Creative Conners

by Michael S. Eddy
in Company 411
Creative Conners always gets a great response when showing off their products.
Creative Conners always gets a great response when showing off their products.

Creative Conners, Inc. has been specializing in scenic automation products since 2004 with a simple goal—to make scenic automation simple, safe, efficient, and affordable. They have always offered a range of products that enable designers and technical directors to easily and efficiently add automation to shows, most recently introducing their well-received Floor Pocket, a traproom elevator.

Creative Conners floor pocket

The Floor Pocket (pictured, above) has already been used in several regional theatres around the country. Among Creative Conners other popular products is Spikemark, their second-generation control software that builds on all they’ve learned over the years and their Spotline Hoist as well as the Stagehand Pro, both overhead lifting solutions. Their Stagehand Mini2 is a flexible motion controller used in many shows as well as touring with Eminem and Rihanna where it saw action running six hydraulic lifts.

Gareth Conner

Founder and president, Gareth Conner recently spoke with PLSN to give us the background on the company—from its early days on the dining room table to a full-fledged manufacturing company, how it fits in the market, and where they looking to grow.

The realities of the cost of living in New York City may have had the biggest impetus on Conner’s future direction. “I started in regional theatre; it’s where I kind of cut my teeth. When I got out of school, I thought I was going to be a regional theatre technical director, but it didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t really my strength. But what I did like working on was all the automated effects. At that point my hope was to go to New York and work for Feller Precision, PRG, or Hudson Scenic. Coming from the Alley Theatre, I talked to all those shops and everyone said, ‘That’s a great idea. As soon as you’re set up in New York, let us know. And we’ll see if we have any work for you.’ At 20-something years old though I needed to know that I had a job before I set up in New York City.”

'Death of a Salesman' at Kansas City Repertory Theatre used Creative Conners’ Pushstick and Stagehand FX to realize the scenic design of Meghan Raham. The LD was Victor Tan. Photo courtesy Tom Gault

Conner looked outside NYC and found a position at Mystic Scenic in Boston, where he worked for eight years. “We developed a few iterations of their automation system,” he continues. “During that time, it dawned on me that what would be really great would be to come up with an automation system that was—I won’t say the antithesis of the big guy’s automation systems—but that brought 80 percent of that functionality down to a level that everyone could both use and afford. Having worked in regional theatres, I knew that there were lots of folks doing automation with many people capable of building their own machinery but the control systems—in particular—are just hard. And there’s no way to make a good one in a six-week production cycle for a show.”

While still working at Mystic, Conner hoped he could convince his bosses to pursue this idea for more affordable automation but it wasn’t of interest to them at the time. Conner was not dissuaded, though. “I figured, ‘All right, I’m going to go do it myself.’ So, I spent several years working nights and weekends on the idea. The problem as I saw it was that many shops bought a lot of industrial-level components. I thought if we could instead craft our own motion control module at the circuit board level, that was dedicated to doing exactly what we needed to do on stage, that we would save a bundle of money and come in a lower price point. Also, we’d have control of our destiny. There’s nothing more frustrating than hitting bugs in industrial control systems and the reply from the manufacturers is ‘Yes, that’s a problem, but our big customers don’t care.’ Essentially, going that route you are out of luck.”

A peek inside Creative Conners’ Revolver, a friction-drive machine capable of spinning any turntable platform with a circular edge.

It took Conner a few years to get a system prototype that he could show off to potential clients. “I sent it out to Williamstown Theatre Festival for a summer, and when it came back, they told me that they would be interested in buying if I had a sellable product,” explains Conner. “That was enough for me to quit my job and take out another mortgage on my house and start this company. The goal from the get go was to be really focused on making automation that was affordable, but primarily, easy to use. Something that did not require an awful lot of training to get started with, because I know that there are already really smart people working in this business and they just need the tools, the right LEGO pieces to put together, to get automation on their stage without worrying about the intricacies of the control system. We do that for them. That was the impetus for starting Creative Conners and that’s still the overarching theme of what we try to do here today. We sweat a lot of the details to make sure our products are easy to use, fast to set up, fast to program, and effective to get on stage. Products that we’d want to use ourselves.”

