Now in its sixth year, Haçienda Classical sees orchestral renditions of heritage Haçienda club tracks performed on stage with experimental orchestra, Manchester Camerata. As beneficiaries of the UK government’s Culture Recovery Fund (CRF), the event took place at Victoria Warehouse over the May Bank Holiday weekend with a socially distanced crowd of 123 people and a livestream audience donning their gladrags to witness a stellar line up of Graeme Park, DJ Paulette and Peter Hook take to the stage, with follow-up Sunday performances by Orbital Live, Jon Dasilva, A Guy Called Gerald Live and Justin Robertson.
“We’ve done a lot of charity livestreams over the course of the lockdown but an in-person and livestream event is a great project for the DCMS and Arts Council England to invest in,” Event Producer, Matt Jones said, having played a key role in the successful grant application. “I started out with a budget for a fictitious show to become fact, which engulfed rehearsals, two streaming events with a live audience if possible, depending on the lockdown restrictions. We received the funding in April, so there was a fast turnaround time between planning and execution of the event.”
With the event buoyed by the CRF grant, the devil was now in the detail. “By no means was this a profit-making experience; the DCMS and Arts Council England have invested in the fact that this particular show would not have been possible without their support, providing us with a template for this show for the rest of the year.”
The vendor roster comprised familiar suppliers in Lite Alternative, Wigwam, and Colour Sound Experiment for video. This year, Concept Staging was brought in to provide a bespoke 64ft by 70ft staging structure, which took up two thirds of the venue space, to account for distancing of the performing artists and musicians from an in-person audience. Victoria Warehouse liaised with the local authority regarding licencing.
Tickets were made available in groups of six, with social distancing rules and sanitiser stations positioned around the site. One-way systems were implemented, as well as mandatory face masks and coverings compulsory when arriving and moving around the site. Table service was in operation with drinks purchased using cashless systems.
On the production side, crew operated in department-specific bubbles with no crossover shifts. Stage time was mitigated so not every member of the crew was on stage at once. The build was described by Jones as ‘measured’ and ‘structured’ to account for the social distancing of crew. “We hired artists with stage manager backgrounds to handle the movement of performing artists safely,” he added.
Jones worked closely with Stage Manager, Chris Maher to navigate a COVID-19 secure platform for DJs, percussion, vocals and an experimental orchestra to perform live for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head. “It was a task trying to take into account 2m while falling into the remit of each department, creative and conductor requirement,” Jones conceded. “It required a lot of meetings but we got there in the end. I hope that after 2021, when we get past these awful few years, we start to experience a normal gig setup.”
As Stage Manager, Maher was responsible for overseeing the movement of around 45 musicians descending on to the stage at once, managing their expectations to enter and exit the space in groups of six – a feat which timed in at around 15 minutes.
“We employed a company called safetygeeks to handle the risk assessment, devising a COVID-19 event plan. While Andrew Lenny and I formulated a Haçienda risk assessment,” Jones said, reflecting on the “surprisingly straightforward” process, having become accustomed to the COVID-19 health and safety regulations working on several projects through the course of the pandemic.
Maher was keen to stress the importance of this project as a demonstration of the sector’s ability to showcase live entertainment in a safe manner amid the pandemic. “We’ve been completely sidelined as a sector. Events like this allow us to demonstrate the ability of the sector,” Maher stated. “It was a special thing to do and there is no getting away from the fact that it was a ‘proper’ gig. Everyone – from the production crew, to venue management and security – was keen to make this two-day event a roaring success.”
Jones concurred, pointing out the importance of live entertainment as a form of escapism from the mundanity of day-to-day life in lockdown for live music fans and production crew alike. “It’s incredibly important for people’s mental health that shows like this still go ahead during the COVID-19 pandemic for the suppliers, freelancers, and the sector at large,” he said, estimating the total figure of employment at around 400 people over the course of two days. “Most have had little to no work since last February, so it was great to create this event and support the sector supply chain.”
‘DYNAMISM WITHIN THE CONSTRAINTS OF THE NEW NORMAL’
Video Director, John Surdevan designed the camera plot to suit the show, liaising with lighting, performing artists, DJs and the production management to ensure each visual element pulled in the same direction.
“This event was a little different due to the safety measures as it meant the performers were further apart on stage, much like the audience,” he explained, having been involved in several Haçienda projects in the past. “This called for wider lenses on cameras closer to the stage and a longer lens at FOH to ensure I could get close-ups of the musicians at the back.”
Surdevan provided everything in the chain, from cameras and crew to vision mixer and stream encoder. “We integrated with others for upstage screen graphics and broadcast audio mix,” he said.
