If you go to a Broadway show or a big rock concert, you might see pieces of scenery move on their own—rising and descending, shifting side to side, or rotating in place. Behind the scenes, specialized machines make it all happen, coordinated by a software-driven automation system.
Gareth Conner founded Rhode Island-based Creative Conners in 2004 to bring that kind of automation to regional and school theaters. Now his staff is using Fusion 360 to create new designs for the machinery that controls how scenery dances around on stage.
From Regional Theater to Big-Time Productions and Entrepreneurship
Conner got his start in technical theater when he joined his high school’s stage crew. He liked it so much that he ended up getting a fine arts degree in college, then working in regional theaters in the Southwest. “I’ve always really enjoyed technical challenges,” he says. “It didn’t take long to figure out that the really fun stuff to do wasn’t building the static scenery, but the machinery that moves the scenery around. So I kind of got hooked on that.”
Conner went to Boston in the early 1990s to work for a firm that made high-end theatrical machinery for television studios, Disney theme parks, and the like. The company was just beginning to incorporate automation, and Conner ended up doing a lot of CAD work, as well as learning on the fly how to write automation software.
Wanting to get back to his artistic roots—and start his own company—he found himself thinking: “What would be really fun would be to take this technology, simplify it a bit, and then bring it back to the theater space.”
Designing Machinery, Electronics, and Software From the Ground Up
These days, the Creative Conners team designs and manufactures every component required to automate scenery. The company makes various machines to raise, pull, or spin pieces of scenery, as well as an electronic control device and the software that runs it all. The result is a modular system that allows a stage crew to program how scenery should move around, then hit one button and have it all happen automatically.
He likes the work so much because of the fun of wearing different hats, from software programming to product design to hands-on engineering and manufacturing. As he puts it, “You are there when it’s just a blank sheet of paper, and you’re there when it’s a finished product” being put on a truck to go to a rock-and-roll show or a high school production of Les Mis.
Improving the Design Process With Fusion 360
For years, Conner and his crew relied on SolidWorks for CAD, but they moved to Fusion 360 this summer. Several things pushed them in that direction. For starters, they needed designers working remotely to execute a lot of work in parallel. ”The cloud component and collaboration in Fusion 360 were great for that,” Conner says, adding that ”the idea of buying a bunch more SolidWorks licenses was unattractive, to say the least.”
Initially, Conner was worried that Fusion 360 might not be robust enough for his company’s design needs. In fact, though, he’s found that it’s “just better all the way around.” Besides being much faster and making it much easier to implement changes, he says, “it’s a much more pleasurable experience designing in Fusion 360 than it ever was in SolidWorks.”
Years of using SolidWorks had conditioned Conner “to design the machine before you design the machine,” so to speak—for example by carefully planning out file structures ahead of time—so as not to run into trouble later. There’s a big downside to that mentality, he notes: “If your design tool intimidates you at all, then you start to get a little skittish about your design work.”
By contrast, Fusion 360 gave him the confidence to rip apart the design for a new turntable machine to make major changes to the drivetrain and other major components. “You can lay out the design with reckless abandon,” Conner says. “The history [feature] really frees you up, and you stop being timid. . . . You just do it, because it’s all being captured right now.”
Another big help has been Fusion 360’s tight integration of CAD and CAM, which Conner calls “such a breath of fresh air.” When the team needs to make changes to a design, there’s no need to re-export or merge files; they simply make their tweaks and go.
That freedom and speed allowed the team to make large changes to the turntable design and still get it done about three times faster than they would have otherwise—two weeks, instead of six. “You’re doing it better because the software is working so quickly with you,” Conner says. “It gets out of our way and lets us really do what we want.”
Serving Both Broadway and High Schools
Conner wants to keep growing his product roadmap at both the high and low end. The company’s Pro line is designed for bigger shows that need more complex effects. For all of the same reasons the equipment has been popular in smaller venues—including ease of use and low price—it has also started to find its way into some Broadway shows, for example a recent run of “Misery” starring Bruce Willis.
Meanwhile, the Apprentice line is aimed at the school market. “It’s amazing to me the number of high schools using our equipment,” Conner says. He laughs when he adds that the company gets the fewest tech support requests from the youngest users—especially high school students.
Either way, he says, “We are the company, that when you get handed the design of the show and realize that the stuff has to move around, we’re your next phone call.”