The Lyttelton’s hydraulic lifts were installed around 30 years ago and have given the theatre a great many years of reliable service. However, when The White Guard was staged earlier this year, the National’s systems engineering team found themselves in a quandary. The show required that they synchronise all three lifts and they quickly found that the existing system simply didn’t have the required functionality. There was no quick engineering fix to enable them to move the lifts together but they didn’t want to replace equipment that was still mechanically sound, at great expense and waste.
Guy Kendall, head of electronic systems at the National was responsible for finding a solution. The brief was simple: provide a new control system for the three lifts and the main stage wagon to enable synchronous motion. In reality, the result was not so simple, requiring a modern, purpose-built control cabinet to interface with stage machinery from a different era that didn’t necessarily speak the same language.
‘Once we had the brief from the designer we knew that the existing systems could not provide the functionality required,’ explains Kendall.
‘So we contacted Stage Technologies with a seemingly impossible challenge. They had to work with equipment that while aged was still functional yet was never really intended to operate in the manner which was now expected – accurate tracking of three independent hydraulic platforms (scissor and jigger) and tight positioning of a 15m x 15m hydraulic wagon, all with 100% reliability for a show running in rep with no dark time. Our envelope of operation was so tight that a few centimetres out of alignment on the elevators would damage the set, or worse still block the stage for the remaining scenes causing a performance shutdown. The wagon had to track downstage 20m and stop within 10mm reliably on every single move. The deadline we were working against was tight and immovable and we had no fallback option other than success. Challenge accepted.’
So Stage Technologies was approached at the beginning of January 2010 with a deadline for installing and commissioning by the end of the following month. The installation teams knew it was going to be long nights and early mornings working within such an exceedingly tight time frame. Kendall’s systems engineering team worked closely with Stage Technologies engineers as well as with one of the National’s automation technicians, who helped to install the cable infrastructure early in the mornings before performances. Testing was carried out in the same fashion before handing back to the stage for matinées or voice work. An overnight period saw the commissioning of the wagon with perfect control and the three elevators followed a few days later with an accuracy of 5mm.
Training was provided for the Lyttelton operators, first at Stage Technologies London office and later in situ at the theatre. An Illusionist desk was provided for the duration of the show, along with eChameleon programming capability to allow dependable cue plotting for the lifts and wagon.
Kendall was delighted with the results of the joint operation. ‘We were ready on time for the technical rehearsal and our automation technicians could operate the Illusionist desk having never used one before. The show had great reviews and every performance was perfect. Some challenges seem impossible, some companies achieve the impossible!’