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Themed Design: Sarner brings Shakespeare to Life

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Leading UK creative design and audio visual installation company, Sarner, has just completed its latest project.  Commissioned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the brief was to give the Bard a modern makeover and bring the story of Shakespeare to life at the birthplace visitor centre with ‘Life, Love and Legacy: A New Introduction to William Shakespeare’. 


The centre, which is set within the grounds of the house where Shakespeare was born, has been totally transformed by Sarner’s in-house creative and engineering teams, utilising the latest available technology – the likes of which would have been pure science fiction in Shakespeare’s day.

Previously a static exhibition of Shakespearean artefacts and cased literature, the centre was used as a thoroughfare allowing access to Shakespeare’s cottage and gardens.  Richard Kemp, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Project Manager, comments, “Sarner has brought the Bard to life with sets, scenery, lighting and audio visual presentations in a walk through attraction that shows Shakespeare’s journey from Tudor Stratford to London and how his life’s work has influenced the world of literature and theatre”.  Kemp continues, “Sarner followed the brief to the letter, and even came in within budget.  From the ticket hall through to the ‘Hall of Fame’, Sarner has managed to engage the visitor and take them on an immersive journey through Shakespeare’s life, work and global influences.”

Situated on Henley Street, in the centre of Shakespeare’s Stratford Upon-Avon, the visitor centre is housed in an unassuming 1970’s red brick building.  Sarner identified a need to refresh the exterior of the building as well as stripping the interior back to a shell and totally redesigning it to create 5 zones which see visitors guided through the exhibition in controlled groups (maximum 25) by carefully timed audio visual presentations, lighting and automatic doors.  The exhibition, designed by Sarner’s Creative Director, Michael Bennett, features powerful show productions, created for each of the zones, that creatively educate and inform the visitors as they make their way through the centre.  Actual artefacts are revealed as part of the show sequences which help to enhance the whole experience. 

As visitors enter the refreshed facade they are greeted by a contemporary reception and ticketing area, designed to aid efficiency and flow into the attraction. This leads into Zone 1, the Preshow, which is concealed behind Tudor patterned voile banners, the design of which is based on the wall coverings of the room in which Shakespeare was born.

Setting the scene for the main ‘Acts’ of the exhibition, Zone 1 features a 50” plasma screen with a brief glimpse of what’s in store including a video montage accompanied by audio.  The eye is drawn to an illuminated glass case displaying a  gold ‘wax seal’ ring with the initials ‘WS’ which is believed to be the only personal item in existence.  William Shakespeare himself, in many different guises, looks down from a selection of contrasting styles of paintings by various artists. 

After 4 minutes, the automatic doors open to allow the group of visitors to move into Zone 2, Shakespeare’s Life.  Here they are transported into the forest of Arden, set in quaint Tudor Stratford, and the very beginnings of Shakespearian history.  The room is dominated by an imposing 3 metre tall oak tree (left), with its branches forming a ceiling canopy and, as the doors close, the dramatic show of Shakespeare’s journey begins.  Renowned Shakespearian actors Patrick Stewart and Juliet Stevenson narrated all of the productions which were written and scripted by Dr. Paul Edmondson, Head of Learning at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  The show begins on a 2.5 metre wide projection screen and throughout the production various artefacts are identified, appearing through a transition gauze which, at first, looks like a building within the set but is in fact a secure case housing the artefacts.

Automatic doors open into Zone 3, Shakespeare the Legacy, and visitors follow in Shakespeare’s footsteps, making their way from Stratford to Tudor London, as he himself did in the 16th Century.  A large panoramic 3-D silhouette set depicts the view across the River Thames, ending with a detailed cross-section model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (image at top).  Here cannon-fire and flame audio surrounds the set while red hot lighting effects burn in the background.  A 4 metre wide projection screen fills the room, and 3 HD projectors are digitally blended to create a powerful format, continuing the show production.  A life size set of Shakespeare’s study shows the writer working at his desk and artefacts are exposed when prompted by the narration.

The Sarner design team have created a compelling wide screen show that leads towards a powerful finale – the reveal of Shakespeare’s actual First Folio.  As the real book is illuminated, the screen above it shows a cgi animation sequence of the pages turning, and from this emerges the wonderful legacy of Shakespeare.  Produced as a 30 second collage, the production uses images taken from the pages of the Folio itself and is set to the haunting music of Mendelssohn.

This book, known as the First Folio of Shakespeare, is regarded as one of the most important books in the English Language.  Around 800 copies were published by Heminges and Condell in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, and with few copies still surviving today, this one is considered to be a national treasure.  The high security case in which it now resides has been made of armour plated glass and is heavily alarmed to protect the most important artefact in the exhibition.

As the images fade, the doors open to Zone 4, Worldwide Influences, and visitors are met with the final projection screen and suspended images portraying a variety of Shakespeare’s influences on the modern world.  A Japanese production, modern-day film scenes and portrayals of Shakespeare’s works through painting are all displayed, making this area a mix of history and modern global interest.

