Advice on Stage Design

Explanatory Articles 15 MIN READ

This article has been written to address some of the risks, issues and differing perspectives on stage heights for events. Originally this was produced for the benefit of SXS sales staff and designers but the scope of the article has been expanded for the benefit of event organisers and clients.

STAGE PURPOSES

A stage is any raised platform used at an event.  While commonly known for live music performances, it is important to note the other applications for stages in events:

  • Conference stages – for when a presenter of business or other content needs to be seen by a larger audience, as well as for them to see the audience.
  • Fashion show stages – when models walk down a catwalk it is often important for the audience to have a clear view of apparel on the entire model.
  • Camera and tech riser stages -  used when the show production team needs to be at an elevated height in order to have a clear view over an audience or to the main stage.
  • Backstage access - often it is necessary to have a raised platform that is not visible to an audience – for example for access to or egress from a main performance area.
  • Disabled or viewing platforms - in order to provide better viewing for guests that cannot be a part of the main crowd on the event floor.

 

It is worth noting that nearly all stage applications exist for the purpose of improving the view of people involved in or watching a show or presentation.

 

Risks

There are several risks that need to be considered when designing stages. These include:

  • Falling from stages
  • Tripping over low stages
  • Tripping on protruding elements of a stage
  • Collapse of stages or associated structures
  • Blocking of emergency access routes
  • Items falling from stages and injuring people or affecting machinery

 

All stage construction and use applications should have a risk assessment produced that considers these and other risks. Risks must be mitigated or managed in such a way to create a level of hazard which is acceptable to the unique needs of an event.

 

Responsibility

Ultimately all parties involved in the design, construction, use and management of stages have some responsibility for the safety of workers and the public. These responsibilities include:

 

Designer

To consider the unique risks of each event and to design a solution that manages these risks. It is worth noting that in some instances a stage which is entirely safe in one application is unacceptably unsafe in another. For example a 1’ high stage platform with hard fascia and marked edges may be deemed reasonably safe for a conference in a well-lit venue with low audience numbers; whereas the same stage placed in front of a fire exit for an event with low light levels and a large crowd of intoxicated revellers would be entirely unacceptable and could be potentially lethal.

 

Builder

The people constructing the stage should be both mindful of the appropriateness of the design, as well as the construction methods of a given stage structure. Just because a competent person designed the stage does not necessarily mean it is suitable for the project; as such all parties should feel able to question the design of a stage. Further, details of a project can evolve considerably from point of design to the end solution and all parties must be mindful of this. Finally, it is a stage builder’s duty to ensure the design is not deviated from with discussion and approval, as they may not be aware of the wider considerations of why a stage has been designed in a certain way.

 

Event Organiser

The event organiser should ensure that those designing and constructing a stage are competent and sufficiently briefed on its use.

 

Edge protection

Taller stages present a risk of items falling off them into an audience or onto machinery. For example it is very easy for a round microphone or flightcase on wheels to be knocked and roll around freely on stages. It is therefore important to consider whether edge protection is needed. Edge protection can be as simple as a wooden plate screwed to the edge of a stage, or may be more advanced such as a high-load handrail system with kickplates. Consider where the risks are for each stage and find appropriate ways to mitigate them.

 

Edge markings

Edge marking is a visual guide for people to use to avoid areas of hazard, near an unprotected edge (such as at the front, or “downstage”, of a performance stage). In dark show conditions the edge of a black stage can be indistinguishable from the drop to the floor beyond it. Often a simple solution such as contrasting tape can be an appropriate mitigant of risk. Often brightly coloured or UV tape is used as it tends to catch attention more than white edging. In some instances a light-emitting system can be used to denote the edge of a stage.

It is worth noting that in some performance environments edge marking may have an unwanted aesthetic impact on a show. In such cases it can be acceptable to not have edge marking as long as performers and other stage users are fully briefed on the dangers. Various control measures can be put in place, such as allocating performance areas from which performers should not move out of. Of course this is very project specific and needs to be risk assessed fully.

