Taking place at Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) on 6 March 2021 as a COVID-19 secure alternative to the event’s traditional Oxford Street party, organisers of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade embarked on an unprecedented live broadcast event, attended by 35,000 Australian partygoers – roughly 75% of the venue’s capacity – marking one of the largest stadium events the world has witnessed following the the COVID-19 pandemic. Tasked with supplying lighting design and overall production, Mandylights sat down with TPi – virtually – to reflect on the landmark event.
Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival runs for a month each year, with the curtain call of the event usually coming in the form of a parade which travels through Oxford Street – considered the gay district of Sydney – closing with a large-scale Mardi Gras party, which usually takes place in multiple venues around the SCG site.
“Last year’s party was actually Sydney’s last large event before COVID-19 shut everything down,” Lighting Designer and Owner of Mandylights, Richard Neville informed TPi. “The party typically attracts around 20,000 people, while the parade features upwards of a couple of hundred thousand in the city.”
This year, given the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communal gatherings, an in-person party was off the cards, despite the proactive response of the nation to the crisis. “The parade is 43 years old and has become a fabled tradition in Sydney – you grab a milk crate and stand shoulder to shoulder with the community. However, that was no longer possible with COVID-19,” he said.
The result was a stadium spectacular, with 600m of parade area, two stages for artists to cavort and thousands of revellers turning out for Sydney’s first-ever COVID-19 adapted Mardi Gras Parade. “The Mardi Gras organisation set out to take the best bits of the parade and the party and bring them together at Sydney Cricket Ground, all while retaining the community element of the parade,” Neville explained. “With the COVID-19 restrictions changing by the week, we thankfully ended up with a 75% capacity of the venue, which saw over 35,000 people come together to celebrate. It was somewhat an alien experience after a year in exile.”
Having lit the party for the past 16 years, Mandylights was chosen to supply lighting design and overall production to the entire parade this time around. “I worked closely with the creative team, broadcast team and organisers, to curate the aesthetics of the stadium environment,” Neville commented. “Sydney Cricket Ground is a great venue because of its history and size. However, it isn’t the best venue in a technical capacity.”
Built over a century ago, Neville explained that the stadium featured no rigging positions. “Every centimetre of the turf in the SCG is hallowed ground. There are certain areas in the centre of the pitch where we were simply unable to put any lights,” he said, recalling the “holistic” approach to lighting, with each piece of kit, from broadcast to live, operating symbiotically. “Our limited budget forced collaboration and it was a unique environment for everybody involved.”
‘A LEAP OF FAITH’
Jumping from a corner of Oxford Street to an entire stadium was a leap faith for those involved. “It was an interesting design process. We understood that due to budget restrictions, our lighting design was always going to be considered as an overlay instead of a ceremony-style lighting design,” Neville acknowledged. “We ran the stadium lights at their lowest setting (‘training level’), which gave us enough white light to satisfy the broadcast. Additional moving lights were added on top of that to make everything else look huge, with tonnes of eye candy looks.”
Capturing the enormity of the broadcast were a litany of spider and steady cameras on the field. “We needed to create ‘big looks’, allowing the broadcast team to shoot from a range of angles.”
Mandylights collaborated with the venue to present a mixture of varied existing field of play lights and a cohesive lighting overlay, having been granted permission to block out banks of seats in the stadium. “We created 30 lighting positions in the audience, which was the first time, apart from a U2 concert, the stadium had brought in external lighting,” Neville said. “The venue staff were really receptive to the idea and greeted our plans with enthusiasm.”
Mandylights employed over 100 mBeam IP-rated beam fixtures, 50 mFlood 2.9 and 8° long-throw dual cell LED floods and around 150 Hex LED pars floods in addition to stage effect lighting, atmospherics and followspots for the lighting overlay. Control was provided by two MA Lighting grandMA3 consoles and PRG MBox media servers, with data driven around the stadium by the company’s proprietary outdoor DMX nodes. Additional Robert Juliat followspots, JEM fog machines and MDG hazers helped set the scene.
Norwest Productions deployed an L-Acoustics K2 system for this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, with ARCS and SB18m combos on the grass, to sound out the celebration.
Over 20 members of Mandylights were on site manning lighting design, programming, overlay, pre-visualisation and production elements of the event. “We’ve been operating at full capacity since November in Australia, which has been amazing for the team. To be back to doing what we love, curating live experiences and trucks leaving the office was an emotional experience,” Neville stated. “I believe this event was probably one of the largest events and one of the first few stadium gigs post COVID-19.”
