After months of design, discussions, manufacture and rehearsals, everything moves into the theatre during a period known as bump in. Ahead of previews, the bump in is one of the busiest times in the production’s journey to the stage.
SPOILER ALERT: This video reveals aspects of the performance that you may wish to experience for yourself first.
Air casters A pneumatic lifting device used to move heavy loads. Its operation is similar to a hovercraft, as it uses a thin layer of air as a way to float a very small distance off the ground. At Southbank Theatre, wagons with air casters are used to add or remove seats from the auditorium.
Droppers The vertical wire rope used for rigging or suspending an object from a rigging point. Droppers connect scenic elements to the battens in a fly system.
Fascia A vertical cover used to make things look neat and tidy.
Fly system A system of rope lines, battens and winches within a theatre that enables a stage crew to fly (hoist) components such as curtains, lights, scenery quickly and quietly. When something is 'flown', this means it is attached to batten in the fly system, and can be hoisted up above the stage, out of sight of the audience, into the fly tower. Learn more about the fly system here.
Gobo A small stencilled circular disc, and used in lighting fixtures to create a projected image or pattern.
Grid The grid is a support structure of the fly system at the top of the fly tower.
Head battens Also called fly bars, these are the linear bars to which flown elements are attached via lines.
House bridge A lighting position above the audiences’ heads in the auditorium.
Live edge An edge without a safety barrier. In the Berlin set, the mezzanine doesn't have a railing like it would need to in a real home, so a risk management plan is created to make sure we manage this safely.
Masking Large pieces of cloth that are designed to hide backstage areas of the theatre, block light, and hide functional parts of the set.
Mechanist Staff who prepare and put together sets and deliver the technical requirements for a production.
Mezzanine An intermediate floor in a building which is partly open to the double-height ceilinged floor below (this is a feature of the Berlin set design).
Ply Short for 'plywood', this inexpensive material is manufactured from thin layers or "plies" of wood veneer that are glued together with adjacent layers. Most MTC sets are made from ply.
Pre-rig Ahead of the set bump in, some lighting fixtures, winches, motors etc. may be installed in the rig. These may be needed for the bump in, or might need to be done before access to the rig is restricted by the set.
Production manager In theatre, a production manager is the intersection between the art and the business; they make creative concepts a reality. Meet MTC production managers here.
Proscenium arch The frame decorated with square tiles that forms the vertical rectangle separating the stage from the auditorium.
Rigging points Parts of the set that will be attached to the fly system using droppers. Hardware is attached to the set for this purpose.
Scenic artist A person who paints set elements and scenery for the theatre. See an MTC scenic artist at work here.
Spot speaker A small speaker positioned in a specific location on stage to provide localised sound, e.g. underneath a desk to make it sound like the telephone on top is ringing.
Thrust A stage that extends into the audience's portion of a theatre beyond the usual location of the proscenium.
Trussing A rigid structure, usually used to hang lights.
Wagons A platform on wheels that is used to support and transport items.
"What you’re watching is about two days’ worth of footage from the bump in of Berlin. In the days prior to the set arriving at the theatre, we undertake a masking and lighting pre-rig: in the case of Berlin, this included installing rigging points to fly the ceiling, and chain motors to assist with the build of the mezzanine level.
The largest element in the Berlin set was the ceiling structure which thrusts out under the theatre’s proscenium arch into the auditorium. Naturally, this needed to be installed first. In order to do this, we had to first remove the first three rows of the Sumner’s seating, to bring our forestage to what we call ‘thrust’ level.
The ceiling is built out of timber sheeting with aluminium mouldings and a scenic finish underneath. Around this, we wrap a black wool fascia. Theatre productions often use black wool rather than black paint in order to make something ‘disappear’. While black paint reflects theatre light, black wool does much better job at absorbing it. As you can see, Workshop staff have taken a break to allow our Scenic Artist to put the finishing touches on the mouldings and ceiling now that it’s together. I’m also running around with black paint, covering the screw tops in the black fascia, as once it flies out, we won’t be able to reach it.
On top of the timber, rigging elements have been added. In the case of Berlin, it comprises sections of pipes and trussing. Using shackles and flexible steel wire rope called ‘droppers’, the trussing is connected to head battens in the Sumner’s fly tower.
Traditionally, theatres are fitted with a counterweight fly system, which is exactly as it sounds. However much weight is added to a bar, by the way of set elements, is mirrored by counterweights added to a cradle, which is manually operated by rope control lines. This process is quite laborious and time consuming, and as scenery becomes more complex (and heavy) this becomes difficult to manage. The Sumner is equipped with a state of the art power flying system controlled by a computer (called a Nomad) which programmes electric winches and can achieve a far higher level of accuracy than is possible with human-controlled flying.
