ESTA: For its efforts in standards, certification, and other programs designed to create a safer and more productive industry
Leading the way in standards, certification, and creating a better workplace for the entertainment technology industry, ESTA (Entertainment Services & Technology Association) is a non-profit trade association whose members are the dealers, manufacturers, reps, service and production companies, scenic houses, designers, and consultants who supply a broad spectrum of products and services to the industry.
According to executive director Lori Rubinstein, the organization was started in the late 1980s by a group of concerned backstage pros who wanted to exchange ideas and informtion. Rubinstein at the time was the general manager of San Diego Stage and Lighting Supply, who along with Grand Stage Company and Bash Theatrical Lighting were the nucleus of that group.
At an initial meeting in Las Vegas, 25 theatrical equipment dealers expressed interest. Bylaws were written, committees were formed, and the Theatrical Dealers Association was off and running. By the mid-90s, the organization had become ESTA, and expanded to include almost 450 member companies involved in all aspects of “building the business of show business.”
The Technical Standards Program has been a major success story for ESTA, with over 400 individuals representing over 200 different companies and organizations who have actively participated over the past 10 years. They have diligently researched, presented, drafted, reviewed, polished, and published over 30 key documents, each one addressing a specific need of the entertainment technology industry. “It is imperative that we set standards ourselves rather than have people who know nothing about our industry try to set them for us,” says Mike Wood, ESTA president, “If we do it, we'll get better standards that protect people and improve equipment compatibility while not impeding business.”
Lately, ESTA's focus has been on creating the new industry-wide Entertainment Technician Certi-fication Program to establish personnel certification for entertainment technicians. “Our main goal for doing this is our concern for the safety of all who are involved in live entertainment, from technicians and performers to audience members,” Rubinstein says. The two initial areas targeted for certification are rigging and electrical skills. “It's critical that there be a consistent way to identify competent practitioners,” Rubinstein explains. “This is obviously an area of concern to the entire industry as evidenced by the many associations and organizations that have joined with us to create the certification program.”
Writing standards and developing a certification program are extraordinarily huge tasks that would be impossible were it not for the hard work of the hundreds of volunteers who devote large amounts of time to ensure that the goals of ESTA are achieved. “In many non-profit organizations there are a large number of ‘checkbook members’ whose only involvement is to send in a check each year and that's it,” Rubinstein says. “We don't have that problem. You really get out of it what you put into it and so many people have put a lot into ESTA.”
ESTA also provides many services and benefits to help its members run their businesses more successfully and ethically. Being an ESTA member has made business much easier and more profitable for John Cooke, president and CEO of Stageworks, a theatrical equipment vendor in Little Rock, AK. “I was not a businessman when I started this company,” he says. “ESTA offers a variety of business workshops for people like me and because of that my company is thriving. From personnel issues to insurance, ESTA knows more about my business than any local company.”
ESTA is about to embark into another new realm: the Essential Skills Certificate Program that will arm the next generation with the basics they need to know in order to get their jobs done. From terminology to safety, the program will educate new entrants into the workforce on the critical basics of being backstage.
“The ability to network, share ideas and concerns, and address the issues common to all parts of our industry is the legacy that ESTA has created,” Rubinstein says. “ESTA and its legion of volunteers are responsible for a lot of good that has happened in the industry over the last 17 years.”
Mark A. Newman
Scharff Weisberg: For creative support and solutions in audio, video, and lighting
Bringing Frank Sinatra back to life and making monkeys fly are everyday activities at Scharff Weisberg where a team of video, sound, lighting, and projection pros help turn cutting-edge technology into great entertainment.
The company's first Broadway show was Tommy in 1993 and since then Scharff Weisberg, Inc. (SW) has been a constant on the Great White Way as well as in regional productions, although their mainstay remains corporate events. The company recently supplied the projection know-how for the Seattle Opera production of Wagner's Parsifal and the American Ballet Theatre's Pied Piper.
“What sets us apart is our collaboration with creative people,” says Peter Scharff, CEO, who admits he was an A/V geek in high school…and still is. “We understand the creative and technical languages, as opposed to a lot of A/V companies who are like, ‘Where do you want the projector?’ We don't do that; we think about the end result and what the client's vision is. It's our job to help them realize that vision.”
If you saw Sinatra: His Voice. His World. His Way. at Radio City Music Hall then you saw SW's work on its grandest scale yet: the projections were the focal point of the entire production. Working with Batwin & Robin Productions (a past EDDY winner) and Radio City Entertainment, SW provided an incredibly advanced and complex projection system that effectively allowed the packed house to relive Old Blue Eyes' glory days.
