Charles Swift is principal consultant with Atlanta, GA based Graham, Swift & Company LLC. His 20 years’ experience in consulting on the design and specification of performance venues and technology is backed by a thorough education in stage and scenic design, and more than four decades as a lighting designer, giving him a thorough understanding of the practical needs of performing arts spaces of all kinds, ensuring the best results for clients.
How did you first become involved with performance technology?
I began designing lighting while working on high school productions at a time when autotransformers were still being installed to handle dimming. We were transitioning to the “new” tungsten-halogen lamps in lighting fixtures and it was common to still have some Roscolene in stock.
What was your route to becoming a performance technology consultant?
After earning a degree in electronics in anticipation of becoming a television engineer, I became more interested in the technical aspects of live performance. I built on experiences in freelance design, technical direction, scenic construction and stage management. After receiving a BS in Stage Design and Technology, I went on to grad school and earned an MFA in Scene Design and Stage Lighting from Carnegie Mellon University.
Following my graduate program, I worked for a large manufacturer of stage rigging equipment. My duties included drafting rigging shop drawings, and extensive work in the controls division including building and programming controls for lifts and motorized (lineshaft) rigging systems. This work would put me in good stead to design and specify systems and controls as a consultant. I also became a member of I.A.T.S.E and worked as a stagehand on all manner of live events, which was extremely valuable in understanding the needs of the touring industry and the importance of backstage circulation, loading dock access and location.
After moving to the Southeast in 1999, I had the opportunity to concentrate on doing consulting work with Larry Graham and then be voted into membership of the ASTC (American Society of Theatre Consultants).
How long have you been doing what you do?
My lighting design work has spanned over four decades, with a focus on consulting beginning 20 years ago. In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to shift more focus back to lighting design, my original love and motivation for remaining in the entertainment business. This migration back into design has been a tremendous benefit to my ability to stay abreast of industry developments, thereby enhancing my contribution to the consulting process.
If you hadn’t become a consultant, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I would probably be engaged in freelance design and technical direction for live performance, TV or movies.
If someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?
I usually start out by saying that an architect who is charged with designing a building with a performance space in it will typically call us and say, “We haven’t ever done one of these before, can you help us?” to which we reply “Yes, we can!”
I then follow up by saying that we lay out the stage, audience chamber, dressing rooms and ancillary spaces, including adjacencies, meeting ADA requirements and the location and access to the loading dock. I explain briefly that we are responsible for making the venue successful from the point of view of the audience, performers, technicians, artists and management. This includes designing and specifying rigging, orchestra lift and lighting systems that must be incorporated seamlessly into the construction process to yield an efficient “factory” that produces live entertainment.
Most people respond by saying “Wow, that must be really interesting” - to which I can only reply, “Yes it is!”
Can you outline the variety of the projects you undertake?
Our projects run the gamut from rudimentary upgrades and system renovations for schools and houses of worship to new construction that ranges from community centers and amphitheaters to high school and collegiate training facilities. With both principals having been engaged in the theatre education arena, our firm is especially noted for designing safe, robust, affordable educational facilities.
What do you most enjoy about the process of your work?
The process of meeting with the architects, owners and stakeholders to discover and balance the vision and practicalities of the building elements that will support their mission. This continues into the meetings with the architect in the Schematic Design and Design Development phases of the project. This is where creative energy and problem solving play a key role in designing a successful venue.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
Theatre Consulting is based on detailed infrastructure, installation and construction requirements. It can be challenging to guide contractors through the process to ensure that every critical aspect of the construction process supports the installation of specialty equipment and, ultimately, the production process. Even with clear advice, drawings provided at the outset of the project, and coordination with customary consultants, the construction process can be fraught with misconceptions, miscommunication and errors.
Most of the issues seem to stem from a reluctance on the part of General Contractors and their subs to ask questions. We make ourselves available to provide clarifications and answer questions but, oftentimes, the site leadership team does not take the opportunity to resolve an issue or question before proceeding with the work. This tendency is often based on the notion that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission”, or in an effort to save money by providing an inferior product, or executing the work in a manner that is not in compliance with the Construction Documents and Specifications.
The problem remains that, although contractors may be able to arrive at a “negotiated acceptance” or “get away with” inferior work or products in other areas, this does not maintain the level of safety and precise execution required for spaces where live entertainment takes place.
What would you say are the key elements of a successful project?
A successful project reflects the mission outlined by the owner, is economically responsible, easily accessible, pleasing to visit, easy to work in, and creates a flow that supports all the different types of productions that are mounted. It is a blend of all the aspects considered by the design team including decor, travel paths within the building, occupational hazards and safety measures, comfort, convenience, audience acceptance and all the backstage and onstage amenities that support each performance.
What are the key skills or attributes that you require to do your job well?
