News and Features

Stage automation: taking the strain

As Glyndebourne celebrates 25 years of the ‘new’ opera house, the refined, carefully engineered stage systems installed in 1994 are becoming in need of a serious overhaul.

As Glyndebourne celebrates 25 years of the ‘new’ opera house, the refined, carefully engineered stage systems installed in 1994 are becoming in need of a serious overhaul. Completing the first phase of planning for a new stage automation system means understanding just what is needed and why.

Theatre shows are rarely static. Always, there will be the movement of people. Often, there will also be the movement of scenery, transforming the stage from scene to scene, space to space, location to location. Sometimes in view, in carefully choreographed transitions. Sometimes invisibly, as if just by magic.

Of course the magic of this kind of stagecraft (spoiler alert, stop now if you’d prefer not to know!) – is rarely magic at all. In many cases, particularly in traditional proscenium-arch theatres, it is designed into the building itself. While the stage will be in full view of the audience, above it, hidden out of sight, will be the fly tower – a place for scenery to hide until its moment comes. (Though you can’t see it from your seat, you can often see it from outside: the tall rectangular box at one end is a feature that makes theatre buildings, including this one, distinctively easy to spot, once you know). It’s called the fly tower because scenery flies up into it. How it flies has changed over the decades, but for most of that history it has involved teams of people: the flymen, for men they most often were historically, pulling ropes.

Photo: The earliest flying system in the old house. The advanced stage lighting, installed by
John Christie is inspected by a member of the stage crew and Sock, John’s dog.
The Times/News Licensing.

In the earliest days, they were literally pulling the scenery itself: ‘hemp flying’ ran a series of hemp ropes from a bar onto which the scenery was hung up to a grid at the very top of the fly tower, over pulleys and then back down to the fly floor, a platform located about half way up one side wall of the stage. Pull the ropes and the scenery would rise; tie the ropes off to a cleat, just as with the sails of a ship, and it would stay in place. Run the ropes through the cleat and you could lower it gently back in. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early flymen were often ex-sailors; the superstition about whistling on stage that persists to this day has its origins in the whistles used as signals to raise or lower sails at sea and the fear of this triggering some scenery to be lowered on to your head in the theatre!

Of course the limitation here was the strength of the crew versus the weight of the scenery. For scenery of that era, often painted cloths, it was manageable with the combined muscle of several people or, on occasion, sandbags or other weights tied to the ropes to provide a bit of counterbalance. But the constant need for greater spectacle led then, as it still does now, to bigger, heavier, more demanding scenery, and new approaches were required. One such: the drum tambour, a giant pulley in that grid above the stage. Ropes from the fly floor now rotated the drum, which in turn raised the scenery. The mechanical advantage gave the fly crew the ability to deal with much heavier scenery since they were no longer lifting it directly. These remarkable wooden drums can still occasionally be found, albeit unused, in theatres where there has been no need or no will to remove them.

From the late 19th century, a new approach appeared, brought about by a convergence of disaster and new technology. A major theatre fire had forced a re-examination of theatre construction techniques: new buildings were to move from wooden to iron-frame construction, a change which also gave the buildings much greater strength. At the same time steel-wire rope had become available, providing a stronger and more stable way of suspending scenery than the hemp ropes of old. The Vienna Court Theatre of 1888 became the first to combine these developments and introduce the new technique of counterweight flying. Steel-wire ropes ran up from the fly bar to the grid then along to the side wall, as hemp ropes had before. But these were now attached to a cradle designed to be loaded with metal counterweight bricks equivalent to the weight of the scenery. A rope ran from the top of each cradle to the grid, over a pulley, back down, around another pulley and up to the bottom of the cradle. Once the correct amount of weight had been loaded – quite an arduous task – the work became about pulling the rope to move the cradle, which in turn moved the scenery. In other words, about overcoming the friction of the system to start and stop the scenery, rather than having to directly handle its weight. Suddenly tens or hundreds of kilograms of scenery could be moved with relative ease.

Photo: The grid at Glyndebourne – the highest point above the stage – with the steel
wire ropes holding up the scenery running across to the counterweight

cradles on the right, at the new building’s opening in 1994.
© Crown copyright. Historic England Archive

This is the type of flying system that has long been used at Glyndebourne. The old house originally had no flying facilities, but a fly tower was added in 1938, just four years after the theatre opened. The flying system installed was homemade. The renowned international lighting designer Paul Pyant, a Glyndebourne regular who actually began his career on the Glyndebourne lighting crew in 1974, remembers it as being ‘invented by Jock Gough, originally head of everything backstage, who always worked on the principal that he could turn his mind to designing anything, then build it himself or in the estate workshop.’ Gough’s system, at the time of Pyant’s arrival run by his successor, Bert Pullen, used cast-lead weights in cylindrical cradles without the guide rails that modern counterweight systems have; other crew members of that era recall them as ‘lead torpedoes shooting up and down, thudding against each other and causing even hardened crew members to take cover!’

