Once again taking place in the dreamlike world of Portmeirion, Wales, Festival N°6 invited its contingent of loyal patrons to jump headfirst into the cultural wonderland. However, as is the nature of the Great British summer season, the festival was blighted by severe weather conditions. TPi’s Stew Hume spoke to the crewmembers who went toe-to-toe with Mother Nature.
If there is one thing that you can take from the UK festival season over the last few years it’s that the nation’s ticket buying public certainly loves a boutique event. Offering a more intimate experience than its larger brothers and sisters, the boutique event is fast becoming a firm favourite among those who no longer want to share a field with another 50,000+ patrons. But among this sub-genre, Festival N°6 is one of the most charming Britain has to offer. Set in the idyllic village of Portmeirion, which straddles the estuary of the River Dwyryd, the annual music, poetry and cultural gathering offers festivals-goers a chance to lose a sense of mundane reality and discover various untrodden paths. Whether you want to explore the main festival site, take a trip to the famous village green or even get lost in an enchanting wooded realm; there are not many places like N°6.
As it moves into its fifth year, it’s safe to say that the secret is out. The festival sold 15,000 tickets in no time at all. Sadly, after being spoilt by a run of good weather in the past few years, this year’s event was blighted by some serious precipitation on the second day of music. However, with a team of long serving suppliers and crewmembers, there could not have been a stronger group of men and women ready to tackle the elements. TPi sat down with Ground Control’s Managing Director Jon Drape to talk about how his experienced team ensured the show went on and the magic of this fantastical event was not lost…
I AM NOT A NUMBER… BUT I AM RATHER DAMP
Since the festival’s inaugural year in 2011, the event has attained a loyal group of devotees who gleefully return to the quirky world that is N°6 each year. There is always a risk that smaller, boutique-style events could lose their way, but N°6 has stuck steadfastly to its core mission: it never fails to give a punter a place where you can ‘lose yourself in your own fairytale’. Along with a stellar line up including headline sets from the likes of Bastille, Hot Chip and Noel Gallagher (with a surprise appearance from Paul Weller), 2016 saw the addition of several new elements. For the festival regulars, one of the most notable additions was the main stage IMAG screens, which catered for the swelling audience sizes. The annual cultural gathering also boasted several new interactive art pieces such as Captain Kronos: Return to Planet Earth, an art exhibition from Liverpool-based production company, The Kazimier. During the performance, the audience welcomed Captain Kronos, on his hedonistic mission, to spread peace and love throughout the galaxy…well, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.
With such an array of activities to keep visitors occupied it is no surprise that many of the punters make the trip to Portmeirion year on year. The same can be said when you head backstage; many suppliers and crewmembers pay the Welsh town a visit for the festival every year. With returning production company Ground Control at the helm, 2016 also saw the homecoming of audio and lighting suppliers Audile, alongside Adlib, dbn Lighting and Serious Stages. “We have an incredibly good relationship with our team of suppliers,” began Drape. “For instance, we have had Audile on board since the festival’s inception and for another year the company provided a fantastic service.” Even one of the newest suppliers to the festival, Transition Video, had personal ties with the event. The company’s Director, Rhodri Shaw, has been involved with N°6 under different guises for multiple years. It is clear, even to a N°6 first-timer like myself, that the crew have a tangible personal connection to the show. For many, it is the highlight of the summer and marks the end of the working season.
Drape talked about some of the new production initiatives put in place: “This year we set up an off-site point where artists came in and then we ferried them to and from the site. The site was located near Porthmadog, a short drive from the festival site, and it worked incredibly well. The onsite logistics are so tight at N°6 and we are not blessed with a great deal of room, so having all the VIPs off site meant we could run a tight ship and everything to schedule.” The initiative was so successful that Drape stated that it would most definitely be returning next year.
However, no matter how well you plan an event there is one element that you can never control; the weather. It is hard to talk about this year’s event without mentioning the extreme wind and rain that hit the site on Friday evening and Saturday. Not wanting to avoid the subject, TPi asked about the apocalyptic conditions.
With over 25 years of experience in the live events industry, Drape has been instrumental in the creation of some of the most talked-about festivals within the UK market. With so many years at the helm, he speaks with some authority when it comes to contingency plans for outdoor live events. “This year market the fifth year for N°6 and although we have been blessed over the last two years with some great weather, this was not the first time that the site had been hit by the tail end of a hurricane,” began Drape. “Both myself and the rest of the Ground Control team are all well versed in what can happen when extreme weather hits and the control measures that need to be in place.”