A primary concern for safety, extensive production experience in several disciplines (design, stage hand duties, technical direction, event coordination etc.) and an extensive knowledge base and experience with any equipment that will be specified, as well as all aspects of the infrastructure required to support them.
The consultant must have a detailed understanding of the construction process and the various trades involved in providing infrastructure to the performance space. Also required is an appreciation of the audience experience, from the approach to the parking lot, ticketing, seating and sightlines, acoustics and the various intermission activities. Another factor is respect for all who will occupy the building in any capacity and balancing their needs within the program and the budget.
What are the most common misconceptions that you encounter among clients?
We often encounter a notion that all theatres are the same, and can be designed on a “cookie cutter” basis. Beyond that, owners (and some architects) seem to believe that, as long as the stage size meets minimum requirements, they can host any touring production on the circuit, without understanding that there is a correlation between the number of seats and ticket price. Some municipal project supervisors are surprised to learn that it would not be practical to book a ‘Broadway Bus and Truck’ in a 200-400 seat venue, without securing a significant endowment to support such an endeavor.
The most common technical misconception is that “LEDs are the answer to everything”. Although significant strides have been made and LEDs offer attractive energy savings, their application and implementation in a project is not without challenges and associated costs - particularly in control, with dimming being a major stumbling block in many applications.
Which piece of advice do you give to clients most often?
We tell our clients that we are building a factory to produce a live entertainment product which happens on a strict schedule, in front of a live audience who must be able to see and hear in comfortable surroundings. We relate the adage that “the theatre is an inherently dangerously place to work” and that safety is a primary consideration in all that we do.
We stress that all aspects of the production demand attention to detail, with the emphasis on safety, and that the systems we design and specify provide the means for the various companies who use the space to perform at their best, without fear of injury. We stress to owners that we are their advocates, that we represent them and the interests of their stakeholders and base our designs and advice on the agreed upon Program for the building.
With respect to lighting systems and equipment, I also point out that with increased flexibility comes increased complexity. I refer specifically to fixtures that have multiple attributes and the fact that, as the number of controllable “things” grows, programming time can increase exponentially.
I stress that training and continued education is vital. I’m particularly pleased to be able to specify the Strand NEO console as a means of controlling multiple types of attributes on a customizable platform, simplifying control management issues and mitigating long strings of key strokes during the programming process.
What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
The most frustrating part occurs during the bidding and construction process. There are those who believe that any product is as good as another and, if it can be had at a cheaper price, it’s a benefit. This is often done without regard to quality or the impact on the overall outcome. We are often asked to use “substitute” or “equivalent” products or to participate in “value engineering” exercises. We inform our clients that our systems have already been engineered to suit their venue with maximum value designed in, and that attempts to reduce quantities or modify the requirements will only negatively impact production values or, more importantly, safety.
Can you tell us something about being a consultant that most people don’t realize?
Many people ask us “Where do consultants come from?” or “Is there a school for that?” Well, the only practical school is the production school of hard knocks (along with significant insights into the construction process, construction trades and practices) and no, we don’t crawl out from under a rock and hang out a shingle. Most people don’t seem to realize that consulting is based upon years of production experience and a solid understanding of all the requirements that affect the production space and its planning and construction.
Which types of projects do you find most rewarding?
Those that culminate in a venue that is pleasing to the patrons, management, technicians and performers who frequent the facility. The icing on the cake is when, after just a few years of operation, a new theatre is successful and self-supporting.
Which of your projects have you found most satisfying, and why?
The Sylvia Beard Theatre at the Buford Community Center (Buford, GA): an intimate, beautiful “Jewel Box”, this space is the pride of the community. It hosts indoor and outdoor events - we also had input into the layout and infrastructure for an amphitheater - and is constantly busy. It was originally envisioned as a venue that would need support from the City for its foreseeable lifetime, but became a self-supporting and revenue generating venue within three years of opening.
Fairfield High School (Fairfield, AL): This project in a nearby city school district followed several projects for Jefferson County Schools in Alabama. It was a stand-alone structure and was satisfying based on the leadership of the design team, headed by Evan Terry Architects, and the construction process as a whole. Although the budget was smaller, the team and the GC worked together to provide a building that met the requirements of the owner and resulted in a well-appointed, pleasing and robust environment that the owner and community can be proud of for years to come.
Westminster School (Atlanta, GA): This started out as a renovation to resolve ongoing issues with the house lighting system in the Kellett Theatre. We came to understand that scheduling in the space had grown increasingly difficult over the years due to demand from so many programs, limited staffing and, in some cases, zero changeover times. Scheduling issues were exacerbated by the introduction of LED and moving head fixtures into the production process.
