Dirk De Decker Of Stageco
November 2011 Issue 147
Enabling the technical construction of festival stages and truly memorable bespoke sets for some of the world’s biggest, busiest tours is a challenging task, yet Belgian titans Stageco make it happen efficiently, environmentally and without hesitation. TPi’s Kelly Murray talks to the company’s International Projects Director, Dirk De Decker.
“I joined this industry by accident. I was looking for a job and read an article in a Belgian magazine where the journalist was going to Australia with some guys who were building a stage,” revealed Stageco’s International Project Director Dirk De Decker at the company’s stand during PLASA 2011. ”I thought that was a great idea, so I applied for a job at Stageco, They hired me for three months and almost 30 years later I’m still there,” he laughed.
“Learning about stages is an on-going project; you learn and grow in the role, working in specialist areas. I’ve done everything but accounts! Hedwig has always been the boss but I’ve grown from being one of the guys who builds,” he continued.
Founded in 1984 by Hedwig De Meyer, Stageco has arguably become one of the world’s most dynamic and boundary-breaking businesses in the live event industry. De Decker is an integral part of its progress. “In the early to mid ‘90s there was a big shift and designs were becoming a lot more specialist but we had the right answer for difficult designs with our modular truss system,” said De Decker.
“It was a turning point, stages up until then were just a black box with a couple of lighting trusses and a sound system, when all of a sudden the stage really became a part of the show.
“You need three ingredients: money, technology and the creative people who can make it happen. For example, only a few years ago, people wouldn’t have thought that U2’s 360° world tour would have been able to happen, but it was possible because of the very creative minds behind it.“
According to De Decker, becoming a unit with Live Nation means anything can get underway as promoter support is imperative for a tour of that scale.
“The whole company is based on challenges and being challenged,” De Decker continued, referring to his employer. “Hedwig will tell you the same. For instance, we went for a meeting in London for those U2 concerts and met up with Mark Fisher [Executive Producer] and Jake Berry [Production Director].
“About an hour before the meeting, I said to Hedwig, “You know we have to give a presentation and explain how we’re actually going to do everything for this tour?” He said, “Of course.” Later, when we came out of the meeting I asked: “Do you realise what we’ve just said ‘yes’ to?” Hedwig replied, “Well, more or less, yes, I realise!” De Decker’s hearty chuckle exposed a refreshing attitude on a heavily complex matter. Perhaps because whatever mammoth task Stageco takes on, it’s delivered with intrinsic technical detail, allowing both artist and Set Designer’s dream be realised.
“That’s the spirit of the company; don’t over estimate yourself but have confidence in what you can do, and what your team can do for you. We go where other companies won’t; that’s how we work,” he confirmed. “A lot of shows fall through due to lack of money, but we have a long-term client base that have been with us from the beginning, and they have first choice. For new projects, we have to consider if it’s possible.”
The 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy is an event that stood out for De Decker. Upon reflection, he said: “Sometimes we don’t realise how special some of these stages are until afterwards. It’s the people who are behind you; they are the ones who enable it - from behind a computer in the office doing technical calculations to the guys in the warehouse, the team make this possible.”
“The biggest problem we have is that most of the time, the people who really want to succeed at this job think too much about the glitz and glamour side; often it’s the silent guy who becomes important,” said De Decker. “We need new people, we’re not getting younger ourselves. Sometimes we’ll choose people when we know they’re ready to learn.”
However, in his personal experience, trying to pin point the quality required for someone to succeed in the stage-building process are varied. He highlighted: “The qualities you need to succeed here are difficult to define. You do, however, need to be very open-minded.”
Though he has had many job titles during his time with Stageco, De Decker’s passion is designing new systems. Any technical challenge is welcomed by the expert. From drawing on paper to figuring out how to do it in real life, the structural and logistical challenges are what keep De Decker at the top of his game, constantly raising the bar.
“Keep your eyes open. Look around; there’s information and inspiration everywhere - from tradeshows to building sites,” he suggested.
PRODUCT GROWTH, MINIMAL CARBON FOOTPRINT
At PLASA 2011, Stageco launched a new tower staging system named the XL Tower. It’s significantly stronger, bigger and in keeping with its approach to stage design, is a modular component system. This means the new XL Towers can be used in multiple configurations, enabling a very flexible design on larger projects.
