Field service technicians are everyday super heroes who, day in and day out, install, fix and maintain the equipment that keeps the world running.
Chris Nobels leads his own team of super hero techs — but the product his team works on is bringing beloved Marvel characters like Spider-Man to life onstage. As director of show operations for “Marvel Universe LIVE!,” Nobels oversees daily operation and production for the show’s producer, Feld Entertainment.
Below, Nobels offers a backstage look at what it takes to manage a team of touring showbiz technicians. Hiring creative talent and organizing scenery and prop delivery are just a taste of the logistical challenges that must be solved to ensure the product — the show — succeeds.
Walk me through the steps it takes to produce a show like Marvel Universe LIVE!
Nobels: We start by creating a concept and a storyline. Then, we hire the creative team — writers, directors, choreographers and others. Depending on the project, we’ll spend 10 weeks to two years fleshing out concept ideas.
Once set, we present it to Feld Entertainment and Marvel for approval. Then, the show goes into development. Everything comes together during the rehearsal phase, which lasts from four weeks to three months.
What happens once you raise the curtain for a live audience?
We analyze audience reactions over the next two to three weeks. Are they in awe when we want them to be in awe? Do they laugh when we want them to laugh? If that’s not happening, we tweak the show to make sure it does happen.
What are the biggest management challenges?
Keeping everyone on track. There is so much attention to detail that I must ensure nobody gets lost in it all. Our opening day is our opening day no matter how much more time we may want.
Another big task is making sure we hit our milestones. We do production meetings with the full creative team each month, and bi-weekly or weekly check-ins with people who are scattered across the US. If a specific department is holding up the timeline, I’ll follow up with them.
What does it take — logistically — to pull off these live shows?
Operational logistics are important from day one. We need to load in and out efficiently, and all of the equipment must fit into a semi-truck trailer. If all of the show’s equipment doesn’t fit into the arena, or if it limits the amount of arenas we can perform in, we have to adjust.
For example, with “Disney on Ice,” we play France for several weeks. Outside of Paris, the venues are fairly small. Typically, the show requires 140 feet of performance space, but in these venues, we only have 50 or 60 feet. So, we work with the touring staff and creative team to adapt the shows for French venues, without losing the essence of each show.
How do you ensure safety?
During the rehearsal process, we have an outside agent come in and do a risk assessment to make sure what we have in place will keep our performers safe. An internal safety department travels with the shows and does spot checks to make sure everyone is staying safe. We also do an extensive pre- and post-show check on all of the equipment to make sure it is working properly.
Most gratifying part of the job?
It’s all about the live audience perspective. One thing we excel at is that our shows are culturally relevant all over the world. They are entertaining for kids, adults and grandparents. Everything we do is about the family.
“Marvel Universe LIVE!” is one of the most challenging, but fun shows I’ve worked on. We pushed boundaries to create a new genre of entertainment by incorporating new elements, such as an intricate fly-track system, lasers and more than 26 video projectors that display scenery. We combine all these technical elements into one show in a way that supports the story without becoming the story.