The Backstage World of ‘The House of Dancing Water’
Meet Anna Robb, General Stage Manager for the ground-breaking “House of Dancing Water” production created by Franco Dragone of Cirque du Soleil fame. This incredible production premiered at City of Dreams in Macau in 2010. Anna was kind enough to share some time with us and help us discover the ins and outs of backstage life with this amazing show.
Tell us about your start and early career
I studied an Honours Degree in Bachelor of Arts (Design for Theatre and Television) at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga. Following this I moved to Sydney and for a couple of years and did whatever work I could get in the industry.
I said yes to everything. Rigging lights, soldering microphone cables in theatre maintenance periods, bump ins and bump outs, operating lights for ballet season at Glen Street Theatre, tech crew at the Seymour Centre, part time stage managing at the Sydney Opera House, small tours- everything. This gave me good base-level training in all elements of production. After a while, I started to get jobs that allowed me to travel all around Australia and to New Zealand, South Africa, Vietnam and Singapore. I loved being part of the live element of a show and found myself being pushed into the production management and technical side of the preparation of events rather than running them.
From here, I decided that I wanted to continue as a stage manager; I just needed to find bigger shows. So I moved to London. I applied for Cirque du Soleil during this time and ended up in Las Vegas on the creation of LOVE by the Beatles. This was the beginning of a new way of stage management and provided me with the specific training in large-scale automated circus shows.
How did you start working with The House of Dancing Water?
I sent my resume to Dragone 3 months after leaving Cirque du Soleil and was fortunate enough to be employed on the pre- production of The House of Dancing Water. I have seen the show through from concepts and ideas on pieces of paper, through to research and development, training and formation, 3 months of intense creation and into 3.5 years of operations.
It has been an amazing, fulfilling, tough job that continues to challenge me every day.
Obviously water and automation play a huge part in this show. What sort of specialist skills do you and/or the rest of the production team need to have (or have had to learn prior to starting)?
Most of the cast and a lot of the crew need to become PADI Scuba certified. The cast enter and exit through the water and rely on regulators along their swimming path for air.
The crews sound systems, automation, SFX, props and so on live under water so the crew dive to conduct their inspections and checks. Most stage managers in my team have not dealt with the level of automation this show requires previously, so their integration is a slow, well thought out process as we teach them all the steps to manage the “machine”.
No one comes to the stage management department and can hit the ground running. It takes 3 months to train an ASM, 6 months to train an SM and 9 months to train a show caller (3 months following their SM integration).
How do you manage communications during the show considering the team size and logistics involved with an underwater show?
The show is called by two people. There is the Show Caller who controls what the audience sees and an Aquatics Caller who controls all the activities and communication under water.
When a prop is set under water on a lift and the divers are clear, the Aquatics Caller gives the Show Caller a clear so that the Show Caller can call the lift up and out of the water. Same goes for the performers. The Aquatics Caller gets the performers into position under the water and the Show Caller calls them out on cue.
Another system that is specific to this kind of show is the delivery of the daily lineup. A Stage Manager will build the lineup each day for that evening’s show. It takes around 2.5 – 3 hours to facilitate this. The Stage Manager gets the restrictions from Performer Wellness based on who is in for the evening’s show, who is on restriction and who is OK to perform (E.g. A performer may be out of scuba due to a cold and the inability to equalize). Then they get the coaching preferences for the acrobatic acts and the people they have available they create the show. (Click on the excerpt at the left to see more details)
Once it is complete, it is posted around the building so the artists can check what they are in and it is given to technical to prepare the appropriate straps, bungees, costumes for the people allocated to each position.
Often a show ends up creating their own language for various elements, effects or otherwise. There must be some doozies created for a show like House of Dancing Water.
Our most widely spread communication nuance is an action rather than a specific word.
In scuba diving the signal for “OK” is to take your hand into a fist and tap the top of your head. This signal has spread out of the water and across the building. It’s a very useful signal between cast and crew to establish things like “Yes, I understand you” and “Yes, I am ready for the cue to run” and “Yes, I’m OK”.
What are the logistics for bringing new cast and crew members into the run?
The performers are given time and training to develop for the show. Each year we run a 3 month Training and Formation period in Belgium to prepare new cast members. They build up physically and work on the techniques required for the show. Once that training is complete, they fly to Macau and undergo different phases of integration until they are ready. This requires a lot of coordination on behalf of the Artistic department to facilitate this without compromising the show quality.
Casting for this begins in December. Hiring happens in January, preparation and pre-production from February to April. Training and Formation are from May to the beginning of August. Finally, Integration is in Macau from August to November – and then we start all over again.
Safety must be a real challenge on this show, particularly with the aquatic element. How is safety managed and are there any particularly creative solutions that you’ve come up with?
The biggest preventive of accidents in the theatre is training and communication. Performers have a very strict protocol that they need to learn and adhere to when entering the Aquatic environment. They are also trained extensively and at their own pace until they feel comfortable doing what is asked of them.
No technician goes in the water without it being communicated, and like normal dive practices, must go in with a dive partner. No artist goes underwater without diver supervision. On deck, no lift move is executed without full communication with Aquatics and those involved onstage. It sounds like a lot but the operating procedures are there and everyone is so used to adhering to them that it is a very smooth process.
In the air, the same applies. All performers are taken through rigorous aerial inductions, as well as procedures of loading and unloading on the grid. They need to pass all the procedures before they are allowed in the show. The air and water training elements are taken very seriously by the cast because it is their life at stake. To be safe, performers need to trust in the crew and take personal responsibility in keeping the protocol.
Temperature is a huge issue because the performers are constantly wet and they notice small changes in temperature in and out of the water. The water is kept at 30 degrees. Even if it even drops half a degree, it can have an impact. Drastic changes in temperature can lead to more people becoming sick, and more performers and divers being restricted from going underwater.
Over the years of performance, we have had issues with reduced visibility in the water. In these cases, we have had to drastically modify the show or cancel shows until the issue is fixed.
What does the prompt copy for a show like this look like? What are the challenges documenting a show like this?
The prompt copy has been tailored by the demands of the show.
As a summary (as shown on the excerpt below):
- Green clears are the clears that I receive from crew in the grid or on deck.
- Blue clears are the clears that I receive from Aquatics.
- Orange is something I have to do (turn a cue lx on, change camera shot in my tv screen).
- Standbys are in dark blue, cues are in black.
- The cue point is on the left and what moves is on the right of the cue stack
The trained show caller does not look at the left or right side of the page, only the centre strip. They need to know what the cue is, and what is moving each and every time they say ‘go’. It’s a busy show to call and the challenge comes whenever technical issues arise requiring you to stop the show in a safe manner, communicate and solve the issue as a team, prepare and communicate a pick up point, and start again (sometimes under modified circumstances).
Anna, are there any anecdotes or other titbits you’d like to share?
Below are some links to various videos surrounding the show. It gives you a bit of an insight into some of the people, acts and elements that are our daily life in Macau.
A Day with Thomas Hubner (Thomas is a performer and also documents many moments from The House of Dancing Water)
Our sincere thanks to Anna for taking some time from her very busy schedule to share such a great glimpse into the amazing backstage world of The House of Dancing Water.
To catch up with more of The House of Dancing Water, head to www.thehouseofdancingwater.com