TAIT: Transforming Creative Visions Into Touring Realities
Designing and constructing touring elements with the complexity demanded by the world’s most high profile artists is not easily achieved, but for TAIT, it’s an everyday activity. A large number of the most visually stunning or technically daring productions on the touring circuit are likely to have benefitted from TAIT’s expertise in some way - from state of the art stages through to advanced show control systems. Zoe Mutter visited the company’s headquarters in Lititz, Pennsylvania, to witness TAIT conquer the seemingly impossible.
Not many companies can say they have played a pivotal role in creating 19 out of 20 of the highest grossing shows of all time or built systems for the top rental companies in the world, but these are just two of TAIT’s many claims to industry fame. With headquarters based in the remote and charming town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, the super force of stage design and build, rigging, show control, LED and scenic magnificence continues to transform concepts into spectacular realities that go down in history.
Even after spending a matter of minutes at the buzzing facility, the excitement and passion of the gifted designers and engineers as they work on some of the most elaborate and mind- blowing projects is overwhelming. The origins of the hub of design and build splendour stems back 40 years, to a chance encounter between company founder, Michael Tait, and English rock band Yes. “Michael became like their fifth band member and started creating effects as their lighting designer. He built his own dimmers and lighting boards and eventually grew it into a lighting company, hiring kit to other bands,” explained TAIT’s Managing Partner, Adam Davis, after TPi was taken on an extensive tour of the Lititz facilities.
“So it started out as TAIT Towers Lighting, but then Michael built stages on the side because he enjoyed it so much and Yes needed a stage. About 25 years ago, when there was a boom in the lighting industry and everyone wanted the latest Vari-Lite fixture or Avolites console, Michael was smart enough to see he was losing money on the lighting side, whilst his stage building side project was more profitable.”
The company that has now grown to dominate so much of the touring scene was born when Michael Tait decided to sell the lighting side of his business and moved the staging company into a building rented from another Lititz-based company, Clair Brothers. “One of the key reasons we’re based here is because Clair Brothers. [now Clair Global] was in Lititz too. They were passionate about building their own equipment so Michael hired them to come on the road with Yes,” continued Davis. “It was at this point our now CEO, James ‘Winky’ Fairorth, entered the picture when he was introduced to Michael by Roy Clair’s son, Barry.”
THE PERFECT SETTING
TAIT developed from a small team of passionate individuals into the powerhouse of design, build and automation excellence that now resides in Pennsylvania and employs 280 dedicated members of staff. In fact, the company has such a fascinating story behind it that it is in
the process of being made into a documentary showcasing the creations of TAIT’s hardworking men and women, called Tait Stages, which is currently scheduled to be broadcast in the US in Summer 2013.
Davis, whose background is in theatre, continued to share the company’s backstory: “In its infancy, TAIT had a fairly narrow focus that evolved with time. This was assisted by the emergence of the MP3, which changed the industry and saw touring become a huge market. As TAIT was the premiere company in this area, it grew its client base from here.”
As well as skill and passion, location has always influenced the success of the business and although TAIT may appear to be in a remote borough of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, it is surrounded by a selection of companies in a similar industry that they work alongside. “There are lots of relevant businesses in close proximity that can help so it’s the perfect setting really. Even though our team is sitting in Lititz now, our shows go all over the world,” added Davis.
A key development took place seven years ago when TAIT switched from being a sales company to a rental business and it now has one of the largest inventories of equipment of its kind. When the transition was made the TAIT Towers employees needed to think about products differently when they were designing for the rental market. “Staging was first to get a reboot,” said Davis. “We’ve carried out years of R&D and solved every staging problem imaginable so we wanted to come up with one complete kit that was configurable to offer a variety of solutions for different projects.”
The development of TAIT’s staging department was heavily influenced by its pioneering Mag Lock Deck system, which uses six magnets in opposing polarity to quickly align staging components. Elsewhere, in the scenic department TAIT prides itself on having the ability to produce some of the most complex sets in the world in the safest manner possible.
“The spirit in every aspect of this company is incredible; an idea goes from nothing to something in days, not weeks,” added Davis. “You don’t see anything quite like it elsewhere and that’s what TAIT’s success has always been. It rubs off on you and if you embrace it then you start being just as enthusiastic about every project you’re a part of.”
TPi gained an insight into the sizeable yet smooth running operation of each and every area of the company - including staging and scenic - through a thorough tour of the facilities from Senior Project Manager, Brian Levine, and Marketing Coordinator, Jessica Laverty. In addition to the Lititz based location - including departments for decking, design, fabrication, motion, packaging, rental, scenic, staging, track and rigging - there is a further 300,000 sq ft integration and asset storage facility in Manchester, Pennsylvania, and a 54,3000 sq ft building in Manheim, which houses TAIT’s vast rental fleet.
