom cases, labels, carts, etc.”

What can a theatre do to make touring with their stage automation easier or cheaper?

It is all about the planning because easier and cheaper are not always the same thing, and when it comes to a tour with stage automation, sometimes spending money on one end means you can save it on the other. Length of tour, number of stops, load-in and strike schedules, differing venue dimensions and capacities, and over hire crew abilities and costs are just a handful of the factors production and tour managers have to consider when deciding what (and who) to take on the road with their show.

Automated scenery can be big and heavy, which will eat up shipping space and budget, so make sure the stuff going really adds to the show and will work at all the stops. Also take a look at how the scenery is being automated. “We make custom automation devices constantly, but the cost goes up as we develop and engineer new solutions for our customers,” Veal cautions. All the automation providers have inventories of varied stock machines, proven to work in a variety of situations, along with the experience to help you decide the best way to automate. For a long tour, using stock machinery can pay off when the need for a fast replacement becomes necessary.

“A lot of people don’t think about the show six months from the opening date but that’s when you could begin to incur a lot of different costs like cables, broken components, lost case, etc.,” says Marty. Proper shipping cases, extra cables and even duplicate components can save time and avoid rushed delivery charges.

Bond reminds people to stick to the basics, “Mark (spike) all the points on the truss or set where the equipment is to be re-attached, and label absolutely every connector so everything is plugged back in correctly every time.” 

Leave as much of the automation equipment cabled together between moves as possible so that re-plugging is minimized. If you really want to reduce the re-plugging, and save time during load-in and strike, take a look at the high end automation workstations that are out there—controllers, E-stop, power distro, computer, and more in one place, and ready to work right off the truck. 

A Rhody all-in-one control center from Creative Conners (shown to the right here) contains all you need to run automation in a convenient setup for touring.
A Rhody all-in-one control center from Creative Conners (shown to the right here) contains all you need to run automation in a convenient setup for touring.

Shipping a Touring Stage Automation Rig?

Properly packing and shipping automation gear will protect equipment, lessen the need for replacements, and save time, money and headaches. Automation gear is heavy, but it also has delicate parts like any personal computer or lighting console, so it needs to packed in a way that protects the electronics, but also makes it easy to move. Hard flight cases with rigid foam insulation and heavy duty road cases, often custom built for certain components work great, but they need quality wheels, sturdy handles, and if possible rigging lift points. A 500-pound case that can be chain motored will survive better than one that needs six stagehands to lift it.

Once it is packed, LABEL it. Everything needs a home, and you need to be able to quickly discern what is in each case. Adding destinations (DSL, FOH, SR Grid) to your labels can be very helpful on large shows. Plan the truck pack to make your load-in easier. Waiting for a crucial case at the back of a truck can cost you precious time. Coordinate your automation gear to be unpacked, checked and ready for when the corresponding scenery becomes assembled.

Research your shipping options. Some companies and types of trucks/trailers are better suited for shipping stage gear. Stage automation gear is already costly, and last minute replacements are really expensive. Straps, load bars, packing blankets, and forethought will avoid many of these. Also, I can say from personal experience that quick phone camera photos of a packed truck can come in very handy when gear arrives damaged, and you find yourself filing a claim.

Preplanning is by far the most important element to getting a traveling show with stage automation moving. Conversations with automation providers and the hosting venues will provide options and identify potential issues. Doing these will save time and money, and set you up for a successful run.