The New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington is a biennial event first staged in 1986 by Wellington City Council. Carla van Zon became executive director in 1994 and Joseph Seeling joined her as artistic director in 1996. The pair have always been driven by a desire to widen the diversity of artistic experience for this remote nation. That the festival has now become a busy crossroads for artists and performers around the globe is no small achievement. What singles the NZ Festival out is the almost total lack of state sponsorship, yet it has recently begun to make a modest profit. "This is run as a charity," explained the festival's technical director Alex Reedijk, "yet it's the largest event in New Zealand. People now turn to us to preview here, and then go on to have an afterlife around the world. We actually receive just 11% funding from the local government, virtually no state subsidy; everything else is paid for by what we take at the box office and from corporate sponsorship. It works out at roughly 45% each."
The fact that the Festival has consistently done so well financially is not due to a formulaic approach of bringing what is commercially safe and sure to sell. Reedijk explained that they now present their own productions. "We produce a completely new opera for each festival, but the real coup this year has been the Edinburgh Military Tattoo."
For those unfamiliar, the Tattoo is a military music pageant featuring massed military bands, pipes and drums, and precision marching. Why Reedijk should be so excited is twofold: The Tattoo is world renowned, particularly for its quality and for drawing bands from around the globe; and more importantly, for the fact that this is the first time in its history that the Tattoo has been performed outside of its native Edinburgh. "It came about by a quite circuitous route. Michael Mushalla is the promoter for choreographer Mark Morris, who appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Festival and at the NZ Festival in 1998. This year he choreographs the Royal New Zealand Ballet in his own creation Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes. Mushalla is also a good friend of Brigadier Mel Jameson, CBE, who runs the Tattoo. There was a meeting, a coming together of intentions; it seemed a good idea in this year of the millennium, and Wellington had just opened its new stadium. Plus, it's a celebration of the strong links between Scotland and New Zealand."
Why that last remark is significant was Jameson's insistence that the Tattoo be staged within an exact replica of its home turf, Edinburgh Castle. Parts of the Castle ramparts top 90' (27m), add in the fact that Wellington is notoriously windy (inhabitants characterize Chicago as "merely breezy") and you have a problem. "We also suffered from New Zealand's growing success as a movie producer," said Reedijk. "Lord of the Rings is currently being filmed and has sucked up all the domestic set-building talent. I've had to bring in set builders all the way from Scotland." Which may not be such a bad thing considering their familiarity with the subject matter.
The 34,500-seat Westpac Trust Stadium (reduced to 21,000 for the Tattoo) presented one other problem. In Edinburgh, the confines of the walls force steep seating risers; putting lighting at their top permits tight focus on the parade ground. Westpac is far shallower and broader, giving a parade ground three times the size of Edinburgh. Using the same technique would place the lights too distant from their target and inevitably dazzle spectators seated opposite. With a forest of masts on the parade ground to support lighting an unacceptable block to sightlines, Reedijk brought in rigging specialists Summit Steel from the UK to solve his lighting dilemma. "Their quality of rigging expertise just doesn't exist here. I'd worked with Jon Bray (Summit's owner) many times in the UK and knew he'd have a practical solution." LD Tony Rabbit wanted 876 PARs on two trusses, 30m [100'] apart, directly above the parade ground edges. The required light level on field was 750 lux.
"This was quite a challenge," said Bray. "As well as installing over 500m [1,650'] of 22mm [0.88"] wire rope for the main catenaries between the floodlight towers 160m [528'] distant, we had to erect two 30m-high steel masts weighing over five tons each to support the northern end of the main cables. This part of the job was completed in two days to allow the castle builders to start." Bray was working in collaboration with local engineer John Wilson from local riggers King & Dawson, and a squad from the New Zealand army. "The 80m [264'] trusses were supported with eight hoists from the catenary cable. We had flexible joints made for the truss as the whole system was very 'live' both when lifting and in the wind. Almost 1km [0.6mi.] of 8mm guy wire was required as wind bracing for the trusses. Tension for each of the main catenary cables was achieved with a 12-ton pull from a large Tirfor on a four-part tackle." As it transpired, a nasty squall did arrive on the last night of the Tattoo, producing intermittent gusts of 100km/h [60mph] as well as torrential rain; just as well 172 tons of water and concrete ballast was used to stabilize the scenic elements.
Main lighting contractor Spot-Light Systems found the whole arrangement satisfactory, although when Rabbit asked for a repatch, things became a little tricky. "We'd done a lot of the patching in the air to reduce cable weight," said the company's CEO Ben Cooper, a perfectly rational approach by him, but not one that lent itself to change. "It was like being at sea," said Cooper of riding the flexible truss.
Spot-Light also provided extensive ground lighting, 300 PARs on the floor and set, plus a host of Altman Shakespeares, 5kW fresnels, Studio Due CityColors, and Martin MAC 500s, run under a variety of Avolites desks. "Local vendors like Spot-Light have come a long way since I first started with the festival," said Reedijk, who used to regularly ship in a container of theatre lighting from Stage Electrics in the UK. For the smaller festival events, and those in theatres and other performance venues, house systems are used. When the design dictates something a little more exotic, Spot-Light, Kenderline Electrical, and Grouse Lighting fill this need where possible, but the National Dance Company of Spain, for example, brings three Vari*Lite(R) VL7s(TM) with it, as they're unavailable anywhere nearby. (A clutch of lesser Vari*Lites is imported from Australia, 1,500 miles away.)
As well as the Spaniards, the festival hosts myriad performers from around the world. From the US alone comes the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and the dance sensation Cool Heat, Urban Beat. While these might seem curious partners to a military tattoo, it hasn't stopped either from selling out. Not bad for a nation of just four million.