“When we decided to become a rental company it made us think about the products in a new way. With touring, you can be based anywhere, but in other markets we’ve moved into, such as automation and LED, you need a better geographical presence. For example, when we bought FTSI (Fisher Technical Services), based in Las Vegas, it gave us a West Coast location in the US too,” explained Davis.
In 2010, TAIT also broke into the LED market and strengthened its worldwide reach when it partnered with industry expert, Frederic Opsomer, to form new Belgium-based company, TAIT Technologies. “This location allowed us to better distribute products in Europe and gave us a confident centre for LED. We believe we drive the development of LED static screens from the packaging side and now build systems for the top rental companies,” added Davis. “Through our work at TAIT Technologies we aim to be extremely innovative because we believe there’s a whole landscape of immersive LED to explore, which is demonstrated by the award-winning pixel tablets we produced for the Olympics Ceremonies, for example.”
INNOVATION AND DETERMINATION
There are a multitude of reasons clients choose to entrust their touring projects to TAIT, with groundbreaking technology and forward- thinking design at the forefront. “The quality and reliability we offer is also influential and what matters to us in all our work is innovative design, world-class craftsmanship and bend over backwards service,” enthused Davis.
Whether it is the lift array that was built for Madonna’s MDNA tour and mechanically articulated with LED, the five-storey castle built for Lady Gaga’s colossal globe-trotting production or the spectacular water effects that dominated Kylie’s Aphrodite Les Folies tour, thinking outside the box has always been the driving force behind TAIT’s projects. But another common aspect of many of the shows is flexible manufacturing, highlighted Davis.
“On shows such as Elton John’s The Million Dollar Piano we have traditionally worked with a theatrical team. However, with Gaga, for example, we hit on the concept of working with movie professionals so we used about 100,000 sq ft of our Manchester building, brought in 20 movie artists and another 100 local crew and set up the most state of the art foam carving scene shop. After the show was built, this workshop disappeared. Now that’s what we call flexible working and to succeed in this business you have to be as adaptable as possible,” said Davis.
The combination of high profile projects and the ingenious manner in which the team works is what draws staff to the company as much as the clients. Tyler Kicera, Tait’s Director of Design, is one of many employees who feels fortunate to have worked with some of the best people in the world on the most groundbreaking projects, from U2’s 360° to Roger Waters The Wall.
He explained: “The Wall was one of my career-defining moments. I’ve always had a lot of respect for many people in the industry and I think by working on that I earnt some respect back. Likewise, getting to work on a show like Lady Gaga’s Born This Way tour, where there were things that us - and in fact the entire industry - had never done before, was a really rewarding experience.
“People are attracted to working at the company because of the type of work we do. When you go home and tell your friends about what we’ve created they recognise it because it’s received good press. Seeing your project come to life like that is incredible and that feeling of pride and fulfillment is what keeps our staff coming back again and again and excites them to tackle the next problem.”
Automation capabilities were limited five years ago - as were many touring productions - but as they have become increasingly complicated, so has TAIT’s show control following the acquisition of Scott Fisher’s Las Vegas-based FTSI (Fisher Technical Services) in October 2010. This key event in the company’s history brought with it the pioneering Navigator, an advanced automation and motion control system that had already taken the industry by storm.
“I started in automation in 1989 and worked on a variety of shows until launching Fisher Technical Services when I was 29,” explained Fisher. “I got into the automation business in Las Vegas in the ‘90s when all of the big shows and spectaculars were taking place in the hotels there. It got to a point where I had done a lot of work in the sector and seen enough mistakes made that I thought I could probably do it better than what I’d seen, so I bit the bullet and started my own company.”
FTSI began supplying TAIT with control system technology and mechanical systems such as flying and overhead winches for the 2007 Bon Jovi Lost Highway tour. “As we continued working with TAIT they abandoned the control systems they had been using, adopted Navigator and FTSI controls as their in-house standard and never looked back,” said Fisher.
Fisher and the recently appointed President of Automation at TAIT, Kevin Taylor, now work in close collaboration, with Taylor having joined the company in April from his role at Stage Technologies, where he was Director and part owner. Having grown up with automation being a large part of his life and having worked on Broadway shows, opera houses and Cirque du Soleil productions, Taylor’s knowledge of the area was vast. Although he was initially brought on board to deal with the operations of automation at TAIT, Taylor now helps manage and control rigging elements of the company too.
“Kevin and I worked as competitors previously when he was at Stage Technologies so we’d developed a knowledge and respect of each other’s work and it was a natural progression into working together,” said Fisher. “It worked out remarkably well and he’s an excellent technician. As far as strategy, execution, construction, budget and keeping things on time, he’s amazing, which frees me up a bit for client interaction and higher level creative design. It’s a great match and we complement each other’s abilities to get projects through the pipeline even better than before.”