The forecast had predicted rain over the weekend, however, the severity with which it would hit was not known until the 11th hour. “With any event like this we obviously are continually checking local weather forecasts. At N°6 we also keep in touch with the Met office at RAF Valley.” Drape explained that, as with all events Ground Control heads up, he and his team prepares for the worst-case scenarios involving weather, with particular focus on the biggest threat – wind. “Rain is one thing but high winds really pose the biggest risk and danger. To put it simply we have three different levels at which we judge wind. The first (and lowest) means we begin a schedule of continually testing wind speeds. The second level is when we begin to consider evacuating a structure. The final, most severe level begins when we evacuate an area.”
Throughout the N°6 site there were a number of different structures, from the Main Stage to smaller scale venues such as the Lost in the Woods Stage, as well as various pop-up catering and hospitality areas. Each had different thresholds requiring round the clock monitoring, especially at the height of the storm. This meant short-term evacuation of some of stages until the weather subsided, as well as closing the main stage and dropping the PA for a period.
Drape went on to state that his team were able to act on the extreme conditions due to the in-built production infrastructure that Ground Control implement for all its live shows. “On all our projects we have six hourly event leadership meetings between myself, our Technical Production Manager, Ryan Esson, and all the heads of departments. The idea of these meetings is to update people on all sides of the festival. As well as discussing potential weather issues we discuss everything from crowd management to policing. During the Friday night meeting when we began to get word of the severity of inbound weather we set out all the contingency plans that were put into effect on Saturday.”
Drape was keen to give praise to all the suppliers and crewmembers that, despite challenging conditions, were able to keep the festival running: “The fact that we have such a good team of suppliers really helps when we are faced with conditions like this. Everyone is very familiar with the site and knows the limitations of what can and can’t be done. They are also really familiar with one another and that makes it easy when faced with such trying conditions.”
SOUND & LIGHTING
Rob Ashworth, Director of Audile, has been with N°6 since it’s inception and knows the site better than most. Along with the 31-strong team of Audile crewmembers, the company also supplied sound and lighting for the main stage in addition to the iStage, Clough, Estuary, Gatehouse, Lost in the Woods and Stone Boat venues. If that wasn’t enough, the company also supplied all the decorative site lighting working with creative designers Decordia, as well as sound and lighting for the Boutique Camping areas.
“This year saw quite a few changes across the site,” began Ashworth. “In the iStage we supplied a pair of concentric truss circles rigged over the dancefloor, supporting LED video tubes and decorative string curtains supplied by Decordia, which added greatly to the creative production. In Clough, the move from DJs to cabaret saw several changes, such as theatrical lighting design and a more discrete – but no less capable – sound system. Gatehouse received an upgrade also, with draping and additional lighting to create an enhanced stage set, and additional audio provision to accommodate more complex live acts.”
For the main stage, the lighting and audio specialists supplied a complete d&b audiotechnik system comprising of 16 J8’s, four J12’s and 12 J-SUBs all controlled by an Avid Profile. Monitor control came courtesy of a Yamaha PM5D-RH digital mixing console. For lighting, an Avolites Pearl Expert Titan was used to control a rig of 18 Clay Paky Mythos and 12 Sharpys along with 18 Robe Robin 600’s and 12 Robin 100’s. For effects, Audile deployed 11 Clay Paky Stormy CC strobes as well as six James Thomas Engineering 4-lite molefays and 18 2-lite molefays.
As with every festival, certain acts have specialist rider requirements. One of the most challenging at this year’s event came with Bowie Reimagined on the Sunday. Ashworth expanded: “Bringing together the 28-piece Manchester Camerata orchestra with a band and multiple vocalists, we were required to provide a complete control, microphones and monitoring package which could be deployed first for an off-site rehearsal on the Sunday morning, and then moved over to site to be deployed for the set itself.”
Ashworth and the Audile team are no strangers to extreme conditions and were more than prepared for everything the weather could throw at them. “Wind is always the major concern for us in terms of exposed equipment with significant surface area, and we have wind management plans that layout actions that must take place when wind speeds exceed defined thresholds,” stated Ashworth. “In this particular case, wind speeds overnight on the Friday and through Saturday were forecast to exceed the threshold for safely suspending large speaker arrays, so we lowered them at the close of Friday night and stayed grounded while we monitored onsite conditions, until the point where we could safely raise the hangs again.”
Rounding up his fifth year with the festival, Ashworth commented: “It certainly was a challenging year. It’s unfortunate the conditions overshadowed the event but I have no doubt that it’ll bounce back next year. It’s such a unique festival with a brilliantly eclectic line up in a magical location. Had the weather been kinder, I’m sure it would have been hailed by all as a triumph – the festival goes from strength to strength every year, and when all is said and done, I hope this year will be viewed as the blip that it was. I have great expectations for next year!”
