Ammonite is a different kind of customer for Ambersphere. It owns no Ayrton movers, no MA consoles, no Astera LED effects. Indeed, it’s not a rental operation in itself, but rather a specialist in the delivery of theatre and event productions – one which just happens to also be a leading exponent of the zactrack automated followspot system. Ambersphere spoke to Ammonite directors Rob Casey and Jon Lyle…
Like many a fine idea, Ammonite was born from a conversation in a bar.
Its future founders, Rob Casey and Jonathon Lyle were in New York City at the time, in early 2018, discussing the frustrations of delivering multiple stage productions in a compressed timescale. Casey, a lighting associate, and Lyle, a video associate, were both so in demand in the world of large-scale theatre that they found themselves with rather a lot on their plates.
Of that fateful NYC chat, Casey recalls, “Between us we were in between Mean Girls, Frozen, Harry Potter, Angels in America and The MET Opera. We were trying to do all of these shows in a three-month period. One night we said, what we’re doing is actually a disservice to the shows that we’re being employed to do.”
The treadmill of theatre production in the West End, on Broadway and beyond – with all its accepted practices and pressures – was about to be readdressed.
“It was the way the industry worked,” says Lyle, “and works still, to an extent – in that, as an associate, you get paid for your time on-site, while the accompanying amount of prep work you have to do sort of gets rolled in with it, which everyone has just dealt with. You, sitting in the theatre, doing a show with an LD or a video designer, while doing a little bit of email, a little bit of prep for the next show.”
Casey and Lyle recognised that this current model was, if not exactly unsustainable, then at least inefficient. The result was that none of the shows paying for the expertise of these associates was getting their full attention. As a result, mistakes – and their fixes – had become part of the process. “I have seen producers throw a lot of money at problems in theatre because set wouldn’t fit or wouldn’t fly,” says Casey. “Freelancers would be bought in last minute, at a cost, to fix these problems and of course, the show always went on – that’s just how it worked.”
With Ammonite, Casey and Lyle persuaded key people that an alternative approach would work better. “We took the idea of being an associate and split it up into different roles,” Casey explains, “because the skill sets aren’t necessarily used properly. The person who can do a detailed 3D drawing of a followspot tower for Harry Potter isn’t the same person who can accurately relight the show in a different country without the LD, and they’re not the same person who can discuss a particular problem with a production manager and the electricians. They’re quite different skill sets.”
By properly allocating time and skills, Ammonite made a signifcant impact on production processes. At the same time, their own skills – developed in Casey’s case alongside designers of the calibre of Paul Constable, Hugh Vanstone, Rick Fisher and Natasha Katz – and in Lyle’s case in the cruicible of the fledgling 59 Productions and alongside video designer Finn Ross – led to an expansion of services in various directions. One of those was automated followspot solutions, using a then little-known system called zactrack.
“When zactrack was starting to be used in the UK, it had been used in rock and roll for about two shows and then we, and Chris Hirst, that very good programmer, were asked to do Mamma Mia! The Party, a dining experience at the O2 that Patrick Woofroffe was lighting. It had six characters that needed to be followspotted, but the budget wouldn’t stretch to six spots.”
Casey and Lyle looked at various options and decided on zactrack. “We were nervous because basically no-one had used it in the country. So we – slightly selfishly! – put it on the show that we were working on at that time, which was the Hugh Jackman arena tour. It was a much easier format – one person rather than six – so we could understand how it worked. And we loved it.”
Thus encouraged, they used zactrack on Mamma Mia! The Party…
…then again on Back to the Future at the Manchester Opera House, again on Cabaret at The Playhouse Theatre in 2021 and then on the musical stage version of The Devil Wears Prada, in Chicago, for Paule Constable. With each production experience, Ammonite’s real-world understanding of zactrack has grown exponentially. “I’ve become quite an advocate for it,” says Casey.
Cabaret was the first show to use an Ammonite-owned zactrack system. Having agreed with LD Isabella Byrd that zactrack should be used, they were told that the production couldn’t afford to buy it. Casey recalls, “I knew it was going to be the best system to react to whatever the director and designer created and because the entire theatre space was being built in the round to house Cabaret, committing to a followspot angle seven months ahead of the start of rehearsals felt too risky. So I thought, I’ll take the risk. We bought it as a company, and we rented it to them. We still do.”
With a string of successes, Ammonite soon became known as the go-to source for zactrack. Casey says, “When Guys and Dolls, our most recent project, happened at the Bridge Theatre earlier this year, the Bridge emailed me before I was even formally on the show to says ‘I hear you’re the UK distributor of zactrack – could you tell us more about it?’ I told them we’re not, actually – Ambersphere is! We just happen to be probably the biggest ‘real world’ user of it in the country.”
Ammonite now owns two zactrack packages. “Every time we use it, we get better at it,” says Casey. “And we know we can offer a good service because we can hire it out with people that know how to use it. Dry hiring a system like this to a company that’s never used it before is not going to get the best out of the product. And I think Ambersphere agrees with that.”
He continues, “I believe it’s a good system and it deserves to have that level of support.”
“Ambersphere provide an immense level of support to us, and we work together very well with them. The partnership works because they understand what we’re going with it. They have a much greater technical knowledge of the system, and also that contact with Vienna and the developers, and we have a great deal of real-world experience, it terms of how it is actually being used.”
As its professionalism and value becomes more widely understood, Ammonite’s contribution to production processes continues to evolve. “We are equal parts creative and technical, which we have always said was one of the reasons people like working with us,” says Casey. “we can solve your technical problem, but with a creative head. Ammonite was ultimately formed from a place of trying to construct a more holistic approach to production; delivering creative concepts and technical solutions symbiotically.”