In the last 15 years, there has been a massive growth in the use of automation in entertainment, especially in theatres, and it is now recognised as its own discipline. However, it is still only used in around 5% of theatres worldwide. In the next 25 years, given current growth patterns, that figure will rise to 30%. This will mean that the majority of theatre personnel, including directors, designers, technical staff, actors and theatre management, will come into contact with automation for the first time at some point in their careers. This book is intended to provide insights and practical advice from those who use automation, to help the first-time user understand the issues and avoid the pitfalls in its implementation. In the past, theatre automation was seen by many as a complex, unreliable and expensive toy, not for general use. The aim of this book is to dispel that myth.
Preparation for a future of automation
Entertainment Technology Press has just published Automation in the Entertainment Industry by Mark Ager and John Hastie, eo-founders of Stage Technologies.
Part I - An Automation Overview is extremely useful, whatever your interest, background or role off stage. Part II - A Technical Guide was a little more than I, as a non- specialist, wanted. But even so, this book is worth reading - it gives you an overview of what automation is.
You will learn what can be automated and how, for just one show or for a venue, and, helpfully, what the implications are in terms of management, timings, rehearsals, installation and staff training - the full pros, and some of the cons.
Aye, there's the rub. They do list some arguments against automation, and some for manual systems, but being champions of automation, they inevitably speak of it with enthusiasm, and talk up its achievements and rosy future.
Briefly, the pros are more spectacular effects, produced more reliably and with fewer manual handling hazards. The future is shows where audiences leave humming the scenery. The arguments against are cost, time, staffing, structural (building) and training implications. Their positive bias is my only, if major, reservation, and one that every reader can bear in mind while benefitting from the clearly laid out information, in plain English, peppered with quotes from people you know of, and examples of shows you've seen/heard about.
These guys have street cred - they've created some of the most spectacular theatrical effects of the last 15 years and been encouraged along their path by Cameron Mackintosh who writes of them "combining modern techniques with the old-fashioned can do Heath Robinson approach that, thankfully, still abounds in the British theatre".
Automation - take it or leave it. But learn about it you must, as you'll be meeting it more frequently in future, on any scale of performance. Your money will be well spent on this book unless you already know, as
Sir Cameron says of the legendary Mike Barnett, "how to make even pigs fly".
It is quite refreshing to see books on the heavy engineering side of the industry as they do not come around very often - even more so this one by two well-known and respected names in the industry. Ager and Hastie have between them many years of experience in theatre stage automation and this knowledge is distilled down into the contents of the book, which is augmented by contributions from various practitioners in the field.
This book does not describe the nitty-gritty of how to ‘do’ rigging, but is more a guide to automation systems, associated technology and how it is deployed. With that in mind it is split into two halves: the first gives an overview of automation, while the second looks at the technology behind it all.
The authors begin by looking at the anatomy of a typical theatre and discussing which elements such as scenery, actors, stage trucks, lifts and revolves are suitable for automation. This is then contextualised from a theatrical viewpoint looking at how automation can help (or hinder) the production process, enhance the drama of a show as well as the effect it has on the commercial aspect of a show.
The next logical progression is the discussion over the specification of automation systems and actually automating a show. This latter chapter discusses the options over financing the hardware, identifying the requirements and coming up with a feasibility study and specification for review - primarily from a touring show perspective. This, by necessity, includes looking at the installation and crewing for events and two case studies are given to illustrate the points - in this case Miss Saigon and The Sound of Music.
The process of automating a venue follows, looking at various aspects in a similar fashion to the previous chapters but also covering safety and providing a little more detail on the actual process of rehearsing a show. The chapters are filled with various anecdotal quotes and case studies to give the reader a good appreciation of the work and timescales involved.
The second half of the book then delves into the hardware and technology involved. It begins with the user interface and looks at the various control systems/software available, as well as programming and networking before moving on to the electrical side of things. This looks at the various types of motors, drives encoders and other sensors as well as hydraulic and pneumatic components. Coupled to these, of course, is some form of mechanical hardware such as a winch, lift, motion drive or stage trucks for example; all covered in detail in the ensuing chapters.
The flying of performers is covered in some detail in the final chapter, and this is followed by several useful appendices including risk assessments, standards and their international variations and measurement units and useful calculations.
In all, this book would make a good primer for those wanting to learn more about this area of theatre technology, whether a producer, stage manager or budding engineer.
The summary is perhaps best left to Sir Cameron Mackintosh who crafted the forward: “This excellent book by Mark Ager and John Hastie reveals to anyone interested in stagecraft the common-sense thought processes that go into using automation in the theatre. From the simplest effect to jaw-dropping coup de théâtre, technology is just a tool to make the difficult look simple … Like everything in life, the best method is to find the simplest solution rather than the most complicated, and this book will be a most valuable guide on how to go about it.”
L&SI Nov 2009