The Sinatra show was a bit atypical because of the show's complexity, according to SW president Josh Weisberg. “We had a huge team internally that consisted of multiple video engineers, show controllers, and graphic systems controllers,” he said. “It was a very unusual situation because of the predominance and importance of the video system in the production. Our status was somewhat elevated compared to other shows.”
The Broadway musical, Wicked, was not as involved because the technology was programmed, automated, and controlled from the High End Systems Catalyst media server. “We only get called if there's a problem,” Scharff says as he knocks on the wood of the conference table.
So far the SW team has not had to return to the Gershwin Theatre where Wicked journeys back to Oz each night with projections of bubbles, confetti, and, of course, flying monkeys contributing to the show's magical atmosphere. SW's project manager Derrick Holbrook and show controller Lars Petersen worked with the show's projection designer, Elaine J. McCarthy (another past EDDY winner) to create and implement her designs.
Both Weisberg and Scharff agree that the company's success is thanks to a team of 85 full-time employees who have a unique mix of technical expertise and creativity. “They understand that it's not just about the technology making the brightest image, but how it's supposed to work within the theatre,” says Weisberg. “We have a lot of confidence that when we turn a client over to one of our staffers that they will really know the technical details. They understand what the client is trying to create.”
That teamwork also extends outside the walls of Scharff Weisberg to their work with designers. When working with projection designers Bob and Colleen Bonniol on Parsifal in Seattle, the onus was on SW to educate the designers about what is actually achievable. The designers also enjoy their side of the collaborative process, especially in finding innovative design solutions. “As a vendor, Scharff Weisberg is willing to go out on a limb with us,” says Bob Bonniol. “They are truly a partner in the creative process. Without their solution, it was going to be impossible to do the opera the way we had envisioned.” Parsifal utilized an 80' × 36' projection with 19' throw distance as a backdrop that was present throughout the entire opera.
Scharff gives a simple reason for the company's success in working with a plethora of creative minds: “We're frustrated artists and this is our way of dealing with it!”
Mark A. Newman
Humana Festival design and technical crew
The Actors Theatre of Louisville/Humana Festival Design and Technical Department: For sustained excellence in theatrical stagecraft
This spring marks the 28th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, an ambitious five-week event produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, with six new full-length plays, an evening of 10-minute plays, and an anthology project in repertory over a five-week period (February 29-April 10). “We have a resident designer in all departments,” says Frazier W. Marsh, the production manager who has been with the festival for 27 years. “There are also more than 50 people on the crew (see entire list on ED's website), counting carpenters, drapers, milliners, electricians, and sound technicians. Many of them have also been here for a very long time.”
A good example of this longevity is set designer Paul Owen, who has been with the theatre for almost 35 years and has designed all of the Humana Festival productions except three, for the past 27 years (this year marks the fourth show he has not designed as one of the plays: The Ruby Sunshine is a co-production with Trinity Rep and designed by Eugene Lee). “The fact that Paul designs almost all the shows helps enormously,” says Marsh. “The sets marry.” To produce seven plays in such a constricted time frame (and in the middle of the theatre's ongoing season), there are many meetings. “More than you would like to imagine,” says Marsh.
The building process starts in January, and everything is built in house, down to the last prop. In fact, the theatre maintains a props and scenic facility about one-half mile away where things are built then trucked to the theatre. The costume shop, sound studio, electrics shop, and lighting design office are in the large administrative facility attached to the theatre.
“Our biggest challenge,” says Marsh, “is coming in on budget. The budgets are done a year out, yet we always service the plays and playwrights in the best possible manner. The focus of the festival is to allow the playwright to see their plays in full productions.” Once the first tech rehearsal takes place the schedule is hectic, with a new play opening every four days until all seven are up and running. Tech rehearsals are from 11am to 5pm, then a turn around for the evening performance. “Everyone just works until it's ready,” admits Marsh, noting that it is not unusual for some people to work 70 to 80 hours per week, especially department heads. “The pay off is a job well done. You name it, we've done it,” he adds. “We've had just about everything you can think of on stage, from hot tubs and spring-feed pools to a life-size zebra and a snow storm.”
Marsh points out that “the backbone of the whole ordeal is the apprentice/intern company. They serve as the tech crew in each of the venues. We couldn't do it without them.” Some stay on and move up in the ranks, such as lighting supervisor Paul Werner. Others leave to go to school and return later, as as the festival's resident LD Tony Penna, who started as a lighting technician and returned after grad school as a designer and is now in his fourth season. This is typical for many of the designers and technicians, in spite of the challenging scheule.