Zone 5, the Hall of Fame (left), is a fitting tribute to William Shakespeare and a perfect legacy.  Each of William Shakespeare’s plays can be performed using just 13 actors and this final zone features 13 floor-to-ceiling banners depicting some of the most iconic actors and artists who have been influenced by Shakespeare or his plays.  Dame Judi Dench, Sir Laurence Olivier and Akira Kurosawa are featured, among others, and the 13th actor, voted for recently by Guardian readers, is David Tennant.  Visitors then exit directly into the gardens and journey on through to a tour Shakespeare’s Birthplace itself.

Lincoln Clarke, Head of Tourism and Marketing at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, concludes, “This project has been extremely important to us as it’s the centrepiece of the five houses that The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust opens to the public in and around Stratford.  We’re thrilled with what Sarner has created to give visitors a spectacular new visual experience and insight into the life of our greatest playwright, William Shakespeare”.  With visitor numbers set to soar in 2009, Clarke adds, “Shakespeare country has millions of visitors per year and in 2008 we saw over 700, 000 visit the Shakespeare houses.  More people in the UK are expected to holiday at home this year and the UK has become an even more appealing tourist destination due to the weak pound.  With Sarner’s help we can now accommodate more visitors whilst delivering great value for money and exceptional entertainment.”

Technichal notes:

The technical design had to be functional and flexible whilst delivered within a limited budget and tight deadline.  As the visitor centre is open all year, for 8 hours each day, the solution had to be both robust and reliable.  Commenting on the project, Sarner’s Head of Engineering, Chris Hawes, revealed “This was an immense task with many elements – we were required to create an immersive acoustic experience together with the visuals, projection and other effects.  The show works in batches and needs to be perfectly orchestrated – from the controlled flow of people through the exhibition and timed stays in each zone to the audio visual presentations and automatic doors ushering visitors from one area to the next”.  Hawes adds, “The installation is delivered and controlled by AV Stumpfl and at the heart of the system is a Stumpfl SC Master running a timeline generated by the Wings Platinum Show Control software.  This allows the entire show to be perfectly synchronised from one central area”. 

•    At the heart of the system is a Stumpfl SC Master – reading and controlling a timeline generated by the Wings Platinum Show Control software.  The SC Master is a solid state device offering 16 channels of audio, a flash card reader and a proprietary SC NET control line for DMX, relays, serial control, I/O port and a range of other devices;
•    4 x 18 output DMX Lightprocessor Dimmension dimmer packs provide lighting control which allows various sets within each area to be configured.  A full range of traditional lighting fixtures from PAR cans to Birdies were used, plus
•    some recently developed technologies including DMX controlled, tri-colour LED strips and an LED water effect device;
•    The Wings Platinum Show Control software is MS Windows based, user friendly and versatile, with a lot of the features accessed via ‘drag ‘n drop’.  This allowed for the production of a 4 metre wide, high definition screen presentation utilizing soft edge blending across 3 x Panasonic PT4000D projectors and 3 Stumpfl HD Media Engines.   The Panasonic Projectors were chosen for their ability to run 24-7 and the option of alternate lamp usage for uninterrupted play out in the event of a failure;
•    As the entire show is delivered from the Stumpfl SC-Master that can run multiple timelines simultaneously, it was possible to trigger several events and processes that either start at the same time, or are dependent on completion of other events.  For instance, operating the entrance doors via a relay, setting the lighting for the first scene via the DMX controller, playing audio directly from the SC Master flash card and video from an Stumpfl SC Video Player – all perfectly synchronised;
•    The Stumpfl SC NET control line has proved to be flexible as it runs over standard CAT5 cabling and supplies remote power to each subsequent SC NET device (i.e. serial control, relays, I/O. DMX).  Each SC NET device can be located near the equipment making it easy to control with less cabling;
•    As the SC Master is also capable of interfacing with remote inputs it was possible to install basic show control buttons at the main desk, as well as respond to a ‘Fire Trace’ (alarm signal) provided by the security company.  This allows the controller to shut down the show, raise the lights and open all of the doors at the press of a button;
•    Community IO5s and IO8s were used throughout the installation for both the programme surround audio and the many spot effects to coordinate the acoustic, visual, projection and other effects.

 The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an independent charity that cares for Shakespeare’s heritage and the new centre has been partly funded by the area’s regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, who awarded £250, 000 towards the project.

Sarner has become the UK distributor for AV Stumpfl show control program and equipment in the UK.  Further details can be found at www.avstumpfl.com 

If you require further information please contact:

Sarner – Charlotte Myer         Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – Helen Robson
Direct line: 020 8481 0614        Direct line: 01789 207134   
Main office: 020 8481 0600         Mobile: 07887 661770           
Email: cmyer@sarner.com         Email: helen.robson@shakespeare.org.uk
Web: www.sarner.com        Web: www.shakespeare.org.uk

See also:
Amusement Parks : Sarner gives Alton Towers’ Monorail a Creative Facelift
Sarner makeover for Shakespeare

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