While Workshop staff begin building the mezzanine structure upstage, downstage (to the bottom of the screen) we can see the thrust level has now dropped away. The mechanists are now working on returning some seating to rows AA-CC. This involves a process of dropping the forestage down, to the substage (the space under the stage level). Once down, seating can be reinstated. Rows AA – CC in the Sumner are on wheeled timber sections called wagons which fit together, which can be moved into place by inflating their air casters.
A lot of consideration goes into how sets are put together and in what order. When seeing a double level theatre set, one may assume that it would be built from the ground up. However, in many cases, it needs to be the opposite. In the case of Berlin, given we built a set with a number of live edges (this means fall hazards without handrails), part of our risk management plan meant we had to do all of the fitout work while the structure was still on the ground.
As part of the pre-rig, we installed chain motors in the theatre’s grid, in order to hoist up the mezzanine structure so we could build the supports underneath. The team are now building the steel mezzanine structure on top of box truss, and fitting off the timber top.
To the bottom of the screen, you can now see workshop and mech staff building the structure which will support the front of the set, as it pushes out into the auditorium.
Now that the top of the mezzanine structure is complete, the team are adding the carpet top later, stretching it out to make sure it’s nice and flat. The electrics team are also starting to prep the safety lighting, which you can see them adding in, poking lights up through the carpet. This safety lighting is critical to a set design like Berlin. Given the show is quite dark, it helps actors delineate the edge of the set (perhaps just add something re safe zones)– we also have a second set of lights further back which shows them safe paths of travel, and where they can, and cannot, step.
Before, I talked about head battens, or bars of the flying system, which were used to lift the ceiling. You can see upstage that a few of these have been flown in, and the mechs are starting to rig some furniture and artwork on them.
The team have now added and secured the bed base and mattress to the mezzanine, in preparation to hoist up the structure.
The window shapes flashing around downstage, are some moving lights on a front of house bridge (a lighting position above the audiences’ heads). These shapes have been created by putting a gobo (which is like a very small metal stencil) in the light. For Berlin, we had custom gobos created. Our electrics team, along with the show’s Lighting Designer, had to undertake some detailed measurements and calculations to make sure we would be able to get the image to the size we needed before ordering the gobos.
And just like that, we’re onto day two! As you can see, the show floor has gone down now, and our bathroom wall (as well as some supporting poles have gone up). Berlin’s parquetry floor is beautiful, but we would not have had time in such a tight bump in to lay each parquetry-fillet one by one. Often when a show floor is like this, we attach the floor to wooden sheets (made of Masonite, or the like) in big sections to make the floor lay quicker. Then, as you can see is happening now, we go around and fill in the join sections with individual parquetry-fillets.
The team are now adding some finishes to the bathroom... our tiles (made of routed ply) and the door. The team now need to add all the supporting poles (you can see some in blue) before we can land the mezzanine.
You get a better view now of the underside of the ceiling talked about at the start of the video. It’s a really beautiful set piece and looks stunning under stage light.
We have begun some lighting work, which includes initial focus of some fixtures. A lighting focus is usually done over a few sessions, and is the period of time in which the show’s lighting designer directs to electricians to position and shape beams of light from different fixtures in various locations on the set.
You can see workshop staff now adding a fascia to the mezzanine’s front. A fascia is a vertical cover used to make things look neat and tidy. They’re made of various materials, in this case, it is painted timber which attaches to the front of the steel structure.
The staircase has now been installed, and for the first time we are able to access the mezzanine level.
If you look a third of the way up the staircase, you can see that a speaker has just appeared, seemingly from nowhere! This is a flown speaker, which sits up near the ceiling out of sight. It’s quite common for speakers to be placed in locations around the stage, sometimes in places the audience wouldn’t quite expect. Sometimes this may be for an artistic purpose, to create some sort of effect. Other times it can serve quite a practical purpose, like locating a sound effect required for a prop item, like a phone ringing. Often we have very small ‘spot speakers’ which can be built into the set for this purpose. For example, if an office phone needs to ring on a desk, we might build a small spot speaker into the desk itself. This helps to localise the sound, and make it feel more authentic.
Look at our set! It’s nearly complete! Earlier in the day, all of the furniture and prop elements were delivered to the theatre in a truck. We unloaded them up to the back of the stage, ready to install as soon as the time was right. Before we pack down the rehearsal room and transfer to the theatre, the Stage Management team take precise measurements and photos of prop elements, so we know exactly where they go once we get into the theatre.
And there we have it, that’s the set build for Berlin! It’s gone dark, and we are now working on focussing lighting and projection. After this we will head into plotting sessions, then technical rehearsals, before we hit previews and then opening night. I know it looked really busy (and it was!), but this was really just the start of the two big weeks to come."
Abe Watson, Berlin Production Manager
Published on 9 May 2021