Coming Together: Teamwork Integral to the 2017 Calgary Stampede TransAlta Grandstand Show

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

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This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Professional Lighting & Production.

By Andrew King

It’s widely billed as “the greatest outdoor show on Earth” – and with good reason. The annual TransAlta Grandstand Show presented during the Calgary Stampede is a true spectacle in every sense, presenting ticketholders with a wide variety of big talents and breathtaking feats backed by a sizeable and striking production design.

But while it’s the action onstage that awes the 20,000-plus crowd night after night during the Stampede’s mid-July run, the professional team of behind-the-scenes (and front-of-house) collaborators behind the show deserves as much credit as the talent onstage for earning the show’s special distinction.

The 2017 TransAlta Grandstand Show was directed by Brian Foley in his 16th year at the helm, produced by Dave Pierce, who won an Emmy Award for his work on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Opening

Ceremonies, and hosted by beloved Calgary native Jann Arden. Titled Together, the theme for the spectacle – which played on the popular Canada 150 milestone – was a celebration of Canadian history and culture, uniting a diverse array of talent and creativity from communities all across Alberta and Canada on the iconic Queen Mary portable stage – the largest of its kind in the world.

The show’s title could just as easily be applied to the technical team that brought it to being, which itself was comprised of talented professionals – some Stampede veterans, others new collaborators – from places across Canada, working towards a singular goal: a show that lived up to a reputation earned over the course of several decades.

The main idea behind Together was to pay tribute to the past 150 years while also sharing a message of inclusion and unity for a strong and bright future as a nation. As such, diversity and authenticity were critical criteria for the onstage programming, though even then, as Production Manager Colleen Caron shares, “The country’s diversity made it a challenge to showcase all that it has to offer.”

1 (2)But that didn’t stop the Stampede from putting forth a noble effort. Though the show was branded as a Canada 150 initiative, the idea was to deliver something unexpected, unlike any one of the more typical celebrations going on across the country. Among the acts featured during the show were the Alberta Ballet, The Young Canadians, adult choir Revv52, Inuit throat singers Cailyn DeGrandpre and Samantha Kigutaq, plus dozens of other musicians, acrobats, and dancers of all ages. It was the largest assembled cast in the event’s history with 308 performers in total.

For many working behind the scenes to stage this annual event, the Grandstand Show is a year-round project, with planning for each new edition beginning shortly after the preceding one has ended.

Caron has been with the Stampede since 1998 and the production manager for the Grandstand Show since 2001. As such, her role is to support the vision of the creative team by bringing resources together – people, equipment, and whatever else might be needed. She manages a $4.5 million budget and is there to ensure all systems are continually moving forward.

“As a non-creative person, I always marvel at the ability of the creative team in the initial brainstorming sessions,” she shares. “The ideas sometimes are so out there that I question how we can possibly pull it off, but thanks to the incredible professionals that work on this production, somehow, it all comes together. It’s truly amazing what can be accomplished in just six to eight months, only to put it all to bed in mid-July and repeat the process over and over again each year.”

Many of those creative and technical professionals are also year-to-year fixtures of the production. As Caron explains, “We’ve had a longstanding working relationship with our technical suppliers. They provide so much more than service or equipment; their expertise is very highly respected – so much so that they are brought in early on in the creative process for input on their subject matter. We have little to no turnover with our suppliers and technical support. It’s a highly creative and productive team – like a happy family.”

1 (1)The show’s Technical Director, Grant Johnson, uses that very term, noting that everyone working on the Stampede – from hired hands to top executives – is on a first-name basis. “The idea of it being a family may seem hokey from the outside,” Johnson says, “but it really contributes to a great working culture here.”

If the creative team behind the show is indeed a family, then the Grandstand Stage – lovingly dubbed the Queen Mary due to its sheer bulk – is their communal dinner table.

The massive 200,000-lb. mobile stage typically spans 100 ft. wide, though for this year’s extravaganza, with its massive cast, the stage was expanded by 30 ft. at each wing.

The stage is towed into place in front of the riser by a massive tractor (this is the Stampede, after all) ahead of each performance, since the track is used for rodeo competitions and chuckwagon races by day.

The 2017 show was only the second for freelance lighting designer Geoff Bouckley. A veteran of theatre and dance productions, Bouckley also has recent experience with architectural lighting, and thus brought a welcome eye for various lighting disciplines to the show.

