After his first involvement with stage lighting at school, Steve Roberts learned the craft of theater through studying at drama school and subsequently working as a technician, lighting designer, production manager, tour manager, and specialist stage machinery contractor. Working in venues the world over, he developed insights into the practicalities of theater that would prove essential during his 20 years as a theatre consultant. In that time, including the past nine years as part of the multi-award-winning team at Charcoalblue, he has helped to design some of the most innovative and successful performing arts spaces in the world.
How did you first become involved with performance technology?
My first involvement was at school where I did the stage lighting for the school plays as well as for some other local organizations.
What was your route to becoming a performance technology consultant?
After leaving drama school I worked as a lighting technician and lighting designer, then as a production manager and technical manager for theater and contemporary dance. This took me all over the UK as well as about 25 overseas countries, and during these travels I became increasingly interested in the venues that I was visiting. Between working in live theater and dance and becoming a consultant, I worked for a specialist contractor installing stage lighting systems in the UK, Middle East and Far East.
How long have you been doing what you do?
This is my 20th year as a theater consultant!
If you hadn’t become a consultant, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I’m not sure - probably still working for a specialist contractor somewhere.
If someone asks you what you do for a living, how do you describe it?
I normally say that I work for a company designing performing arts buildings.
Can you outline the variety of the projects you undertake?
I’ve worked on a very wide range of projects from local arts centers to internationally renowned cultural organizations and most things in between. Whilst most of my work is on performing arts spaces, I have also worked on conference spaces and large-scale music venues.
What do you most enjoy about the process of your work?
The early stages, where we work with the client to clearly define what they want from their building and start to work on the form that it will take, are particularly enjoyable.
What are the most challenging aspects of your work?
The most regular challenge is trying to align the client’s aspirations with the available budget!
What would you say are the key elements required for a successful project?
Teamwork is key. The design of a complex building such as a theater involves a large team, some of whom might not have worked on this type of building previously; it is essential that everyone works together.
What are the key skills or attributes that you require to do your job well?
An understanding of how a building will be used and the process of staging an event are absolutely critical to the work of a theater consultant
What are the most common misconceptions that you encounter among clients?
That a construction project is just like a show, but on a bigger scale! Construction projects are complex, just as shows are, but in a construction project the timescales are longer and for some of the design team and contractor’s team it will be the first time that they are working on a cultural project.
Which piece of advice do you give to clients most often?
The best advice for clients is to make sure that your brief is very clear at the start of the design process.
What is the most frustrating aspect of your job?
The sheer volume of paperwork required to design great buildings!
Can you tell us something about being a consultant that most people don’t realize?
It’s not as exciting as it sounds . . . Trawling through reams of containment drawings quickly makes you wonder why you became a consultant!
Which types of projects do you find the most rewarding?
Ones with an engaged and knowledgeable client.
Which of your projects have you found most satisfying, and why?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on a large number of great projects in the last two decades. I think that the most recent example of a really satisfying project was the replacement of the stage engineering control system in the Concert Hall at the Esplanade in Singapore. The design timescale was very tight and the closure time for the installation was even tighter!
How do you keep yourself appraised of new technology and potential solutions?
Speaking to users and manufacturers as well as attending trade shows.
How has clients’ awareness of LED lighting technology changed in recent years?
The awareness of LED has been completely transformed. For architectural lighting, there is an assumption that LEDs will be used throughout. For the production lighting, LEDs are typically the aspiration, but often the client’s existing stock means that we will have to design systems that cater for both LED and non-LED equipment.
What are the biggest changes you’ve witnessed in equipment and system specifications in recent years?
The use of VR / 3D modelling has been around for years but it has really developed in the last few years to become a useful tool, both when designing the building and for the shows that will be staged there.
How important is it for you to have a close working relationship with the equipment manufacturer’s representatives?
Very important. We will often be starting to develop our designs five years before opening night, so it’s essential that we understand from manufacturer’s representatives where they see their products developing over this sort of timescale.
Solutions-wise, what is missing in the marketplace? What would you most like to see from manufacturers?
Even before COVID, venues were under huge financial pressures and many were looking at how to maximize the number of events that they can stage to increase income. Any solution that helps speed up change-overs and allow more preparation to be done before you move onto the stage is very welcome.