For the 1994 opening of the new opera house, a much more refined version of the same counterweight system was provided to cope with the three dimensional, heavily engineered sets John Bury started creating for the old house and the next generation of theatre designers carried into the new: 76 individual flying bars each capable of supporting up to 500kg of weight, with the manufacturer also supplying 55 tonnes of 10kg (20lbs) cast-iron counterweight bricks.

This system remains in use today, 25 years later. In the hands of Glyndebourne’s hugely experienced and long-serving fly crew led by Darren Elder, it delivers the transitions, slow or fast, simple or complex, demanded by Glyndebourne’s productions – only very rarely giving away its relatively low-tech approach to directors familiar with more high-tech solutions now found at other opera houses around the world. ‘Increasingly, our visiting opera directors are asking for fly cues to be faster and faster’ notes Glyndebourne’s Technical Director, Eric Gautron. ‘During a recent rehearsal one shouted “turn up the speed on the winch,” and I had to say – it’s two guys pulling a rope as hard as they can. He looked at me as if to say, a rope?! The team here do such an amazing job that it very rarely happens that we get found out like that.’

However, as the ‘new’ house celebrates its silver jubilee, and parts of the original installation approach the end of their working life, Glyndebourne is looking to the future and planning the move to automation – the motorised, computer-controlled movement of scenery.

‘The Christie family has always pushed the boundaries,’ Gautron explains. ‘Building the original opera house, and equipping it with technology unprecedented in the UK at the time. Extending it and extending it again. Constantly adopting cutting-edge new lighting and other technologies as they became available. Then being brave enough to demolish that theatre and build the new one. I think the project we are starting on now, to replace these traditional manual systems with entirely new automated systems, is comparable to all of that.’

The motivation, however, is not just new technology for the sake of it. Rather it is to continue to enable Glyndebourne’s ambition to deliver whatever those who create its shows dream up. This automation technology has become relatively common over the last two decades – and has already demonstrated its value at Glyndebourne, with temporary, rented equipment used to achieve the stunning Act II opening of Hamlet during the 2017 Festival. The goal now is to have that technology permanently available in-house.

This will also ensure Glyndebourne can continue to mount its seasons efficiently and safely. ‘Every time we change between shows, which can be twice a day with rehearsals and then performances during the Festival, and sometimes with big scene changes between acts, we have to take down some of the flown scenery and hang new scenery. Every time we do that, the crew are manually loading and unloading these counterweight bricks, often hundreds of kilograms worth. That’s tonnes of lifting over a season. Automation, with electric winches that can directly lift the scenery, does away with all of that and so makes our work much more efficient. It also reduces the risk of injury to our staff. Our fly crew have, between them, 175 years of experience; we don’t want to lose any of that,’ Gautron explains, noting that these kinds of manual flying systems are being phased out all over Europe.

The project as currently planned will be phased over the next five years, between seasons, starting with the installation of new lighting bridges and new point hoist winches – these allowing the lifting of more complex shaped items than traditional scenery that runs parallel to the proscenium arch. The existing counterweight flying bars will be replaced in two stages. Related systems, such as the orchestra pit lift, cloth storage lifts and motorised side lighting ladders, will also be replaced. And new opportunities will be created with the installation of performer flying hoists, allowing performers to be lifted into the air, and performer lifts allowing them to be lowered into the floor.

Photo: The tall rectangular box of the fly tower is a feature that makes theatre buildings, including Glyndebourne’s, distinctively easy to spot – once you know. Bill Hunter.

The phasing will allow any discoveries made during one phase to be addressed before the next, and allow time for training and for the crew to become familiar with what will for them be an entirely new way of working – quite literally moving from the analogue to the digital age.

Eric Gautron – simultaneously ‘thrilled’ and ‘very nervous’ about being charged with delivering the biggest changes to the theatre in its history – has two over-riding goals for the project. One: ‘that everyone here should be involved in all of the decisions, bringing together all of their collective experience.’ In that, he seems to be succeeding, noting that: ‘everyone, from the fly crew up to Gus Christie himself, is enormously excited by this.’ The second: that the new technology is there to serve the productions, and the systems chosen have to reflect this. ‘Cues in our shows – scenic, lighting, others – all start at a given moment, but they should then end at a specific moment in the action or in the music. The timing of that is in the hands of the conductor, and might well vary for each performance. Our skilled fly crew have always reacted to that, almost bending time to ensure things land at just exactly the right moment. The systems we choose for our automation will have to allow our team to continue to achieve that; even better, they might also allow us to integrate all of our systems so that everything can react in the same way. That, truly, will be technology used in service of art, letting us achieve an overall precision that even the very finest crews could never achieve with the older, manual systems.’

Written by Rob Halliday

Rob Halliday leads a double life as a lighting designer (for shows including the acclaimed Tree of Codes), and as a writer about entertainment technology for a range of publications.

This article was originally published in the Glyndebourne Festival 2019 Programme Book. Main image by Sam Stephenson.

Stage automation project

Glyndebourne’s Annual Fund will help raise funds to support its new stage automation project. Your donations to the Annual Fund, large or small, are invaluable in maintaining our standards of excellence.

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