A NEW LIGHTING INFRASTRUCTURE FOR LONDON'S ROYAL ALBERT HALL
Of late, it seems that every theatrical venue in the United Kingdom is up for refurbishment, from the Royal Opera House, the Royal Court, and Sadler's Wells in London, to the Royal Exchange in Manchester. New dimmers, cables, consoles, and fixtures have been installed in venues from one end of the British Isles to the other, with London's Royal Albert Hall, a famous cultural landmark on Kensington Gore, currently undergoing a œ66.3 million ($112 million US) update of its own (œ40.2 million came in the form of England's lottery funds in April 1996).
Built in 1871 with the patronage of Queen Victoria, Royal Albert Hall (RAH) is larger than the Royal Opera House, with a maximum capacity of 5,262 seats (the usual configuration is for 3,941 seats). Used as a touring house, the hall's extremely busy schedule changes almost daily with a roster of performances ranging from opera and ballet to sumo wrestling, televised galas, and popular and classical music concerts, from Harry Connick Jr. to Handel's Messiah.
RAH was well over 100 years old when its first comprehensive renovation project began in 1995. The work is scheduled for completion in 2003 - a total of eight years to modernize the facility without actually shutting it down completely. "We have only had two- to three-week closings so far," explains Martin Ward, the project architect for London's BDP (Building Design Partnership), the architectural firm in charge of the renovation. "The goal is to make the hall more effective and more comfortable in terms of seats and public spaces, to make it all look better, and have better access for equipment."
As an integral part of the project, the special projects division of A.C. Lighting Ltd. in the UK recently completed the installation and upgrade of part of the lighting cabling and control system at the venue. They were called in for initial meetings in 1999, when Adam Beaumont of A.C. Lighting met with Royal Albert Hall's senior technical show manager, Mark Jones, who designed and specified the new system.
A.C. Lighting had a very tight, non-negotiable deadline to meet, due to a busy calendar of performances booked into the venue. Following the load-out of its special millennium show on January 1, 2000, there was only a three-week window to get the work done before January 28, when a production of Madame Butterfly began its load-in.
During this time, the seats in the stalls were stripped out and replaced, which provided a window of opportunity to work on the lighting system. Other building work was done underneath and behind the hall at the same time, including improvements to the elevators and loading docks.
"Two years ago, our budgets were set and we decided what was needed," says Jones, regarding the new lighting infrastructure at the hall. What they had at the time was an outdated dimmer room with a patch bay to outlets on the circle, or first balcony rail. "We only had 120 channels, and what we wanted to do was incorporate DMX distribution, extend the number of house dimmers, and increase capacity of where we can patch to, including outlets on the stage. We are currently working with the architects to find places for additional outlets at the gallery level."
Since RAH is a touring house, most shows that are booked there bring their own lighting rigs with them. As a result, there is just a small house rig that includes 120 PAR cans (an assortment of models accumulated over many years), 84 ETC Source Four PARs, and six 10ø and three 5ø Source Four profiles.
Control consoles include an old 125-channel Arri desk, and a new Jands Echelon. "This allows for moving light and scroller capability," says Jones. Most touring shows bring in their own board and place it in one of the side boxes. The rig includes 12 Chroma-Q scrollers (distributed by A.C. Lighting), though customized 2m-long (6.6') front panel sections along the outside of the balcony. Each of these sections was painted in RAH's traditional burgundy color scheme, and contains twelve 16A sockets for six dimming channels along with two independent power there are no automated luminaires in-house yet. "We are looking into buying some or negotiating a long-term rental," Jones notes.
The major part of the work done to the lighting system so far was to upgrade the circle rail of the venue with new power and control wiring for its front of-house circuits. Since the RAH is a landmarked building, everything had to be done with great care, with an eye to preserving the original architecture.
With this in mind, all of the front panels of the existing metal cable trunking were removed and replaced with circuits for moving lights and color scrollers.
Tourflex Datasafe 4 cable (with a total of 12 DMX connectors, covering two DMX512 universes) has been installed around the circle rail for the control of additional DMX fixtures. The dimming channels on each panel were also paralleled up to Socapex multicore outlets, for use by touring productions who can use the individual dimming channels or plug directly into the six-way Socapex connection.
Onstage, three six-way stage boxes were installed, with new DMX wiring and a series of outlets at ground level, and extended out to the front-of-house area of the venue where more ground-level DMX connection points were also installed. Along with the new cables, A.C. Lighting also supplied and installed five customized 16A dimmer patch panels with a total coverage of 144 dimmer channels, and upgraded the existing Arri dimmer system with the addition of 24 more 2kW channels.
When the work started, the hall had 120 channels of dimming (a 72-way Arri 600 rack and 48 ways of Smart rack dimming). "During January, we were able to add to the Smart racks so giving a small rise to 144 channels," says Jones. In January 2001, the plan is to replace the aging Arri 600 with a 96-way ETC Sensor rack, but whatever goes in has to fit into the confined space of the existing dimmer room. The nerve center of Royal Albert Hall's lighting control is in a back room at the gallery level where the dimmers and patch bays are located, as well as a new, fully customized DMX distribution center containing an Artistic Licence rack-mounted splitter and merge unit. This is also cabled with Tourflex Datasafe 4.
Throughout the project, A.C. Lighting worked on-site with the architects from BDP, and Taylor Woodrow Construction, as well as Jones and Scott Neilson, the technical show manager at RAH. Adrian Bray, deputy head of show management, worked on the new rigging system, which was installed by the UK's Unusual Rigging, with custom touch-screen control software for RAH's 80 chain hoists.
"Existing tours arriving at the Hall often have to compromise their design, given that the audience can be sitting 270ø around, and steeply above the performers," notes Jones. "We are usually looking at about 40' (12m) trim heights to clear sight lines to the gallery, and anything rigged low at the sides can cut off a lot of seats. That said, we are nothing if not flexible."
The RAH has a flexible mother grid system that can accommodate most stage-end rigs, often without the need for production to rig a single hoist of its own. During the January work phase, the stage was remodeled to increase the stage area. "Racks now often sit below the orchestral risers at the back of our stage from where it is a clear 20yd (18m) run to our new 300A switch panel," notes Jones. There is an additional 600A available from the gallery, plus a clean sound supply.
"The snake route is a brand-new trough to the mixer position some 40yd (36m) from the stage," Jones continues. "By the time the redevelopment is finished, there will be a brand-new bar immediately behind and below the mixer position, which I expect will go down well with the front-of-house guys."
Jones also points out that "most UK LDs know the Hall - it is very photogenic, and many will rig extra lights to bring out the many architectural features of the venue. It is now much easier to rig extra lights with the greatly increased number of hard-wired positions which can be DMXed to the touring lighting board. We have dozens of televised events at the Hall each year. The Hall is unique and it is often difficult to contact LDs touring who-knows-where in the world prior to arriving, but with the improvements in e-mail, WYSICAD, and digital images, LDs are arriving better equipped than ever, before and during the day of their load-in.
"We can now provide workable positions for lots of visiting companies, using their own dimmers or they can use ours," he adds. "We also have the option to get independent, or non-dim power as well as dimmable, and everything is fully patchable." At the end of the day, Royal Albert Hall is now one more listed UK venue that has been brought up to speed, with room to continue to improve the lighting infrastructure without compromising the historic architecture of the building.