As the festival continues to grow, the production team’s only option was to bring more hands on deck including Adlib and dbn Lighting. For its second year, Adlib was brought on board to supply PA, lighting and technicians for several stages including the Colonnade Stage, the Town hall, Tim Peaks as well as several of the hospitality areas including the VIP area, the Rum Bar and the dining area.
“We are really proud to be involved with N°6 for our second year running,” said Phil Kielty, Adlib’s Client Manager. “Everyone on our team loves working the festival because it’s different to the rest, especially with its unique setting.” Kielty went on to detail the ways in which the peculiar festival setting forces them to change some of its methods. “We are incredibly respectful of the village as well as its residents. This means having to plan transport a little differently to other festivals during the season. We have to load eight of the stages via lots of transit vans as opposed to our usual 45ft or 18ft trucks.”
Although it is part of the N°6 extended family, this year was the first time Rhodri Shaw’s Transition Video joined the line up of suppliers. Founded just last year, the company has already been involved in some big events including Bluedot and the TPi Awards. This year, IMAG screens were incorporated on the main stage. Transition deployed two 5.4m x 3.6m ROE MC-7H 7.5mm LED screens. “The screens really stood up to the weather conditions which is testament to the product,” stated Shaw. “We also supplied three Sony HXC-100 camera channels under the direction of industry veteran Richard Shipman.” The video specialist also supplied further support for headliners Bastille and Noel Gallagher who both brought additional cameras, which ran through Transition’s PPU system to the screens.
Along with main stage responsibilities, Transition also supplied 10 columns of the Vies 4mm LED screens on the iStage. “It was great working with such a creative team, with Nick Buckley from dbn Lighting driving the screen using a Resolute Arena. The show didn’t miss a beat all week,” stated Shaw. Transition also supplied a Panasonic PT-DZ12000E 12,000 ANSI video projector along with a 16ft x 9ft Fastfold screen for the Gatehouse stage.
“Working on a festival site such as Portmeirion certainly has its challenges,” stated Shaw giving his final thought on the event. “The single road access along with the severe weather conditions made loading in tricky. However working with Ground Control as well as Go To Live made the whole experience a lot more manageable, having worked on numerous events with the team this year alone. I think the crew did a great job at N°6 regardless of the weather and the show went on!”
For the third year running Serious Stages supplied services to N°6. Steve Corfield, Managing Director of the company discussed his thoughts on the event. “The poor weather at this year’s Festival N°6 did create some challenges during the build, however despite the rain our stage and ancillary structures were installed to the highest quality and offered increased weather protection for the artists and their equipment against the torrential showers.”
For the main stage, Serious Stages supplied a 16m Supernova Lite stage, complete with five 3.6m bays and a cantilever roof, which offered additional weather protection. Covered extensions were added stage left and right, to house monitors and technical equipment, as well as a rear access ramp which ran from the back of the stage to the loading dock. The speakers were hung from Serious Stages’ free standing Asteroid PA tower systems, which flanked the stage and offered 2,000kg of load capacity. A covered FOH tower was installed, decked on three levels to accommodate lighting and sound, along with a 7.2m x 4.8m assisted viewing platform to ensure optimum views for the whole audience.
Two 6m by 3.6m screen supports were also installed to hang festival branding, which required additional ballast and steel due to the uneven ground. For the indoor iStage, Serious Stages installed a 24m x 9.6m deck inside the tent, along with a 4.8m x 4.8m FOH tower, decked on two levels.
“This was the third year we’ve worked with Ground Control at Festival N°6,” stated Corfield. “It was once again a fantastic event to be part of. Being based in the UK, we’re used to the unpredictability of the British weather and despite the rain the festival offered an eclectic line-up in a beautiful location.”
BE SEEING YOU…
To say that this year’s event created a challenging environment for crewmembers would be an understatement. Now the dust has settled and the rain clouds have cleared, we get one last word from Drape regarding what to expect from next year’s event. “The festival has hit its limit. It really can’t get any bigger in terms of numbers. What we hope to do is maintain the quality and improve the customer experience and continue to attract the high calibre of artists that we have enjoyed over the past six years.” Drape even hinted that some of the highlights from previous years may yet return. After all, the sixth Festival N°6 is quite a milestone. “We have only just started the booking process so nothing is in place as of yet, but undoubtedly the booking team will want to be making a big statement for our sixth birthday!”
Photos courtesy of Carousel