Tour production legend Jake Berry, the man behind many vast international stadium extravaganzas including U2s’ 360° Tour and Beyoncé Formation Tour, tells Access about his latest endeavour; The Vertical Theatre – a modular, movable, socially-distanced performance space.
One of the most experienced production professions in the live music business, Jake Berry has spent the past 40 years overseeing tour productions for an array of A-list talent including the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Madonna, Beyoncé, Motley Crue and U2.
The latter’s record-breaking 360° Tour went on to sell more than 7.2 million tickets. It featured one of the largest and most complex live music tour stage productions ever created, requiring an army of crew members to assemble it every night. The innovative production was the work of the late Mark Fisher, founder of renowned show designers Stufish Entertainment Architects.
With tours of all sized grounded by Covid-19, Berry has not wasted his time looking back on brighter days. Instead, he has teamed up with his old friends at Stufish, and other leading events professionals, to try to help get shows back on the road.
The Vertical Theatre Group (VTG) was founded in August last year by Stufish’s Ric Lipson and Paul Preston; live events and documentary producer Holly Gilliam, daughter of the former Python Terry Gilliam; theatre producer Katy Lipson; Digital Theatre CEO Robert Delamere and Berry.
The company was created to produce and launch the Vertical Theatre (VT) – a modular, portable performance space designed to accommodate social distancing.
The building will have an audience capacity of between 1,500 and 3,000 people, depending on Covid-safe event guidelines.
“We can accommodate any production that somebody wants to throw at us, it’s a question of how flexible the artists is.”
The structure has been designed to accommodate audiences split into groups of between four and 12. The roofed construction has open slides to enable natural ventilation and will feature a central stage surrounded by a four-storey structure consisting of multiple balconies and viewing boxes separated by clear screens.
Berry says Lipson had been toying with the concept for years but the rise of Covid and need for a venue that could be adapted to meet ever-changing event guidelines pushed him toward getting the concept up and running.
“Ric called me,” he says. “We had collaborated a lot in the past on touring stage shows by acts including U2 and Madonna. He said he wanted me to cast my eye over something. Often, it’s the production managers who help designers turn their dreams into reality. I thought, ‘This looks pretty damn good’.”
The concept was presented to the events industry last month, and Berry says the reaction has been very favourable: “A portable Covid-safe venue is much needed, so we decided that rather than bottle up all of our ideas and sort of dangle them like carrots in front of selected people we would go public with it. The response has been pretty overwhelming.”
The production veteran says the design evolved over time but the core influence on the outcome was the need for a structure that is flexible enough to accommodate audiences in a range of formats: “Due to changing event guidance there is a lot of moving targets, so the objective was to make something that can be adapted to changing requirements and will also work after Covid.
“The set-up is all boxes except for the floor seats. There are four levels and four entrances, so there’s no cross pollination of people when entering shows – at each entrance there are dedicated bathrooms, cloakrooms, merch stands and food and beverage outlets. So, instead of 2,000 people getting in each other’s way, you’re down to 500 and they are split into bubbles.”
He says the venue could be set up almost anywhere; a city centre, a park or even a festival site: “The basic structure is 40 metres square, and then you would have the infrastructure around it – so you’re really looking at an area of about half a soccer stadium that you need to take on.
“A concrete pad would be advantageous, but you could set it up anywhere, the possibilities are endless, the location just needs to be accessible.”
When it comes to accommodating the backstage requirements, Berry says that it can be built as a traditional production compound on one end of the structure or underneath a central stage: “That is very much like an old theatre set-up, you go down the steps and there you have the dressing rooms and offices so you can have all the infrastructure contained within the 40-square-metre space.”
When it comes to moving the Vertical Theatre from one location to another, Berry says the structure is not suitable for single-night per location tours but is ideal for residencies: “I’m in the business of moving large structures. On some of the tours I have worked on it has been like moving a mini village around. This venue is a 40 metre by 40 metre structure that is 17 metres tall. So, it takes a lot of moving around but I would find it easy with the right team of people. Portability is something that Ric and I spent a long time looking at.”
With an estimated 14-day build time and around five days needed to break the venue down, the timelines are certainly longer than the average touring concert production but Berry is confident that the venue will prove a popular option.
He says, “I think 14 to 15 days to build a theatre is pretty damn good. Basically, once you’ve finished in one place you want a month before you open in another location.”
Asked what kind of productions he believes the Vertical Theatre is best suited to he says time will tell.
“Bring it all on; the world is our oyster,” he says. “We can accommodate any production that somebody wants to throw at us, it’s a question of how flexible the artists is. Would somebody who typically plays with a huge production get rid of it to sit down with their instruments and play a small intimate set to fans as part of a month-long run?
“I don’t think we know what we really can do until we have gone through all of this and find out what people really want but I think that we can accommodate anyone.”
Naturally, the decisive factor in whether the new concept will have wings is the bottom line; the cost of hiring a venue like this at a time when the events industry is more cash-strapped than ever.
Says Berry, “The difference from a traditional venue is that they have been there for years and they’re already paid for. With the Vertical Theatre, the costs would have to be incorporated into the rent, so overall it’s a little more expensive but not exorbitant.
“Next to design, cost has been the most important consideration – you have to make it viable and affordable for a lot of people.”