A turntable in Michael McKeever’s design for Passion at Zoetic Stage

Team Effort

These days, there are 12 people that make up the Creative Conners team, all of whom bring their talents together to make a strong company. “We have a fantastic line-up of people,” states Conner. “Almost everybody here comes out of the theatre production world from some angle or another. Pete Veal, our director of business development, has worked in theatre, and worked in sales at Rose Brand. He has a great combination of hands-on with the product expertise, but then has spent years helping theatres find solutions. He’s excellent at figuring out how to get our products to fit into our customer’s projects. Mike Wade, our director of tech services spent years working as a production manager in New York City at theatres like The Atlantic Theater Company. Mike and I go back a long way; we went to Ithaca College together. When I got word that he was interested in doing something a little different, I jumped on that opportunity. Obviously, as a production manager, he’s spent a lot of time figuring out technical problems, and how to get things done on budget and on time. Mike is our front line, in terms of tech support and being on the phone talking a customer through the early stages of a project. Where a lot of theatres may not have a ton of in-house knowledge about automation, we can be that out-source automation expert; we love to work with people.”

Hard at work at the Creative Conners shop.

Brian Belfer is the director of operations and has worked in commercial rigging and with cranes; most recently he worked for generator rental company Aggreko in operations. “Brian’s got loads of electrical background, but then his logistics and operations skills are just nutty. He’s used to putting together huge generator packages from all over the country on a moment’s notice. He’s got a great mix of skills, that we can really benefit from. Steve Hnath interned with us a few years back and then most recently was at Tait. He’s back and works on our product development team. He’s got a great combination of both mechanical engineering and computer science which is an odd blend to find that much talent in somebody who still wants to put up with the crazy demands of working in entertainment. It’s great though when you can find those people.”

Creative Conners has a lot of strengths and different perspectives on the production side as well. “On the shop floor, we’ve got fabrication specialists and classical machinists who have been making machine parts for literally 30 or 40 years. And then we have folks who have been out doing more traditional production, either props, electrics, or carpentry; but found they love to work on gadgets. It’s important to have both sides. To have some people who are theatre folks, who understand the demands of when we say you’ve got to ship today, you really must ship today. And it’s also great to have folks that have been working on a more industrial scale who bring that different set of priorities to the job.”

'The Color Purple,' designed by Todd Ivins at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Photo courtesy Todd Ivins

Safety Training

“Training is a huge part of what we do; we put a lot of energy into training so that everybody understands more about automation,” Conner states. “We do a lot of work informally in terms of blog posts and training videos, and our podcast: Circuit and Gear (www.circuitandgear.com); anywhere we can get the word out about how automation works. We also go around the country and give training sessions as well as doing them here in our shop in Warren, Rhode Island. At our seminars, we really pick apart just how automation works. We have a system that we teach from called ‘The Pentagon of Power,’ five major aspects to any automation system. We show that, regardless of whose system you’re using, there are five basic components and learning what those things are, what each one does, how they’re interconnected, is crucial to understanding how automation works and how you troubleshoot it when it doesn’t work.”

Just as important as training, to Conner, is safety, which they design into each of Creative Conners products. “We make a big effort to design products in a safe manner, produce safe equipment, and promote safe practices,” Conner continues. “The safety features on all of our products cannot be bypassed. Safety is not where you cut costs.”

Todd Ivins designed 'Assassins' at the Milwaukee Rep. Photo courtesy Todd Ivins

A Range of Markets

Many people may pigeonhole Creative Conners to just theatrical automation, but they’ve supplied their products to several concert tours. “We’ve been focused on the mid-tier of the market—regional theatres and universities, but it’s great when our gear gets used on a big national concert tour,” explains Conner. “It shows that there’s a lot of different areas of the entertainment business that can utilize automation which is easy to use and affordable. Those are traits that aren’t only reserved for regional theatres. We recently supplied automation for the Broadway show, Misery, with Proof Productions. Although we’re not the shop that most people think about when doing huge Broadway spectacles, there’s a lot of motion that happens both on Broadway and Off-Broadway when it’s useful to have equipment that is compact, modular, and easy to use.

“The other thing that also warms my heart are the number of high schools that are now using our equipment,” Conner says. “We rent a lot of turntables for high school productions of Les Misérables. It’s great to know that, although we strive to meet folks at the higher levels of the industry, we’re also doing a good job of keeping our core philosophy of creating things that are easy to use and affordable.

“One thing I hope that people realize above all else about Creative Conners is that we just love automation, and we love to work with folks that are trying to do it,” Conners concludes. “We pride ourselves on trying to be the friendliest automation guys in the business, so regardless of what you think your knowledge level is, we’re always happy to talk about your next project. We are here to help and want to be the automation resource you can talk to about it.”

For more information, go to www.creativeconners.com

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