On Saturday 1 May, I dusted off the cobwebs from my dictaphone to make the short trip across the River Mersey to Liverpool’s Bramley-Moore Dock warehouse to meet some of the production team behind the first nightclub event to take place in the UK in over a year. Providing over 400 people work after months of sector-specific employment exile, The First Dance saw 6,000 clubbers descend upon the CIRCUS warehouse across two nights, with no social distancing or face coverings, following proof of a negative PCR test.
As part of the UK government’s Events Research Programme (ERP), the two-day event – featuring DJ sets from Sven Väth, The Blessed Madonna, Jayda G, Yousef, Lauren Lo Sung, Lewis Boardman, Fatboy Slim, Yousef, Hot Since 82, Enzo Siragusa, Heidi, Jaguar and James Organ – was organised to provide key scientific data into how events for a range of audiences could be permitted to safely reopen as part of the ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown.
Following the confirmation of test events, The Events Company UK was contracted by promoters, CIRCUS as well as Liverpool Council, Culture Liverpool and The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to take care of proceedings on the Bramley-Moore Dock site – from licencing, to event and site management and technical production.
“We’ve had three and a half weeks to pull all the pieces together,” The Events Company UK Director, Sam Newson recalled, citing the unique nature of the event. “There are a lot of moving elements. Nobody has done an event like this in these circumstances before.”
Without a blueprint to follow, Newson and his crack team – Event Manager, Richard Newson; Site Manager, Mick Pearce; Technical Manager, Mark Gill; Project Coordinator, Ria Sioux Byers; Events Assistants, Chloe Munt and Caitlin Johnson and Stage Manager, Jason Quinn – used their operational experience to make the event a reality. “I like to operate my business like a family,” Newson said, explaining his choice of personnel. “My father works for the company, my mother is on site, and all the crew around us are like family, so it’s been nice to have the family back together.”
Newson’s suppliers of choice comprised Acorn Event Structures, Adlib for audio, KB Event for trucking, DPL Production Lighting, AC Lasers, Event Production Group for video, Studiocare for backline, BPM SFX, DNG for local crew, Evolution Staging, Cube Modular, Pyramid Power, The Needs Group for on-site internet, and Symphotech for health and safety and noise monitoring.
“We brought in everyone who has worked with and supported us in the past, so we can support them now,” Newson said, explaining his long standing relationships with the suppliers involved. “Everyone has been champing at the bit and wanting to get involved, which is great to see.”
KB Event Managing Director, Stuart McPherson commented: “KB was delighted to provide the production trucking for The First Dance. To us, this event heralds the very welcome first steps towards getting back to what we do and love.”
Event Production Group provided 28 sq m of 4mm LED video panels with control handled by Video Operator, Rob Benson via Resolume Arena 7 media servers. “We were proud to be part of such an historic weekend,” Event Productions Group Owner, Michael Pearce said. “The feedback has been amazing and we can’t wait for the next one!”
During show days, Project Coordinator, Ria Sioux Byers ran the office and handled the management of radios and finance. On no-show days, she looked after crew welfare and the requirements of staff on site. “I was ecstatic to get the call to be involved in this gig,” Byers said. “I saw a few teary eyes from both sides of the fence after the first day; however, partying is a perfect way to blow off the cobwebs of lockdown.”
Byers hopes the ERP test events will demonstrate the viability of the live events sector. “We are viable, and the reality is that it takes a lot of people to put on an event like this. I hope that this event gives us the push required to get back to work,” she added. “If we could get back to some degree of ‘normality’ it would be a huge boost to the mental health of people who work in the live events sector.”
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‘A BENCHMARK FOR LIVE EVENTS MOVING FORWARD’
In order for the pilot to work, scientists are examining if and how crowds mixing and dancing indoors increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19. As part of the research element of the programme, those attending were urged to take a PCR test on the day of the event and five days afterwards to ensure any transmission of the virus was properly monitored – a non-mandatory but important part of the data requested by the scientists.
