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Gareth Conner Reflects on Ten Years of Automation Success

If there were a “2014 Theater Technician’s 365 Day Desk Calendar”, June 28 would surely mention Creative Conners. We imagine it would say something like “On this day 10 years ago a new business was incorporated with the mission to provide affordable, accessible and high quality automation equipment to the theatrical industry.” And there’d be a picture of our beloved Gear Guy from our logo, and maybe a mention of turntables or the evolution of computer controlled motion. We’d take it as a reminder that the years do add up, success doesn’t come without patience, and there are important times to stop and reflect.

Celebrating this anniversary had us first thinking about numbers. Initially it was novelty numbers like how many times do we think  Gareth has said the word “Stagehand”, then practical numbers like how much food to cater for the 10 year anniversary party today. But gradually we got a bit more introspective which resulted in this interview with our fearless leader and company founder.

Q: We know it’s been 10 years since the company was founded, but how many years since you first began creating the system?

Gareth: Yes, it was a few years prior. My initial experiment developing a Stagehand control board was in January 2001. I know it was January because it was a New Year’s Resolution I got to right away.

Q: Is automation always on your resolution list?

Gareth: Well, yes frankly it is, although there are other resolutions that sneak in there. This year for instance I made a resolution to run a half-marathon. I guess you could say I like motion of one sort or another (we’ll see how that half-marathon goes!).

Q: In these first ten years of business operations, how many control systems have you sold?

Gareth: It surprised me a bit when I checked the records on this, but the tally of just the Stagehands sold [each Stagehand corresponding to one axis of motion on stage] is approaching 1000.

Q: So there could be, on any one day of performances around the country, almost 1000 pieces of scenery moving under the control of a Creative Conners system?

Gareth: Yeah, isn’t that cool! Also it would include other countries like Korea, Australia, and this fall our gear will premiere in Istanbul. And that doesn’t include the customers using just our machines with their own control system.

Q: How many machines have you sold?

Gareth: We’ve got 130 machines out there moving scenery. We are very excited to have expanded both the number and robustness of our machine line in recent years.

Q: Looking back, what years brought the most changes for the business?

Gareth: I would have to say 2006 and 2011 were quite significant. In 2006 we introduced our Revolver machine, prototyped the hardware for our Stagehand FX, began offering a rental option for our gear, and evolved the Stagehand in important areas like battery back up, the ability to update firmware over the network, and modified it to work with hydraulics which we appreciate on a regular basis. Just this week we got an order for a hydraulic powered lift control to be used on an Eminem / Rhianna concert.

Q: And 2011?

Gareth: Yes, a lot of changes in 2011. We finally made the leap into a commercial space, which we outgrew in a year and moved up to our current space. Prior to that we had a basement / garage based business and collaborated with two other commercial shops for machine fabrication and inventory housing. Setting up shop in our own commercial space afforded the opportunity to increase staff, bring almost all fabrication in house, and do more R&D on all aspects of our gear simultaneously (mechanical, software, and electrical). Plus, in our current 6800sf shop, we have room to do things like rent arcade games for our anniversary party.

Q: How many new products have you introduced since the ramp up in 2011?

Gareth: The company was launched offering one complete automation system consisting of four products. We now offer about a hundred products and services, which include things like stage hardware and education seminars, as well as the core variety of machines and motion controllers. Most of that increase has happened since 2011.

Q: This may be a painful question to answer, but how many units have ever been returned?

Gareth: Not painful at all. We have had our share of units that have to get repaired or replaced whether it’s been damaged in shipping, has a faulty bit that escaped our quality control, or just components that wear out over time, but it’s a small number and we work tremendously hard to rectify the situation immediately.

Q: Any products returned due to customer dissatisfaction?

Gareth: None. We’ve never had a customer tell us they didn’t like the product and ask for their money back. Although our system is designed to be plug and play, without on site supervision from us, we have always offered 24/7 customer support to make sure it all goes well, and we encourage our customers to stay in touch.

Q: How many lines of code were in Avista? Spikemark?

Gareth: Hmmm…it’s been I while since I checked those stats. I think Avista had about 30,000 lines and Spikemark, at least the first version, had significantly less. Spikemark is a bit more effecient ;-)

Q: What’s on the horizon in the coming years?

Gareth: Specifially we’ve got our new Showstopper 3 just about to launch, we’re experimenting with servo motors, wireless control, and developing more machines like a turtle and a friction drive. Also, to accommodate our increase in demand for touring productions we are developing our own road box (aka “The Roadie”) to house the control gear backstage and in the trucks.

Q: What’s the biggest change for the company?