Thinking back to the initial creative meetings in the fall of 2016, he explains how, early on, the idea was to simply share some macro-level creative ideas. “So we talked about incorporating drones, or using flying clusters of par cans on the stage and other things we could be doing on the fly truss side,” he says. “There were a few directions to investigate, and then we came back in the winter with some more solid ideas as far as technical capacity and creative vision.”

As the onstage acts were cemented in the following months, Bouckley was in regular contact with Tracey Ploss of Winnipeg’s Q One Show Technologies, which supplies the lighting equipment for the Queen Mary.

“They have the experience with this show, and know exactly what our set-up is like and what our limitations are,” Bouckley says, “so I rely a lot on Tracey to help me realize some of the looks I’m after, and recommend fixtures that will achieve what I need them to. Basically, I submit my dream list, and then we collaborate on what’s available and realistic within our budget.”

Bouckley says his placement options for fixtures are relatively limited. There’s the upstage video wall position for the bulk of the flown fixtures, some FOH positions out under the lip of the grandstand’s upper level, and some infrastructure on the wings – “and that’s about it,” he says. “You really have to get creative with how you utilize the positions.”

Drawing on his experiences from his inaugural year in 2016, he did add a ground row of fixtures upstage for some lower-level effects, but otherwise, the rig is similar to last year’s iteration.

Photo Credit: Shaun Robinson / Calgary Stampede

Photo Credit: Shaun Robinson / Calgary Stampede

“One of the big considerations is, being an outdoor show that happens rain or shine, a lot of the gear lives outside from load-in to strike, which is two-and-a-half to three weeks, so we need things that are robust, mechanically sound, and relatively easy to fix.”

That’s where Ploss and his onsite team from Q One – Terry Mueller, Jarret Borodenko, Brad Wagg, and Corey Ellis – were indispensible allies. “I’ve been doing this show for so long that we’ve kind of got it down,” he says, “but it’s still a very unique beast.” Working with a few different companies, Ploss has been the Grandstand Show’s rental rep since the early 2000s, and in that time, he’s seen the show in sub-zero temperatures and as hot as 40 degrees; he’s seen the stage hit with rain, hail, and snow. But most impressively, he recalls the 2013 show that went on despite the disastrous flooding throughout the city in the weeks leading up to the Stampede.

Even in the best of conditions, he says, “You’re still in the middle of a horse track, full of everything you find on a horse track. It really is one of the hardest gigs I’ve ever done. I mean, you’re talking hundreds of fixtures – Guns ‘N Roses territory – in a very unpredictable setting.” Illustrating his point, he explains how there were 10 foggers and 10 hazers on the deck for 2017, which were deployed in various configurations based on the wind conditions on any given night.

“It’s just a huge spectacle,” he says. “Knock on wood, our failure rate is very minimal, but that’s because of experience and preparation. Everyone there knows their job and does it well. This one isn’t for the weak-hearted.”

On that note, like many of his contemporaries, Bouckley has been incorporating more LED fixtures into his work in recent years, though says that the Grandstand Show isn’t necessarily the best venue for them. Still, he did rely on some Martin MAC Auras and GLP impression X4s in addition to more standard offerings like Vari-Lite VL3000 and VL3500s and Clay Paky’s ubiquitous Sharpys.

The VL3500s were put to good use at FOH to wash the stage, as Bouckley says “more front light” is something of a mantra for this show because of the many young performers gracing the stage.

Another significant component of the programming for Together touches on a very important and topical issue: Canada’s relationship and path to reconciliation with its indigenous peoples.

As Caron explains, “We collaborated on creative with indigenous designers, consultants, and artists from Treaty 7. It was important to present this content in a fashion that resonates an experience to showcase contemporary indigenous art and design that is true to our nation’s history and presented in a fresh and honest sense, free of stereotype and pedantic presentation.”

Adds Bouckley: “I personally think this is an element that set our Canada 150 celebration apart from many others.”

This mandate informed his choice to add some SkyPans to the rig. “These lights were envisioned and used primarily to bring a non-digital connection to the First Nations music and performance,” Bouckley explains. “The pulsing incandescent light possessed a lovely visual cadence with the drum beat as it naturally fades, and their broad, soft focus ensured the whole grandstand was bathed in their light when used.”

