Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre has a well-earned reputation for creating exciting and innovative theatre productions and has been making a significant impact on the South African Musical Theatre scene for some time.

When they, with the backing of Film, Television and Theatre Producer Eric Abraham, decided to mount a local non-replica, full-size production of the heritage musical, West Side Story – they realised they would need the facilities of a venue like Artscape to accommodate the scale of this first-out-of-house production and would need to source the technical expertise from someone with a successful track record of coordinating large-scale musical productions on an international level.

Daniel Galloway (Producer at the Fugard) approached Artscape to host West Side Story in 2015. Artscape corroborated his plan to use the services of Theatre Rental company, Splitbeam, as the company to safely realise the technical and logistical parameters of a show of the scale they envisaged and as a result Splitbeam’s Managing Director Alistair Kilbee was brought on board as Technical Director to manage the logistical, technical and Health and Safety aspects.

When Set Designer, Johan Engels passed away unexpectedly, in the early stages of planning the show, he left only his initial pencil sketches for successor Connor Murphy to complete the designs. Together Kilbee and Murphy sat with show Director Matthew Wild, the concept drawings and some scale models and painstakingly worked out scene by scene the mechanics involved in bringing the sketches to life. “The trick in this sort of production is to make really complex scene changes look simple and effortless” says Kilbee “and paradoxically that always takes an enormous amount of effort and input. This one required a bit more than the usual franchise tours.”

Part of the challenge on this particular production was that the set design incorporated hinged ‘concrete’ walls with steel fire escapes, a full sized Drugstore and a 12m wide crane. The set was estimated to weigh around 30 tons in total which made movement difficult and risky. Substituting aluminium for steel throughout brought the weight to 18 ton and creative use of stage machinery achieved the seamless scene changes required. “Working with the uneven weight distribution on lifts and trucks was tricky and we needed some out-of-the-box thinking to make everything work as planned” explains Kilbee. “Roberto Grové (Production Manager at the Fugard) and I also conducted an extremely comprehensive risk assessment for Artscape ahead of the build, covering all aspects of the production from the most basic potential hazard of having a single crew member alone in a truck with an unsteady load during get-in, to a scene-by-scene breakdown of set movements and cast on-stage safety considerations.”

West Side Story enjoyed an extremely successful, sold-out run at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town in 2015 and is now back by popular demand in Johannesburg at the start of 2017. The production runs at the Mandela Theatre (Joburg Theatre) from 24 January 2017.

Splitbeam fulfilled not only the Technical Direction role including all the logistics of scheduling, trucking, packing and risk assessment on both runs but also fulfilled much of the crewing requirement including a designated “festoon crew” complement of 4 technicians and a 16-strong stage crew.

“Our festoon crew for the Johannesburg run includes ‘newbie’ Cameron Squires, one of the Gearhouse Kentse Mpahlwa 2nd year technical services learners who is specialising in theatre services at Splitbeam this year” says Kilbee, “It’s an in-house Learnership initiative and our students are really privileged to have the opportunity to ‘cut their teeth’ on events of this sort of scale and complexity. Part of Cameron’s remit is to manage all practical lighting including 5.1 kilometres of festoon light strings to create the atmospheric environment for the “Tonight” balcony scene as well as the industrial-feel fluorescents under the lifts for the factory scenes.”

Splitbeam also provided supplementary equipment for Lighting Designer Joshua Cutts’ lighting rig and all of the Rigging requirements for the production. Audio for the show was provided by Eastern Acoustics which sub hired the Midas Pro 9 and Pro 1 consoles from Splitbeam for Sound Designer Mark Malherbe’s sound design.

“Splitbeam is unique in the theatre market in South Africa”, says Kilbee, “our rental stockholding is well-aligned to what the designers are specifying for large scale productions. Splitbeam has years of experience in franchise theatre tours and have been involved in some of the biggest in the world, so we have become the go-to theatre rental company in South Africa to make the idea work technically.

However, we make all the same equipment available to the small school productions or amateur dramatics as well because we believe we are all are driven by the same passion and at Splitbeam we are committed to ‘realising the dream’ whatever the size of the production and budget available”.

West Side story will run in Johannesburg until 5th March 2017. 

Story by Robyn D’Alessandro, Photo Jesse Kramer


Feb 24, 2017

The Gearhouse Group of Companies