Conversion of a complete stage in only 5 months - is that even possible?

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Let’s be honest: Which theatre, opera house, playhouse, etc. which has already been in existence for several decades wouldn’t like to modernize its entire stage technology? But this can’t always be achieved according to plan, and they don’t always have several years to do it in. Sometimes a conversion has to be carried out really quickly. Which criteria should be kept in mind? What are the priorities?

Let’s take a hypothetical, but perfectly realistic, example:

Theatre Director Mr. M. is faced with a challenge: He knows that his establishment is outdated and would urgently need renovations to the stage machinery – if only to uphold the technical safety regulations. However, the building is to celebrate its centenary in only one and a half year’s time, and by then everything must have been completed. And up until that time there’s a full repertoire to work through, only interrupted by the summer break. How can it be done?

The stage machinery could be swapped out quickly, but there is a lot to be observed and organised in advance – starting with the commissioning of a planner who has to plan and prepare the system and the tender. Incoming proposals also have to be inspected, and the final decision made by Mr. M. as to which company should carry out the work. It’s only natural that he asks himself: “The entire project runtime from issue of tender to completion would total just 12 months, whereby the installation time would actually be less than 10 months. Is all this even realizable within this short time? “

As leading providers of stage technology, we at Waagner-Biro Stage Systems know: to achieve this challenge, a couple of things are essential.

Outstanding and dynamic project management

For the first time in the history of Waagner-Biro Stage Systems, a short-run project was realized in Norway in 2014 – Grieghallen in Bergen. The renowned Filharmoniske Orkester celebrated its 250-year anniversary on 16th October 2014, and had scheduled a big concert on this day. Before that, however, the entire stage technology with more than 50 drives in the upper machinery and 4 platforms had to be modernized. However, we weren’t given the commission until May 2014. The project runtime was only 6 months.    

In order to carry out this exceptionally short project time as effectively as possible, we decided to deploy an on-site project manager. They coordinated directly with the customer during the brief planning and construction phase before organizing the dismantling and assembly work. Our project manager acted not only as an interface to the customer, but also between the in-house departments such as construction, purchasing and logistics. The short communication paths between our company and the customer resulted in a highly constructive and professional collaboration which ultimately made the project a success.

For more technical details, click here:

Link to the project description Grieghalle

“You always know what you get and the project management is very predictable and easy to cope with”
Fredrik Österholm
Technical Director, Royal Dramatic Theatre
Grieghallen ©Eilif Stene
Grieghallen ©Eilif Stene

Stocktaking and individual implementation

The preparation of a project is decisive in order to implement it as optimally as possible. Before an in-house renovation project enters the effective planning stage, personnel from construction and project management meet on-site to take a detailed inventory. Only then is it possible to cater for the different circumstances and specific features of a project.

In October 2019, Waagner-Biro Stage Systems was surprised to receive several invitations to participate in new tender procedures. Three venues in Stockholm (Royal Swedish Opera, Royal Dramatic Theatre, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern), were facing almost identical problems with the planned renovation of their stage machinery due to the bankruptcy of the previously contracted company. The bankrupt company left behind them construction sites in an unfinished or completely dismantled state. However, the respective dates for re-opening of the individual establishments had been determined and could not be postponed.

To be able to keep to the tight schedule, the on-site stocktaking began immediately in order to be able to assess the current status of all three projects. Once the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, it became impossible to send our own personnel to Sweden. It therefore made sense to work with local installation companies. It was possible in part to profit from long-term partnerships with companies with whom we had already successfully implemented various projects. We were also able to initiate collaborations with new partner companies resulting from further recommendations provided to us through our international network.

The coordination of all three construction sites took place via the same project manager, who was able to obtain an overview of these projects as soon as the order was transferred. Because the construction sites were left in different conditions, this also resulted in different project durations. The time from award of contract to acceptance was only 10 months for the Kulturhuset, for which we supplied all the technology, and only 7 months for the full integration of the control system in the Royal Swedish Opera.

For more technical details, see the following links:

"For me the Waagner-Biro Stage System that stands for sort of a security"
Dina Östergren
Technical Director Kulturhuset Stadsteatern
Royal Swedish Opera ©Eva Catarina Olausson
Royal Dramatic Theatre ©Eva Catarina Olausson
Kulturhuset Stadsteatern

Openness and honesty are the be-all and end-all

Customers have specific requirements and requests. It is not always possible to respond 100% to their wishes, but it is important to remain a constructive dialogue partner and to try to work out and implement the best possible solution together.