Michael Wilkinson was the programmer and operator for the Grandstand Show’s lighting, working behind an MA Lighting grandMA2 during the run. “He’s an amazing programmer that’s always open to figuring things out with me,” says Bouckley. “Or if I’m being ambiguous with anything, he’ll try different things to get to where I’m coming from, and that makes for a great working relationship.”

Bouckley reminisces about some of his personal highlights from the 2017 show, including a sequence with trapeze artists flying around the stage with LED-integrated costumes that played on the idea of the Northern Lights. “So we had a combination of the Sharpys panning through the air to fill in the space while these artists in the lit costumes were spinning and flying around,” he explains. “We created a lot of depth as a team of designers, and it was a really beautiful moment in the show.”

Of course, he’d be remiss not to talk about the opening number, which includes all of the performers onstage at one point. “It’s very over-the-top, which is a great way to start off a show like this,” he says, “so it was about making sure there was a lot of light, but also that we were really in sync with the music, which was multi-layered and very dense. I thought it ended up being a great way to bring everybody in.”

Video was also a significant component for this year’s show, with Multi-Vision Inc. (MVI) supplying the substantial video rig. MVI’s Phil Cane has been the company’s project manager for the Grandstand Show since 2003.

The massive downstage video wall on the Queen Mary was primarily used for custom content to support the various acts, while the screens on each wing of the stage were mainly for IMAG. What’s more, there are trailers with screens flanking the stage for even more IMAG support.

“The stage layout and audience layout is quite unique here,” Cane begins. “It’s a really wide audience area, so a lot of people are off-axis for the show. The distance from the centre line of the stage to the edges of the stands is significant, so we rely on IMAG pretty heavily to show people’s faces and to make sure everyone can catch the finer details of these performances.”

Cane recalls that, when MVI first started supplying the Stampede with screens, they had two portable screens comprised of about 25 panels apiece. “And we thought bringing 50 panels out was a challenge. Now we’re up to 840,” he says with a laugh, referencing the 18-mm pitch product deployed for this year’s show.

Video load-in begins two-and-a-half weeks before the show’s opening night, allowing the full rig to be installed before the audio and lighting arrives and in time to support the full 10 days of onstage rehearsals. A crew of five MVI representatives works alongside the local crew during this period.

For the 2017 Grandstand Show, the content creation and cueing was once agan handled by Sean Nieuwenhuis of B.C.’s Sensory Overload Productions – “a master with [Dataton’s] Watchout” multi-display software, according to Cane.

As stated, much of that content was relayed to the massive downstage video wall, which this year featured fully automated motion thanks to a first-time collaboration with Drifter Rigging, a new Toronto-based rigging firm with a Kinesys Elevation 1+ kit.

In previous years, the centre portion of the downstage video wall was essentially the backstage door that allowed for set pieces to change and performers to enter and exit the stage. Johnson admits it had long been a struggle to reliably raise and lower the screen and its plywood backing. “It just hadn’t worked the way we wanted it to,” he says. “They’ve tried different ways of rigging it and nothing was totally satisfactory, because it wasn’t failsafe.”

One year, it was on basic chain motors; in 2016, it employed a counterweighted system with people simply pulling ropes – not as fancy, but at least effective.

This year, with significantly more – and larger – set changes than in recent years, it was absolutely essential that the screen be raised and lowered without issue. “It was one of the few elements that kept me awake at night,” Johnson says. “I know this stage in and out and know how everything works, but this was an ongoing challenge. If it didn’t work, we wouldn’t be able to get things that are absolutely necessary to certain acts onto the stage, so we’d really be compromising the show.”

“The mobile stage can be very challenging. It’s a big living and breathing thing,” Cane says, explaining how the stage moves in and out of place each day and, even though it’s on hydraulic levelers, is still susceptible to variance from day to day by way of cresting and bowing. “Because of that, it’s incredibly difficult to get this guillotine to go up and down smoothly and accurately, and Drifter’s system allowed them to do that.”

It was actually Ploss, who’d worked with Drifter Rigging’s Mark “Drifter” Desloges for a few years in Halifax, that suggested his former colleague to the Stampede as a potential solution to their problem.

“It was exhilarating because this was our first project as a company,” says Desloges, “and everything moved pretty quickly from the beginning.”

Based on the requested outcome and the required weights and dimensions, Desloges calculated that they’d need four half-ton hoists and headed west with his kit; however, upon arrival, they realized there were some unforeseen factors with the stage that simply couldn’t have been predicted until everything was onsite.