Gareth: Our initial system provided a way for smaller budgeted theatres to begin doing quality automation. Since then we’ve evolved, along with these customers’ needs, to offer more sophisticated products. As theaters are reaching for more and more complex motion, we’ve pushed to raise the bar on our product line to be ready for them, and also to serve the needs of others who are already there. Because of this we’ve expanded the breadth of our customer base. We initially focused on regional and academic theatres, who are still the backbone of our business, but now we’ve got a range of clients from a two week gear rental to a middle school to a year long national rock ‘n roll tour.

Q: What kind of complex motion do you see evolving?

Gareth: A lot of theatres are interested in synchronizing many elements at once. I think we will continue to see an increase in syncing projection and scenic motion specifically. For this reason we are focusing on more intricate software. There is a need to have more devices on the network sharing position information to achieve this complex motion.

Q: Lastly, is there anyone you’d like to thank for these first 10 successful years?

Gareth: The theatres and production shops creatively integrating scenic motion into their shows are top on the list. It is always fun to see what’s moving on their stages, and we thank them for putting their trust in us to provide their automation equipment. Beyond that, if I were to list everyone individually you would see a comprehensive mesh from early influences in high school technical theatre right up to the incredible collaborators surrounding me in my shop everyday. Among the most humorous to thank would be family like my mother who, to this day, does not understand what I do for a living but offers support nonetheless. After 15 years of calling me a set designer she finally asked just last year, “What do you mean when you say ‘automation’?”

Gareth and Royal (& Sprocket) testing out a wireless friction drive prototype in April 2014.

The Countdown is On!

T-minus 10 days.

Not to summer vacation. Not to the unveiling of the latest tablet. Not even to the summer release of Expendables 3 starring the best action film actors. Of the 1980′s.

No, we at Creative Conners have another countdown going. Tomorrow begins a 10 day countdown to our 10th birthday. You can call it an anniversary, but c’mon, doesn’t the word “birthday” connote superior images of festivities, laughter, and presents, not to mention cake? Yes, we plan to have all of those things. Like children, we believe in celebrating our age, embracing the milestone, and having a party.

If you are lucky enough to be in Rhode Island on Saturday June 28th, please drop by the shop between 1pm – 4pm. If you are a distance away (and we know from our shipping records that most of you are quite a distance away) don’t worry. We’ll be celebrating this milestone in our “ten months of being ten years old” campaign. Look for swag & sales, retrospection & new products. All part of the fun. All part of showing our gratitude.

After all, 10 years of success doesn’t happen without the confidence and support of our customers, colleagues and collaborators. It’s that confidence in our commitment to high quality scenic automation that has carried us through the first 9 years, 11 months, and 21 days. But who’s counting?

Tick. Tick. Tick.

omigod omigod, csuf’s legally blonde scenic automation is totally worthy of applause

Legally Blonde, CSUF Theatre. Photo: Edwin Lockwood, www.stagescenela.com

In their recent upbeat musical, Legally Blonde, Cal State Fullerton Theatre knocked it out of the park with Fred Kinney’s incredible automated set. In her journey of self discovery, lead character Elle travels from the Delta Nu sorority house to the hallowed halls and grounds of Harvard University Law School, but there are many more settings as she finds her way. Establishing those settings as varied as colleges, courtrooms and beauty salons, Bill Meyer (TD) and his clever technicians at CSUF built 10 axes of tracking and rotating scenic elements that kept the action moving as the characters sang the audience through Elle’s story.

The CSUF crew used their Creative Conners system to control the newly built chain drive turtles on the scenic units, two of which were 16′ tall. Joe Holbrook (ATD) sent us a video showcasing just what those units can do. It’s worth noting they accomplished this in their 500 seat “Little Theatre”. We thought it only fitting to add to the video the musical’s final track with applause. Bravo CSUF!

Spikemark 3.1.6 Released!

Our summer intern, Steve Hnath from Purdue University’s graduate program, has been hugely productive in his first week here at Creative Conners. It’s rare to find a theatre technician who double-majored in math with a computer science minor, and rarer still to bump into one that just happens to be well-versed in the core software technology that we use here!

Steve dove right in and warmed up this week by knocking off a half-dozen bugs & small feature requests in Spikemark. Here’s the highlights from the release notes:

6-5-2014 Release notes v3.1.6
*CHANGED* Dragging a Stagehand in the cue grid now allows for reordering.
*CHANGED* Unchecking "Enable All Links" now greys out all cue links.
*CHANGED* Cue link dialog now selects previous cue as default. Links from final cue default to first cue. There is no longer an option to link a cue to itself.
*FIXED* Clicking on the manual control slider track no longer moves the thumb.
*FIXED* Resizing thumbs now stop at the edges of the Spikemark window.

