Theatrical Automation With Robert Pooley
By Anna Robb
Robert Pooley has been working in theatrical automation for most of his career. He has been with La Nouba at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida since it opened in 1998. Rob tells TheatreArtLife how he got into automation, how he met his wife and what it’s like to run a long term resident circus show.
“We all want to put a good show on but the bottom line is; it’s entertainment. We want EVERYBODY, tech or performer, to go home to their loved ones in one piece”- Robert Pooley, Head of Automation, La Nouba
With regards to your career, what’s your story? Where do you come from? How did you end up being involved in automation? What choices did you make in your life that took you in this direction?
I grew up in East Kilbride, just outside of Glasgow, in Scotland. The youngest of 8 children, my parents had a girl, a boy, then 5 girls before me. As you can imagine, hand-me-down clothes wasn’t much fun! It was a very working class background with no real ties to theatre although we did listen to all the old MGM musical soundtracks and watch the films when they came on TV. I left school just as Thatcherism was kicking in which meant, especially in Scotland, high unemployment. My Mum had died a few years earlier and my Dad had moved to England with my Stepmum so I was living with 3 of my sisters and a Brother-in-Law. I spent a few years, unemployed, hanging around the local youth centre, The Key, which had a Drama club. Some friends, who were in bands, and I, started our own little club making videos of the bands and doing comedy skits. I took a shine to one of the girls who was in the drama group and was persuaded to crew for one of their shows in the knowledge there would be an after-show party and I could get closer to her! I had to do 2 small roles as well and I was hooked! I acted, directed and crewed for every local Drama group I could after that. The girl and I lasted 2 years but the love for doing productions has lasted a lifetime!!
1985 was International Year of Youth and as part of the celebrations for that, Channel 4 in the UK commissioned Jam Jar Films in Scotland and Landseer in London to produce 6 half-hour dramas, written and acted by youth groups from Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, Japan and Israel. The series was called It’s Our World. The Key sent in an idea by me and a friend and after auditions and meetings with the producers, we were selected to represent Scotland. Sitting in the pub after shooting had finished for the day, the sound man and assistant cameraman suggested I move to London to try my luck down there. I went to the local library and looked up some drama colleges.
With a bus ticket, bought with my non-union money from the show, in my hand, I got on the overnight bus to London and headed for Middlesex Poly. I turned up on their door the next morning and asked for an audition.
Totally naïve about how these things worked! They told me to come back the next week when I could be seen. I jumped back on the bus that night and went home returning to London the next week. I was accepted into the school and moved south a couple of months later.
I’d been at college for about 2 weeks when I got a job FOH at Starlight Express. I worked there for about a year then left to concentrate on school. After I graduated I went back to Starlight because I’d heard they would be looking for a Follow Spot Op within a few weeks. I was approached one night by someone on the stage crew who told me to meet the Master Carpenter at the Stage Door during the interval. I met Les Peters and he offered me a Showman job. About 2 months later I was offered a Stage Dayman job which included flying the Bridge in the show. My introduction to automation. From there it was onto the install, and run, of Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi becoming Head of Automation. This was the first show which was fully controlled by StageTech. We were running 2/3rds of the show using hydraulic control sticks and the rest on what was affectionately referred to as the biscuit tin! This was the precursor to the Acrobat which is now used all over the world. Sunset was followed by Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees. I then moved to Venice, for just under a year, to join Disney Cruise Line as the first Automated Systems Rigger on the build of the Disney Magic. Again, with Stage Tech supplying the automation…and a grown-up Acrobat by this time!
What is your job now?
My current job is Head of Automation for Cirque Du Soleil’s La Nouba in Orlando. I’ve been here for approaching 19 years since coming over to set up and program the show. I also helped set up the Automation Department on Ka. I think my main job on that was trying to stop people from leaving! Zaia in Macau and Zarkana, during its original fit up in Orlando, have also been cursed by my footsteps! I have worked freelance for StageTech as well as currently being a part-time operator on Blue Man Group in Orlando. At La Nouba we use a system called Dynatrac. This was installed by West Sun Scenic Edge who went under about a year after we opened. We’ve been self-reliant since then!! The automation part of West Sun became Niscon.
It is a common belief that working in the arts is a lifestyle and not a job. Would you agree and if so, how has working in the arts defined other aspects of your life?
I do agree but I think we’d need to talk about this more because I’m a bit stuck as to why! It’s almost inexplicable!! Could be it’s in your blood!
You work with your wife, what is it like? Tell us about that and what does your wife do?
I first saw my wife when she walked onstage on the Disney Magic during a rehearsal. She was new to the cast so I’d never seen her before. I turned to another cast member, who I’d went to college with, and asked who she was. He replied that that was funny as she’d asked the same about me! That was us all set! She played Belle in Beauty and the Beast and Megara in Hercules. I loved watching her perform. She’s worked in several positions at Disney. From a dancer to Belle to Staging Specialist to working in Standards and Sustainment in Creative Entertainment. She also teaches drama and directs plays at our daughter’s Montessori school…as well as being an on-call performer at La Nouba as the Petite Madam, or Cleaning Lady as we call it! I enjoy when she’s in working but we don’t work together all that often as I usually do an early shift when she’s on so I can look after the kids at night.
What was it like to put together one of the first resident Cirque du Soleil shows together?