Basically, a team of engineers and fabricators employed a brace bar with a wire rope threaded through it instead of a channel guide, ensuring the structure would be stable even in less-than-ideal weather conditions. Desloges had to fly to Winnipeg for another project, during which the team of fabricators amended the steel structure of the Queen Mary to increase its tolerances. “It was really impressive,” Desloges says, looking back. “They were very committed to making it work.”

Johnson notes that the circumstances were simply beyond everyone’s initial control, but that in the end, hard work and collaboration saved the day. “When that door went up in total sync with the video for the first time, we were all just like, ‘Yesss,’” Johnson shares with a laugh. “I can’t say enough about this team, as this was really proof that when you bring together so many skilled people, it really just elevates everybody’s game.”

While Drifter Rigging supplied the system, it was the Grandstand Show’s crew chief, Matthew Gault, who oversaw its operation.

“Every year, there’s something big and bold we try to incorporate to keep things fresh and kind of one-up the year before,” Gault says, though for 2017 and Canada 150, that was especially the case, with the automated wall being just one of those components.

He says that while this was his first experience with Kinesys equipment, he found the learning curve relatively painless and was more than impressed with the results.

“Even though I say it was pretty linear and straightforward to operate, there were parts that were very complicated to get set up,” he continues. “Drifter was very level-headed and focused on getting the job done, and made the Stampede feel like we were his one and only client.”

As impressive as the TransAlta Grandstand Show is from a technical perspective, what’s even more impressive is the camaraderie that exists between the various collaborators from top to bottom.

“[The collaboration] was great, and quite frankly, it’s crucial,” Cane asserts. “There are some shows we do where we can work on our own little island and not really pay much attention to what other people are doing, but here, you’re constantly working with the other trades. You’re constantly looking out for other people as well as your own environment.”

“This group of people is spectacular,” adds Ploss. “I remember the way they came together to put on the 2013 show [after the flooding in Calgary] and that’s always stood out. They’re incredible and have proven that they can overcome virtually anything.”

“They’ve told me there’s a certain culture here, and they often use the metaphor of needing to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ when you join the team,” says Desloges, recalling his maiden voyage on the Queen Mary. “Colleen made that comment, and later told me I’d come pre-Kool-Aided (laughs). Basically, there’s an atmosphere of professionalism, but you need to be helpful and understanding and positive and realize that everyone’s working towards the same goal, which was definitely the case this year.”

At the end of each performance, the perennial crowd-favourite fireworks spectacle lights up the site. (In true Stampede fashion, it’s considered the largest of its kind in the world.) For everyone working behind the scenes, the bright flashes signify something of a congratulatory moment – another show for the books.

Onstage, it was the performers from various Canadian cultures and communities coming together in celebration that comprised the 2017 TransAlta Grandstand Show at the Calgary Stampede, and yet the professionals behind the production are just as integral to its success. Like their performing counterparts, this is a team of people of various specialties and disciplines coming together from different places to ensure their audiences truly get “the greatest outdoor show on Earth.”

Gear Roundup

Lighting
Courtesy of Q One Show Technologies

Control
1 x MA Lighting grandMA Console
4 x MA Lighting grandMA NPU Network Processing Units

Moving Lights
41 x Clay Paky Sharpys
20 x Clay Paky Sharpy Wash 300s
48 x Vari-Lite VL3000 Spots
20 x Vari-Lite VL3500 Washes

LEDs
14 x Elation Sixpar 300IP RGBAW IP65 Pars
16 x GLP impression X4 LED RGBWs
36 x Martin MAC Auras

Conventional Fixtures
6 x Altman Lighting 65Q Fresnels
52 x Par 64s
16 x 4-Light Par 64 Blinders

Followspots
8 x Lycian 1290 3K Followspots

Effects
10 x Reel FX DF50 Hazers
10 x Martin ZR44 Smoke Machines

Dimming
ETC Sensor Dimmer Rack

Video
Courtesy of Multi-Vision Inc. (MVI)

Display
790 x 18 mm LED panels
50 x 7 mm LED panels

Image Processing
12 x LED Control Processors
2 x Barco ImagePRO Scalers

Content Support
Courtesy of Sensory Overload Productions

4 x Dataton Watchout Server Systems
Video & Data matrix
Fibre Transceivers

END

Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief of Professional Lighting & Production.

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