De Decker was part of the development team, and explained: “The XL Tower system has arisen from our experiences designing and building the extra large steel for the U2 360° world tour. We learnt a lot about large-scale fabrication, engineering and handling large steel components on site.”
Stageco’s CEO Hedwig De Meyer commented: “Stageco is a company that thrives on continuously pushing boundaries. We are stimulated by working with creative designers who challenge us to deliver stages and engineering solutions that are beyond what has been previously achieved. I can only begin to anticipate what the world’s leading designers will come up with given the extended possibilities our new XL Tower system offers - and we’ll relish the challenges of course.”
The environmental impact of transporting this type of equipment could be disastrous but for Stageco, carbon footprints are minimised throughout the entire company. “We go with the weight volume; we are as efficient as possible. The base kit we use for everything is steel and aluminium, so after a tour, if the base is no longer usable, we take it to be 100% recycled. There is very little loss because it’s not rocket science to take care of your equipment,” De Decker enthused.
For the U2 360° tour, which lasted an immense 25 months beginning in June 09, Stageco built a Space Station superstructure at its test build site in Werchter, Belgium.
De Meyer enjoyed the challenge of what he described as his biggest and certainly most complicated project since he founded the company. For each venue on the demanding tour, Stageco built its 30 metre high, 190 tonne steel superstructure in just over four days. This build is put into perspective when you consider that the lifting process alone required 16 trucks of equipment.
For Muse’s Resistance tour, which spent almost two years on the road, the complexity of the stage design was made more complicated by the sheer scale of the set. Stageco produced the steel sub structure of the stage, and Brilliant Stages fabricated the new one. “When I received the drawings over e-mail, I think I wrote back that they were on to something good and I liked it!” De Decker laughed. “It’s a very unbalanced structure because it’s a lot higher and heavier in the central overhang than at the sides. Most of the time we try to reduce the weight in the overhang in the cantilever, but here the further the cantilever goes up, the more it is loaded, so it’s the other way round.”
Due to the need to angle the steel truss into a forced perspective, it meant that the Stageco crew had to adopt a construction technique never used before in the build of any of its stages.
Explained De Decker: “We had a tower with a hydraulic cylinder in it that was used as a temporary support for the cantilever so we could adjust the position of the cantilever while we were building it and de-rigging it, to reduce the stress on the joins. It’s nothing new, you see it a lot in construction and bridge building, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a Stageco structure.”
Brilliant Stages worked in conjunction with De Decker and Koen Peters of Stageco to marry together the sub-structure and adorning set. The overall stadium set consists of a 62 metre long video canopy, suspended ceiling grid and off-stage rear fascias, and a tracking B-stage with inset revolving scissor lift.
More recently, it was Take That’s Progress Live tour, which Stageco completed, using 14 trucks to transport 300 tonnes of steel. Said De Decker: “Usually, it takes a year for a big bespoke stage to be finalised, but Take That was an unusual case; it took seven months from scratch to build the stage for about 40 shows.” The bespoke stage was created for shows across the UK and Europe between May 27 and July 29 this year.
De Decker planned the custom built stage in consultation with the Progress Live tour’s Production Manager Chris Vaughan, Show Designer Es Devlin and Technical Designer Malcolm Birkett.
The structure carried extensive technology, production and scenic elements that included a giant 60ft mechanical robot called Om and a giant ‘Big Man’ who appeared to have his arms around the entire performance area, framed the main stage system. For this, a 28 metre high central tower to carry the ‘Big Man’s’ head and two side towers for his hands as well as PA and video systems were created.
To hold the impressive curved bridge that weighed in at 20 tonnes, Stageco’s engineers incorporated 5 metre long custom built headers into the stage, which along with the side towers also supported further weight from video screens, lighting, performers and water effects within the show.
Measurement and marking out of the stage foundations at each venue was critical to the build success, needing to be accurate to the millimetre to ensure the coming together of the moving scenic parts.
Since August this year, Stageco has been supplying its Super Roof for the outdoor events on George Michael’s Symphonica tour throughout Europe; including the singer’s first ever gig in Croatia to 12,000 fans.
The future for De Decker is a constant adventure into new challenges, bespoke stages and jaw-dropping construction. For Stageco as a whole, it’s just as the company ethos states: If you can imagine it, we can build it.