How the National Theatre’s new in-house stage engineers spun into action
Michael Lane has engineered shows at the National Theatre for 20 years, but his team has a new challenge – designing bespoke machinery. He tells Holly Williams about their first test: a square revolve for The Great Wave
Although the National Theatre has some of the most impressive in-house resources of any venue in the UK, enabling it to bring a designer’s vision vividly to life for each production, the actual mechanical equipment that makes those visions a reality is often hired in. But since Michael Lane became head of the NT’s newly formed, standalone stage engineering department, he’s decided to do it himself.
Well, not quite by himself. Lane is a modest man and constantly stresses how this is a team effort. But his vision is ambitious – he wants the National to design and make its own technical equipment for shows, exactly to the specifications each production needs, rather than simply tinkering and modifying kit it has hired.
His first project certainly makes the case for this bespoke approach. Lane, who has been working at the National for 20 years – ever since he left school at 16 – has been overseeing the installation of a new revolve in the Dorfman theatre.
Designed for The Great Wave, Francis Turnly’s new thriller directed by Indhu Rubasingham, it is, perhaps surprisingly, the first revolve that has ever been made entirely in-house at the National – although Lane certainly hopes it won’t be the last.
Turnly’s play switches repeatedly – and, ideally, rapidly – between Japan and North Korea, telling the story of a girl who disappears one night during a storm, and how her mother and sister continue to search for her.
A revolve was crucial to move the action between the two locations. “The brief was that it had to be snappy scene changes, so it’s not like long revolving movements, more short indexing movements,” Lane explains.
But they didn’t want just any revolve. “It’s basically a square. Most revolves are round,” he points out, dryly. The designer, Tom Piper, also wanted the whole thing to be able to traverse – that is, to move backwards and forwards on the stage. “We had to do it in two layers: a base level that traverses, and a top level that revolves,” says Lane. “It’s like a trolley that goes up and down stage, with a turntable on the top.”
This creates new layers of complexity: a normal revolve would be hidden in the floor, its top flush with the stage. Given that this is a square revolve, that obviously wasn’t possible. So it had to be a raised platform – but not so high it eats into the actors’ playing space. “It needed to be no more than 300mm deep,” Lane explains. At 5.3 metres x 5.6 metres, it weighs in at about 800kg.
It can complete a revolution in about 20 seconds – although they dial that down a bit for safety reasons, as well as creative ones. “Everybody wants things to go quicker than is really physically possible – always on the cusp of safety, economy and what’s actually physically possible,” he says.
“You might say you want it to revolve in 10 seconds – that sounds brilliant. But when you’re standing on it, you’d get thrown off. There has to be an amount of grace for a revolve, for the acceleration and deceleration, how you’re transitioning on and off it. Otherwise people start looking at the speed of the machine rather than what’s happening on stage.”
It also meant finding a new place to stick the motor. “Doing a normal revolve, you hide it all in the floor, [including] the motor that spins it on the outside. But you can’t have that with it traversing – you’d have this box [visible] on the outside. So I had to put it all inside.” He laughs: “Our first one, and it’s got to be complicated.”
Lane obviously enjoys a challenge, however, and there’s a cautious pride in the way he speaks about his plans for the department. When it comes to building machinery, he recognises that “it costs more money to contract out, but it’s almost guaranteed to work. So this was a bit of risk on the building’s part, and I was really appreciative of them taking that step forward, that leap of faith. But I should be designing stuff like this – that’s what, as the NT, we should be doing”.
They have all the required talent, after all: the National’s own metal workshop was able to build the revolve, the in-house digital design team did the final drawings for it, and Lane points out that he is a fully qualified mechanical engineer. “They should be getting me to do some more of these things!”
Lane still loves working at the organisation that has been his professional home all his adult life: “I’ve been here for 20 years not because it’s comfortable, but because it’s such varied and interesting work.”
When he started, he had no idea he was embarking on a lifelong career. Describing his background as coming from humble beginnings, Lane left school in 1998 with no real qualifications. “I didn’t do very well at my GCSEs, I wasn’t in that environment to learn or to realise it was important.”
He got a part-time job at the National, an opportunity for disadvantaged young people from the local area, by undertaking a practical test. Within a few months, he’d been taken on full-time, and was then encouraged to take a mechanical-engineering apprenticeship.
After that, he decided to go to university. “I said I’d do it in my own time, night school, and the chief engineer here at the time said: ‘No, we’ll put you there one day a week’, which I was delighted about,” he recalls.
Smart choice: he got a first. “I was dead chuffed. And from the degree, this was the kind of thing I wanted to be doing: a bit more design, a bit more analysis, rather than the machinery coming in and we just troubleshoot. I wanted to really create things. It’s easy to say something’s rubbish until you try to do it yourself.”
There’s also a handy cost-saving aspect to this in-house approach. It’s cheaper to build exactly the right equipment from scratch, using the workshops and skills of NT staff, than to hire something that will likely need to be modified anyway.
Plus they already had many of the parts – such as the wheels and the drive unit – in storage from previous projects. “We’ve bought and paid for it all, and we pay to store it,” Lane says, with the implication they might as well use it. After The Great Wave closes, the revolve will also be kept, in the NT’s storage space in Reading, to be used again or refigured for a new project.
There are other major advantages for making their own machinery, too. Compared to most engineering projects, theatre works on a very short timeframe. Even working with specialised contractors that understand its needs, requests can come at pretty short notice. “It gives us time to troubleshoot any issues in rehearsal rather than at the coalface,” Lane says.
Press-night breakdowns are the stuff of his nightmares. But by making the equipment in-house, the National could prioritise the revolve – meaning it could be ready to be used in rehearsals. Something that, no doubt, the designer, director and actors were pleased about too.
“We’ve got the skill-set in the building, it’s just about joining it up,” Lane says, in conclusion, before the modest engineer returns once more to his mantra: “It really is a team effort. I feel like I’m getting a bit too much praise.”
CV: Michael Lane
Born: Woolwich, 1981
Training: North West Kent College; London Southbank University
Landmark productions at the National Theatre: His Dark Materials (2004), Consent (2017), Mosquitoes (2017), Pinocchio (2017-18), The Great Wave (2018)
The Great Wave runs at the National’s Dorfman Theatre until April 14