In the year 2020, we renovated the entire stage machinery in the Volkstheater in Vienna. What was special about this project was that we had renovated this stage machinery for them already – over forty years ago. The Volkstheater undertaking was not originally planned as a short-run project, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed everything. This prevented us from entering the construction site until May 2020. The handover date in October 2020 had already been set, and so the construction site had to be completed in only 6 months.

One major advantage of this project was that our project manager had already been present from the first day of renovations during the 1980s project. He was then put in charge of the most recent conversion in the year 2020. This meant that he was familiar with the entire establishment, which proved highly beneficial during talks with the local building supervisor and the planners.

Here, too, close contact with the customer was essential, above all because the schedule was extremely tight. Weekly coordination meetings were held with construction management regarding the construction progress, and problems were addressed openly, because no project runs completely smoothly, and it is important to remain solution-oriented and honest. This openness and honesty was also highly valued by the customers.

One service which goes above and beyond is the upholding of contacts after project finalisation. If regular user meetings are arranged after the project period, both parties have the opportunity to improve the use of the stage technology. Customers receive speedy solutions and assistance, and Waagner-Biro Stage Systems can for example continue to develop their control systems through direct reports from the working world. Exchanges with the customer permit the continuous development of stage technology.

For more technical details, see the following links:

"My experience working with Waagner-Biro Stage Systems has always been very constructive. Together with Waagner-Biro Stage Systems and the consultants – and the city – we have always seen this as a shared project. Whenever we had new requests Waagner-Biro Stage Systems fulfilled them. Whenever Waagner-Biro Stage Systems had any troubles delivering something on time we found solutions together. I think that has always been special here. And that is why Waagner-Biro Stage Systems had fun working here. That is why this became a great stage. The consultants and I had an idea and wrote it down in the tender. Then Waagner-Biro Stage Systems shared a different idea: We could do it this way. What do you think it? And so during the process new ideas developed. So we adapted the order supplemented it and so the theater received the best possible solution. That had always been the goal: the best possible solution."
Joachim Scholz
Technical Director, Theater Basel
Volkstheater Vienna ©Martin Phox
Volkstheater Vienna ©Martin Phox

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything” –  Dwight D. Eisenhower

The project completed in the shortest installation time period in the company history of Waagner-Biro Stage Systems was the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in Singapore. Here we had a total of only 5 months to modernize more than 100 drives in the upper machinery.

To achieve such a project within this short time, the preliminary work at home had to be perfect. Two on-site viewings took place, so that any unforeseen obstacles could be excluded. The entire installation process including the availability of the material and personnel had to be well-planned and scheduled.

In spite of all our efforts, it is impossible to prevent other, hitherto unforeseeable obstacles. In such situations, we have to react immediately in order to counteract the effects. In this project, we found after half the assembly period that the winches in the last container delivered had in part rusted due to incorrect packaging. Due to good organisation on the part of our on-site employees and logistics, the defective parts could be re-ordered the following day and thus delivered in time.

Normally, an installation schedule contains different phases which are processed one after the other: dismantling, assembly, electric wiring and commissioning. To save time in this case, the phases were run in parallel wherever possible. An experienced construction site employee was on-site during the entire installation phase, in part supported by other colleagues from Vienna. These acted as Supervisors on the construction site so that collaborations with the local installation company could be coordinated as optimally as possible..

For more technical details, see the following links:

"They don't let you down."
Stefan Möller
Chief Stage-Electrician at the Theater Basel
Esplanade - Theaters on the Bay © Mori Hidetaka
Esplanade - Theaters on the Bay © Mori Hidetaka


Projects seldom run according to plan. Almost always, unforeseen adversities crop up which could not have been planned for in advance – whether award of contract or project delays, or access difficulties on the construction site.

However, it is important to remain as flexible as possible and always to maintain the objective of achieving the best-possible result for the customer. If difficulties occur, whatever their nature, it is essential to approach the customer in an open and honest manner and to search for an acceptable solution together.

And if the homework is done thoroughly at the beginning of a project, such as good planning, stocktaking at the construction site or setting up a project management system, it is possible to face up to many unforeseen events calmly and to concentrate on finding a solution. This doesn’t always work completely successfully, which is why we are consistently working to facilitate our customers in bringing their visions to the stage.

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