“We are fortunate to have a very good working relationship with Symphotech, who we enlisted for health and safety and noise management,” Newson said. “Between us, we worked through the legislation to see what we could do in addition to daily calls with Public Health England, The DCMS, partners in Liverpool Council and promoters involved in the project, to figure out how to do it.”
By purchasing a ticket, the clubbers agreed to play their part in the scientific experiment. However, for the staff, it is a much different story. “The staff haven’t signed up to be part of an experiment, so we have a duty of care to every single member of staff on site,” Newson stated.
To protect staff, each crewmember submitted a lateral flow test (LFT) electronically 24 hours before arrival on site, while backstage, adequate social distancing, PPE and hand sanitiser is mandatory. Perspex screens were also added to the bar areas and staff were spread out, operating in bubbles, with back-up crew on call in case a bubble was to collapse.
From a production point of view, different crew members loaded in to those who worked the show and those who loaded the kit out. “In some ways, it’s great because we’re employing more staff than ever, but from a cost point of view, it eats away at the budget,” Newson said, pointing out 17 individual cabins across the site serving various purposes – from box office and accreditation to dressing rooms and a designated press tent – as an added expense brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The information we receive changes daily, so we’re adapting constantly,” Newson reported. “We’ve offered over 500 members of staff work on this two-day event. Our bar staff rotate each day to ensure the safety of the crew and performers. The same goes for the local crew. I have more staff on this show than usual but we want to create a safe environment and give as much work as possible.”
As Senior Safety Advisors, Symphotech’s Eddy Grant and Will Hodgson worked closely with the stakeholders, the local authorities, and CIRCUS to produce the event, which marked the firm’s first show with an audience in months. “We use an electronic sign-off system for our events, so once I got my head around using it after so long away, to sign off the Acorn structure as complete and ready to use was an absolute buzz,” Grant enthused. “We’re delighted to be back and thanking everyone for working so hard during the fallow period of live events without audiences.”
One thing that pleased Grant was the speed of the safety process in Liverpool with the additional Public Health England overlay. “We signed off our paperwork a week early and Public Health England referred to our efforts as ‘the benchmark for live events’ moving forwards. We achieved this by building on the lessons we’ve learned during our involvement in filming and broadcast projects over the past year; now it’s about taking those relationships beyond the Zoom calls and implementing them in a real-world environment.”
Grant believes the flexibility of the events industry allows Symphotech to curate a safe environment for live music fans and build a system which accommodates scientific exploration. “We’re working with The Association of Festival Organisers to take what we’ve learned here and produce some webinars to get the industry to anticipate the processes and procedures, such as LFT testing at home, before attending work,” he shared. “Our takeaway message for future productions is to prepare and plan to open, which involves engaging with the relevant regulatory bodies.”
Hodgson shared some sage advice for live event organisers: “COVID-19 is a trip hazard. Look into the 4D planning of events, because the last thing we want to do is go backwards. It’s about making events work by working with local authorities and real people, as opposed to tech, bricks and mortar. If it wasn’t for the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF), we probably wouldn’t be here, and it means we’re able to come out of this stronger, leaner and having learned a lot.”
Grant added: “Our job as safety advisors is to manage expectations, whereas those that have the creative design and ability to curate experiences are fantastic. Seeing the DJs buzzing is not something we’d usually take in, but to see the joy of being back and knowing that our industry has worked with the scientists to make this possible and collate the information to bring the industry back with a focus on employer duty is extremely rewarding.”
Simon Barrington handled the drawing of site plans at Bramley-Moore Dock. “I did a survey a while ago, but Sam led on this project. He’s taken on so much and led from the front, supported by Eddy and the rest of the team, and delivered exceptional results,” Barrington enthused. “Although the scientific bit of it is out of our remit, we’ve added extra infrastructure to guarantee the safety of the crew and performing artists backstage.”
Barrington recalled the ‘surreal’ experience of arriving on site. “It’s so nice to be back with an audience and working with old friends. We’ve not seen an audience in months, so it’s emotional for people on both sides of the curtain. The one thing we have enforced is how good we are at adapting and changing workflows over the past year, but events like this will go a long way in bringing the sector back to its full capacity.”
