Samhuinn 2012: The Backstage Experience

Robert Lee, one of the Tech Crew for Samhuinn 2012 shares his experience of the event, with photos by Katherine Brennan.

Tech are the red-boiler-suited backstage crew who set everything up, take it down, run the fire sculptures and do all the little behind-the-scenes things to make everything run smoothly. This was the first Samhuinn festival I’ve been involved with, and the second time I’ve Teched for BFS.

There is so much that Tech does on the night that isn’t big and showy like building stages or loading the copper stags’ head with paraffin-soaked paper rope; one of the little jobs that I saw was pushing the Cailleach’s chair forward from behind the stage with road pins!

Producer Tom told me he was the first person on site at around 9AM; he put up our green tent which was to become our dry store, out of the persistent rain.

I was supposed to get there at 9:30, but the bus was late and I arrived at 9:45 just in time for the first brew of tea. The Heras fencing and the stage were delivered over the next hour, and the heavy lifting and rigging began in earnest.

A builders’ van was parked outside St Giles church all day, mixing what looked like tonnes of concrete and pumping it inside. They were wonderful, and even gave us some wood to pack the stage with; we were calling them the Tech Surprise and suggesting that we were going to build the stage out of cement…

At about 2:30PM, Spike and I were sent off for lunch. Dinner didn’t happen for me, so I’m glad I got the chance for a big pub meal. This was also my first and only loo break until the club…

If the stage looked slightly squint, that’s because it was aligned to north, unlike the square. We had to spend quite some time with a compass and the whole team lifting and turning the entire main section just to line it up properly. The cardinal directions are very important to the Cailleach’s performance; even for the Tech team, the ritual side has to be there, and it has to be done right. The more I’m involved with BFS festivals, the more I appreciate the ritual subtleties that the audience doesn’t usually see.

Running: Just before the start of the show, my duties took me running from production to the top of the hill with Tom – it’s so cool to run up the middle of the Royal Mile when it’s closed to traffic – then I was gophered back to Niddry Street, then back up to production to find Tom, who was of course back up to the top of the hill, then back to production, then back up to the top again to gopher for the Whites, realised that they weren’t where I thought they were, so back to production to get a position, then off to the Mound, by which time the Whites were lining up in the procession, so back up past the castle to Johnstone Terrace! I finally met the White helpers lining up in the procession; they said my timing was perfect, and after that everything seemed to go right for me all night.

All the fire was actually lit from the Neid fire, made with a bow drill on the castle esplanade. The infamous and hated “backup emergency device” was not employed, to much relief all around.

The lamp used to light the fire cans was entirely for show; we could have lit them just as easily with a splint. A huge gas lamp just looks hotter!

All the gerbs worked, which was a huge relief and spontaneous cheers from backstage. Even with all that rain, we had no damp squibs.

I was amazed at how much ash the fire sculptures generated backstage. Since it had to rain, we’d hoped for snow, and we got lots of it – the kind that doesn’t melt.

The stage was disassembled in super-fast time; we were all done and able to go to the after-party before 1AM, which is probably a record. The take-down task is huge; not only do we have to take down the stage and the fire sculptures, sweep up, and literally pack everything away, we also have to do so many smaller jobs like moving the park bench back into place. The van came to collect the staging and lifts at around midnight (roughly); the only things we left were the neat pile of Heras fencing and the bins, which were collected in the morning.

After five hours sleep, I took the bus back to the BFS containers for the major unloading and sorting job, then back to the BFS office at St Margaret’s House, helped to unload the rest of the van and start opening the tent to dry. Tom was kind enough to give me a lift home, in spite of heavy traffic. So it was gone 4PM on the First that I was finally home and finished. Production goes on: there’s still people washing, drying, fireproofing and folding all the stewarding bibs and boiler-suits, and debriefs to be had before Tom writes up his production notes for the Board to be ready for the next festival…

3 thoughts on “Samhuinn 2012: The Backstage Experience

  1. Good blog! I’m not really a blog reader but considering I was there on the night shows how much I didn’t know about the day you guys had – and the traditions behind the festival (all the fire coming from the same source for instance). I also shared ur toulet anxieties that night πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for writing it up – an also for using my pics πŸ™‚ maybe next year I’ll have had my camera for more than 2 weeks and be able to take some really good ones??!

    I actually laughed when it was mentioned that everyone dealing with the hanging fire sculpture was wearing a hard hat – which I wasn’t – made me realise that I really wasn’t doing any actual work….


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