Poppins Fresh


Getting the world's most famous nanny from book to stage has been a long process for Cameron Mackintosh — something that he had envisioned ever since he met the creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, back in 1993. Travers decided that Mackintosh could be entrusted with the rights to produce the theatrical version of the books. Unfortunately Travers died a few years later before her dream could be realized. With Mackintosh owning the rights to produce the stage musical and Disney owning the rights to the film (including the music and songs within it), the two finally got together to co-produce what the critics are calling the hottest musical in London's West End.

Disney, of course, is no new kid on the block when it comes to stage musicals. Their successes with the likes of The Lion King, Aida, and Beauty and The Beast have proved the Disney magic can successfully transfer to the stage. Disney's track record, coupled with Mackintosh, one of the world's most prolific musical theatre producers, could only be a good thing. Finally, at the end of December 2004 the curtain was raised on Cherry Tree cottage, home to the Banks family and their soon-to-arrive flying nanny. The design team for this production is as highly pedigreed as the production arm: sets and costumes by Bob Crowley, lighting by Howard Harrison, and sound by Andrew Bruce.

The load-in at the Prince Edward Theatre was hampered by a venue in the middle of a major refit in both the front of house and backstage areas. The refit, which was running behind, caused a variety of access problems, not to mention dust getting into sensitive equipment. Thankfully, the show had already completed an out-of-town run in Bristol, which had allowed many of the teething problems normally encountered by a large production to be ironed out.

Mary Poppins is a large show in many respects. There are huge automated scenic elements controlled by the largest automation installation ever installed by Stage Technologies. There are many contrasting scenes calling for a wide range of lighting states. There is an expansive cast of 16 with radio mikes, and one of the largest installations of delay and surround sound speakers to be found in the West End. Yet the creative team found the whole experience relatively easy as highly experienced director, Richard Eyre, took control. “The whole thing was very calm and very well ordered,” explains Rob Halliday, lighting programmer on the show.

Building A House

The most stunning visual element of the production is without doubt Cherry Tree cottage. The interior comprises two downstairs rooms connected by an entrance hall. Leading up from the hall is a staircase with the interior of the downstairs nursery, which can either be covered by the roof — so that characters can look out of the windows — or open so the audience can see inside. The roof itself is also a performance space complete with a lift that enables characters to appear from a chimneystack.

“The whole house came about through a mutual conversation I had with Richard Eyre because obviously, it was the single most complicated thing we had to deal with,” says Crowley. “With the origins of the piece being in a film, when the first script came it still had a filmic feel to it. One minute you're in the nursery, the next minute you're stepping out of the nursery into the park, the next minute you're in the hallway. There was no consideration as to how you would set about literally putting this onstage and giving it some kind of fluidity.”

“Richard and I had done a show together ten years ago at the National Theatre called The Prince's Play. In that we had a giant doll's house; ironically, I had kept a piece of the model and I referenced it here,” Crowley explains. “I said to Richard, ‘Look we have done a version of this before, not as remotely complicated,’ but from that tiny idea I then had to work out how to actually do it.”

One of the main issues with this design was the size; the house itself would take up the entire stage at most venues. After finalizing the initial idea, Crowley brought in the engineering expertise. “I said ‘Is this physically possible?’ I had a span (the nursery floor) that was the width of the stage, there is nothing underneath it and I didn't want its movement to look mechanical. I wanted it to appear to float. So working with the great Mike Barnet, a genius engineer, he came up with a drawing and then they built a prototype,” he says. Crowley got his wish — the giant roof and nursery sections are suspended by just four steel wire cables enabling it to glide in and out effortlessly.

Ensuring the set does what the designer intended and the director required comes from the expertise and equipment supplied by Stage Technologies; Mary Poppins is its largest West End installation to date. As well as providing automation for the scenery, the Stage Technologies setup also looks after the control of lighting bars, loudspeakers, and flying cast members. There are few shows where actors walk and dance their way around the side and top of the proscenium, let alone upside down. However, it is the final exit of Mary out over the heads of the audience, disappearing into the ceiling of the theatre that captures the imagination and displays the advantages of computerized, multi-axis flying. “We have used a piece of our software called Visual Creator (an ED Staging and Projection Product of the Year in 2004), which allows you to plot a 2D path if you are using two winches or 3D if you are using three,” explains Mark Ager, managing director, Stage Technologies. “So, the speed and the path that Mary takes is entered into the software, calculated, and then saved as a cue. The whole show is run from one of our Acrobat consoles.”

