Total Production

A-live In Scarborough

September 2010 Issue 133

The decaying remains of Europe’s largest open air theatre have been brought back to life with a £3.5M council-funded restoration, including a unique roof by Total Fabrications. TPi reports on the re-launch of Scarborough’s forgotten treasure...

Scarborough in North Yorkshire, UK, may not seem like a likely location for an epiphany of performance culture, but the recent £3.5 million restoration of what were the decaying remains of Europe’s largest open air theatre has seen an important building brought back to life, and put the town on the map for live events.

    The fundamental composition of an outdoor roof and staging system from Total Fabrications Ltd, sound and lighting from London rental house Subfrantic, and video screens supplied by ADi could be passed off as any festival set up, but the Scarborough Open Air Theatre (SOAT) is a council-funded operation with a completely different rationale and business model, and will be all the more sustainable for that.

    Originally opened in 1932, when English seaside resorts were at their peak, thousands of people came to witness theatrical productions and lavish musicals in a venue where the audience was memorably on the shore of a lake and the stage on an island in the middle of it.

    But by the 1970s, the theatre was in decline, and having lay forgotten for over 20 years, the SOAT has been reincarnated for a 21st century audience.

    The restoration is the brainchild of Paul Gregg, the founder and chairman of Apollo Resorts & Leisure Ltd, who saw huge potential in the abandoned building.

    “The idea started three years ago,” explained Stuart Tucker, who is managing the SOAT’s first season. “Paul Gregg brought me up here for a recce. He’d presented the last show at the old Open Air Theatre in ’86. What we saw was very disheartening, but what we have now really puts Scarborough on the map.”

Examine a few events booked for this summer and Gregg’s concept becomes clear. Kiri Te Kanawa rubs shoulders with CBeebies, Doves, and a Tony Denton ’80s package of celebrity pop acts. The line-up is as eclectic as it is international, boosting Scarborough’s cultural credentials and attracting new visitors.

    HRH Queen Elizabeth II opened the SOAT in May, the first event being a gala concert featuring opera legends José Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

    The stage is currently licensed for 12 major weekend music shows a season, although lower-key events such as comedy nights are pulling in mid-week audiences of over 3,000.

    Tony Panico, tour manager for the Denton ’80s package, said of the venue: “It’s fabulous and has everything we need. There are a few teething problems as you expect with any new venue — the artist car park is an eight minute walk away so they are ferried in on golf carts.

    “Trucks get within 200m of the stage, a long-ish push, but it’s flat and easy, and at most you might bring in a bit of set and all your backline. But the stage is great, ideal for this kind of show and better than many we play.”

The old theatre, a large reinforced concrete construction, had to be demolished, the tiered seating needed total rebuild, and the stage sits on a man-made island, therefore space is very limited.

    Paul Gregg built the business case for a ‘variety’ attraction, while Tucker, through his company Tieline Productions, put together the technical considerations.

    Said Tucker: “It’s a turn up and play venue. We provide light, sound and video according to the SOAT’s economics. It has to be top line equipment to make it appealing for the artists who come. We looked at various roof and staging systems before selecting Total Fabrications [TFL] and our experience with them has been second to none.”

    Ian Hall from TFL was on site, he said: “It’s a TFL Extra Heavy Duty roof, which is 18m wide, 12m deep and 12m tall. Five metre side bays are there for monitor desks and rolling risers, etc, and 12m x 6m flank the stage for video screens.”

    The 17m tall PA towers stand at the end of the video wings and sit on the lip of the moat which surrounds the stage, their height and position determined by very practical considerations.

    “We had to ensure the PA wasn’t firing on to the roof fabric; the height was needed for the steep-banked seating built on the opposite shore,” said Hall. “The top hats on the tower tops is a new design. They protect the chain hoists and the speakers.”

    Over 6,500 people are rewarded with spectacular views of the stage; every seat at SOAT looks directly on to stage, amphitheatre-style.

    TFL also added custom lightning conductor spikes on the roof and towers. The company has implemented a full load monitoring system on the sleeve blocks of all six roof towers, and the outer PA towers, and supplies the hoist roof control system. It is TFL’s first roof to conform to the new EU wind speed regulations.

    The company turned to Harry Box at UK Rigging to lead the build of the structure and manage the set-up and breakdown at the start and end of the season.

    “With the tendering process we were very reassured by TFL’s submitted paperwork,” continued Tucker. “Everything was in place and well presented. That’s a critical factor when you’re making a presentation to a council that has never engaged with something like this before. And, to be frank, no one else came anywhere near.”

Subfrantic Production Services advised on the production designs throughout the three-year build-up, from providing sound propagation tests for the council to installing the revived venue’s entire audio and lighting infrastructure.
    GM Stephen Davies and operations manager Sean Murphy managed the project, assisted by their team Rob Davies, Graham Roberts, Guy Gerard, Anton Dunbar and Matt Williams, with help and support from Turbosound and Yamaha.