It became apparent to us that improvements to the performance lighting system would serve to address many of the troublesome elements (DMX distribution being a primary concern) and relieve some of the stress of meeting the increasing demands being placed on the space. This included replacing an existing Strand CD80 rack with C21 and supplementing the dimming system with R21 raceway to increase capacity, incorporate relay controlled outlets for LED and robotic fixtures and provide a path for DMX distribution throughout the space.
The renovation to the house lighting system provided nothing less than stunning results and an intense level of satisfaction for the owner. The overall project has resulted in an ongoing relationship with the school and lasting friendships with the management and production staff.
How do you keep yourself appraised of new technology and potential solutions?
I try to keep in contact with manufacturers and take advantage of any educational programs and informational releases on new products. I also frequently access links to new products from trade magazines. Additionally, I maintain a presence in the lighting design arena, to stay abreast of developing trends and experience products in a production setting.
How has clients’ awareness of LED lighting technology changed in recent years?
As mentioned earlier, most clients seem convinced that “LEDs are the answer to everything” without having the background knowledge required to make informed decisions regarding the appropriateness of a particular fixture for a specific purpose. This disconnect is particularly widespread in house lighting control, but also carries over into the quality of the light and color mixing ability of multi-color LED stage lighting fixtures.
Many owners and architects seem to be unable to grasp that house lighting is part of the performance lighting system by virtue of the fact that we telegraph cues to the audience about what is expected from them (“house to half”, for instance) or that it is not acceptable to install LED fixtures that click off at 10% or 3% or 1% and bounce on at 17% or above for house lighting applications. Some of the fixtures offered as “house lights” were originally designed for high bay or similar applications and have a specular quality that is irritating in an audience chamber due to the veiling glare they produce.
What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in equipment & system specifications in recent years?
Although we transitioned to a distributed dimming and signal distribution raceway system utilizing Strand R21 some years ago, the rush of LED stage lighting sources to the marketplace and the continued displacement of dimmed circuits by the need for relay-controlled circuits presents ongoing concerns about how to balance dimmed and relay-controlled circuits in a performance lighting system.
We feel validated in our choice of R21, in that DMX distribution is included in the raceway and relay-controlled modules are interchangeable with dimmer modules, so clients who have systems that are ten years old or more can still change over to relay-controlled circuits on an ‘as needed’ basis as they acquire more LED fixtures.
How important is it for you to have a close working relationship with the equipment manufacturer’s representatives?
To me, having a relationship with equipment manufacturers is vital. It’s the best way to keep abreast of changing technology and new products, as well as detailed information about product improvements and products being developed for the market.
Having a direct connection to discuss control issues is perhaps one of the key benefits of this relationship. With channel counts skyrocketing as more and more colors and features are added to LED sources, the management of channel allocation, grouping and attributes is becoming increasingly important.
This is the reason that NEO is my console of choice for design and specification. NEO has an extremely powerful software platform that incorporates the ability for designers, operators and programmers to set up the console to control large or small “chunks” of information in a way that is convenient and intuitive for them, thereby minimizing keystrokes during rehearsal or live programming sessions. This is where the true value of NEO comes into play as a boon to the industry.
Solutions-wise, what is missing in the marketplace? What would you most like to see from manufacturers?
With the current state of LED development, it seems that we now have a range of fixtures with the power to truly serve the live entertainment industry in terms of brightness and flexibility. The two key challenges for theatre fixtures are 1) Colors and color mixing and 2) Quiet operation.
With the latest multicolor LEDs incorporating six different color engines to smooth out the color spectrum and maintain CRI, one wonders how far we have to go to achieve a color mixing scheme that will mimic what we can achieve with conventional fixtures and “gels”. Additional attributes exacerbate the current complexities of “channel” allocation and management. Having just read the White Paper on LED Spectrums and Smartcolor Control, I am pleased to see that Vari-Lite is taking a leadership role in recognizing the problem and providing a solution based on CMY+CTO control through the Smartcolor system.
The final challenge - the bane of all LED performance lighting fixture manufacturing - is fan noise. I have done some design work in a small local venue where there are a few LED moving head fixtures. In this converted space, the audience is positioned on risers that bring some of them quite close to the lighting grid and most within proximity of the noise emitted by these fixtures. In discussions regarding improvements to the performance lighting system, one of the founders of the space mentioned that perhaps they would consider “going to all LED fixtures” at some point. After contemplating this, it occurred to me that this might not be the best direction. Replacing all the conventional fixtures with LEDs could introduce so much noise that much of the ambiance and speech intelligibility could be lost, having a negative impact on their ‘brand’ as a venue and their relationship with long-time patrons.
Notwithstanding, the cooling features incorporated into Vari-Lite’s VL1100 LED have allowed me to consider installing five fixtures in another venue, where audience members are slightly farther away from the fixture location.