The package comprised Blackmagic Ursa Broadcast and Panasonic PTZ cameras fitted with HJ40, HJ22 and HJ14 lenses along with additional dolly, jib, magic arms and tripod grips. Surdevan’s vision mixer of choice was a Blackmagic Design Atem 4K 1M/E with his own ‘Jackinabox’ interface, ingest racks and CCU. VT playback was achieved by vMix with LiveU specified as the stream encoder.
With COVID-19 affecting everything from capacity to camera placement, Surdevan had to adapt and evolve constantly to ensure the team could operate safely. “One of the main precautions we took was to ensure no operated cameras were placed on stage or close to any performers,” he said. Instead, Surdevan opted for PTZs mounted in the truss and close to the DJ decks to allow for some movement and flexibility while keeping a safe distance. “Additionally, we kept crew to a minimum where possible; this meant fewer hands on the rig and derig. While this made things more challenging, it made for a safer working environment,” he noted.
Aside from COVID-19, the main challenge facing the video team was ensuring the show was as exciting for those in the building as it was for those at home. “This can be tricky with such a large stage and a lot of performers as everyone needs to have their moment,” he acknowledged.
On top of this, a secondary stage was situated at FOH for the DJs who played before opening for headliners, Haçienda Classical and Orbital. “Transitioning from one stage to another meant repositioning our two cameras at FOH during the changeovers,” Surdevan stated.
To make this smooth and entertaining, the team used VT footage on the stream and continued playing music over the PA for those in the room. “This worked well, keeping both audiences engaged consistently,” Surdevan noted.
Although a lot of effort went into previsualisation for the show on the livestream end, seeing the whole thing come to life from the lighting and sound to the staging and visuals was “something else”, according to Surdevan. “Everyone really pulled it out of the bag!”
An added incentive was the “electric” atmosphere in the room during both nights. “Being in a real-life venue playing a full show felt like such a release for the audience, the crew and the performers alike,” Surdevan reminisced. “It sounds cliché, but it felt like such a historic moment for everyone involved. There was plenty of emotion swirling around that room; from excitement to anticipation to pure joy, everyone was on a high.”
Surdevan said the main challenge curators of livestreams face with a digital audience is ensuring there is plenty of room for interaction and engagement. “With an in-person show, everyone knows the drill. They dance, scream and cheer when they love what they’re hearing and we’re able to get a sense of their mood,” he acknowledged. “As for those at home, that’s entirely the opposite. We can’t see their faces or reactions so we have to ensure there’s room for them to connect and express their thoughts.”
For this show, the team harnessed live chat functions to keep the show interactive, with the social media managers joining in to build excitement. “We also had to ensure we showed a little bit of everything happening on stage where possible. As a director, you’re responsible for guiding the viewers at home, showing them what they should look at and when. This means carefully curating the shots and teeing up key moves to make sure they never miss a beat.”
Looking back on the event, Surdevan commented: “The response online was huge. Viewing figures climbed and climbed throughout both nights with lots of engagement on every platform. The in-person audience were elated by the prospect of live music, making for a real buzz about the venue. It’s safe to say both audiences seemed pleased with the show.”
As for the wider industry, the feedback has been mostly positive, especially from crew that worked directly or indirectly on the event. “The COVID-19 pandemic has really shown just how much people’s hard work goes into creating an event like this, so it was great to see everyone collaborating again and really enjoying being back where they belong,” Surdevan added. “It was a very positive response from all angles. These events are a crucial step to getting the whole live events industry back on their feet. While we are not able to operate at full capacity, we are proving how well we can function within the constraints of this ‘new normal’.”
Surdevan believes that streaming, combined with a small in-person audience, provides a safe way for the events industry to flex its muscles once again. “Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long to see the return of sell-out shows in packed venues with crews back in their rightful place, running the events we all love,” he added.
‘A PLEASURE TO OPERATE’
Lite Alternative has been involved with this project since the very first show at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester back in 2016. “I have managed, designed and operated the shows since the very first one,” said Lite Alternative Project Manager, John Ginley, who doubled as a Lighting Designer and Operator turned LED screen Content Editor and Creator come overall visual creative control on this event.
“COVID-19 was at the forefront of everyone’s mind from the moment we had confirmation of this event,” Ginley recalled. “While it didn’t affect my workflow from a programming point of view – I was in one of the wysiwyg rooms at Lite Alt on my own nearly all of the time – it certainly came into play during every other aspect of the show. From prepping in the warehouse at opposite ends of the trusses through to the load in, show and out and even down to how big the FOH control positions needed to be to maintain social distancing.”
Ginley worked to a schedule of different departments staggering their load in and out times – lighting and rigging had almost a full day to work before staging came in, then sound came the following morning.
“I always begin the design for Haçienda Classical by making sure that the Orchestra is properly lit and that I have all my ‘specials’ in place – we have so many fantastic people performing all over the stage, it’s important to make sure we can see them all properly.”