    The unique location of the SOAT threw up a catalogue of challenges for Subfrantic which had to be overcome with a considered choice of system, sophisticated logistical planning and constant communication with the council. The main problem was noise spilling out into the surrounding areas.

    Explained Davies: “Being in the open air and so close to the sea means the venue is highly susceptible to sudden and strong changes in wind direction. The other problem acoustically was to do with controlling crowd noise, as the lack of roof means that a raucous crowd will spill more easily into the sensitive metering points, which can be a little trickier to deal with.

    “This is partly why we chose the Turbosound Aspect system. The need to control dispersion accurately combined with the flying space available either side of the stage really made it the only sensible option.

    “We modelled the site in EASE using a few different types of system and it was Aspect that gave us the best and most accurate coverage time after time, with the real life coverage and SPLs being almost exactly what we predicted.”

    The main PA is a five-way active Turbosound Aspect rig. Twenty-four 890H speakers are flown 17m in the air, with 12 890Ls and eight TSW218s stacked on the deck. All the processing is handled by eight Turbosound LMS-D26 controllers, linked via BVNet to give complete control over every column in the hang from a laptop at the FOH mix position.

    The sound on stage is controlled using Turbosound LMS-D24s. These are linked into a separate network addressed by a laptop in monitor world.

    A new addition for Subfrantic specifically for the theatre are Yamaha M7CL 48ES consoles for the FOH position. “We’d been using the standard M7CL-48 for some time, but it was Sean Murphy (who also handled monitor duties at the opening event) who convinced me to invest in the new ES version,” said Davies. “I was a bit sceptical at first, but I’m very glad he did, for a number of reasons.”

    One of those reasons was the theatre’s lake which lies between the stage and the audience, beneath which has been installed a network of pipes for multicores and other infrastructure cabling to be run through.

    “We were going to get a copper multicore made especially for the venue, but the EtherSound Cat5 link made a lot of sense financially. We intend to leave the infrastructure in place, so I’d rather leave 100m of Cat5 cable than £6,000 of copper,” said Davies.

    He said of the M7CL48-ES’s audio quality: “It’s a significant step up. It has brought it a lot closer to the PM5D, but you still have the M7CL’s user interface, which I really like. And it’s a really flexible console.”

With the lake as a beautiful backdrop, the night sky and stage comes alive with a lighting design by Subfrantic and a video display by ADi.

    One square truss grid floats above stage, consisting of front, mid and back truss linked with three trusses running up stage to down stage (left, centre and right).

    The front truss is rigged with nine 1kW profiles, eight Martin MAC 600 Washes and four 4-lite Molefays; the mid truss has two bars of six 1kW CP62 PAR lamps and four MAC 575 Krypton Spots; the rear truss is fixed with four bars of six CP62 PARs, four Robe 575 AT Spots, four MAC 600 Wash lights, two Atomic Strobes and three 1kW profiles; whilst the perpendicular right-hand truss holds one bar of six CP62 PARs and two Robe 575AT Spots; and the perpendicular left-hand truss features one bar of six CP62 PARs and two Robe 575 AT Spots.

    An Avolites Pearl Expert with Titan Software version 3.1 is fully programmed for immediate operation. (Subfrantic provides experienced lighting operators for events.)

    There are also two 4kW Robert Juliat Lancelot followspots with a communication system linking the positions to lighting desk and stage.

    ADi provided two 13m2 flown LED screens constructed from ADi’s V10 panels, the company’s prorietary technology. Led by Matthew Curran, the installation also included a small video production unit.

    Said ADi’s Harjeet Virdee: “We were able to be very flexible and take the equipment in and out as and when required because we have so much of the V10 in stock. We provide three cameramen, a racks engineer and a director for the events that make use of the screens.”

    Reaction handles the fireworks contract: “If I find a good company I stick with them; Reaction seem to be giving us a little more for our money each time,” said Tucker.

    Event Cover provides security and is training local people to look after the venue for next season. Three main dressing rooms on the island can accommodate 14 artists comfortably, and there is also a green room for orchestra. Further facilities are available in the artist car park area.

“Scarborough Council are entirely familiar with a business model based on the summer season,” said Tucker. “They see this as a long-term investment and are realistic about the return on investment.”

    The artists also have faith in the venue as a long-term project: “Dame Kiri liked it so much that she’s asked if she can come back, and Opera North are looking to put on four events next season.”

    The gala opening performance, held on July 23, saw José Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing both alone and together, accompanied by the Orchestra of Opera North and Huddersfield Choral Society, with the whole production tied together by compére Brian Blessed.

    After a wide range of music had been performed to an appreciative crowd, a rousing rendition of ‘Scarborough Fair’, followed by the ‘1812 Overture’ with accompanying fireworks brought Scarborough Open Air Theatre’s spectacular re-opening concert to a close..


Scarborough Open Air Theatre
  • Part of the five-way active Turbosound Aspect PA rig
  • Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on stage and on screen at the July gala launch.
  • A firework crescendo hails the start of a new chapter for the theatre.
Related Articles