When stage automation is done well you should be left with the impression that the moving scenery has become animate, and is taking itself exactly where it needs to be. Just another player on the stage bringing the drama to life.
Each wall and wagon was individually controlled, with no way to press one button and have the whole stage jump to life. And then, like the automation pioneers before me, I connected all those machines to a computer.
Beginning my backstage career at age 12, my personal journey into the hi-tech field of stage automation mimics the advances in the theatre that pioneering shops like Feller Precision and Delstar Engineering developed for spectacles such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Like most excitable young stagehands, I began pushing scenery on stage as part of a crew, dutifully aligning set pieces to little pieces of tape on the stage floor in the pitch black. When walls flew out of the audience’s view, the crew was back stage hauling on ropes marked with bits of cloth stabbed through the braid of the rope to show when to stop pulling.
Automation video: The ACT Theatre, Seattle
Our gear being used in Vanities: A New Musical, from 2011
Bigger sets required more stagehands to push and pull. By my late teenage years I began attaching motors to scenery so that with a simple speed knob one stagehand could move heavy loads, but I still watched for bits of tape on the stage floor. This certainly made scene changes less physically demanding, but it didn’t make the choreography of the scenery any easier. Each wall and wagon was individually controlled, with no way to press one button and have the whole stage jump to life. And then, like the automation pioneers before me, I connected all those machines to a computer.
In 2004 after developing a line of machines, electronic control and automation software I started my own scenic automation company — Creative Conners. We’ve been quite fortunate to serve over 200 theatres throughout the country.
Automation video: The Royal Manitoba Theatre
A great video of our gear being used in Gone With The Wind, from 2013. (The set designer was John Lee Beatty. Ben Ross is the Technical Director)
This is the very essence of stage automation. Something needs to be tracked onto the stage from the wings, flown in from above the stage, lifted from below the stage, or spun around on stage. A motor is employed for the muscle, which then connects to an electronic control box sending position information to a computer with automation control software. The operator sets the parameters to drive the scenery to any point on stage, at any speed desired. This motion is recorded into a cue and, literally, with the push of a single button every performance will exhibit the same scenic choreography.
In today’s theatre you will find automated scenery at every level. Broadway, of course, but also most regional theatres, larger university theatres, and even an increasing number of high school and community theatres are automating parts of their shows. And of course automation isn’t just becoming more prevalent due to technician’s accessibility, creative design teams are embracing motion to engage an audience saturated in cinematic effects in other forms of entertainment. Integration of scenic automation with lighting and projection systems are becoming more prevalent. Sharing data between these systems not only makes it possible to cue, but possible to run every night for an eight show-a-week production hitting the mark every night. Such accuracy and repeatability may sound boringly scientific but the effect can, and should, be entirely expressive.
Founder & President / Creative Conners’ Original Automation Junkie