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‘THE NOVELTY HASN’T WORN OFF’
“The past 14 months have been very difficult, not only for me but for all the amazing technicians and artists that I’ve worked with over the years,” Lighting Designer, Warren Hutchison said. “I have been working with Sam Newson and CIRCUS for a few years now as their lighting designer and operator, so I was happy to be involved in The First Dance.”
The lighting rig comprised 22 Claypaky Mythos 2s, 18 K15s, and six Scenius Spots; 24 Robe Pointes and 24 Beam 100s; 24 Ayrton Magic Blades; eight SGM P5s and eight P10s, with a Martin JEM ZR smoke machine providing atmosphere.
Hutchison pre-programmed a show file which he uses to live busk shows on his ‘go to’ MA Lighting grandMA2 lighting console. “I typically request a grandMA2 so I can ensure my workflow stays the same and my on-site programming time is kept to a minimum,” Hutchison said.
“I was lucky enough to be able to come up with my own brief. I worked closely with Sam and the supplier to ensure a different look for each show, merging lighting and video to create a cohesive look. Sometimes the artist has specific needs and, of course, we can accommodate those into any design.”
Sam Whitby, Sandra Glowacka and Luke Welch were tasked with putting the kit in the air and making Hutchison’s early sketches a reality. “We each got the call earlier this year. It was quite exciting, so we jumped at the chance to get involved,” Whitby said, enthusiastically. “We’re all regulars in the venue, so it was nice to have the team back together on site and working towards a common goal.”
‘Itching to get back’, the team said even the minutiae of on-site work was exciting. “Sometimes it can be hard work, but now it feels so joyous. Everybody is happy and smiling; it’s a good environment and crew to be around,” Whitby said, walking TPi through his day-to-day on site. “The novelty hasn’t worn off. We want more now, and the fact we’re taking it out tomorrow and we aren’t sure where our next gig will be is bittersweet.”
Glowacka joined the conversation: “The time away has made us evaluate and appreciate what we do for a living and our day-to-day really is special, unique and we generally love it. We have missed two festival seasons with COVID-19, and that’s how a lot of the industry and suppliers earn, so to be back on site and involved in a ‘proper’ gig has been fantastic.”
Despite their lengthy on-site exile, the technicians said there was never a day where they questioned whether to return to the industry or not. “The best bit is seeing all your friends and colleagues who you typically bump into over the course of a year during a tour or on a festival site – which we haven’t been able to for the best part of a year,” Welch said.
Lighting Programmer Operator, Tim Fawkes was drafted in to run the lighting on site. “It was a real privilege to be able to work on this one not just because it’s the first real live event that’s happened in a year, but because the future of an industry depends on these events,” Fawkes said. “It felt like we were representing everybody who has been out of work in our industry in the past year and showing to the country the importance of these events in bringing smiles back to people’s faces.”
Summing up his experience, Hutchison said: “It was a great feeling to design a show for people to enjoy in person. There is nothing better than seeing a design go from paper to reality, so in one way it was ‘back to business’ but also a massive sense of pride knowing that after 14 months, stuff is opening again.”
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‘IT’S LIKE RIDING A BIKE’
AC Lasers installed a rig with three different types of fixtures, namely 32 single blue beams, 12 ACMFLs – a low-powered projector effect with a diffraction element to safely scan the audience with softer effects – and TARM 11 medium-range projectors. “It’s quite a range of kit,” reported AC Lasers’ Daniel Briggs – one half of a two-man crew tasked with operation and installation of the system, along with Andy Thompson, who helped load in and out the kit. “The load-ins were tougher than I remember, but I’m sure that’s echoed by everyone else. After a while, it’s like riding a bike.”
Most of the laser effects were controlled by Briggs, however, Fawkes also had the effects patched into his MA Lighting grandMA2. “Artists have been receptive to the effects, so it’s been nice to have creative freedom,” Briggs said. “Laser effects, specifically, always garner a good crowd reaction.”