“First, you have to realize the sheer volume of work that pours from our dedicated production staff each season,” says artistic director Marc Masterson. “In many regional theatres, a typical season is comprised of maybe six to ten productions. At Actors Theatre, in addition to the regular 11-play season, our annual Humana Festival of New American Plays is a major undertaking of eight fully produced plays — all of which open within a four-week period! This implies a feat of organization and commitment that boggles the national mind. The work of our production personnel is of the highest caliber. The talent and dedication is nothing short of extraordinary. I am thrilled and honored to be associated with these talented top-notch professionals.”
Lorrie Snyder, Technical Director, REDCAT: For sustained excellence in technical direction
As technical director of the experimental REDCAT in Los Angeles (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theatre), Lorrie Snyder finds herself more than a little busy. Their first season (REDCAT opened in October 2003) is densely packed with over 45 performances from film festivals, modern dance performances, international touring theatre, multimedia events, and more. A busy performance schedule in a brand new performance space brings an entirely new and involved set of challenges. But Snyder isn't fazed by any of it. In fact, she thrives on it.
“It made me take the job,” Snyder says. “The problems never stop coming. I guess either you love that and you are addicted to that, or you get out of the business. There's not much middle ground there. But that problem solving, and the joy in that problem solving, is the hook in this game.”
Snyder's joy in creative problem solving has motivated her diverse professional career path, and made her well suited for her current role as TD of REDCAT. At 18 she started working in construction, and quickly moved into fine furniture fabrication and general contracting. Ten years later while working in upstate New York, she was introduced to the entertainment industry, due to a chance meeting with Bill Ballou, last year's recipient of the Technical Direction Award at ETS-LDI.
In what has been a pattern in Snyder's career, her unique “skill package” at the time placed her at the advantage when opportunity, in the form of Ballou, knocked. “At that time she was an accomplished woodworker; equally at home with cabinetry, furniture making, finish carpentry and rough construction,” explains Ballou. “She had also run her own contracting company in New York City, and was used to the business side of the work.”
Within months, Snyder was working with Ballou on the John Sayles' film City of Hope (1991). As carpenter to Ballou's construction coordinator, Snyder was hooked into the entertainment industry.
She moved on to work on music videos, commercials, museum installations, environmental construction, dance, opera, and Broadway theatre. Her creative technical skills were sought out for the construction of large, complicated sets, such as the tilting pool in Broadway's Sunset Boulevard, the canopy-covered automated audience seating in CalArts' King Lear (which she wrote about in the ED Theatre Crafts supplement, Nov. 2002), Elizabeth Streb's Ringside Dance, which incorporates inventive machinery with human movement, and the Builder's Association's media-driven Jump Cut (1997).
The constant challenges presented by live productions stimulated Snyder. “You get to solve so many different kinds of problems using every possible vocabulary — rigging, light, sound, metal, wood,” she says. “That's what I find most interesting about this business — how to manifest what's in the mind directly to the physical world to show it to others. Nothing gets the goods to the customer more directly than theatre or film or dance and being a technical designer or technical director in those worlds.”
Opportunity knocked for Snyder again in 1999, and again Ballou was knocking. While working as technical director at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), he contacted her to get involved with the burgeoning King Lear project. It developed from a four-month build into a three-year process, and Snyder worked as associate technical director with Michael Casselli. “Lear was a fascinating, huge, monster project,” she says, “and, from a technical design and direction standpoint, was a truly challenging moment.”
While working at CalArts, Mark Murphy, REDCAT's executive director, asked Snyder to act as a consultant during the final phase of its technical development. Again Snyder's diverse interdisciplinary background prepared her for the opportunity that lay ahead. Snyder explains, “Everything that I have done…makes REDCAT not so intimidating because my background, or the background of anyone who would want to be TD here, should be varied. It shouldn't just be theatre, because that is absolutely not what just goes on here.”
Thanks in part to Snyder's skill and technical competence, REDCAT is now a well-packed running machine with systems that interface well and can accommodate endless functions and needs. Ever the problem-solvers though, Snyder and her team are continually working to improve REDCAT, which is one reason she is receiving the EDDY award for sustained excellence: “My goal for this house is that the question will always be, ‘Well that worked, but how can I make it better?’ And that is the driving energy: that the interest is not lost, that this never turns into a jaded roadhouse.”
