By Patrick Elligett
Some of the wildest weather the UAE has seen in quite some time descended on Abu Dhabi in late-March, at the worst possible moment for production staff working to prepare the temporary outdoor venue at Emirates Palace for back-to-back performances by Andrea Bocelli and Coldplay. Patrick Elligett reports on how the crew battled the elements to prepare the venue for the landmark events.
Some of the wildest weather the UAE has seen in quite some time descended on Abu Dhabi in late-March, at the worst possible moment for production staff working to prepare the temporary outdoor venue at Emirates Palace for back-to-back performances by Andrea Bocelli and Coldplay. Patrick Elligett reports on how the crew battled the elements to prepare the venue for the landmark events.Howling winds, looming storm-clouds and intermittent rain - it sounds more like the makings of a Hollywood action-film than that of a popular live performance venue in Abu Dhabi. However, this was the scene that greeted event production staff as they arrived to prepare for back-to-back performances by classical soloist Andrea Bocelli and popular British act Coldplay.
Despite serious weather concerns - the nemesis of any event production specialist - the performances drew a combined total of approximately 25,000 punters to the ‘built-from-scratch' Emirates Palace outdoor venue.
Both gigs went ahead as scheduled and without any major technical mishaps, in defiance of the heavy winds which buffeted the production crew in the lead-up to Andrea Bocelli's show.
One crew-member described the onsite dynamic during this period as ‘organised chaos.'
"It definitely slowed us down," confirms Lee Charteris, Flash's event manager for both performances. "We were working right up until the minute we opened the doors to both shows.
"We had some very, very heavy gusts of wind the night before the Bocelli concert. The outdoor site we use for gigs at Emirates Palace is basically surrounded by the sea, so the wind was jumping around from the back, to the front, to the side of the stage. We were completely buffeted for a period of time.
"The Bocelli concert was probably more likely to be jeopardised by the weather. That assertion is based on the nature of the performance, having so many open mics on stage, and the fact we'd been absolutely battered by the weather the night before.
"The fact that we ended up getting both concerts ready to go on time was testament to the efforts of the production team."
Keeping many of the venue's additional structures standing despite the onslaught of high winds proved a more difficult task than usual for Al Laith Scaffolding. The company was charged with the unenviable mission of erecting the wind-wall, which absorbed much of Mother Nature's wrath over the course of the weekend.
Crews were forced to rebuild the structure under an extremely tight deadline just prior to Bocelli's performance, in order to bolster its defence of the tech-laden stage and the committed punters who braved the elements.
Jaco Trichardt, event project manager for Al Laith Scaffolding, says his crew was able to rally and erect a considerably stronger version of the structure in a matter of hours, despite the fact that the ‘beefed up' wind-wall would normally require a build-time of around three days.
"We were surprised by the intensity of the weather," admits Trichardt. "But we did know bad weather was coming, and we were monitoring it constantly.
"The weather reports indicated we were going to have some rain and wind but nobody envisaged the conditions would be so severe."
The original scaffolding specification requested for the Emirates Palace venue, was identical to that which Al Laith had supplied at the same location for previous performances, from the likes of Justin Timberlake, Bon Jovi, Christina Aguelira and Shakira. This request was quickly revised however, when the severity of the conditions became evident.
"We had to replace sections of the wind-wall on the second build and strengthen it considerably. We were forced to put a larger-than-usual amount of weight on it to prevent the structure from blowing over," says Trichardt.
"We basically had to over-engineer it the second time around to ensure everything was structurally sound."
The pummeling dealt to the wind-wall wasn't the only issue the scaffolding company was forced to address during pre-production.
"The rain also made things extremely challenging, because we couldn't have our crew working at height during heavy rain due to safety concerns, so we had to wait until things died down before they could get back up there," adds Trichardt.
"It was a difficult task and we had to use every window of opportunity available to our advantage."
Reinforcements galore were called-in by both the scaffolding company and Production Technology (Protec), which provided the staging and lighting technology utilised at both events.
Two buses transporting labourers and two trucks laden with scaffolding were brought to the UAE capital from Dubai by Al Laith, while Protec called in an additional thirteen staff to help with altering the stage setup for Coldplay during the 24 hour changeover period.
Two starkly different setups were required for both performances, with the Coldplay gig designed as a standing concert with a greater capacity, while the Bocelli concert was all-seated.
In addition to reconfiguring the lighting setup overnight, Protec crews built two stage thrusts during the 24-hour Coldplay setup period, as per the band's requirements.
Rick Wade, operations director at Protec, accredits careful planning to the success of pre-production.
He admits that simply preventing water from creeping into the array of high quality technical equipment was another factor that provided a constant nuisance to the crews of Protec and audio tech supplier Delta Sound.
"The only major challenge we experienced with the Coldplay gig was the rain, but we did well to keep the production on-track," he reveals.
"Other than a few inevitable problems we faced with water getting into some of the equipment, it really was a faultless show."
It was the galeforce winds and torrential downpours pre-Bocelli, however, which provided Protec with the most cause for concern. The company was forced to pull down trussing and remove lighting from the stage to shield the valuable equipment from the weather during an anxious build up to the performance.
"Because there were massive storms threatening, we were in a position where everything was all set up and the roof didn't have all the wall panels in place at that point. We feared rain could potentially damage our lighting rig," says Wade.
"So the decision was made to take the lights off the trusses, put them back in boxes, cover the boxes and batten down the hatches.
"We ended up re-hanging the lights and erecting the trusses the night before the opening show.
"We were quite lucky we took the lights down at that time, because the storm did strike and it was very severe."
Makeshift shelters were constructed in various locations around the venue to protect the technology and crew.
"Usually we erect a very simple shade net over the front of house area, and that's something that we remove during the show 99% of the time, but on this occasion, it had to be transformed into a far more substantial structure in order to protect the equipment," explains Charteris.
"Lots of people were leaning under shelter to complete their tasks and we were forced to wrap up almost every joint and cable to protect the equipment from the elements.
"We consumed roll upon roll of plastic. I'm sure the local Ace Hardware thought their ship had come in on Friday."
The small amount of sleep snatched by the production crew involved in the double bill would undoubtedly have been punctuated by nightmare visions of continuous rain, collapsed structures and washed-out gigs.
Thanks to the determination of the hundreds of crew members involved however, these nightmare scenarios never eventuated.
A combination of composure, caution, careful planning, talent and luck were the dominant factors that helped the production crew achieve their goal of ensuring both performances went ahead, despite the enormous pile of challenges stacked-up against them.
"We sat down at the end of each day to discuss the situation in the lead up to the events and revised the following day's plan depending on the weather," explains Charteris.
"Rick [Protec] developed a fairly extensive plan detailing the production turnaround requirements and timescale between gigs which aided our cause immensely," he says. "Obviously, both shows were major successes in the end, so you'll hear no complaints from me."
American author Dorothy Parker once wrote: "They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm."
Let's hope the adrenaline-rush that crew members received during the production of these two performances, doesn't rob them of passion when working on less drama-filled production projects in the future.