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TEAC London 2006

Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference 2006

TEAC London 2006

After the success of the 2002 Conference, plans were laid for another to be staged four years later, on a cycle that would not clash with Showlight (another UK-based conference) or with Showtech (a biennial theatre equipment exhibition held in Germany). The phasing of the event was also so that it remained important - a sufficient period since the last and not so frequent as to be treated as just another annual get-together. It was felt that the venue must be able to accommodate increased numbers, up to 400, and provide the necessary breakout spaces and catering facility. It also had to provide the right atmosphere for the event, something that was lacking from some of the hotels and larger venues inspected. Many of the professional institutions offer lecture rooms, but few could handle the total numbers: the exception was the Institution of Civil Engineers at No 1 Great George Street.
No 1 Great George Street, as it prefers to be known, also had the advantage of two raked auditoria as well as the Great Hall which was used for refreshments, lunches and the plenary sessions. A third breakout space, the Smeaton Room, was fitted out with raked seating on rostra by Steeldeck in the form of a debating chamber, allowing far better contact between delegates than the conventional theatre-style rows. This building had permanently-installed audio-visual facilities in the two main theatre spaces and provided similar for the sessions in the Great Hall and Smeaton Room.

Left to right: Telford Room, Smeaton Room, Mitchell Room
Three speakers addressed the opening plenary session. Theatre consultant Iain Mackintosh suggested that theatre engineering and architecture belong together because the lifespan of a stage engineering installation is about as long as the theatre in which it is found. He also rejoiced because there was now less conflict between modern architecture and the acting profession, and also at the international nature of the Conference. He also explained how nobody wants to hear about the realities of cost at the outset of a project, and that flexibility in a design is usually a sign of the client failing to make up his mind! Arts manager Jodi Myers examined what the audiences wanted, saying that she had recently experienced more powerful theatre in disused swimming pools, gardens and car parks than on stages. She reminded conference that audiences are changing and that theatre management and buildings need to embrace that change. The third speaker, Stan Pressner from the United States, a lighting designer, scenographer and production manager, focused on the practical aspects of theatre spaces, a memorable statement being "Don't install it if you can't get it out of the way later!" He went on to talk about flexibility and how he had to create venues in the most impractical locations, reminding everyone that theatre as an art form will stretch the boundaries of whatever spaces we provide for it. Sobering thoughts at the start of Conference.

There was no shortage of topics to be discussed. Suggestions came from many quarters and were shaped into suitable sessions on the cost of building theatres and financing arts projects, backstage planning and the problem faced by disabled performers who seem to be the last people to be properly accommodated backstage. Many theatres were presented, from Curve in Leicester, through the Wales Millennium Centre, theatres in the Netherlands, Italy and Singapore to projects in New York, Dallas, Malaysia and Bogotá, Columbia. A paper on the factors for success in arts building by Prof. Alan Short of Cambridge University demonstrated that most arts building projects go through a series of crises, many of which are predictable.
Major projects were examined; architect Jonathan Adams spoke about the Wales Millennium Centre, Neil Morton about the design of Copenhagen Opera and Spencer de Grey of Foster and Partners on the development of the Dallas Opera. In contrast, some relatively uncomplicated drama spaces also featured: the Young Vic, Northern Stage and the Cottesloe Theatre, while Himanshu Burte from Goa, India gave an in-depth paper on Indian performance culture. Engineering focussed on automation, power flying, theatre grids, stage floor surfaces and the whole process of obtaining meaningful tenders. There was also a session on the European standard for engineering installations, which was being developed at the time. The importance of the brief and business plan was directed at consultants and those starting out on new projects, and different auditorium forms, orchestra pit problems and proscenium zone designs were examined by consultants and practitioners raising many issues in discussion. Adjustment to the programme on the Monday and Tuesday allowed the major sponsors time to address interested delegates just before lunch, and a closing debate, moderated by the past Director of The Theatres Trust, Peter Longman, and theatre consultant and lighting designer, Richard Pilbrow, was held in the Great Hall. This created a number of quotations that bring some of the issues faced when designing a new project into sharp focus.

Catherine Cooper, known to many delegates from 2002, again undertook organisation of the event, achieving great praise for her helpful attitude and attention to detail. The target number of 400 was breached, with some late bookers once more not being able to be registered. The atmosphere was great and despite again suffering a heat wave, during which some of the air-conditioning at the venue was out of service, the event was very successful and appreciated by everyone, especially those who travelled considerable distances to be present.
More than 430 people registered and the average for the three days exceeded the attendance in 2002 by 29%. Nearly 55% of those present were from outside the UK and represented 31 countries, once again beating the 2002 figure of 20 countries. While most visitors were from the United States, the second country represented was Greece, followed by Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany. Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, Finland, Ireland and Spain were well represented, while smaller numbers attended from Israel, Japan, New Zealand and Norway. It was particularly good to see attendees from Italy, Iceland, Latvia, Portugal and Turkey.
The interests of those attending ranged from theatre, acoustic and technical consultants, who actually made up less than 30% of the total, through clients, owners, operators or venue managers (around 15%), and manufacturers and suppliers of systems and equipment (also around 15%). Architects, cost consultants and project managers represented around a further 15% and the balance was made up of technicians, crew, structural and services engineers and some undefined occupations. Everyone found suitable sessions to attend and the universal comment was that the high quality of the presentations and debate often made it difficult to decide which session to join!
Numerous speakers and delegates commented on the value that they found this event offers to those planning and designing for the performing arts, and many requested that another such Conference be held. The range of topics and speakers also appears generally to have more than fulfilled the expectations of those attending. The venue and the organisation of the event received high praise although, as is to be anticipated with a conference focussing on presentation spaces, many people found the smaller lecture theatre the least comfortable. Almost without exception the debating chamber which had been constructed using Steeldeck rostra provided free by the manufacturer, and chairs, kindly loaned by the National Theatre, an excellent venue for discussion and debate.

A relaxed and friendly atmosphere on the 2006 River Trip
Visits to venues by delegates after Conference were again popular. Some 21 people stayed through to Friday and flew to Copenhagen to make a tour of the new opera house with the theatre consultant, Richard Brett and the then Technical Director, Nikolaj Jensen. A group of 8 went to the Wales Millennium Centre and were shown round by the project manager, Roger Spence. A trip to the Sage, Gateshead and the Tyne Theatre and Opera House was also attended by 8 people and led by the consultant, Iain Mackintosh. Theatre consultant Andy Hayles took a group of 11 to the temporary Courtyard Theatre for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon. London visits included the Hampstead Theatre (8), Hackney Empire (6), the Trafalgar Studios in Whitehall (26), the Siobhan Davies Dance Studios, Menier Chocolate Factory and the Unicorn Theatre (12).

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