Taylor expanded further on his background in the industry and new role at TAIT: “I’ve worked in automation since 1987 and when I came here Adam [Davis] felt we needed to strengthen TAIT’s expertise and level of employees. Since I arrived we’ve gone through a lot of rationalisation of who we’ll partner with as vendors, expanded our product range, reduced costs, increased safety levels and harmonised standards globally.
“I control the way in which the designers’ visions can be turned into real products and make sure the automation department runs smoothly. Basically, I have a direct input into anything that moves or flies in the air,” said Taylor. “We do everything from a single Flaggapult [pop-up lift], to flying, to corporate launches. We believe the Navigator software is the best on the planet and purchased it from FTSI because we thought it was amazing. It’s now been used on high profile shows such as Spider Man Live! to fly performers around at 40 feet per second.”
The automation department, which is in the process of restructuring, is now based between two locations, with the Pennsylvania office focussed on design, manufacturing and support of TAIT’s touring efforts, and the Las Vegas base acting as a centre for FTSI rental systems and a West Coast office for service and support. Initially all R&D for winch, hoist and track and rigging took place in Las Vegas, but this has now moved into full operation at TAIT’s Lititz base.
Fisher highlighted why he believes FTSI has had such an appeal to clients across the globe: “It’s a relatively small market and there are only a few players in the high end of the theatrical and rigging automation industry. So almost by default it’s a global market because there are so few of us. We started out by targeting the high end of the market and clients like Cirque du Soleil and Disney, so by necessity the product we produced had to be extremely high quality and really capable. This has appealed to users all over the planet. We didn’t really go out there with the intention of being a global company, but it kind of happened that way because of the products’ quality.”
The team of developers, engineers and designers also undoubtedly plays a crucial role in the constant development of automation at TAIT, but Fisher also believes clients drive innovation. “We are really lucky to have some very creative and forward thinking clients like Cirque du Soleil and The Metropolitan Opera and it’s the challenges they bring to us to solve that really drives us towards innovating more capable and easy solutions and software,” he explained.
Out of an extensive list of first class clients, Fisher believes that, from a control systems point of view, one of the standout projects was Disney’s World of Colour show in California. “This was the largest system we’ve installed and it pushed the Navigator technology farther than ever before,” said Fisher.
“From an integrated systems standpoint, however, I would think the chandelier that was installed at The Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas for the production of The Phantom of the Opera, was one of the most impressive. There were 32 axes and a three-dimensional flying system over the audience for a one tonne chandelier. In the show the chandelier crashes to the stage and they wanted it to be a little more spectacular for the Vegas version. So we started the show with the chandelier in four pieces suspended over the audience in random locations and then during the flashback at the beginning of the show the pieces fly around over the heads of the audience and reassemble themselves into a single chandelier. It was 32 winches, 8,000ft of rigging, a giant control system and pretty much every toy that we had available.”
NAVIGATING THE WAY
“Most platforms for show and motion control are based on industrial protocols and machinery, but 10 years ago Scott Fisher recognised these limited you so he wrote a software only application,” pointed out Davis.
FTSI’s flagship product - Navigator - has benefitted from having a dozen software engineers working on it for the past 10 years to turn it into a mature and well-developed automation system. “When we designed the product it was different to what was available on the market,” said Fisher. “It’s been interesting to watch the market come around to that philosophy of having one connected machine where all of the systems are aware of each other and can trade information back and forth like a single coherent device instead of just having a bunch of separate systems.
“So the structure of the navigator system is slanted towards interoperability and coordination, which is probably what makes it unique. People like it because you can plug just about anything into it. Our focus going forward is to work on the interface, with the goal to make it more accessible to a wider range of users. Our high end users really appreciate the tools, capabilities and complexities, but it can be a bit much for a normal theatre or someone who doesn’t need that level of control. So we’ve been looking at modifying the interface and working with show operators and people who use it on a daily basis to refine the interface so it offers all the capability, but a little less complexity.”
Although FTSI has worked with touch screen technology for some time in its user interfaces, the console and touch screen have been separate devices up until recently. The newer version of the product, which was first shown as a prototype at this year’s LDI trade show, features touch screen technology incorporated into the console itself, with a final version planned for release in March 2013.
DIVERSIFYING TO CONQUER NEW MARKETS
Five years ago, all of TAIT’s revenue was generated by touring, but as the company has expanded and explored new markets, this area currently makes up just 40%. Many people think of the company as just servicing the rock ‘n’ roll shows and large spectaculars such as the Olympics, Davis pointed out, but there is a huge corporate and installation aspect to TAIT too. Its automation systems also appear in projects outside the touring sector, from Carnival Cruise Lines ships to New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
“Everyone thinks of TAIT as a touring company, but we do a lot more than that now as we’ve gradually diversified into other markets,” said Davis. “And even though people often think of us as working on $10 million projects, we cater for a lot of smaller shows out of our stock equipment too. We’re every man’s solution.”
