In many ways, Mike Wood is the industry's man of the moment. Following Richard Belliveau's departure, Wood became vice president of engineering at High End Systems, a position that makes him responsible for the development of new products at one of the industry's key companies. He was also recently elected president of ESTA--a somewhat unusual choice, since he is English. However, as the interview below suggests, he brings a wealth of relevant experience to the position. At LDI in Phoenix, Wood sat down with Entertainment Design editorial director David Barbour to discuss his past career and some of his plans for ESTA.
David Barbour: How did you get started in this business?
Mike Wood: I was at college in Cambridge, in England, in the mid-70s, and got involved with the student theatre program, Cambridge Footlights. Through that, I got involved in the local professional theatre; I started out doing board and followspot operating. Then I took over as chief electrician and became a lighting designer for the resident professional theatre company. After a little while, I realized I couldn't make a living as a lighting designer, so I went to CCT Theatre lighting as an electronics designer. That was in 1977. I stayed there for a couple of years, still doing some lighting design. I met my wife, Sue, who was a wardrobe supervisor, on tour. Then I went to the BBC.
DB: What did you do at the BBC?
Wood: I was in the design/installation side for new premises--equipping studios, evaluating lighting equipment.
DB: What happened next?
Wood: I went back from being a customer to being a manufacturer. I joined Coemar UK, which was actually Coemar and DeSisti. It was a small company that distributed those products in the UK--and, funnily enough, also sold them to a company called Blackstone Audio Visual, in Austin, TX.
DB: Which is the forerunner of High End Systems. So you have a long history with them.
Wood: Well, one of Coemar's moving lights was the Robot, which came out in 1983. It was a moving-mirror light, one of the first available for sale. Coemar didn't really know what to do with it; their controller ran them all together--if you had 16 lights, they all did the same thing. At Coemar UK, we realized that you could do more than that, and so did Richard [Belliveau, formerly of High End]. So I built a controller, based on a standard off-the-shelf computer, using a mouse, icons, and all that, which, in 1985, was kind of neat. This product, the Amstrad Robot Computer, was quite successful in the UK and we sold the manufacturing rights to what is now High End Systems. So that was, I guess, their first moving light product, and that's where I got the connection with High End.
DB: How long were you at Coemar UK?
Wood: From 1985 to 1990.
DB: Is that when you came to the US?
Wood: No. I went to a new company called Jem Theatrical, a short-lived subdivision of Jem Smoke Machines, which was started to manufacture pyrotechnics and to distribute theatrical products. We handled Morpheus for a time; it wasn't very successful, and so I ended up working back at Jem Smoke Machines.
DB: You were doing sales?
Wood: Yes. Both sales and some work on the technical side. At small companies, you do a bit of everything.
DB: Then you came to the US?
Wood: I got a call from Richard Belliveau, saying, how'd you like to come to America? This was the end of 1994. My wife and I came over to meet everybody. It was Halloween, and the bulk of the interviews took place in costume in [High End president] Bob [Schacherl]'s backyard. It was marvelous. They provided me with a wizard costume. Richard was dressed as a Viking--and this was the formal interview process. I came to High End to manage the software development side of both fixtures and the Status Cue controller, and the job grew from there. Before Richard left, I was number two in that area; now I'm vice president for engineering.
DB: You started working with PLASA in 1988?
Wood: That's right. When I was still at Coemar.
DB: This is a very big year for you. You have this new position and also the presidency of ESTA.
Wood [laughing]: It all happened in the same week, actually. I was very concerned, at first. But everyone was very supportive and said, go for it.
DB: As I understand it, one reason you've been chosen for the ESTA presidency is that you've been an end user, a dealer, and a manufacturer, so you've had the total industry experience.
Wood: I think it's significant that I work for a manufacturer. It's very important that ESTA, which evolved out of the Theatrical Dealers Association, has now elected a manufacturer as president. Because of its roots in the TDA, ESTA has always had a representative of a dealer member as its president, and the fact that I work for a manufacturer--High End--is much more of a change than my being British.
DB: Do you have any specific goals right now?
Wood: On the technical side, our goal is to become more international, to start looking at international standards as well as ANSI standards, because that's the way the whole global standards structureis going.
DB: You've been on the ESTA standards committee?
Wood: Yes, since I came to America. I've been involved in technical standards since I was at PLASA, and I was involved in similar committees in Europe, for European standards. In fact, it's a goal for the entire organization to be more globally aware. You have to export to survive. European companies have always had to do so; it's a way of life, because England is too small a market. A lot of American companies do that, but an awful lot don't, because they have a huge local market. But ESTA can help stimulate that [global awareness]. The success that ESTA has had exhibiting at PLASA proves that. International shows like Intertec's ExpoLatina and PLASA Shanghai are a critically important step in establishing strong trade relationships, and ESTA is in a great position to help its members take advantage of them. Obviously, I'm going to be pushing the PLASA relationship in areas where the sister organizations can help each other to the benefit of all the members.
Another goal is to get ESTA known outside its own confines as a mouthpiece for the industry. If The New York Times wants to talk to somebody about a problem they are reporting with a Broadway show, they should think of ESTA as a source, which they don't today. We have to increase our visibility through good public relations to the point where ESTA is the first name that springs to mind when you want information on entertainment technology.
DB: How do you like living in the US, both personally and from the business point of view?
Wood: It was certainly a big change--from both points of view. It took a while to get assimilated! Now, after four years, we've settled in well. Our three children helped Sue and me--they adapted almost instantly and love it here, which has really helped us all feel like this is home. Interestingly, I didn't find that many differences on the business side. I think the entertainment technology business is already so global that my strange accent made no difference at all.
DB: Do you have any hobbies you pursue in your free time?
Wood: What's that? Between three children, High End, and ESTA, free time has to be grabbed when you can. I read a great deal; you can fit that in during odd moments. I don't play golf--which is the High End game--but this year, I spent time with our youngest son, Adam, when he played in Little League. I was bemused by the rules of the game, but traded with other fathers in return for explaining the vagaries of cricket to them!
His compatriots at Cambridge Footlights included such future luminaries as Nicholas Hytner, Emma Thompson, and novelist Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe); he was a member (and also chairman) of PLASA's executive committee; his wife, Sue, worked at the Royal National Theatre.