Access caught up with Serious Stages’ Steven and Holly Corfield, who are celebrating 35 years of business working alongside Glastonbury Festival, and an Industry Legend award at the Event Production Awards
Serious Stages’ headquarters is nestled in rural Somerset in the picturesque city of Wells, with a vista taking in the historic cathedral tower and Glastonbury Tor. Access sat down over tea and biscuits to look fondly back at three and a half decades of staging.
We also stopped by Worthy Farm itself, where the first skins were being installed onto the skeleton Pyramid stage that has laid silent for nearly two years. En route, we bumped into the man himself Michael Eavis, who shared his accounts of Serious’s humble beginnings and subsequent rise to success.
Our trip concluded at the Corfields’ farm where they proudly displayed some of the 2,500 trees they have recently planted.
Like his close friend, Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis, Serious Stages’s founder Steven Corfield also hails from a farming background. And, like Eavis, his life – and his wife and business partner Holly – took a dramatic twist when a humble event in Somerset ballooned into one of the world’s most famous gatherings and they entered the world of event staging.
Serious now employs more than 100 employees and service more than 200 global events annually, but I was keen to go back to the beginning, when Serious Stages (originally called Upfront) was one of the pioneers of Glastonbury Festival’s iconic Pyramid Stage. From that first stage, the company will install more than 50 stages and site structures across the 2019 festival.
How did it all begin?
SC: I was farming in Pilton, and my now great friend Michael Eavis was farming on one side of the village, with me on the other. He had a bigger farm, and when I came down in 1975, the first few festivals had already occurred. But, it really got going in 1981 in a larger way, when Michael took it on himself.
HC: The original Pyramid Stage was funded by one of the festival founders Andrew Kerr, who had some money left to him, and didn’t want to be encumbered by assets, so he put on a party with a stage built out of scaffolding and tin. The second one, in 1982 had a wooden framework which later burnt down in 1994, just a few weeks before the festival. We got a call at 4am in the morning to help, as they were clearing burning embers. Of course we got the stage – one of our Orbits – and crew in place and the festival went ahead as planned. It was all hands on deck with a “show must go on” attitude.
SC: Michael had a great vision for the festival. I remember talking to him about it in the mid-70s as we were sat on a tractor at our farm. We both owned tractors, but neither of us could afford a new battery, so we left them on a hill so we could bump start them if they failed. And failing that we had a chain that would help tow the other one should it break down. Michael said his ambition was to sell a show without announcing any bands. That was his major aim, and one he’s certainly achieved. He took great delight eventually in his achievements, but back then he was just a local farmer.
SC: Serious Stages was linked with WOMAD festival and we built a second Alternative World Stage as Glastonbury expanded. The Orbit staging system, with its characteristic curved roof, had become synonymous with Serious back then and we installed them into hundreds of classical shows in stately homes and parks.
HC: The Orbit concept was devised by a Scottish structural engineer called George Weemyss as a lozenge building shape and they used it for on shore oil purposes, as it was highly resilient in strong winds. Tim Davis helped make it suitable for staging, dividing up the building, putting a cantilever on the front and making it into an open-fronted stage. That was probably the time we employed our first structural engineers and we really had to understand the engineering behind what we were supplying.
SC: That was an 18m stage, and we then developed a 15m and 12m variant which were very popular. There was a lot of business from orchestras at stately homes in the 80’s. It was a very English start, but the models quickly became popular internationally.
What’s so different about the Pyramid?
SC: We employ CAD designers, structural engineers, fabricators, logistics experts, financial professionals and of course, the crews and drivers who get on site from our Somerset base. All our stages, buildings and sit structures are designed and manufactured here.
There’s no doubt that Glastonbury festival has been a great part behind our development. But it’s wider than that: I think we’re people who want to make it special, always finish the job whatever the obstacles and for all the long hours there are family values and a sense of fun.
How have staging regulations changed?
SC: Thirty-five years ago no one was even looking at us! We started in trainers and t-shirts. I believe we were some of the first pioneers with the introduction of steel toe cap boots and Hi-Viz PPE gear for our crews. As the industry grew in size and professionalism, different local authorities applied a range of licensing standards across the years.
From 2008 to 2012, the rise of CDM regulations were a huge change, prompted by the Olympics – when construction met entertainment. We formed a close relationship with the Health & Safety Executive, particularly Gavin Bull, in looking to establish a practicable set of best working practices suitable for the live events industry. There were a lot of resources focused on the Olympics, but once they’d left town we probably only have 21 inspectors with knowledge of live events left across the whole of the UK, and entertainment is an alien field because of the unique sites and short lead times. On the back of what we learned at the Olympics we invited other staging companies to collaborate within a guidance group, which saw competitors sitting around the table for the greater good of the industry. That produced a document that was acknowledged as a best practice ‘guidance for temporary stages and buildings’, covering everything from wind loading to leading edges and the licensing has largely accepted the content to work to, which has been very helpful for the whole industry.
