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Theatre Projects gives Hollywood’s Ford Theatre a makeover

Theatre Projects Project Manager Michael Ferguson

"We are the conscience of the theater," states Michael Ferguson, the project manager and performance lighting systems designer for Theatre Projects, and principal of TheatreDNA, a leading group of theater consultants based in downtown Los Angeles. Like architects, they take their role seriously, as their work will frequently outlive them. "A sports arena can get changed every five years, but theaters often last 100 years before they are demolished or refurbished," he continues. With that in mind, he and his team embarked on a project to breathe new life into the 100-year-old John Anson Ford Theatre, a 1,200-seat amphitheater carved into the Hollywood Hills. 

Originally created for large religious events, the venue is due to reopen this summer, following a $63 million renovation. The extensive changes include a remodeled backstage area, new sound wall and enhanced lighting positions. "I believe we will improve the experience for everyone who touches the new system," says Ferguson. "We worked closely with the theater staff and local lighting designer Dan Weingarten to get all the details right. No one knows more about a building than the guys who work there."

Ferguson credits his nuts-and-bolts approach to his early training at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre: "We worked seven days a week and did 18 fully-mounted productions in 12 weeks. Theater is a craft and there's no better way to learn it." In 1991, he became a client of Theatre Projects during the renovation of the San Jose Repertory Theatre, and later joined the company, first as a consultant and then as a project manager, remaining there for the next 25 years. "I'm surprised I made it through the first month," he jokes. "I got in an argument with Richard [Richard Pilbrow, Theatre Projects founder] over lighting angles. We met in the middle and he became one of my great influences. Luckily he enjoys the opinions of others!"

ETC fixtures and control were the first choice of Theatre Projects and the client. Four 96-way ETC Sensor® racks (394 dimmers) drive over 250 ETC Source Four® fixtures , including 170 with either five- or 10-degree lenses for long throws. Source Four LED Series 2 fixtures - also with five-degree lenses - enhance the newly-created side towers. The control system houses single- and two-phase relays to power LED fixtures and moving lights. The houselights are controlled by a Unison Paradigm® Architectural Control Processor and Unison Echo® Relay Panels

An outdoor venue has many natural enemies. The circuitry has to be protected from rodents, rain, unauthorized users and UV rays. "This is not a building; it's a hillside and everything has to be weather resistant," says Ferguson, who worked with ETC engineers to create waterproof junction boxes from scratch. "ETC was great at coming up with special compounds and gaskets." A new system of catwalks on either side of the stage, across the proscenium and front of house finally produced the lighting angles that had been lacking for so many years. "We've come a long way from old fixtures and dimmers wrapped in plastic bags on poles," adds Ferguson.

As the Ford prepares for its opening this summer, Ferguson reflects on the consultant's contribution: "Theater is on a long journey of technology - from fire to Edison to LED. With the Ford project, we are on the front edge of LED. Ultimately, our job is to serve the technical crew and get them what they want."