Let's Go Fly A Light

With the large quantity of scenery involved in the show, a big part of it ultimately resides in the flies for much of the performance. The biggest piece of flown set is the nursery and roof that spends its entire time downstage and, in doing so, makes the positioning of front-light from on stage difficult. “The lighting positions we had are quite restricted by the scenery. If you imagine the flown roof takes up the downstage third of the grid, you have nowhere to put LX 1,” Halliday explains. “There are no lighting positions overhead on the first third of the stage, and then after that it is quite tight just because of the volume of scenery up there. So we had to fit in where we could go, which has made it quite a front of house-lit musical. Leaving aside the fact that you can't hang anything downstage, when the house is built up you can't use anything else other than front light. You can backlight through the windows or you can top-light onto the roof, but all you have is front of house, which makes it a very heavy front of house rig.”

The restrictions on stage, coupled with the quantity of contrasting scenes, also required the lighting rig to be highly flexible. Halliday detailed what the lighting design tried to achieve: “Like the film, the aim was to make the real world — when Mary is not taking them on magical missions — more monochromatic. Then we have to go from there to more color when magical things happen.” Achieving this involved a large quantity of moving lights, with any overhead lighting being almost exclusively automated. A combination of 71 VARI*LITE VL2000s, VL3000Qs, VL3500Qs and VL5bs, complemented by 37 ETC Source Four® Revolutions were all supplied by Stage Electrics to meet the requirements. “We, along with The Woman in White, were the first people in the country to have the framing shutter systems for the Revolutions,” explains Halliday. “We got the beta-test version of the shutters and they weren't very good. Any other company and we probably would have thrown them off the show. Because ETC is the best customer service company in the world, we had [Greg Thomas] from ETC in Wisconsin who looked after us for most of the tech. He made sure stuff got fixed and it worked. New software got put in and they just got better over time and they were completely reliable. So we like those.”

With all the moving lights, plus scrollers, noise from the lighting grid was going to be an issue. Working with Eyre, who is very sensitive to noise, and associate sound designer Simon Baker, whose opinions on lighting rig noise have been well documented in this very publication, ensured that lighting designer Howard Harrison and his team made every effort to keep the fan noise to a minimum. ‘Q’ versions of VARI*LITE fixtures were used, cutting noise by 50%. Fans on the color scrollers, which are used throughout the rig, were set up so that the speed of the fans are controllable, allowing them to run at idle most of the time.

On stage seven digital light curtains light the cyc, which double up to light any downstage cloths from behind. The rest of the rig consists almost entirely of Source Fours with the addition of eight Martin Atomic Strobes for various effects and four Lycian followspots, all located front of house. Two E\T\C Audiovisuel PIGI projectors located in a control room at the back of the circle provide additional effects including a moving street scene played downstage during a scene change. Crowley hand drew all of the artwork (working with Wyatt Enever from DHA and Nigel Sadler from Scene Change), photographed and transferred the images to film or video, while Enever and Sadler corrected the images to allow for the distortion created by the very steep projection angle. Working in conjunction with the PIGIs were two BeaMover 50 moving yoke projectors with remote focus and zoom manufactured by German company Publitech, plus a Sanyo PLC-XP55, which was hung on the FOH LX bar.

“A lot of the stuff that is done in Poppins is used so that you wouldn't know it is being projected,” Sadler explains. “It is used to add texture to the existing lighting, like moving leaves or when Bert paints the color into the park, the color on the leaves in the trees is all painted in using video.” Four Green Hippo Hippotizer v. 2 media servers play back the video, three of which go directly to the projectors with the fourth monitoring the others as a backup. Continuing with the “belt and braces” approach to the entire show, the Hippotizers also hold video footage for key scenes backing up the PIGIs should a fault occur.