Perhaps my favorite is the new change that allows for drag-and-drop reordering of Stagehand in the Cue Grid. Super-slick! So go grab your copy of Spikemark 3.1.6!

Teens Learn Scenic Automation at Detroit Country Day School

Although Jim Davis, TD at Detroit Country Day School, had approached Royal at USITT in March inquiring about a Revolver rental package, and companion training session for his students many weeks ahead of the date, it wasn’t until close to the event that we realized this would probably be the youngest audience we’d ever taught. Adding to the school’s already impressive performing arts program, Jim took it up a notch to offer a day of scenic automation education for both Middle and High School theatre students. The seminar was coordinated with the installation of a Revolver Kit rental to automate the school’s 16′ turntable for their May production of Seussical, Jr.

Revolver Machine with Seussical Jr. Turntable

Students During Seminar at Detroit Country Day School

In combining the rental package with a seminar Jim insured not only that he had on site assistance setting up the equipment, but also that the automation operator (a high school student) received direct training from us. And by the end of the seminar, the operator was indeed comfortable as he ran the cue to spin his classmates, and eventually ran 11 cues during the show’s 4 performances. And speaking of comfortable, this was our only seminar to date where the attendees were perfectly content to sit on the floor. Ah, to be young again.

In much the same way that Seussical Jr. is a simplified and shortened version of the colorful Seussical the Musical, automation education for teens also needed to be simplified and shortened. Typically our seminar attendees know what they want to move and are seeking technical instruction as to how to automate those movements, as well as a deeper understanding of the workings of available automation control systems. In this case, however, after introducing himself, Royal needed to introduce the concept of scenic automation in general.

Who is this Royal guy?
Automating a Turntable
What is a Hoist Used For?

The students seemed to engage in and enjoy the seminar, and we like to think it wasn’t just because it got them out of crew time for the day. Royal, getting out of his own crew time back at the office, likewise enjoyed his first solo seminar and was impressed with the caliber of the students, faculty / staff, and the commitment to arts education at the school. Through his own prepared presentation, and in answering student questions like, “What do people use turntables for?” and “Was the chandelier automated in Phantom?”, Royal opened their minds to the myriad possibilities that automation offers a production. “Oh, the thinks you can think…”

Many thanks to Jim Davis as well as the students and faculty of Detroit Country Day School who attended the seminar. Congratulations on a successful Seussical Jr. show!

Deck Chief Powers Tilting Platform

When Mystic Scenic Studios designed a very cool machine to tilt a drummer platform, they knew that powerful, variable-speed, simple control was needed. Our Deck Chief was a perfect fit for this application: simple to install, easy to operate, and capable of powering the required 5HP AC gearmotor.

We were thrilled to collaborate with the talented folks at Mystic Scenic by providing the motors and control for this effect. The Deck Chief’s slow-down & ultimate limits made it possible to play around with variable speed while maintaining precise positioning, a must-have feature for this application. In total, Mystic Scenic produced four platforms and we delivered four Deck Chiefs in just under two weeks. The effect is installed on two cruise ships sailing the high seas.

Check out the video to see a great example of a how versatile the new Deck Chief can be when paired with some well-crafted custom machinery.

Curtain Call Machines Automate Swags in Beauty and the Beast Tour

Disney's Beauty and the Beast at Bushnell Theatre, Hartford CT

This month we had the pleasure of seeing the NETworks tour of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when it arrived in nearby Hartford, CT. Of course we are fans of any fun musical, but we were particularly interested in seeing this fairytale brought to life as the production has been using two of our Curtain Call machines for almost a year. NETworks purchased the machines as a complete kit including Spikemark software running on a Lenova Yoga computer, Showstopper, and two Stagehands. Eager to see how the gear has been performing, we met with Production Carpenter Megan Parrish and Carpenter / Automation Operator Caitlin Madden before the show to take advantage of a backstage tour.

Megan Parrish and Caitlin Madden with CCI Gear

It was a pleasure to meet Megan and Caitlin who were very generous to show us around amid the hustle and bustle of pre-show activity, and even more generous with their compliments on the operation of the gear. As it turns out, it wasn’t Megan’s first introduction to Creative Conners: she had attended a 2011 automation seminar at University of South Dakota (where they are still getting great use out of our gear!). This is a pic for you, Megan, in case you need something for the next Throwback Thursday.

2011 Automation Seminar, University of South Dakota

 

In Beauty and the Beast, the Curtain Call machines automate the lateral motion of large fabric swags used to bring to life different locations in Beast’s castle. Combining the tracking seen in the video clip below with traditional hand operated line sets produces dramatic sweeping entrances and exits of the swags, mirroring the drama into which the audience (and Belle) are swept as they enter and experience Beast’s world. The production takes full advantage of the ease of movement of the swags, amassing forty five cues for them.