‘Brilliant’ was the first word Briggs used to sum up the experience. “There was also a millisecond of awesome shock,” he furthered. “We used to take audiences for granted but we’ve missed that for a year, so for it to come back in full force was a brilliant moment.” Briggs believes that the pilot is critical to showcasing what each department does well on an event at short notice. “There’s been an unsaid recognition on this show of how important the collaboration of each department is at affecting the course and delivery of a show, and I hope this event is an example of that.”
Joining Briggs at FOH was BPM SFX Technician, Jack Webber. “There is nothing like pressing that big red button,” he said. “My entire day leads up to that one moment. The trigger of the confetti yesterday was the culmination of the party and it was well received with a big cheer from the audience, which is something we’ve missed.”
Over the course of two days, Webber oversaw the operation of four confetti stadium shot cannons, one hit of confetti on night one and three on the final day. Describing his return to work as “slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers”, Webber said being back on site, with an audience in tow, felt “natural”, despite the months spent in lockdown.
“Sam and The Events Company UK have done a brilliant job in organising it so the crew feel safe on site,” he concluded. “Being involved in a gig this monumental is a special feeling. Hopefully this can be used as a case study which not only allows gigs with audiences to resume but shows that home testing of crew and audiences can work.”
‘DUSTING OFF THE EARDRUMS’
“It was surreal to see people enter the venue without distancing themselves or wearing masks. After half an hour or so, the novelty wears off and it’s almost as if you’re transported to a time before COVID-19,” System Technician, James Coghlan said. “When Jack’s pyro shot went off at the end of Yousef’s set, it was like a jolt to let us know that things are gradually getting back to normal.”
The sound system was professionally configured and time aligned for the best even sound coverage throughout the venue. The main PA hangs featured 24 L-Acoustics K2s. The main subs were 20 KS28s ground stacked in a broadside array. While six KARAs were chosen as front lip fills with eight KARAs chosen as delay hangs. Monitors featured six KARAs (three per side L/R) and four SB18s (one per side L/R), while mics came in the shape of two Shure SM58s. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to turn up a big PA system really loud and dust off my eardrums; it’s not quite the same as my studio monitors at home!” Coghlan laughed. “Listening to a PA system is not just a hearing but also a sensory experience.”
FOH and monitor sound was controlled by a DiGiCo SD9 mixing console and driven by Lake Processors LM44s, while amplification and processing was achieved by L-Acoustics LA12X. “It’s a pleasure to be involved in an event with an audience,” Coghlan said, reflecting on the momentous occasion. “I’m now counting down the days to being knee deep in mud, pulling the multicores through the trenches, which isn’t something I’d usually relish, but I’ll get my wellies on and get involved if it means we’re all getting back to work.”
‘A BLUEPRINT FOR THE FUTURE’
The ERP trial events did not cause any detectable spread of the virus, according to Liverpool Public Health Director, Matt Ashton. However, the one thing that is clear is that operating at 50%, with 3,000 clubbers in a 6,000-capacity venue, results in a 40% rise in costs.
“These shows do not stack up financially. However, we have not done it for financial gain; we’ve done it to do whatever we can to get the industry back up and running,” Newson reported. “While from a financial point of view there are aspects of this show that don’t work right now, we’ve been able to give freelancers as much work as possible.”
Newson shared the news that TEC UK was awarded a grant by the CRF earlier this year. “We were very fortunate to be awarded a generous Arts Council grant, and even before we got this gig, we wanted to give the money to the freelancers and staff that haven’t worked for the best part of a year-and-a-half,” Newson explained. “We’ve put our freelancers back on retainer for our general operations. The CRF Fund has provided us with a buffer and the ability to bring in extra people to work and collaborate.”
Recalling the tearful moments after the first show, Newson believes that this experience will live with him forever. “We are an industry that doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. In the events industry, you will find the most creative, hardworking, and special people you’ll ever meet. To see COVID-19 destroy our industry without an option to fight back and reopen like other sectors has been horrendous. With what we have done here – the policies we’ve put in place, dealing closely with the powers that be – I hope that we not only achieve history as the first, but we can help develop a blueprint to bring back live events in a safe and efficient manner.”
This article originally appeared in issue #262 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Jody Hartley, Sam Neill, Graham Brown & TPi