The first Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conference, in 2002, was really a bit of an unknown quantity. After taking soundings around the industry, it became clear that many people agreed with Richard Brett that too many mistakes were being made in the designing and equipping of performance spaces, but were not sure that those involved would want to get together to talk about what was good and what was bad. Talking publicly about mistakes on expensive building projects was not going to be easy.
The people who really did give early support were those firms involved in supplying equipment. Many of them felt that there was a need for the people planning and specifying such projects to get together and discuss some of the basics.
This view was supported by many theatre consultants who felt that their professional contribution to the creation of performance venues was often not appreciated, and that much could be done through organisations such as the ABTT's Theatre Planning Committee to broaden the appreciation of the reasons for many theatre design principles.
It was clearly going to be important to create a format for the event which would attract as many of the disciplines involved in theatre design and construction as possible: architects, consultants and engineers, but also acousticians, technicians, owners and constructors. The topics for discussion had to be devised to interest each of these groups while also being broad enough to allow the essential cross-fertilisation.
The Conference would only be successful if a wide range of people attended and those of different backgrounds learned something of the others' problems. This led to a programme with three breakout sessions running simultaneously, allowing every delegate a choice of subject and the chance to attend those outside his or her normal remit.
Catherine Cooper of Catherine Cooper Events was retained to undertake the background organisation of the whole event. This included finding the venue, administration of the delegates and speakers, marketing and PR, and running the event with Richard Brett. The search for a venue which could provide three suitable conference rooms as well as accommodate and feed the anticipated 250 delegates and speakers led to the Strand Palace Hotel, right in the West End.
The need to be near Theatreland had been high on the priority list and the Strand Palace provided an excellent starting point. In order to try and ensure that people involved in planning and designing theatres got acceptable sightlines, the rear seating in the largest of the three flat-floored seminar rooms was raised on Steeldeck rostra, a complimentary service which Steeldeck repeated in 2006. To accommodate all the delegates for the opening plenary session (see main picture above), this was held in the main Lecture Theatre of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, a few hundred yards from the hotel. An additional feature of this Conference was a meeting of the Technical Committee of OISTAT held on the preceding Saturday.
Financial support was forthcoming from the equipment supply industry and from architects and consultants. This was led by Waagner-Biro, a major supplier of stage engineering equipment world-wide, as Platinum Sponsor, and by Stage Technologies and Unusual Rigging as Gold Sponsors: all three companies have continued their support to all three London Conferences. A number of other engineering firms, control system developers and curtain suppliers became Silver Sponsors, while a variety of other partnerships and companies participated at Bronze level. A small amount of money was provided by the government through Trade Partners UK and physical help came from ETC Lighting and White Light.
Booking for the event was quiet after an initial influx, leading to concern that numbers might have been over-estimated, but a limited amount of advertising and press interest was initiated with the result that â€˜house-full' signs had to be posted. Many international delegates who only learned about the event late on were disappointed.
After discussions with the hotel, the maximum number was increased to 300, but with one-day speakers and chairpersons the Conference throughput exceed this by a dozen or so.
The Conference coincided with a heat wave, requiring additional fans in some of the rooms, but making the main social and networking event, an evening trip down the River Thames a particularly pleasant and memorable experience. A boat trip has become a feature of the TEA conferences, being repeated in New York in 2008.
Many UK venues were suggested for visits after the Conference. The trips to those venues selected were very popular, again enabling people to see how others design, equip and operate other theatres and also to get to know other delegates.
The programme shows the range of topics covered and the speakers, who either volunteered or were sought out to bring their expertise and experience to a wider audience.
The keynote speaker was Don MacLean, Senior Supervisor of Theatre Projects for Cirque du Soleil at the time. Don gave a thorough review of aspects of theatre planning, construction and equipment based on his extensive experience and set the scene for the following thirty sessions.
The three strands were defined loosely as Engineering and Technology, Architecture and Planning and a miscellaneous theme which ended up covering Operations, Safety, Cost and Risk. The coverage of the subjects is best described in the books of the papers, published after the event, but the main focus was on the design of the auditorium, exploring its form, the increasing interest in found spaces rather than conventional theatres and the effect superstar architects can have on a project.
Theatre consultant Richard Pilbrow gave an in-depth description of the development of the auditorium, accompanied by two theatre architects, Barton Myers from the US and Tim Foster from the UK. Richard also called in scene designer Bill Dudley and theatre critic Michael Billington for their views. Other topics included audience safety and the role of the theatre consultant, while the legal aspects of risk management and the practical working of project management were described. In the session on making the performing arts accessible to everyone, the paper by a one-armed counterweight flyman created particular interest.
Many different approaches to the design of future venues were explored and the eternal problem of the underfunding of arts projects examined by experienced cost consultants. Stewart Donnell pointed out that, in the States, commissioning a â€˜starchitect' on a theatre project could well create the â€˜postcard' or â€˜wow' factor but could increase costs by 11%! The engineering aspects of theatre spaces was covered by papers on the strain on the body when using counterweights, through to modern stage control systems and their safety. Methods and equipment used to raise and lower elevator platforms, move stage wagons and fly scenery and lighting were fully described, as were the techniques used to change auditoria forms and recommendations on electrical power system design.
Speakers came from throughout the industry and from many countries allowing interesting comparisons in approaches and the broadening many peoplesâ€™ understanding of how issues are handled elsewhere. There is little doubt that most delegates learned a considerable amount and made new contacts during the three days. Without exception the sessions were well-attended and, on occasions, those that were in the smallest seminar room were found to be particularly popular, necessitating standing. But the reaction from everyone from the start indicated that the industry needed this sort of professional event â€“ one at which different views can be expressed and discussed in a relaxed but lively atmosphere. The Theatre Engineering and Architecture Conferences had begun.