 

As the main operator of the system, it was quite helpful to hear Caitlin’s experience. She expressed noted satisfaction using Spikemark on the Lenova’s touchscreen when loading cues during maintenance and for manually moving the swags during any non-show moves. We asked Caitlin and Megan what they thought about the upcoming addition of a dead man’s (hold-to-operate) switch on the Showstopper 3. The dead man is a frequently requested feature, and is specified in the PLASA standards for theatrical hoists; however, in this case it did not surprise us to learn that it would be unnecessary to the point of being a hindrance. In Caitlin’s situation of tracking the swags, she would need the original configuration which will be an option when the Showstopper 3 is released. For all the automation operators reading this, here is the future Showstopper 3 button layout.

Showstopper 3

From the other side of the proscenium, of course, all we thought about was how brilliantly the cast and crew transported the audience into the fairytale, and gave us two hours forty minutes of quality entertainment. Our fellow audience members loved the show as well, but I suspect would have loved it just a bit more if they had known Cookie Monster was hanging out backstage with the crew.

Cookie Monster Backstage

He will travel with the show next to Dayton OH for perfomances 5/27 – 6/1 then just three more cities before the tour wraps up in early June. Let’s hope he gets to continue his backstage career during the 2014 – 2015 tour. Or perhaps he will join a second production slated for an international tour opening in Istanbul this fall.

Special thanks to Megan and Caitlin for their time. And to my patient dog who desperately wanted attention during the editing of the swag video.

 

Scenic Automation Lifts, Tracks, and Earns an A+ in “The Tutor” at The Village Theatre

We were delighted to receive some video clips from our friends at The Village Theatre of their current bright and witty musical, The Tutor which involves a tutor, his employers, and his unsuspecting muse of student. To move the audience along this comedically touching story, Village incorporated six axes of well placed motion into Scott Fyfe’s set.

Wonderful use of vertical movement can be seen in these quick clips. The first showcases the rising entrance of the title character, and in the next two clips the lift is used to sink characters from the tutor’s novel-in-progress back into his imagination. Adding multiple deck tracks gives the show an overall well automated quality, exemplified in the last clip of a speedy and effortless transport of the tutor’s apartment off stage, leaving the audience focused on the employer’s home.

The Village Theatre has been a customer since 2007, and has made good use of their collaboration with neighboring  5th Avenue Theatre and A Contemporary Theatre to share Creative Conners automation gear. They accomplished their scenic motion for The Tutor using in-house built machines controlled with Stagehand Mini’s and Spikemark software. Thanks to composer Andrew Gerle for the piano accompaniment and to Technical Director Brad Bixler for the video clips. Congratulations on making it move so well!

The Tutor continues its run at The Everett Performing Arts Center in Everett, WA through May 25

Deck Chief Simple Motor Control Demo Video


We love computer-controlled machinery moving scenery on stage. But sometimes, sometimes, a Stagehand Pro with Spikemark software and a computer network is a bit overkill. Our Deck Chief is a straightforward, variable-speed, pushbutton, control that is perfect when you have a simple single effect or perhaps a motorized fixture in the theatre that maybe isn’t even used in shows. Projection screens, traveller masking, trade show turntables are great examples where the Deck Chief shines. Here’s a little video that shows how the Deck Chief works.

Stage Automation at The Geffen Playhouse


You expect stage automation in a large musical or epic melodrama, but one of the things we love about the Geffen Playhouse in LA is their artistic use of automation in unexpected shows. This time we found it in the sparse set for a one woman show. Ruth Draper’s Monologues, directed and performed by Annette Bening, had its world premier at Geffen Wednesday night, receiving a favorable review in Variety.

Although the scenery in Ruth Draper’s Monologues is necessarily minimal to stay true to Draper’s original work, it is an 8 motor production. Just as Bening deftly maneuvers in and out of four different characters in this one woman show, so too move Takeshi Kata’s scenic elements. You may recall that we recently profiled Kata’s automated set for Geffen’s production of Slowgirl, utilizing very quiet automation in Geffen’s smaller theatre (“Quiet on the Set!“ , March 7). For Ruth Draper’s Monologues, Geffen employed 5 traveler tracks, 3 wagons, 8 Stagehands, and 1 computer running Spikemark software, all coming together for 12 cues to augment this unique production. They were kind enough to share a creative video showcasing the set and all its gliding glory, complete with 1920′s musical score and scrolling credits. Hats off (again) to our good friends at Geffen!

Ruth Draper’s Monologues performs at The Geffen Playhouse through May 18. Slowgirl continues at The Geffen through April 27.

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