Tech team swings into action

05:16, Jul 14 2014
Mamma Mia!
METICULOUS PLANS: Daniel Wilson, left, Neale Smith and Garnet Ashbrook discuss the lighting design for "Mamma Mia!" in the Civic Theatre.

Mamma Mia!, delivering the fabulous music of ABBA, opens at the Civic Theatre next month. Each week we go backstage with Invercargill Musical Theatre to gain a rare insight into what it takes to produce a show of this calibre.

The technical crew move into the Civic Theatre on the Thursday, July 24. Their nemesis is time.

The curtain will go up on August 6 at 7.30pm, whether they are ready or not. Production week is a cauldron of intense pressure, long hours, lack of sleep and sometimes scratchy people. Well prepared you survive it, underprepared it is a week from hell.

The set for Mamma Mia! doesn't arrive in Invercargill till the day before pack-in. There will be no rehearsal on the set until it is installed in the theatre. This will slow down the whole process of "getting in" to the theatre as cast need to learn how to use the set, get familiar with entrances and exits on the stage and their final onstage positions, or blocking as it is called.

A dummy set is built in the rehearsal rooms to allow director Stephen Robertson to get as much of the show "blocked" as possible before moving to the theatre.

Production week is where the integration of the different elements of theatre begins. Up till now the cast have had to deal with singing, lines and movement. Production week will progressively introduce the set, flying elements, props, wardrobe, sound, microphones, lighting, AV (audio-visual technology), effects, orchestra, hair and makeup. The pressure of production week starts to reveal itself. There are three technicians employed by the consortium that will assist Invercargill Musical Theatre "getting in" to the theatre.


David Gill will arrive with the set and guide us putting it together. Gill works for Scenic Solutions in Christchurch, the company that built the Mamma Mia! set. His job is to make sure the set arrives in good condition, is successfully installed and departs to the next consortium member in good order.

David Sparks is assigned to installing an LED curtain that will form the main backdrop for the set.

New to Invercargill, the LED curtain is a flexible LED screen, 12 metres wide by 6 metres high, made up of a series of smaller 2m by 1m sections. Images, moving pictures and any form of colour can be played through it. As the name suggests, it is basically a series of LED pixels attached to a black curtain, but strong and flexible it is. Even when it is turned on you can roll it up, shake it and walk on it.

David Bosworth is employed to oversee the set construction and be responsible for theatre logistics for all the consortium partners. Communication began back in December, preparing the lineset which is a critical part of production week planning.

In the Civic Theatre there are 72 lines that can fly scenery, mount lighting, carry legs and boarders to mask backstage and on the odd occasion fly actors in and out. Planning where everything is to be flown is known as "preparing the lineset" and every theatre is different. It is one thing you need to get dead right as any mistakes made here are going to cost you dearly in time and cause someone severe grief. (Yes, that would be me). Even today we are still continually making small changes to the lineset as the show grows and details are refined.

The set is treated with a fire retardant along with any cloth or curtains supplied. A risk assessment covers the set installation and any flying equipment has its safety rating stated. Added to that are safety data sheets for other elements that Invercargill Musical Theatre are introducing such as dry ice, haze and lighting trussing.

In early June a meeting is held with the theatre technical team, operations manager Garnie Ashbrook, technician John Hodges and assistant technician Daniel Wilson. The proposed lineset and Health and Safety documentation is presented and discussed. Everything that Invercargill Musical Theatre will introduce to the theatre is detailed and explanations given as to how it will be managed.

The techs are an experienced team and their input is invaluable in sorting foreseen and unforeseen issues. They provide valuable assistance by slowly moving lighting bars onto the correct lineset configuration, working in and around other theatre users' requirements. This early preparation is integral to getting Mamma Mia! in on time.

The lighting for the show is an absolutely critical element. Along with the set and costumes, it is the visual experience for our audience. Lighting planning began in December last year when Stephen and I started discussing what the show should look like and what sort of lighting fixtures we may require to achieve that look.

Capture Polar 3D lighting visualiser is a powerful tool in lighting preparation. It contains templates for just about any theatre lighting fixture ever made. This allows you to insert any light you want to investigate into the visualiser, have a look at what it does and decide whether it will suit your purpose. We agreed on two moving head fixtures that Invercargill Musical Theatre has never used before, the Mac 101 and Mac 700 profile. As the lighting design progresses, we settle on 14 moving head fixtures, 54 LED fixtures and a combination of 107 conventional fixtures.

It is interesting to note the progression with lighting over the past few years. In 2011's production of Oliver, 144 DMX channels were used for lighting. By comparison, in Mamma Mia! there will be 756.

The Capture Polar visualiser also allows us to build a 3D model of the set. We individualise each show by creating the set, inserting the lineset, hanging all the flying elements and laying the entire lighting rig in it. Yes, it takes a lot of time but to be well prepared there is nothing better.

Everything is inserted accurately to scale, so checks on all sorts of detail can be made well in advance. The lineset is checked to make sure everything works in its place and there are no obstructions. The entire lighting rig is designed, installed and focused as it would be in the theatre. Experiments with light placement ensure the fixtures will do their job and there are no interferences from scenery.

Some 48 hours of lighting programming time has been scheduled for in the theatre. The lighting desk is well prepared.

Channel shortcuts, light chases, set positions for moving heads and basically anything we can do now has been pre-programmed in anticipation for one hell of a week.

The 24th isn't far away. The excitement is growing and tickets are selling fast. Neale Smith is technical director for the Mamma Mia! show. 


Mamma Mia! is presented by Invercargill Musical Theatre at the Civic Theatre, August 6-16. Tickets on sale now at TicketDirect, ICC Booking Office, Esk St, Invercargill.

The Southland Times