Setting up a Cirque du Soleil show, especially in the earlier days, was completely different to how I’d worked before! With normal shows, musicals etc. you know the script. You know where scene changes are going to be. With Franco Dragone directing, it was like “hold on and be ready for anything!!” I think the genius of Cirque du Soleil has always been in the presentation. Technically, we can do almost anything now but the Acts themselves are variations of what’s been before. What Guy Laliberte (Co-Founder, Cirque du Soleil), Daniel Lamarre (CEO & President, Cirque du Soleil), Gilles Gilles Ste Croix (Co-Founder, Cirque du Soleil) and Franco Dragone (Director) and other early collaborators did, was, as the show says, “Reinvent the Circus”. We had the acts, it was just finding out where they fitted in for the flow of the show. Throw in cool music, lights and automation with the occasional scream for NEW FOOD and it all worked!!
Franco could be a bit of a hard taskmaster but I was working from the booth, NOT at the production desks, so I was out of the firing line!! It was stressful in the House because everyone was working hard to continue Cirque’s winning run and there was me sitting at my desk in the booth with some snacks and drinks keeping a low profile till I had to move something. I wouldn’t have liked to be one of the performers waiting in the wings for Franco to shout NEW FOOD, then having to run on and show him something different every time. He did have a way of testing to see if you were any good. In the first week of Creation he had me bring the LX Pod into the deck then got the Follow Spot to light up a position on the back wall. He then asked me to bring in the Trampolines and take out the LX Pod and have them cross exactly where the light was. There was a big cheer when they did! In the third week, I had 4 days off to go to Kentucky to get married then drove through the next night to be back for rehearsals again. So, my Honeymoon was spent with the cast, crew and production team of La Nouba.
What is it like almost 20 years later? How has the show evolved?
We have several different acts but I think the Company has evolved more. There is now more emphasis on training and safety than before. I mean it’s more regulated now and with good reason. We all want to put a good show on but the bottom line is, it’s entertainment. We want EVERYBODY, tech or performer, to go home to their loved ones in one piece.
What are some of the challenges of working on a resident show?
I’d have to say spare parts for older equipment on the older shows! EBay is a Godsend! Some people might say complacency. We don’t have a problem with that here because it’s drummed into my crew, and they know it anyway, that every time we push a button to move something, we could kill or injure someone. It may sound a bit dramatic but, by and large, it’s true. It’s very important to know your building for maintenance. Once something is up it can be easy to forget little bits and pieces until it fails. One of the advantages of a touring show is you’re constantly tearing down and setting up so you should be able to incorporate inspections easily.
As part of your job, you need to hire people to work in your department. What do you look for in a candidate?
I look for people to fill in a gap or weakness in my knowledge! I’m not the most technical of people, my expertise is more in operations, so I make sure we cover all bases. I also look for common sense.
That’s a hard one to quantify so that’s more of a gut call. A desire to learn and, again a phrase HR hate, a good positive attitude. I also look for shared experiences as well. Something that we might have in common. For example: I hired someone who’d only had one job since leaving school. It was a 3-month contract using a StageTech Acrobat on a ship. My way of looking at it is if he can use that system on a ship, as I had, then he should be able to cope here. Not always the case though!
Who are the most inspiring people you have met in your life and why?
It might be a cliché but I’d have to say my Dad. He was brought up on a farm in Cornwall and would work on that and also go on fishing boats at the weekends. I guess that was part of what led him to join the Royal Navy in 1937. He earned campaign medals for every theatre of war during WWII, barring the Pacific, where he ended up at the end of it. After serving for about 26 years he settled in Scotland where he’d met my Mum. With 8 kids to feed, he worked all the shifts he could, maybe that was actually to get AWAY from 8 kids!! I definitely took my work ethic from him. My Mum died of cancer when I was 8. I think watching him cope with that made a huge impact on me regarding responsibility and doing what you have to do to keep going. I’m very pragmatic. The old fashioned “British Stiff Upper Lip” I suppose. I’m not quite as distant though. I’m a mess watching The Waltons! I’m also a huge fan of Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Another rough diamond who I can identify with!
What was the last show/event/concert you saw? How was it?
Orlando Shakespeare’s production of Every Christmas Story Ever Told! It was the first time, after being in Orlando for 19 years, I’d ever been there. I was very impressed. It’s a very nice space with good people working there.
Do you have a favourite destination or place to holiday and if so, why?
Holiday? I’m sorry, I’ll need to try to remember what that is!! I’d have to say Cornwall. I haven’t been there for many years but it’s the one place I’d love to take the family. I love the scenery and the people. My Dad’s side of the family come from there and he had loads of aunts, uncles, and cousins who I’ve never heard of. I’m sure I’d bump into Pooley relatives all over the place.
Describe for me your ideal day?
Any day when my wife and I aren’t working and can just veg out together catching up with our favourite programs in peace. The kids would be at school!
Over your career, what is the project/gig that you enjoyed the most? You can have multiple answers to this question if you can’t narrow it down to one.
I have genuinely loved working on every production that I’ve worked on, even the most stressful ones. That’s when you learn about your character and it helps you grow. My favourite moments are usually the big reveals.
On Starlight Express it was Electra’s entrance for AC/DC. The first time the audience see the Bridge move on Sunset Boulevard, it was basically ANY House move! Landing it at the end after Joe’s been shot and Norma does her final walk down the staircase was always special. Both of these shows had John Napier as the designer but with the genius of Mike Barnett as the Chief Design Engineer for them. With Disney Cruise Line, it was the set opening up in Ann-Marie’s room during Disney Dreams. At La Nouba it’s the transition from the Trapeze to the Powertrack. My direction for that from Franco was; “Rob, make everything disappear and appear at the same time!
Photo Credit: Scott Bucher
Cover Photo Credit: Estelle Courivaud