Snyder is quick to acknowledge that she does not meet the technical obstacles alone. “I have an absolutely magnificent staff, including my associate TDs Jamie McElhinney and David Taylor,” she says. “We are flying by the seat of our pants often, and trying to come up with solutions very quickly for stuff we've never done before.” This staff is comprised mainly of MFAs, recruited straight from CalArts, a fact that Snyder finds refreshing: “The backstage technical discussions are always interesting.” The knowledge, involvement, and interest Snyder and her staff bring to the venue is very important to her. “That's how the dialogue should be, and here it is possible to take the chance to make that dialogue as one would hope it would be.”
As she moves through the second half of the first season, Snyder continues to expand upon her diverse media and theatrical background at REDCAT. “There's nothing that we don't do…A lot of the people that come through here are into specifically pushing the definitions and pushing the boundaries between disciplines. The space is tremendously adaptable for that,” she explains. “We can do it here because we have the equipment.
“I always say the house's greatest strength and its greatest weakness is that it's trying to be everything to everybody.” As only a technical director would, she adds, “But very much it's its greatest strength — as we solve the technical issues.” With Snyder at the helm, there is no doubt that they will continue to do so.
Susan Hilferty and the Costume Design Team for Wicked
Costume Designer Susan Hilferty and The Entire Costume Team From Wicked: For excellence in a theatrical production
Nobody in Oz buys off the rack. It's a world filled with haute couture, according to Susan Hilferty, costume designer for Wicked, and she should know. “There is no design house in Paris doing better work than what's in Wicked,” she declares. “Not only is the dressmaking and millinery beyond what has ever been done, it has to run eight performances every week.”
Be forewarned: If you walk into the Gershwin Theatre expecting to relive your memories from The Wizard of Oz, you will be pleasantly surprised. As the story itself goes, so go the costumes. “Animals were equal to humans in this land so I had to create a world that was the same as ours, yet also very different,” she explains. “If you arrive in this world, you can speak the language but everything else is off-kilter.”
Hilferty drew her inspiration from the original source material — the books of L. Frank Baum and the illustrations of W.W. Denslow — and the time period in which they were written at the turn of the 20th century. Her approach to costuming the denizens of Oz and Emerald City were twofold; she would design it straightforwardly first, then put a twist on it so it would be far from traditional or typical. “I felt comfortable distorting the shape of people's bodies so you don't quite know the way they really are,” she says. “This is a place where there could feasibly be three-legged people or characters with oversize heads.” Since a talking goat is a schoolteacher in Oz, extra appendages would not be so shocking.
However, Hilferty was not alone in creating her “twisted Edwardian” look; she was aided by her New York team that consisted of associate designer Michael Sharpe; assistants Maiko Matsushima and Amy Clark; production wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert; milliners Lynne Mackey and Rodney Gordon; hair and wig designer Tom Watson; prosthetic artist Matthew Mungle; makeup artist Joe Dulude; and costume shops Eric Winterling Costumes, Parsons Meares Ltd., EuroCo, Barbara Matera Ltd., and Tricorne. Hilferty further praised the teams of stitchers and drapers at the costume houses for their amazing contributions, as well as the hair and makeup teams. Their work takes audiences to Oz via a detour off the yellow brick road.
It was vital that Hilferty have a team that could travel to her brave new invented world rather than simply reproducing or copying period costumes. “The people who go with me on this journey have to trust my vision and trust that I'm not going to take them someplace where there is no resolution,” she says. “The critical ingredients for each of these artisans were a sense of trust, excitement about going on an invented journey, and incredible skill.”
Only the most skilled could sign on for this yellow brick road trip because everyone involved needed to totally understand the essence of their tools. “There were moments when I cried because I couldn't believe how beautiful the work was,” Hilferty says, adding that there were also rare times when she cried because there were occasions when the idea was completely missed. “I would see a piece of fabric where someone who didn't understand the essence of either the idea or fabric just mangled it. But that was very, very rare.”
The costumers and milliners needed to push their skills even farther and have a sense of inventiveness as well as design abilities. Hilferty compared designing the costumes for Wicked to learning a new language. “I learned it first and then had to teach it to my team,” she says. “Their inventiveness was astonishing because they constantly had to break their brains and do something that made sense in this new language. What you see on stage is in every way a celebration of all the unbelievable skill of the artisans who worked on it.”