 

Drop stages

For larger events it is not uncommon to have stages of 5’- 6’ (1.5m-2m) high from the floor. Larger festival or stadium stages can be even higher. This is quite a distance to fall, especially when the venue floor can be hard concrete or stone.

With this in mind it can be appropriate to build a secondary “drop stage” in front of the main stage which allows a performer to not fall as far should they trip. If the main stage is 6’ high, a drop stage may be 5’ high and extend 4’-8’ in front of the main stage. This has the added benefit of improving line of sight for guests, especially where there is equipment such as monitor speakers or lights on the front edge of the stage.

This may also be a good method to employ when you are concerned that performers may not follow briefings or the advice of a stage manager about how close to the edge of a stage to go. 

 

Treads

Steps or ‘treads’ are the typical manner in which people access a stage. When designing a stepped access/egress solution it is worth considering the use and the abilities of those accessing them. If a step system is for the general public it is important to consider building regulations and the requirements of the step design, handrails and nosing. Whereas steps which are only for professional use of limited crew can be more forgiving and may not need to have the same level of construction standards. Again, ensure a project-specific risk assessment is conducted.

 

Handrails

There is much debate over the use of handrails on stages and at what height handrails should be applied. Handrails have several benefits:

  • Preventing people from falling from a stage.
  • Preventing equipment (especially stray flight cases) falling from a stage and potentially injuring bystanders.
  • For people to balance themselves if walking in the dark, if they trip, or if they are differently abled.

 

Ideally handrails would be used in all instances where there is a risk of injury from falling or tripping. However in live events this is simply not always practical – in particular with the ‘performance edge’ of a stage as this would block the view and ruin the experience for guests! As such an event-specific risk assessment should be conducted which will help identify and mitigate hazards. Where possible all designers and constructors should aim to comply with UK building regulations, however this is not always practical. On the other hand, there are many situations in which it would be entirely negligent to not comply with building regulations (such as a stage which is designed for the sole purpose of public pedestrian access).

 

Audience viewing experience

This is an area of much debate amongst our team!

A stage that is low can be good because those in the audience feel closer to the presenter or performer.  However, people sitting behind other audience members may not be able to see all of the presenter/performer which could undermine some of the content or show that they are delivering.

A stage that is high (up to 6’) can be good because people at the rear of the audience are likely to be able to see everything that is on it. However audience members at the front of the crowd may have to look directly up to see what is happening onstage. Indeed being seated close to a high stage may mean the only view you have is of the stage fascia.

A very high stage (over 6’) is ideal for a large standing crowd with a deep area between the stage edge and audience. However it is not good for shorter people standing at the front or if the stage has a smaller gap between itself and the front of the audience.

 

Choosing your stage height

It is vital that all stage heights are considered with a balanced view.  Things to consider are:

  • How important is it to see the entire body of the presenter/performer?
  • The risk of the audience’s view being blocked.
  • What the view is like for all guests; especially those in the closest and farthest seats.
  • The potential hazards and to what extent they can be reduced for a specific project.

 

Very broadly speaking, if a show has multiple rows of seated audience members, 3-4’ is a generally accepted compromise within the SXS office. If the audience is standing a 5’ high stage is recommended depending on the application. However, some people may feel that this is too high and can make the presenter feel disconnected from the audience.

For shows where untrained or potentially intoxicated people may need to be onstage (such as an awards show!) it is advisable to make the stage lower to reduce risk. The other approach that can be taken in this situation is to give the stage additional depth such that the people onstage are less likely to go near the edge.

 

Design and Approach

The information provided in this article is generalised.  It is vital to take a unique view of each project with consideration for the nature of the guests, the audience, the content and the unique risks to that event.

Please note that this information is provided on an entirely indemnified basis and should not constitute professional advice. All stages should be designed by competent professionals.

 

SXS Events can take a lot of the stress out of the stage design process. Why not get in touch to discuss your stage?