HC: We had found that some local authorities had different rules. We were expected to confirm to some H&S that other companies didn’t follow, despite being on the same site, so we wanted some blanket cover.
SC: You have a construction site that legally changes into a performance space, and artists are under a different set of rules to workers. However, the standards have improved enormously, and have been accepted across Europe.
Tell us about your other festival work
SC: After Glastonbury, we started working at Reading in the early ‘90s with Melvin Benn. He’s a phenomenal promoter and has been so supportive. That association has led to us taking our stages to Australia, America, North Africa. Melvin’s always been very innovative and keen to increase the production values and customer experience. At Latitude Festival, which he created from scratch, we included elements like decking under the water, to give the appearance of walking on water! Melvin asks us to rise to the challenge – and we do. He has a remarkable passion and energy, which in inspiring and tiring at the same time!
What have been your biggest challenges?
SC: One technically challenging project involved replicating an EDC US touring set for a one off show in Milton Keynes. We had to fly out, see what they were doing, come back and fabricate it. Sometimes we’ve had overnight challenges, like at the 2012 Olympics, where we had to make changes to structures overnight and drive them back in time for the next day. In the Middle East, we often work to very short lead times to create some very spectacular stages and temporary buildings.
The Olympics was a brilliant time for us. We worked on the technology support structures, producing 40 structures in 2012, and a lot of corporate buildings from early on in the cycle.
Any other niche work?
SC: We’ve worked on film set structures for Star Wars and other films since 1985, which developed into creating large scale film buildings. These projects usually have fantastic non-disclosure clauses that they own the rights ‘across this universe and all others discovered’, so we can’t say too much. But it is a vibrant sector and we have just taken down our newly designed and built MegaNova building, which was a 70m span x 105m long temporary film studio.
Michael always pushes the envelope too. He had the idea to create the Bullring at Glastonbury, and it involved a lot of heavy steel work, big lock gates and we created a big amphitheatre around it.
What does the industry’s future hold?
SC: I’m watching their talent develop – the Max’s [Steven and Holly’s son], the Emily Eavis’/ Nick Deweys and Frankie Tee’s of the world – I’m sure they’ll reach new heights.
From a technical production sense, I think lights can only go so far, but we’ve barely begun to see what can be achieved with screens with moving screens, screen walls, 3D, HD and VR – they are becoming integral to painting new creative horizons.
It’s always great getting creatives in a room. Often though, it’s about managing expectations of what can be done within time limits. For festivals, the short run time is often an obstacle. You’ve only got that event to create something for – with a tour the budgets reflect that a special will be used many times over.
In terms of the future, we also like to give back. Holly and I have planted thousands of trees (2,500 to date) to balance the carbon impact of our work and invest in the future of our (local) environment. I say you can never plant enough trees in your lifetime.
Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis reminisces on Serious Stages’ serious ascent
Steven turned up in Pilton on a BSA motorbike in 1975 and told me he’d bought Bornes Farm, but he’d changed the name to ‘Borne Farm’, taking the ‘s’ off, which caused a stir at the time.
The site was previously run by some permanent Pilton-dwelling types, and no one knew who they were so we were quite relieved to have Steven here.
When he bought the site I said to him: “That’s where the commune was, isn’t it?” and he said, “well it’s every man for himself here now,” and I laughed and our friendship started there.
Holly is a great girl, and she’s on the Parish Council and is great at that.
Steven ran a little farm and a had few Jerseys. He didn’t know what he was doing, but he was trying hard. Lovely milk though!
So Steven started building the wooden Pyramid Stage with figures including Roger Heighton. They didn’t have much money but they did really well. Steven was there every day and eventually started his own company.
We knew him as a young boy, and stuck with him through thick and thin. It wasn’t always rosy, but he came through.
When the Pyramid burnt down to the ground, we heard there was a fire around 4am in the morning and I pulled the curtains back and I couldn’t believe it. The thing was totally ablaze, and so I needed Steven to bring in a stage in two weeks. I said you’d better sweep that up, sort it out, and start building a new stage, which was the Orbit stage, and that was really the beginning of something. He pulled off a spectacular job out of the ashes, it was really the start of something.
It was a Tim Davis design, and we ran the show. The next one was built especially for the 2002 festival. We had to test it, and he got as many people on it as he could, and called it a ‘load test’. He told everyone to jump, and then shouted ‘not all at once’. Steven now does umpteen other stages for us.
Stages do vary greatly across the world. I was speaking to Massive Attack this morning, and they said they played in Mexico last night and they could hardly get on the stage – there’s a lot of them in the band. So we’re bigger than a lot of stages.
Serious Stages has grown as Glastonbury has, in proportion to the festival.