From irregular hems, uneven sleeves, and bent pleats to a hat in the shape of a boot, the costuming team had to seemingly suspend their belief about clothing in order to arrive at their creative conclusions. Also, it should be noted that with the rare exception of a couple of guards and a few party guests, every single costume in the show is unique; there is no chorus of dancing girls all dressed alike. “Each costume was started from scratch in terms of developing an idea,” Hilferty says. “It tested every single person.”
While Hilferty is quick to praise every member of her team, she hails wardrobe supervisor Alyce Gilbert as an unsung hero. “She's had the responsibility to make sure that the costumes are maintained and stay at the high level at which all the shops are working,” Hilferty says. “Alyce is the one who makes it happen because she's there in command of the battle stations every single night.”
Mark A. Newman
Lighting Designer Patrick Woodroffe, Associate Lighting Designer Adam Bassett, and Lighting Director/Programmer Dave Hill: The consummate lighting design team
Think of rock and roll lighting and you are likely to think immediately of Patrick Woodroffe. ABBA, AC/DC, Andrea Boccelli, Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, Bjork, Cher, The Pet Shop Boys, Bryan Ferry, Depeche Mode, Donna Summer, Elton John, Garth Brooks, Genesis, Erasure, Mike Oldfield, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, M. People, Rod Stewart, Sarah Brightman, Seal, Simply Red, Simon and Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Van Morrison and The Rolling Stones — he has lit them all.
Woodroffe first got into the lighting business through his brother, Simon Woodroffe, who worked at ESP Lighting, Brian Croft's old company in London, England. “I started on the lighting crew, back in the 1970s,” says Woodroffe. “I went around the world twice on tour with Rod Stewart and liked what I saw. I went to live in the United States for a while.” When he got back to the UK in the mid-80s, Woodroffe soon had his first gig with The Rolling Stones, and from there on he has gathered no moss.
From the show at London's Millennium Dome to the Rock in Rio festivals in Brazil, The Montreux Jazz Festival, The Les Miserables' 10 Year Anniversary Concert, The Brit Awards, and The Freddie Mercury Tribute to fashion shows for Jasper Conran, Woodroffe has expanded his repertoire to include lighting musicals, classical music, ballet, and architecture. And along the way he developed a close team of associates, including Dave Hill and Adam Bassett.
Woodroffe and Hill hooked up in Germany during a tour of the Spandau Ballet in 1986, and quickly became a team. “Dave is a big part of my life,” says Woodroffe, who refers to Hill as both a colleague and a companion. “He programs all my shows, and used to take them out on the road as well.”
An LD in his own right for music, dance, and theatre, Hill started as a stage hand, then a lighting technician and eventually a stage manager at The Rainbow Theatre in London's Finsbury Park. He later worked in Australia, where he saw his first moving lights on a David Bowie tour in 1983. “I knew then this was the future of lighting, and if I wanted to work with these systems I would have to live in either the USA or the UK,” says Hill. Home seemed like the best idea, and Hill returned to the UK in 1984.
“We are one of the longest-running teams in the business,” Hill comments about working at Woodroffe's side. “Patrick is the salesman and I am the programmer. He gets the jobs and gives me free reign on the console.” With Woodroffe providing the big design picture, and Hill building the show and programming, who does the paperwork? Enter Adam Bassett.
A graduate (with honors) of the Central School of Speech and Drama in London with a BA in theatre specializing in lighting design and production, Bassett first worked as Woodroffe's assistant on the Millennium Dome Central Show and the Millennium Eve Opening Ceremony in 1999. He is now Woodroffe's associate LD and an essential part of the team.
“Adam is organized and ambitious in an understated way. He is also very detail-oriented,” says Woodroffe. “We are a good combination. He learned a lot of things at college that I don't know about, like beam angles and patch schedules, all of which is very useful. From my big design ideas, Adam helps realize the design.”
Bassett adds, “My role on each project varies, from assisting to having more design responsibility. Perhaps the most challenging was the Rolling Stones' Licks tour, due to the scale of the project. There were three different shows, not just one format.”
When it comes to challenging, Woodroffe and Bassett are in the midst of a very large, very complex architectural lighting project for Steve Wynn's new hotel, Wynn Las Vegas. “This is a very technical project, with 3,000 trees and 6,000 lighting fixtures,” says Woodroffe, who is designing the exterior lighting as well as a sound and light show with waterfalls and projections. “I've never lit anything of this scale,” he says. “There are over 190 drawings.”
With Bassett on hand to take care of the drawings and help with the design process, and Hill waiting in the wings in case they need his help with programming, Woodroffe's energy will be directed toward Wynn Las Vegas until it opens in 2005. “Then we can get back to rock and roll,” says Hill.