Colourful and flamboyant floats are the cornerstone of every Mardi Gras Parade, however, this year floatists were limited to pushables. “People got really creative with what they could push. Each float was wheeled into the ground, lapped the perimeter of the cricket ground and then crossed the centre of the field. Once they hit the runway, as lighting designers, we were able to adapt the lighting look and feel of each float on the fly.”
Almost 150 floats took to the floor over the course of four hours along with musical performances. Neville recalled the ‘intense’ show call: “All of the lighting cues were attached to the floats, so we had to constantly switch between the two, like a game of cat and mouse – between lighting the broadcast and satisfying 35,000 people to seamlessly switch into headline performances and parade lighting.”
Key to Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade’s success was its ability to acknowledge and implement strict social distancing in the venue. “The parade floats were marshalled into designated pens, which, in theory, accounted for no cross contamination.”
A safety margin between the first four rows of audience members was also created, allowing attendees to socially distance between parade groups. “As a production team, we minimised contact during the load in, load out, and build. At the time of the event, we were already over 40 days without a COVID-19 case in New South Wales, so the restrictions we implemented on site were more precautionary than necessary,” Neville stated. “If Mardi Gras, as a community organisation can do it, then this should be used as a template for how our industry can bounce back as we slowly begin to ease out of restrictions globally.”
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‘AN ENVIRONMENT FOR INCLUSIVITY’
As well as spotlighting local talent, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade featured a headline appearance from Rita Ora. “The idea of having an international artist at the moment was novel,” Neville remarked.
Rita Ora’s Production Manager, Sam Savile, enlisted the support of Creative Director, Beki Mari and Lighting Designer, James Scott of Suluko for the set. Travel restrictions and quarantine periods resulted in Rita’s core team having to work remotely to deliver this headline show. “My brief was to work with Mandylights, using their design and deliver a fully timecoded showfile for a local operator to run,” Scott said, picking up the story. “I was really pleased to be involved in a truly live show again.”
Mandylights provided Scott with a fully patched MA showfile and a “perfectly drawn” 3D Syncronorm Depence² file as a head start in the programming process. “We had a functional design to work with from Mandylights, to which we added a few extra floor beams and introduced Astera Titan Tubes to be part of the choreography,” Scott recalled.
Fully custom content created for the stadium-wide LED screens was produced by Tom Hodgkinson at SHOP. “Out of the four tracks Rita performed, we used a restrained colour palette for the first three tracks, as a crescendo to the final song, Anywhere, which closed the show with a full rainbow palette and the addition of confetti,” Scott said.
The LD trusted local Lighting Operator, Tom Wright to run the show, despite only having met him via Zoom. “We got him involved quite early, so he could be across all aspects of the show as he’d be our man on the ground when it came to running the lighting and video for our set,” Scott explained. “Tom was suggested to me via a few industry friends, who had needed an Australian-based operator in the past. He is also known to Mandylights, so it felt like a perfect solution for Rita’s show.”
Looking forward to what 2021 has in store, Scott recalled the process as an “ever moving target”, with productions being pencilled in and shortly rescheduled all the time. “I’m keeping hopes high for more industry normality nearing the second half of the year,” he concluded. “Fingers crossed!”
Despite the event being typically free of charge, tickets to the event were priced between $10 and $20 each to allow organisers to produce a stadium event. “Mardi Gras is an LGBTQI+ organisation and one of the most important things about why the parade had to go ahead this year was the thousands of kids each year who attend the parade and discover themselves, their identities and their communities at this event.”
Around 800 out of the 35,000 tickets were given to people who were able to call anonymously and gain access to free tickets to the event without fear of reprisal, by having to use their parents’ credit card. “Mardi Gras Parade is a perfect example of how to provide an experience and environment for inclusivity and diversity, which cuts deeper than any other live entertainment output. It’s so important that we can provide a space which isn’t online for communities to communicate. That’s why it was a privilege to be involved and it makes it all the sleepless nights worth it.”
Neville believes that while the situation is much rosier in Australia, Mandylights is starting to see pockets of positivity for UK operations, and the world at large. “The event was a tremendous success for both the live and broadcast audiences, melding the best of the Mardi Gras parade and party together to create an amazing experience. Thanks as always to Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and their fantastic team; we’ve worked on the parade, party and other events for nearly 20 years and we love the opportunity to innovate and create memorable experiences with them.”
This article originally appeared in issue #260 of TPi, which you can read here.
Photos: Anna Kucera and Rocket Weijers