“We see ourselves as storytellers”

David Atkins, artists of modern shows, David Atkins Enterprises (DAE)

Receiving his first professional education as a dancer, by 2000 David Atkins had become the mastermind behind his own shows and performances. Currently the David Atkins Enterprises (DAE) is one of the world's leading companies producing, literally, record-breaking shows and events. From the award-winning Chicago, We Will Rock You and West Side Story musicals to the multimedia feast of the Expo 2010 opening in Shanghai and, of course, the grand Olympic ceremonies in Sydney and Vancouver. And that is just a start. How humans can work in symbiosis with machines and how Canadian painters can become connected with the Olympics ceremony — David Atkins tells us his story.

There is a slogan in one of the DAE video-promos: “We change perception”. Which perceptions are you trying to change and how?

We are talking about the audience’s perception of a concept or existing and pre-conceived ideas. For instance, when we started in the Middle East, in Doha, it was post-9/11 — most of the Western world had a very fixed view on Islam, and it has gotten worse, obviously. And the Western world was also largely ignorant about Islamic culture. So, it was important for the people that we were representing, and it was also important for us, to try to give the world the new and more accurate perception of Islam. That it was not about violence, it was not about terrorism — it was about the more important and fundamental elements of Islam. In fact, “Salam aleicum!” means “Peace be upon you!”, which is something most people don’t know, and that is how Muslims greet each other every day. And we were telling the story of an Islamic country. It was also in Australia when we did the Olympics here in 2000 — the world had a very fixed view on what the country was about. Our ceremony — we believe from what we heard and saw in the press — changed the perception about Australia’s creativity. There were no “opera houses”, no kangaroos — it told a different story. We have always set out to re-conceive and re-define the country’s place in history and in time.

 When producing an event, do you tend to concentrate on certain details  — be it dramatic content, stage troupe, visuals — or do you try to view it in a broader context?  

We see ourselves primarily as storytellers. So, from my point of view, I am pretty much unable to move forward unless I have a story to work with, unless I can find a thread. I need to have something to ground the story and the performance in, and then the technology and imagery follows. It does not start with great imagery, it all starts with the story and then it triggers all the other things.

 With all the multimedia breakthroughs we have seen in the last decade, is it hard to find a balance between humanity and technology?

It’s an easy mistake to be seduced by technology and fall prey to it in a belief that it will transplant emotion and storytelling. But it does not. I think you can use technology to enhance the story, to expand it and make the emotional connection even stronger. But you have to have the story first. And you also have to be very discreet about how you apply the technology to the storytelling, so that the story does not become a victim of technology. 

 

David Atkins’ Olympic heights…

2000   Summer Olympic Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Sydney, Australia;

2002   Commonwealth Games Melbourne Flag Handover Ceremony, Manchester, UK; 

2006   Asian Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Doha, Qatar; 

2010   Winter Olympics Opening, Closing and Victory Ceremonies, Vancouver, Canada; 

2011   Rugby World Cup Opening Ceremony, Auckland, New Zealand; 

2011   12th Arab Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Doha, Qatar; 

2014   Commonwealth Games Gold Coast Flag Handover Ceremony, Glasgow, UK; 

2015   24th Men’s Handball World Championship Opening, Closing & Victory Ceremonies, and Competition Concert Series, Doha, Qatar. 

 
...and laurels.

2000   Gold Olympic Pin Awarded By the IOC President — David Atkins

2003   Order of Australia Medal (OAM) — David Atkins

2010   Best Export Award Australian Event Industry for 2010 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony — DAE;

2010   Lifetime Achievement Award — Australian Event Industry — David Atkins

2010   Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards for 2010 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony television coverage — DAE

2012   Middle East Event Awards — Best Arts and Cultural Event for 2011 12th Arab Games, Opening Ceremony — DAE;

2012   Australian Event Awards — Best Export Award for 2011 Rugby World Cup Opening Ceremony and  2011 12th Arab Games Opening & Closing Ceremonies — DAE

French director and choreographer Philippe Decoufle who did the ceremonies for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics picked up his ideas from the Bauhaus-inspired Oscar Schlemmer’s “Triadische Ballet”. Was there any work of art, especially such an unusual one, that you also happened to be influenced by?

Many, many! In Australia we researched half a dozen Australian artists and we used their impressions of the country that informed our ceremony. We also did the same thing with not only visual artists but poets for Vancouver. We went about finding pieces of poetry which, from an oral perspective informed the creative side. So, again, we looked then for different Canadian artists. There was the famous Group of Seven, who influenced a lot of Canadian art, we used their works. And also a number of contemporary ones, for instance, there is Andy Everson who is a multimedia and indigenous artist. He mixes up all the indigenous with the contemporary imagery. So there have been lots and lots of times when we’ve been inspired by both visual artists and writers to help us tell the story.

