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Stage Technologies Automates Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Stage Technologies has supplied a massive 75‐axis automation system for the world premier West End smash Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Stage Technologies supplied the full automation package, consisting of counterweight assist winches, floor tracks, trucks, sliders and supplementary motors, while sister company Delstar Engineering supplied the stage engineering and hydraulics. Production manager Patrick Molony said “Working with the team from Stage Technologies on Charlie has been an absolute pleasure. The installation of the show into Drury Lane has been incredibly smooth. For a production with this level of automation there have been very few problems. When problems have occurred, which they inevitably will on something of this scale, Stage Technologies have pulled out all the stops, and have ensured that all necessary resources were found and people made available day and night to solve issues as quickly as possible.”

The technical expectations of Charlie were huge, both because of the challenges of installing the complex show in a 200‐year‐old venue and by the precision required by the creative team’s vision. While the main system of counterweights, floor tracks and sliders were reasonably conventional and did not pose particular challenges, the bespoke elements of the show required extra focus.

One of the show’s key elements, the Glass Elevator ridden by Willy Wonka and Charlie, required a specially‐commissioned robot arm to lift the elevator safely and seamlessly from below stage and fly it over the orchestra pit, while simultaneously compensating for any tilting or rotation. The arm and its lifting tower were required to meet not only the challenges posed by the building but also they were also responsible for storing the elevator under the stage when not in use. Essentially a live prototype, the Glass Elevator had to be refined throughout the technical period. This was because the hydraulic pumps and control had been installed in the theatre’s basement prior to the stage floor being built and prior to the delivery of the arm and elevator. Patrick Molony said “The work on our Glass Elevator, which was done between Stage Technologies and Delstar Engineering, has brought us amazing results in incredibly difficult circumstances. This proved to be a more difficult project than any of us has really understood at beginning and after many hours of work they produced results that finish the show brilliantly and get cheers every night.”

The automation system also included two Explorer trucks, which are controlled from the Acrobat desk, but utilise a laser guidance system for positioning. The trucks are used extensively throughout Act I to create different shapes upstage, downstage and across stage. The challenge in this instance was that the system had to triangulate its position whilst traveling on a raked stage (to our knowledge the first time this has been achieved) and position accurately whilst other scenic elements moved around them.

Patrick Molony said “We were using some state of the art automation equipment in our Shack trucks, which had to be made to work in conditions which had never been encountered before. Given the raked stage, totally uneven centres of gravity of the trucks and mass of other scenery determined to obscure all lines of sight for the guidance system, this was a very difficult task for us to chuck at Stage Technologies.

After many hours of work and some impressive programming we have a system which has become very reliable.”

Despite Charlie’s challenges, director of rental services Ted Moore said: “Stage Technologies is very excited to be a part of this show. This is the biggest production that I’ve been personally involved with at Theatre Royal Drury Lane since loading in Miss Saigon there in 1988. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a big, complex show, which is just the type of project that Stage Technologies enjoys taking on.”

12th July 2013

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