Another company contributing to the lighting effects in the show is Howard Eaton Lighting Limited (or HELL as they like to be called). For Mary Poppins, HELL installed four color-mixing LEDs custom made by Howard Eaton Lighting and fiber optics in the edges of the translucent portals (part of the legs and masking) and around window edges and in the floor. In addition, an Avolites wireless eDMX dimming system was installed into the house to run all of the practicals. HELL also ran much of the data and power cabling and management systems for the automation, lighting, and sound. However, it is the collapsing and re-assembling table that is the most noticeable effect that HELL devised. “It's got a little bit of compressed air in it, a little bit of electronics. Send it one signal and it collapses and another and it restores,” explained Eaton.

A Jolly Holiday For The Ears

One of the final pieces of the puzzle (some would argue the most important ones) are the noise boys and girls. Sitting in an area, with enough LCD monitors that it could be called the “Sound Ship Enterprise,” number one and two sound operators, Borneo Brown and Simon Fox, run the complex audio setup designed by Autograph's Andrew Bruce with all sound effects designed by Simon Baker. All the effects are replayed from four Akai Professional Z4s running as master and backups. Unlike Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, on which Baker was also the associate sound designer, this production was not so reliant on the film for inspiration instead taking more from the books, which tended to be a bit darker in tone.

“Unlike Chitty, where the film references are so massive you couldn't get away from them, you had to re-create the sound the film had. Mary Poppins doesn't have that, so we didn't have starting point and it took a long time to key into the idiom of the whole thing,” Baker explains.

The many magical aspects of the production — collapsing kitchens, flying people, and dancing statues — allowed Baker to take advantage of the system design and the 24 Martin Audio Effect 3 and Effect 5 loudspeakers making up the surround sound system. Sound effects replayed from the Akai Z4s are run through a TiMax effects matrix system that enabled Baker to plot the movement of sound around the auditorium on the screen. G-Type software is used to synchronize the playback of the effect and the routing, giving total flexibility and repeatability to any cue.

Hiding away in the proscenium, Bruce has once again installed a combination of LDS 800 and 400 ribbon loudspeakers as the vocal reinforcement system. Above the stage a central cluster of L'Acoustics ARCS in combination with a collection of Meyer Sound MSL-2s provide orchestral coverage, complemented by Martin Audio WSX and Meyer Sound USW-1P subs. Finally, over 50 Meyer Sound UPM-1Ps are installed around the auditorium working as delay and frontfill.

A DiGiCo D5T with the addition of a D5 TC — the third Autograph has installed on a West End musical — takes pride of place at front of house. Since the company placed the first D5T on the recently moved Les Miserables, Bruce has worked closely with DiGiCo to make several software improvements ensuring it is even more user friendly and quick to operate. With the operator having to contend with 140 channels on Poppins, the changes were most welcome.

As well as mixing the band, 48 channels of Sennheiser SK5012 radio mikes are run throughout the show. This includes several reverse radio mike setups running sound effects from the desk to a puppet dog and a barrel organ to name a few. Several characters, including Mary, have separate mikes located on the brims of hats to ensure the equalization of a performer's voice stays consistent.

The Illustrated Nanny

With more hats than you can shake a stick at and a set as complex as Poppins, a lesser man may have left the costume design to someone else. Not so for Crowley. We postured that he was a man of many talents. “Control freak is another word for it,” he laughs. “I find the set and costume design one big fluid thing, it is all about what you see on the stage at any given moment. When I went to drama school you were taught to do costume and design. Not everyone does both, I know. It is particularly unusual in America, where they separate them at birth, whereas here it is much more common. It just means that you have an overall picture all the time and you can control the color palette.”

Again, the visual impact of the film was in everyone's mind and the iconic symbol of the silhouetted Mary was something that Crowley thought he could not change too much. However, as the show is more closely related to the books, Crowley sought inspiration from the illustrations in the original 1930s imprints. Originally drawn by Mary Shepheard, daughter of Winnie The Pooh illustrator Ernest Shepheard, the costumes were of the time. However, for the film the date was changed to the Edwardian period, which is where Mary's iconic costume comes from. Drawing from both styles and adding his own inspiration, Crowley worked on around 300 costumes for the show, making it a wonder they all manage to make it to the stage during the performance.

With so much detail and on such a grand scale, it is easy to miss the creative perfectionism that has its mark stamped on every department involved in the production. Mary Poppins has made a perfect transition across three media over 70 years, yet her latest incarnation is without doubt “Practically Perfect.”

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