The team very rarely uses followspots, so the correct coverage on all the performers becomes even more important. “Once we’ve established this, I can then look at the effect lighting, which gives the whole thing an enormous club night feel. It’s also very important that we maintain the original Haçienda club feel, so I’ll often look at old pictures and videos of the club. I’ve featured six-way par bars a few times and CP Golden Scans on my original designs, but no success in getting them into a show as yet!”
The chevron images that feature in the show are also incredibly important to the whole look and feel of the night. “It’s so iconic and a huge part of the Haçienda image, style and history,” Ginley remarked. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say the big audience looks were not a pleasure to operate, but there are also a couple of smaller moments involving a mirror ball which always make me smile. I try to use a backlight where we can – be it in profile/wash or a strobe hit – as an effect as there are lots of things on stage to be picked out.”
Ginley made sure that the whole space was lit properly for the streaming aspect of the show – and that the team had some extra light level that could be brought in for the cameras if necessary – while maintaining the night club feel for the audience. “The stage, which took up two thirds of the venue, was a large space to cover and normally when it’s an in-person audience you can get away with a little more.”
To this end, Ginley specified GLP impression X4 Bars on the downstage edge to provide definition as well as additional floor lights and Ayrton Dots, GLP JDC1 strobes and PROLIGHTs Smart Bats to fill in the gaps. “I toned the audience strobes down a little too as they can be a bit aggressive on occasion when we do the arena shows,” he admitted.
The fixtures doing the most work on the show were the Martin by Harman MAC Aura XBs, Viper Profiles and the Robe MegaPointes. “The XBs were great as they provided the general wash and colour on stage throughout the evening, were very reliable and a perfect size too as the trusses were trimmed lower than normal and we had to be aware that nothing stuck out too much or hung too low,” Ginley explained. “I used the Viper Profiles out front for our ‘specials’ and I don’t think you can beat them to do a great job for you. MegaPointes were used for their gobo and animation work and I couldn’t be happier with them – nice and bright with lots of gobo variety and movement to be had throughout the whole show.”
The show has always been programmed and run on an High End Systems Hog desk as that is Ginley’s preferred console – however, this time, it was the Hog 4. “I come from a theatre background and the desk of choice on those tours was very often the Hog 2, which set me on this road. I always feel comfortable and confident approaching and using the Hog and it always does what I ask it to do.”
Glen Johnson was situated out front programming and running Catalyst for video on an MA Lighting grandMA2 light console.
Summing up his experience, Ginley said: “It was a wonderful experience. Everyone involved was in great form, happy to see each other and very pleased to be staging an event. It is still enormously important to be creating these events and going ahead where possible, as whenever I looked at the audience, every single face seemed to be filled with joy and a little relief too. To be able to release a little bit of the pressure everyone has faced over the past 16 months by having a sing and a dance was priceless.”
‘LIVE MUSIC IS LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE’
Wigwam Hire Manager, Tom Bush, like the company at large, has been deeply embedded in the fabric of the Haçienda Classical live experience since its inception in 2016.
The team comprised the collective expertise of FOH Broadcast Engineer, Aaron Boothe operating a DiGiCo SD5; FOH Engineer, Ralph Smart handling a DiGiCo SD10; and Monitor Engineer, Peter Foulkes mixing on a DiGiCo SD7. System Technician, Paul Stevart handled a d&b audiotechnik V series; System Technician, Jack Murphy oversaw the Orbital set, handling a d&b audiotechnik J Series, with additional support from Stage and Monitor Technician, Kyle Harris and Playback Technician, James Smallwood.
“Matt Jones has done an amazing job of making sure the crew were not working on top of each other with staggered working times between departments and being mindful of working conditions,” Bush said. “It is always a proud moment to have any involvement in a live production, especially seeing a crowd enjoying a gig again. It’s been far too long! There’s a good deal of excitement in the crew and the rest of the industry when anyone discusses a gig being able to take place.”
Despite the success of the livestream element of the show, in-person experiences can’t be replicated, according to Stage Manager, Chris Maher. “The reason we attend gigs is escapism and an interactive experience,” he added. “Everything has its value, but live music is lightning in a bottle, which currently feels sidelined.”
Event Producer, Matt Jones agreed with Maher, concluding: “I hope we can get to doing what we love and what I’ve done for the past 30 years – travelling the world and enjoying meeting amazing people in fabulous places. The biggest thing I’ve missed is the camaraderie of the road. If we can come back with the crew and suppliers we left 18 months ago, that would be the dream. Fingers crossed with government and industry-backed support, suppliers and the crew who are interested in returning will come back stronger.”
This article originally appeared in issue #263 of TPi, which you can read here.