Stufish is well established as one of the industry’s most innovative and creative designers of live entertainment structures and productions. Access caught up with company partners Alicia Tkacz and Ric Lipson to gain an insight into the work that went on behind the scenes to create this year’s stand-out projects – the ABBA Arena and the Platinum Party at the Palace
Founded by the late Mark Fisher, Stufish has a rich history of designing and producing remarkable live performance environments and activations including U2’s 360 ° Claw, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s OTR II floating stage, and more recently stage architecture for Stormzy’s Heavy Is The Head and the Rolling Stones Sixty tours.
This year has seen two landmark moments for the company, the unveiling of its ground-breaking ABBA Arena and the acclaimed multi-stage creation for the Platinum Party at the Palace.
With an audience capacity of 3,000, the ABBA Arena is the world’s largest demountable temporary venue. Built by ES Global at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP), it has been designed to be as light as possible so that the structure can be packed up and transported to another location at the end of its five-year tenure in London.
The ABBA Voyage show is performed under a 740-tonne roof which was lifted and installed as a single element, enabling a column-free view for audience members. The hi-tech building includes dance floors, audience seating and bars.
Stufish partner Alicia Tkacz began working on the project in March 2019. From the outset, she worked hand-in-hand with ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, the show’s producers Svana Gisla and Ludvig Andersson, and the team at visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic.
“We talked a lot about how to develop the theatre of the building,” says Tkacz. “It’s a bespoke show in a bespoke building, so it was important for us that they were both worked on concurrently. With the nature of the show, the physical and digital spaces needing to be seamless, it was important to us that we were there in the team from the beginning.”
Tkacz spent the first few months looking at sites that had a big enough plot and that were easily accessible by public transport. Once the QEOP was selected, the next step was to design a structure that would not scar the land once it was removed.
She says, “We must give the land back as we found it, so we didn’t want to break ground too much. The structure has been designed so it only penetrates the ground in 18 places around the main arena. Other than that, we sit completely independently on top of the tarmac surface. So once the whole structure is taken down, we can give the land back pretty much as we found it.”
While the building may not be permanent, its location is surrounded by residential properties and so for all intents and purposes the ABBA Arena was designed with the same sound proofing considerations as a permanent structure.
Tkacz says that internally the whole structure, including all of the seating grandstands, is made out of timber and as a result it feels very much like a solid, permanent, structure.
“ABBA and the Swedish team were very keen to use as much timber as possible in the building,” she says. “Timber is structural, and it provides a beautiful finish, but then there is the sustainability part as well. We have built an inherently sustainable structure because of the material but also the fact it can be taken apart and used again. There’s the carbon footprint of moving it but that is offset by reusing materials rather than building another one from scratch somewhere else.”
“Once the [ABBA Arena] is taken down, we can give the land back pretty much as we found it.”
The Platinum Party At The Palace saw an events industry, which only a year previously had been prevented from operating at all, unite to produce a technically brilliant show that was met with a rave response from the public and media alike. Among the many eye-catching elements were Skymagic’s remarkable drone show, the stunning Buckingham Palace projections by Creative Technologies and Stufish’s three-platform stage design.
“We were tasked by Claire to think out of the box,” he says. “We went to the site on a very grey day and even then the spectacle of the palace gates was breathtakingly beautiful. We thought, ‘that is the background, how do we frame it?’.”
The inspiration soon came, and Lipson swiftly got on the phone to Star Live creative director Roger Barrett to see if they had suitable structures available. The resulting design involved three stages, the first designed as a catwalk around the Queen Victoria Monument, with the other two positioned in front of the palace railings. While one hosted rock and pop acts, the other was dedicated to orchestral performances.
“We had a limited budget and the design became about not building big,” says Lipson. “The covered areas were much smaller than a traditional festival stage roof. That meant we had to take all of the seats and the backstage area and put it underneath the floor in order to maximise the stage space while exposing as much of the palace and the gates as possible.”
He says the team was able to make a stage set up that appeared to be a custom structure but in reality was far from it: “It was a lot of scaffolding and off-the-shelf truss that was clad in a very clever way with fabric, and skinned with a lot of white painted plywood.
“We had 70 columns around the site representing the 70 years. They were just bits of truss, but they were wrapped in a nice fabric and on the Queen Victoria Monument stage they were wrapped in LED. They provided a holistic continuity to the design and allowed us to frame the gates.”
Lipson is understandably pleased with the results and the reaction from the public. He says, “The honour of designing a show in front of Buckingham Palace is not something we get to do every day. People didn’t expect us to do something as meaningful as it became for a lot of people. It was a great event and a landmark moment, with everyone back together.”