Drapes and fabric on stage
ShowTex design and manufacture fabrics and drapes for theatre and live events. They supplied the mattresses, sheets and pillows for the ‘NHS’ segment of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
ShowTex works around the world, with around 150 staff. Jessica Ballenger works marketing and communications department of their Belgium office, and spoke about the work they do.
Supplying the Olympic Opening Ceremony
“We were asked to supply a fabric that could be translucent and glow,” says Jessica. “Designing something like that means you have to think carefully about the outdoor location, the health and safety concerns of being in a public space, and the risks of fire.
“Whenever light and fabric touch each other, there’s a potential risk: there were LED lights in the Opening Ceremony, so (even though they don’t actually produce heat) the fabrics had to have the highest level of flame retardancy possible. Fortunately, it’s very easy to adjust your fabrics to the other areas of the show – less so vice versa.”
The producers also wanted the beds to glow, so there were aesthetic considerations too. “We didn’t want any ‘hot spots’ or harsh lighting, so in the end we plumped for a chalk paper kind of fabric, which really glows and looked magical and fairy-tale on stage.”
Working backstage with drapes and fabrics
When ShowTex started out 25 years ago, they were working with sets and lighting. The founders were drawn to specialise in fabric because of its versatility.
“Fabrics tend to be an afterthought when putting a show together – because they’re so flexible and can be adapted to different specifications."
“You can get some incredible effects combining textures and lighting with fabrics. One big advantage of fabric, though, is how easy it is to travel with.”
Working with fabrics, you also work with movement. Technicians use heavy-duty systems for moving heavy items around the stage. Lighter systems provide more refined movement. “We recently worked on an iris camera movement. The fabric actually opened like a camera."
For larger shows or more complex requirements, fabric movement may be pre-programmed. Technicians use DMX-controlled motors to do this, which allow for a range of effects.
“Fabrics tend to be a bit of an afterthought when putting a show together – partly because they’re so flexible and can be adapted to many different specifications.
“Working with fabrics you tend to get the finished idea and concept first, which you then have to bring to life.” This can be a challenge. “Fortunately, at the Olympics they knew they had to integrate lights and fabric really closely, so in that instance there was a partnership from the beginning.
“There’s a lot of experimentation involved. Sometimes an idea doesn’t quite work: our technicians and creatives spend a lot of time doing tests in the showroom.”
The challenges of a backstage business
As the recession has started to bite, the company has had to look at their business strategy quite closely.
"We’re having to think about being affordable and getting good results with a smaller budget."
“I think businesses like ours have to start operating more efficiently and sustainably, with more focus on health and safety. Things like recycling and thinking about a product’s afterlife are so important.”
An example is the heavy theatre curtains hanging in lots of theatres and opera houses. “You might not think it,” says Jessica, “but they’re full of chemicals.”
"That means long-term impact for people who work with them all the time, but also long-term impact for the environment. We’re working on reducing the numbers of chemicals in those drapes – it’s a bit more expensive, but we think it will drive everything forward in the end.
“Then of course the kind of budgets people had in the past for shows simply aren’t there anymore, so we’re having to think about being affordable and getting good results with a smaller budget.
“That means investing in an infrastructure that will give you versatility. In the past, an events manager might buy a throwaway fabric for a one-off, but now they want to be more sustainable and buy fabric they might be able to reuse over many years.
“The challenge for the industry is making that more expensive (but long-term) option affordable. “
Advice for getting into the industry
“We work with a mixture of people who have studied theatre or technical courses – even including film, sculpture and textile design.
“But I think what you really need in this industry is the ability to get a grasp on basic technical processes, and creativity. Be willing to observe and experiment. It’s really not all about the degree.
“The main thing is to have a passion and to be inspired by the work you do – that’s the best way to do your job well. You can always pick up the technical things.”