Behind the Curtain with Andrew Ibbott
What does your schedule look like in the run up to a production? How does the team operate?
A normal day in production week is about 15 hours long, as soon as we are in the door, the entire team hits the ground running and gets straight into what ever is next on the jobs list, before downing tools late into the evening. This continues 7 days a week until we reach the first show. The scale of any production is huge with set, sound and lights taking more than a couple of days each to put in. The set itself with Shrek proved to be our biggest hurdle due to the show being postponed from covid, moving from December 2021 to March 2022. This meant the set we had initially hired was not available, nor were any other Shrek sets in the country. We found a company online that were mid-way through building a new Shrek set, albeit for a smaller theatre, so we took a gamble, with no plans or photographs of the set.
The team is split into key areas: stage, lighting and sound. With Ian, the other full time theatre team member taking on the role of sound, I head up everything stage and lighting.
Don’t let the 2:1 ratio of areas to work on fool you though, sound is a huge job, with a full band in the pit, 24 radio mics with numerous mic changes and other elements to content with, Ian had to work around the clock for 3 weeks to get the sound up and running; this is, except when I call for a hand moving, lifting or building something! The set took 5 days to build after it arrived from Scotland at 9am on the Saturday morning, with the aim to get it finished and built before the lighting equipment arrived. With some of the 240 lights on the show weighting more than 35kg each, we can’t take risks and the work that goes in to getting the lights from the cases to the rig and then working is enormous. Thankfully I had spent a lot of my evenings working on and building a show file for our console (ETC Gio @5) which meant the pre-programming was already done.
Once everything is in and working, we start programming the show, this is where the show really comes together. Page by page, sat with the director, i’m programming on the lighting console every lighting change, how they change and what each element of the show looks like. At the same time Ian is going page by page, if not line by line, checking what microphones are on stage at any given time, programming every entrance exit and change of voice in each microphone, depending on who is wearing it, and if they are singing or talking. The programming of the show takes around 30 hours all in, but that’s only as we have to stop due to the run of shows being in the way… the longer we spend programming the better it looks and sounds! After a few midnight finishes from programming, the show is as ready as it can be without running it, which is where the dress rehearsal comes in. Not only is this a chance for the cast to run this as a show, but for us to also run the tech for the first time, hundreds and hundreds of hours come down to this. After the dress rehearsal we then spend typically another 15 hours ‘editing’ what we have done, making changes to either make certain areas better or change parts that didn’t match up to what was happening on stage. We also do this editing process after every show, to constantly improve.
Once we are into the live shows, with Shrek we did 4 runs, a matinee to prep and primary schools, then 3 evening performances where each time we aim to be ready about an hour ahead. This means getting the set, sound, lights, front of house, staffing, cast, crew, hair/makeup, costume, band etc all ready. This can take a few hours. So although the show goes up at 7pm, we are working flat out all day to ensure it goes smoothly.
Once the final show finishes, the weeks of hard work building and setting everything up has to be done in reverse. Often the set comes down the same night, this can mean a 3am finish isn’t uncommon. Then we are back over the weekend to strip out the rest of the equipment, mics, special effects and lights all have to go back to hire companies.
It’s not just the loading out of the show that is a major job, but also returning the venue to its ‘normal’ state. Putting the orchestra pit back in takes a whole day, putting back in the house lighting rig ready for normal school use takes a further day, then the grid (the area above the stage that holds everything up, like the lighting bars, winches, fly system etc) needs to be put back. This took 3 days all working at height on our genie to change for Shrek, so will take just as long to put back.
Finally, after about 4 or 5 days of the entire theatre team working around the clock the theatre looks back to its normal state, leaving no signs of Shrek behind, except maybe the pair of Shrek ears we found in the orchestra pit and have been wearing ourselves! Now we start immediately on the next one… the countdown to curtain up has already begun!
Out of your time so far with Berkhamsted School, what are some of the standout moments/achievements?
For me, 2 events really stand out. The Witches, a play directed by Oliver Pengelly and We Will Rock You, directed by Dominic Curtis and Oliver Pengelly. Both these shows, for me, really put an emphasis for the design of the show on me. Sometimes you hire a set, where you effectively build a giant piece of Ikea furniture the size of an articulated lorry, so its already designed for you. Or perhaps you are doing a smaller play that is quite minimalist and the Director, as you would expect, takes a leading role in the design, as ultimately it is their show.
