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Engineering is the secret behind fine theatre

Theatre is meant to transport its audience away from reality to a world of fantasy and wonder, so it is not surprising how few people realise that often a lot of engineering goes on behind the scenes. The engineers who build and maintain the stage sets need the support of suppliers with a very specific set of skills. Here Sarah Gray, Sales and Marketing Manager for WDS Component Parts Ltd., explains how standard mechanical parts are used to bring the magic of theatre to life.

Staging a theatre production is never cheap and always risky. Get it wrong and a fortune could be lost and reputations ruined; but get it right and success is rarely sweeter.

Today the risks are greater than ever, as live theatre has to contend with TV spectaculars, blockbuster cinema and ever more elaborate concerts. To compete with modern media, modern set designers are often expected to create masterpieces that almost defy the laws of physics. Creating a flying car for the recent West End production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with no visible means of support is typical of the standards today’s paying public expect.

Thus set designers have had to transform from passable artists into a cross between precision engineers and master illusionists, who can find a way to transform a bare stage into a thing of wonder. To add to the challenge, while they may be competing against Hollywood for their audience the available budgets will be fractions compared to the latest summer blockbuster. Just like engineers in any number of industries, set designers need to understand where they can find high qualify components at competitive prices with very short lead times – Enter WDS.

WDS was not set up to specifically serve the theatre engineering market, but nevertheless has developed stock profiles, service levels and skills that meet its needs admirably. WDS is a leading manufacturer and supplier of standard parts, machine accessories and holding components, all of which are characterised by high quality, superior performance, unrivalled choice and excellent value for money. Many of these are ideal for use in building stage sets for theatre and also for presentation rostrums, lecture theatres, product launches etc. Furthermore WDS constantly reviews, updates and expands its catalogue of parts.

However a wide product range is only part of the story. WDS maintains high stock levels in its central warehouse located at the heart of the national motorway network, ready for same day dispatch. In concert with this there are some very efficient order options, using online or telephone services. There are also options to set up ‘standing orders’ so that products can be dispatched at future dates.

This level of efficiency is great when customers know exactly what they want to order, but WDS recognise that often there is a need for more assistance. The person placing the order may not be an engineer or may need some level of guidance and support. For this reason the company also operates a technical help line, manned by product specialists.

While most of WDS’s business is based on the efficient supply of standard parts from stock, it recognises that to truly support its client it must sometimes go beyond this and get involved in bespoke design and manufacture. In fact this is a service that is often used by theatre engineers who are trying to develop solutions for briefs written by impresarios and directors with little concern for the laws of physics. Each time WDS has helped in such cases, details are logged onto a company database to create a library of solutions that can be called up in an instant as an aid in the design process.

Some of the products most commonly called for by WDS’s theatre customers include: levelling feet, hoist rings, quick release pins, lifting eyes, hand knobs, detent pins, ball transfer units, castors, eye bolts, handles, hinges and hand wheels. All of these are available in a range of sizes, formats, styles, materials and colours and in any order quantity. The technical team can advise on the best products for each job, while the operations team will make sure that order make up is accurate, dispatch is on time and that any special requirements are covered.

Supplying the theatre industry is in many ways very different to supporting mainstream engineering customers. But in terms of product range, quality and availability, and levels of technical support, it is very much the same. The expertise and commitment WDS offers to manufacturers is a sound foundation for the service we can supply to the world of entertainment.