Technician Blog

In the last few weeks it feels like we’ve made good progress on the Assembly Rooms refurbishment project.  Our technical specialists, Adlib, have helped us bring our concepts for improving the technical infrastructure to a completed design and I’ve been telling everyone in the office about how great it’s all going to be.  So they’ve asked me to write a piece for the blog to tell everyone else what’s in the pipeline and why we’re so passionate about it.
Anyone who’s performed or worked backstage at the Assems will know there were a lot of things that were far from perfect and got in the way of us working efficiently, putting on the best shows possible, and giving audiences the experience they deserve (having parted with their hard earned cash).  We’ve tried to address as many of these problems as possible within the constraints of a finite budget and a listed building.  Some things we’d have liked to do were either too expensive or too damaging to the listed fabric, so those of you who were holding out hope for a fly tower will sadly be disappointed; for some reason the heritage officer wouldn’t let us take the roof off the stagehouse…     
This is quite a long a long list and in no particular order;
•    Acoustics - Our auditorium was not designed with amplified music or speech in mind.  It’s been a constant source of complaints that speech or singing lacks intelligibility and bands and orchestras are always drenched in room reverberation and lack definition.  So we’ll be putting acoustically absorbent panels in the pitched areas of the ceiling and investing in acoustic curtains to frame the windows.  The use of curtains will give us a degree of flexibility to tailor the acoustics to each show; for genres that require more reverberation we can open the curtains and let the glass behind reflect the sound back into the room.  
•    Stage size and access - Compared to other venues of our size, the Assems’ stage is comparatively small, there were only three small doors on to stage and almost no wing space.  The practical upshot of this was that we struggled to fit big productions in, struggled to get large casts (and set) on and off quickly and there was absolutely no room for crew to work in the wings.  All of this was compounded by poorly thought out masking cloths that reduced the stage size even further.  So we’ve widened existing doorways and added 3 new openings on to stage, this has effectively moved the wings into the adjoining side rooms and greatly increased the potential flow of cast on and off stage.  By redesigning the system of cloths that mask the stage we’ve gained nearly a metre on both sides and over a metre at the back.
•    Wheelchair access - There used to be no level access to stage, backstage and basement areas for cast and crew that use a wheelchair.  We’ve consulted with local access groups and there will now be a ramp to stage level and a lift from there to the basement.  We hope to be a far more inclusive and accommodating venue from now on!  
•    New lighting control room - Our previous “tech box” wasn’t really in keeping with the architecture of the main hall and being off centre meant it was not an ideal place to judge the symmetry of lighting effects.  We’re building a new tech box, on the centre line, that will hopefully be far less of an intrusion into the auditorium.  
•    Motorised lighting bars - Our previous front-of-house lighting bars were fixed height meaning that heavy equipment had to be hauled up on ropes; a time consuming and potentially risky process.  On-stage we had hand-powered winches which although safer were very time consuming to use.  All our lighting bars will now be motorised, there will be more of them and they’ll be able to lift greater loads.
•    Scenery bars - All our scenery bars are being replaced and brought up to modern safety standards.  There will be more of them and some will also be motorised allowing us to work more safely and efficiently.  
•    Renewed stage drapery - All our stage drapes were in a poor state of repair.  It’s all being repaired or replaced.  Our main house curtains were previously operated via a very old, very stiff and very noisy hand winch; they will now be on a motorised track operated either from stage or the tech box.    
•    Follow spot position - Previously our follow spot position was on the back row of the balcony (not the ideal position for a red hot theatre lantern).  We’re creating a new follow spot position on top of the tech box, on the centre line and safely away from our audience members.
•    Our “load-in” area used to be at the side of the building and involved pushing heavy flightcases up an uneven and slippery ramp then a 1 metre hand lift on to stage level.  It was impossible to back a van up to the loading doors without blocking the whole car park, which would regularly make us very unpopular with our neighbours.   Vehicles carrying heavy equipment will now be able to load directly on to stage level from our new car park at the rear of the building.  
•    Our dressing rooms and backstage toilets were pretty grim and very poorly laid out.  Jim Davidson commented that he’s stayed in better horse’s stables.  We will now have more flexible dressing room spaces with performer’s kitchen facilities and better toilet provision.   
•    There will be a new Green Room backstage offering another flexible space which can be used as a green room, props room, overspill dressing room, off-stage band pit, meeting room or small rehearsal room.
•    Our Bechstein Grand Piano was commissioned for the opening of the building in 1892.  It’s a beautiful instrument but because we had no way of getting it off the stage it would always be in someone’s way.  Tamworth Musical Theatre Company would regularly find ingenious methods of hiding it within their sets.  For the first time ever our grand piano will be able to roll off stage into the new green room, leaving us with even more precious space on-stage.
•    We’re augmenting our older tungsten lighting fixtures with modern LED units that will help to reduce our carbon footprint and improve the quality of performance lighting.  
•    Likewise our house lights are being replaced with modern LED equivalents.   
•    Our old stage flooring was on its last legs and is being completely replaced.  Our dance groups will be much happier.  
•    We’re installing a brand new public address system for more even coverage and increased clarity for every seat in the house.  
These are just the headline improvements for the technical department, there are lots more happening throughout the rest of the building.  Our audiences, performers and backstage crews will see tangible improvements to all aspects of the Assembly Rooms.  Stay tuned for more news.