However, these two shows were different, but for different reasons. The Witches, a simple play, but one which Oliver really wanted to add a modern touch to and breach the gap between the stage and its audience. After a few short meetings, Oliver and I had brain stormed a few ideas, but after that, Oliver, perhaps a little bravely, left the full stage, set and lighting design to myself. It was hard work, with single free hanging trusses at odd angle across the stage and auditorium, festoons across the entire venue and really quite unique set ideas on how to break up different areas of the stage. But the moment Oliver walked in the first time and saw it; paused. Looked around, smiled, and said ‘wow, that’s exactly what I imagined in my head’. That moment for me was the greatest compliment. My ideas and hard work had paid off, everyone thought it looked stunning, something we had never done before in the venue, and for the director to love it as much as he did is an incredibly rewarding feeling.
We Will Rock You was more about the tech behind the show. I started designs on the show about 6 months in advance, starting with the structure that everything was based around. Using mainly lighting and projection for the set, we decided very early on that the technical elements were going to be the majority of the show, rather than physical set elements. The excitement to really ‘flex our muscles’ as a theatre team took over. The complexity of what we managed to achieve was far superior to anything we have ever done before, more moving lights, custom made video… we even used it as a chance to overhaul the entire sound system to really make some substantial changes to the venue.
Pulling in a few personal favours, I managed to get our hands on 2 new lighting and sound consoles at no extra cost, a Digico SD9 and ETC Gio @5, two consoles we have since purchased permanently. The extra equipment really helped us show the school and the audience just what we are capable of technically when it comes to productions. Because of the work put in on that show, it has been far easier to reach a similar standard ever since, making growth in the technical side of events much more achievable in the future.
What are your thoughts on what the Centenary theatre represents and provides those who use it, both performers and audience?
Theatres are typically incredibly complex places, that turn around between events over night, with multiple elements constantly changing, the school are incredibly lucky to have it. We have over 40 moving heads and 240+ generic lighting units in house, as well as a new ETC Gio @5 console, while the sound system was overhauled from We Will Rock You, and a new console in the shape of the Digico SD9, we have a huge stock of microphones and equipment to ensure that every event is of the highest standard.
Being able to offer students, and staff, the opportunity to work on such a high level of equipment and in a truly professional environment that mirrors the west end, is an opportunity you rarely come across. For all our major productions, the entire stage crew is student led. For Shrek we had a crew of over 16, an A2, A3, hair, make up and follow spots to name a few positions that were all filled by students, a few who’s first time it was on a show.
Stage crews and productions are also quite unique in how it brings people together, like when I was at school doing stage crew, you can have a large variety of social groups and ages all working together on one production. For example, the captain of the Y12 rugby team may be working with a year 7 who’s only just joined the school. This range of students that come together happens in very few other places, not just around any school, but anywhere else outside of school. To this day, my best friends outside of school are all of different ages to myself, which I all made through stage crew on school productions.
Would you mind giving us a little detail on your background and where your passion comes from?
I originally started working in theatre and productions when in year 9 at school, my first show being Les Miserable. Although only a school production, it gave me a huge insight into what else there was out there, and the variety of roles included in something like this. With a family member a ‘lighting guy’ as I called it back then on the Harry Potter films, I had already seen a glimpse into the events world and the tech behind it. Working on all school events as a student I quickly came to love events more than most other things, my parents will be testify to that… I was never at family events or at home as I was always off doing other things on new events and productions.
By the age of 16 I was already freelancing across the west end, doing work on Phantom of the Opera, and numerous other corporate events, like co-designing and installing lighting for Jimmy Choo private sales and product release events, although I missed running sound for Tinie Tempah by the trains being delayed. I’m sure neither Jimmy Choo or Tinie noticed my absence!
Continuing to freelance even now with hundreds of hours across the west end under my belt, working behind the scenes of events there is always more to learn, every event is different; there really is no rule book as to what you can or can’t do.
I’ve now been at Centenary Theatre, Berkhamsted School for nearly 10 years, of which the last 5 years I have been Theatre Manager. If you had seen the venue a few years ago you probably wouldn’t recognise it now, so many changes have taken place! Lighting bars, installs and equipment upgrades have taken place almost continuously since I took over. My aim is to grow the venue as far as possible so that we can offer as much in house as possible, even for the smallest events. This is the best way to show case not just the theatres capabilities and the school, but also the best way to encourage new people into our field. I started off at school by approaching a 6th former at the time asking if I can get involved. He probably took one look at me and thought I wouldn’t be able to cope with the long 16 hour days and nights of hard work and pressure. But here I am, still going, and enjoying every moment. So to be able to grow the venue and inspire others to get involved, make new friends and learn new skills is something I truly want to be able to carry on doing.