Q+A: Michael Nishball

As director of technical production at Theatre Projects’ US office, Michael Nishball has major responsibility when it comes to equipment design, as well as providing clients with efficient, cost-effective systems and safe workplaces. Since 1995, he has provided stage-house design, stage-equipment details, and specifications for more than 125 various venues, the most recent of which is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. Live Design chats with Nishball about his role as a theatre consultant.

Ellen Lampert-Greaux: In designing a venue for the 21st century, how are the technical considerations different than in the past, in terms of rigging and other technical systems?
Michael Nishball: Not all projects lend themselves to complete or partial power flying, so I am often adding details to “future proof” a performance space to a certain extent. Up until recently, the products for power flying and automation in the North American market were limited so future-proofing projects designed in the last three decades was minimal. Now I approach every project with the expectation that, in the near or distant future, power flying will be able to be accommodated economically. We approach performance buildings that will be viable for 75 years or more.

ELG: How do you determine what kind of rigging system is best? Is budget often a determining factor, or is it more the program requirements?
MN: Budget is, of course, a factor, but the appropriate technology for the type of venue, programming, and the staffing model is my primary determining factor. Rigging system accommodation in our new projects requires specific structural coordination so selections made in early design development for rigging and stage machinery usually remain intact through bidding and construction. Generally, with really innovative rigging product development, I can only apply it to the next project, unfortunately.

ELG: What is the cutting-edge venue you have completed in terms of rigging and automation?
MN: At the new Kauffman Center Concert Hall, the 1,600-seat oval symphony venue, Helzberg Hall, has a very unusual interior shape that is very steep with a sloped ceiling. As we were not able to light from the highest elevation, due to a fixed acoustic canopy, we designed a reflector at a lower elevation with all the services for the stage, including lighting and rigging, in it. The TP team was able to achieve motorized lighting “outriggers” at the same level as the canopy and out to the sides for concert and performance lighting that can get the fixtures to the stage floor for service. This is not always achievable from a highly finished and architecturally sensitive acoustic canopy. Future performance rigging can be accommodated by an extensive chain motor system. The client is happy, the acoustics are successful, and we went for the quietest moving lights from Philips Vari-Lite for the hall.

I also think that architect Moshe Safdie did a great job with the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, the proscenium opera house, especially in terms of the integration over the forestage. There is a structural pelmet so that you don’t see any loudspeakers or line arrays hanging in space, and you can rig through this area. It serves as an acoustic reflection surface, as well, and the singers like it. The hall has gotten good reviews from the music critics for vocal clarity and a natural sound. It also has a seat-back titles system, like at The Metropolitan Opera and Santa Fe, and is only the fifth or sixth system of this kind in the country. The center also has the best lobby I have ever worked in, with canted glass walls and ceiling, providing great views of Kansas City.

ELG: How does a client begin the design process with a consultant?
MN: You’ve heard of the word “collaboration.” Working with clients, from the very beginning, it’s a give and take, and there is usually a vision by the owner, and we ask a lot of questions. How many theatres do you need? What kind of theatre is appropriate for this market? Based on their answers, we try to steer them in the right direction. Sometimes we tell them they need two halls rather than one that does everything, like at the Kauffman. They had come to the conclusion that the Kansas City Symphony needed its own hall.

ELG: How do you determine the equipment budget?
MN: Budget estimates are based on the needs for lighting, stage machinery, seating, and related costs. The figures are based on our internal process of budgeting by line items to generate pricing. If something is highly customized, we might shoot a request to a manufacturer for a bid. The budget is usually pretty solid until the point in the construction process when we begin to pare it down.

ELG: What is the ideal relationship with the architect on any given project?
MN: We find it is best for us to be hired directly by the owner rather than the architect. That allows us to be on an equal footing, bring equal weight to the process, and often provide a sense of checks and balances. We are like the theatre’s technical conscious, but we have very close relationships with many architects, especially in helping decide the room shape and all the technical systems that go with it.

ELG: What would you like to see developed in terms of new technology, and are there specific issues that still need to be addressed?
MN: Complete permanent chain motor control systems with integrated load sensing, positioning feedback, and variable high speed chain motors that are quiet. This could be considered a “hoist per lift point” the way the industry changed when it became a “dimmer per circuit” world.

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