Parting the Red Sea or walking on Water? Anything is possible for The Prince of Egypt with Unusual Rigging

4th March 2020

The Prince of Egypt opened in February at the Dominion Theatre. The musical, produced by DreamWorks Theatricals, a division of Universal Theatrical Group, Michael McCabe and Neil Laidlaw, has recently announced a 7 week extension to its initial 32 week run with production manager Lloyd Thomas at the helm.

Lloyd, who was brought on board by Pyramid Theatre Productions for the show, quickly brought Unusual into the fold to support the rigging and engineering requirements of this all singing, all dancing extravaganza.

“Early in the design process it quickly became apparent that this production was going to be one of the biggest musicals of the year, and was going to present a number of complex challenges, pushing right to the edge of the comfort zone of many of the people involved, myself especially!” explained Lloyd. “With this in mind, it was vital for me to have a rigging company onboard that had the expertise and infrastructure to work with me in solving these challenges. I’ve worked with Unusual on many productions over the years and knew that their support would be invaluable.”

Emily commented: “We supplied all the infrastructure to hang the FOH environment, that’s truss, motors, rolled bars, rigging etc and we also designed the system to make it allhang in the required positions. Equally, onstage we supplied the truss, motors, ladder beam and so on. In total it’s about 800m of truss and over 100 motors.”

The nature of some of the elements of the show were rather out of the ordinary. “One of the most complex pieces on the show is the flood piece, built by Brilliant Stages and Cardiff Theatrical Services (CTS)” said Lloyd. “This six tonne piece rakes and tilts throughout the show as well as containing two lifts. Whilst a floor piece might not normally fall under the remit of a rigging company, the install of this piece was quite complex due to the weight of the piece and the fact that we had to remove the theatre floor below the piece, to enable us to use the substage space for the lift mechanism and the Serepid drives to enable the tilt motion. Unusual were instrumental in helping to devise a safe system of work for this process, and the subsequently supplying the necessary temporary rigging and trussing required. It also helped that Unusual had recently supplied the new modular stage for the Dominion, so they already had a detailed understanding of the floor, and how to remove the floor and substructure safely and efficiently”

He added: “The sky piece ended up being relatively simplein terms of its use in the show, although the process to get it in place required a lot of thought. The piece needed to be covered with a seamless painted canvas, but was too large to bring into the venue in one piece. Unusual, CTS and I all worked together to come up with a system of supporting the piece on temporary build trusses and custom dollies, to enable the piece to be canvassed face up on the stage, then flipped over using build motors, before being transferredonto Kinesys motors, also supplied by Unusual, which now enable the piece to be flown live during the show. This system of work prevented the need for any of the canvasing to be done at height, which would have been very slow and potentially dangerous”.

“The front of house install was a real feat of bothengineering and diplomacy, for want of a better word, in terms of trying to integrate so many needs into it – scenic,automation, lighting, video and sound, while also taking on board the structural limitations of the building. The front of house environment expands further and wider into the auditorium than previous shows have done. This meant we required additional rigging points to be installed, through the venue’s plaster ceiling. Unusual’s relationship with bothMike Jackson and Nederlander was instrumental in us being given permission to do this.”

Emily added: “The major challenge with Prince of Egypt is the sheer size of it. Over stage there are several largeset pieces that render large parts of the normal theatre flying system inoperable, so everything that must fly in around these, has to be diverted in the grid onto temporary fly bars, or made “direct fly”. There are alsolots of exciting effects in the show that require rigging support and so figuring out how to make these fit in the limited amount of space available was tricky. Two very long curtain tracks follow a convoluted path from upstage to downstage, traversing over the top of the borders and the LX rig, which as you can imagine have posed some unique challenges”. 

She continued: “In the auditorium we are hanging almost 9 tonnes of truss, lighting, sound & video equipment, scenery & SFX. The positioning of many of these items is critical to the design so it took weeks of drawings and calculations to enable it to all hang safely and effectively in the air.”

As with most shows of this scale, time was also a challenge. Lloyd commented: “We were working to such a compressed schedule to get everything done on time. When the slot in the theatre was booked, the show that was imagined was significantly simpler than massive musical we’re producing, but there was not a lot of give in the schedule. From “getting the keys” on the 9thJanuary, we had 10 days to be ready for lighting focus, and 14 days to be ready for technical rehearsal to commence, which was incredibly tight for a show of this scale.”

The new modular stage at the Dominion that Unusual installed in summer 2019 was a godsend in this instance. “We had to take out a big chunk centrally underneath the ‘earth’ platform. Two lifts are fitted in the centre, as well as the Serepid drives for the earth piece and a levitation loft that Moses levitates on, further upstage. A lot of the stage area had to come out to physically fit the structure in. With the new modular stage, this removal took one day. With a more traditional stage, this could easily have taken 3 or 4 days, so we certainly were counting our blessings on this front” added Lloyd.

The additional complexity with the Dominion Theatre is that it is also home to Hillsong Church who hold their weekly Sunday services here. For Lloyd this involves getting extra crew in on a Saturday night to clear everything away so that the church can continue with its Sunday worship as normal, then reinstate on a Monday morning. 

He concluded: “A show of this scale on the timeframe we had, has pushed boundaries for everyone, but with the Unusual team on board, I know that I can trust them to solve any challenge thrown at them with professionalism and positivity. We had to add many night calls at short notice, and I knew Unusual would be capable for staffing these with top quality riggers. Having the backing of Unusual takes away so much worry, and allows me to focus on the “big picture”. Big thanks to Simon Stone, Simon Tiernan, Chris Johnson (CJ), Jez and Tom who have all provided support from Unusual HQ. However special thanks must go to Harrison and Emily. Harrison, has been our lead rigger and has been onsite for almost as many days as me! He has risen to every challenge with professionalism and good humour, dealing with moving goalposts without issue. Emily has been my point person from day one of planning, coming up with solutions to all the design requirements. They’ve taken on a job of biblical proportions and the result is heavenly.”