Company evolution brought with it a broadening of product ranges to encompass more than staging and automation. TAIT now strives to be the best at specialised rigging, portable staging, show control, LED and scenic - all market areas that complement each other and work in unison, according to Taylor. He elaborated: “The customer should be able to give us a piece of paper explaining what they want and we will create everything they need. In the past I’ve worked on projects where one person does the LED and another does the rigging and it’s been a nightmare.
“The benefit to the client here is that we can make the process more seamless and minimise the number of vendors. It’s not just the technology, innovation and fantastic equipment that comes out of here; it’s the whole process. From the minute somebody brings a project to us there are already people in here thinking about how they can make it into something great.”
The design and manufacture process doesn’t stop when the equipment leaves the shop floor at TAIT Towers, however. “This is where other companies go wrong,” added Taylor. “You can make the most fantastic piece of kit, but if anything goes wrong - and everybody has issues at times - you need to react quickly and here the reaction time is seconds. If there is a problem then by the time the call is finished somebody’s on their way to site to fix it. We don’t hide errors here either and there’s even a wall of mistakes that has been made as a reminder of what we need to do to move forward. You never conceal anything from clients.”
Initial client briefs are brought to life by TAIT’s exceptionally skilled design department of 30 who predominantly use Autodesk’s AutoCAD
to produce 3D designs, with some additional animations and renderings created with Autodesk 3D Studio Max. Tyler Kicera – an employee of the company for the past four years - started as a designer within a much smaller team before progressing to his current position as Director of Design.
“We’re very proud that the AutoCAD splash screen opens up with some of our design creations, which is testament to the work we produce here,” said Kicera. “We are in the midst of moving some of our design department to another Autodesk product - Inventor - which is a more parametric based platform. The 3D models we create are very detailed down to every nut, bolt and washer because we find having the detail in those drawings is the only real way to prove whether or not it’s going to work when it gets to the shop floor.”
It is this attention to detail that has led to winning jobs and gaining repeat clients, added Taylor: “I sent a bid out recently, for which the product development team produced a package. The customer thought the detail was amazing and I informed them we produce that level of complexity for all jobs. The customer said it was obvious we’d listened to their brief, leaving them no option but to choose us.”
The entire company is set up according to product lines that relate to different disciplines such as staging, motion design, track and rigging, scenery and LED. “All these areas lend themselves so well to being product lines, meaning our design team is easily structured into those bands of products. So we have motion design, scenic, staging and structures studios, for example,” said Kicera.
“We see ourselves as at the cutting edge of what is going on right now in touring and live entertainment. Our innovation comes from realising that every day you’re not trying to move forward, everyone else is catching up. Each day we push the envelope and ask ourselves how we can do what we did yesterday better today. This is all down to research you see. We did a lot of R&D into touring water shows, for example, when we worked on Kylie Minogue’s production and then through Lady Gaga’s and Elton John’s tours we became more proficient in scenery.”
A SENSE OF ACHIEVEMENT
The revolutionary approach to design, development of ideas and construction of shows that would at first glance appear to be impossible has seen TAIT build up a stellar back catalogue of boundary-pushing creations. Taylor enthused: “I believe this company understands touring beyond anyone else in the world. We don’t just consider the technology, we think about the whole process, all the way through to how to minimise what the operational costs are.
“I came here two years ago trying to sell TAIT something and came away wanting to work for the company. Now I’m proud to say I do. If you want a job that allows you to learn every day then this is the place to be. There’s such a sense of achievement flowing through the business and the team spirit here is unbelievable too. The ‘T’ in TAIT definitely stands for team.”
So whether conquering the task of incorporating complex, circular stage shapes and five robots into Bon Jovi’s world-dominating The Circle Tour, supplying a Flaggapult lift to elevate a performer at high speed, creating elaborate staging concepts for Metallica’s current tour or designing and integrating water effects to support Kylie’s live performance, the common theme running throughout TAIT is enthusiasm and a desire to make constant progress. Taylor continued: “We are fortunate to have Adam heading up the team too. He has so much energy, is extremely enthusiastic about the business and has a lot of insight into the way the company should operate. He really knows touring inside out.”
Davis concluded: “We believe that to succeed you need to have the best team and products behind you to be able to work for the most prestigious clients in the world. Moving forward, we’re looking to expand, not just in entertainment, but in other industries to see where the thought processes we’ve developed here at TAIT can be applied.”
Photography: Zoe Mutter and TAIT