Having curated a COVID-19 secure production for 35 breakthrough acts to showcase their talent with UK-only production and equipment at Production Park as part of SXSW Online 2021 [see #TPi 260], the latest edition of SXSW saw a return to in-person audiences and increased production values with over 70 sets by some of Britain’s most exciting acts taking to the BME stage over eight days at the new backdrop of 700-capacity venue, Cedar Street Courtyard in Austin, Texas.
Effectively the first ‘British invasion’ of SXSW since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, TPi sat down with Production Manager, Ant Forbes, Stage Manager, Sam Wilkinson and Lighting Designer, Bradley Nicholson – screen-to-screen – to retrace the roots of the project.
“We were effectively working from a blueprint which was conceived in 2019,” Production Manager, Ant Forbes began. “After the 2019 event in Austin, we made the collective decision to upgrade the venue and upscale purely because of capacity issues.”
After a scouting mission in Austin, Texas, SXSW organisers and stakeholders decided on Cedar Street Courtyard. Further steps were taken by Production Park to upgrade and improve the venue to bring it up to a standard worthy of showcasing the next wave of up and coming British talent both on-stage and behind the scenes, with an all-new Martin by Harman lighting rig installed and operated by Backstage Academy Live Events Production student, Bradley Nicholson.
“This was a golden opportunity for us to bring along a Backstage Academy student like Bradley to throw into the deep end and put his academic and theoretical skills to the test and troubleshoot any challenges in a dynamic, fast paced working environment,” Forbes said. “Seeing him evolve during the week and overcome obstacles and dance away while busking away on the lighting for over 70 sets was a pleasure.”
The 4m by 4m deck deep stage featured a 2m drum riser. Two 3m sticks of truss were situated in each corner of the stage with a suspended beam of truss located at the back of the stage, above an in-house video wall.
Above the stage was a standard box truss with house lights. A range of Martin by Harman fixtures provided ‘eye candy’ looks and bathed the audience and stage in light, in addition to LED tape located on the walls of the venue.
“I first built the venue in Vectorworks and imported it into WYSIWYG, so I had a good idea of what it would look like, minus the house fixtures, instead, I chose similar lights to simulate the experience – this helped with the sizing of the venue and experiment,” Nicholson recalled.
Once on site, Nicholson busked all 70+ performances using an Avolites Tiger Touch II console, which he dubbed as a ‘perfect’ fit for the job. “I needed enough fader space to busk over 70 sets. Having read the tech specifications for each artist, the lighting design was left quite open for me to interpret, which was half of the fun. Trying to make each artist’s set interesting and fun was a challenge that I relished,” he said. “My favourite crew was Maisie Peters, who turned up with colour scheme notes for each song, which was nice to tap into between the experimentation of other sets.”
Creating eye candy effects, sweeping movements across the stage with tungsten flashes, and tapping into the colour temperature on Martin RUSH CTs as a substitute for blinder effects were handy tools in Nicholson’s arsenal.
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“It was cool to see how my lighting design affected the audience. It’s funny how a strobe can get an audience going, it was interesting to witness that in real-time. There also were times I missed the beat, having not heard many of the songs before, but I was able to dust myself off and go again.”
Stage Manager, Sam Wilkinson’s main role was getting bands on and off stage, running up and down several steps a minute, and being the ‘go-to’ liaison between the production team, SXSW and the entire backstage operation.
“Cedar Street provided an infinitely better experience – from the basic on and off stage workflow, right through to the VIP areas for bands to network off stage and not having to fight for toilet access,” he commented.
Most artists on the 70-strong line-up were originally scheduled to play the BME stage in 2020, however, with a pandemic and conflicting commitments playing havoc to scheduling, the latest iteration saw a bill of talent with two extra years of lead time to improve their stock.
Established acts such as Self Esteem, Working Mens Club, Nova Twins, Wet Leg and Yard Act, among many others, shared the stage with up and coming talent such as Sinead O’Brien, Los Bitchos, Poppy Ajudha, Penelope Iles, and WH Lung.
“The professionalism of the line-up this year with big name artists made it much easier for us to advance, as they’re a well-oiled machine who are used to playing bigger stages and have more experience and rock up with more flight cases than our entire production,” Forbes added. “Fundamentally, it was great to put on a production with no COVID-19 restrictions.”
Wilkinson highlighted that for many of the acts involved, BME provides their first foray into performing on US soil. “One of the great things about BME is holding artist’s hands through their first US show, and what will be the start of many more to come. You witness them develop from a shy group or individual to stage veteran over the course of a few sets,” he added. “We all mutually agreed among the crew and organisers that the calibre was so high this year that it is almost impossible to pick our favourite sets. We were dealing with much more accomplished artists than we have before.”
The British Music Embassy is supported by AIM, BBC Music Introducing, Belfast City Council, BPI, Department For International Trade, DIY, Kilimanjaro Live, MMF Accelerator, PPL, Production Park, PRS For Music, PRS Foundation and powered by Marshall, Allen & Heath, Ashdown Meters, Martin by Harman, Shure, Ivison Guitars, Lowden Guitars, Production Park and Renkus-Heinz. “I can’t thank our supporters enough for stepping up and helping out to make this the best year yet,” Forbes remarked.
“We’ve wanted to incorporate a student element in this production for a long time but the size of the past venue restricted adding another person into the mix. Now we’ve been afforded the opportunity to bring in a lighting designer from Backstage Academy, and it couldn’t have gone better,” he enthused, sharing his plans to replicate this experiment on an annual basis.
“We’ve spoken with the Backstage Academy team to ensure this production is far more student-led in the future. By its very nature, the BME stage showcases the next generation of young exciting British talent in the US, and that should go far beyond the stage, and the workforce should be reflective of in my opinion. Providing any student the opportunity to come and learn in such a dynamic environment where they can shadow professionals is crucial to their career progression,” he concluded. “Watch this space for next year!”
This article originally appeared in issue #269 of TPi, which you can read here.