 Could you tell us about the 4D concept? 

Yeah, fourth dimension! What we did there at Moscow State University was a massive projection show, we were working with 3D video-mapping, which I am sure you are familiar with. But what we also wanted to do was to add a live component, a four-dimensional element to the show. Two things we did was engage human beings to actually work within the content of the projection on the building. We had somebody climb the building while the projection was happening and had them interacting with the content. And then, as well, the audience was experiencing things, there was a physical dimension added to the projection. For instance, there was the sequence when we “flooded” the building and turned it into a great big “fish-tank”, and there were a lot of bubbles in the transition — so, we had a bubble machine over the audience, and they were covered in bubbles. We did that all the way through: we had real fireworks along with the projected ones, then the building “froze” when the snow came and we had snow machines flying snow on the audience simultaneously with the snow being projected on the building. That was the concept of the 4D show — multimedia with a live element.

 

 How do people like you and your team come up with ideas about lighting the Olympic cauldron to make it different every time?

Ideally, if you do enough research and embed yourself into the culture, you get great stories and opportunities to turn them into a cauldron moment. In Doha in 2006 we found the astrolabe, which we eventually turned into a cauldron. And it was a piece of history, an ancient navigation tool that we found in a museum there. And also we had a particular passion about Arabian horses and Arabic horsemanship. So ideas have been combined in a really complex, incredibly difficult piece of machinery with a live element like a horse and a rider. And all of that came out of research and working with the Arab community for a year before the ceremony. It always comes back to research, the same thing as in Canada. The whole concept was this idea of fire and ice, the passion of the people who live in a very cold land. That also led us to stories and cultural stories that helped us find a ceremony and a cauldron. 

On one hand event production is often targeted to achieve business goals. On the other hand, the event itself often appears to be part of the modern cultural life. Where is the boundary between culture and business then?

 

That’s interesting. DAE has a sort of interesting work model. We do ceremonies, obviously, and we also do commercial works, we work as theatre producers and entrepreneurs. I grew up doing that and it was a part of my business model to work in a very commercial sense. And on the other side where our ceremonies and performances are concerned we are contracted for a fixed amount of money to deliever something — we are given a fee and a job to create. There is no difference: we are not trying to make money, we are trying to make art with the money we’ve been given. We believe that we have also developed a very rigorous financial model, so that we look at everything in such a way that we make sure that it is commercially viable. And I think that DAE is one of the few companies globally that raise money and give the money back to organising committees of the ceremonies we create. We have also found ways of creating income and then reimbursing. For example, after the Canada ceremonies we gave back to the organizing committee $2 mln. because of the way we managed their budgets and because of our financial rigour. The cultural community and the arts community quite often are redolent of a sort of commercial community. And quite often very high artistic endeavours fail commercially and that does not seem to be a major problem. But for us, we believe that all things have to work — commercially, creatively and artistically.

What could you describe as the most distinctive feature of your company?

I think it is a combination of our creativity and our production methodology, the rigour that we bring to what we do. So, on the one hand we are a very strong creative company, that’s what drives us. For instance, we withdrew from the tender for the London Olympics — they had changed the tender criteria to take the creativity away from the production company. For us, if we are not involved in the creative side, we are not interested. It is very important for us, our skills in developing and delivering creativity. But also, through the years, because of our commercial experience in theatre, television and film, we also have a very strong structure around the things we do. 

Are you always 100% satisfied with the events you produce? 

I don’t think I know anyone who could say so, though maybe I should not speak for everyone else. Very rarely do I sit and watch and think, “That’s perfect!” I can’t remember that ever happening. There are times when I almost get there, there are things that I’ve done and that make me proud and I believe we've got very close to the sort of emotional response we are trying to solicit from the audience. But we’ve always felt that if we went back, we could improve. That is what keeps driving us to try to reach perfection. You know, we are a sort of perfectionists. And there are always technical things that happen sometimes. For example, in Sydney we had a glitch with the Olympic cauldron. In Doha it rained in the outside stadium and we had elements we had to cancel because of wind and rain. Sometimes nature gets involved and you don’t have any choice, especially if it happens at a certain time. There is media and a broadcast and you have to do the show, and if the weather is not helpful it is just bad luck. There are always little things. 

 “Creativity” is a very common word among producers and event-makers. What does it mean for you?

It is a subjective thing, I suppose. It depends on whether or not you’re dealing with the other people who view what is creative in what you do or you view them yourself. For me it, again, is very much tied to the process that we have which is about storytelling. What creativity means to me is the ability to engage with people, to be able to tell a story that has significance and emotional resonance, that can change perceptions and influence the way people think, either about the past, the present or the future. And, if you’re successful creatively, you have to be able to move people. That’s probably the most important thing — the ability to engage emotionally with your audience, to create something that engages them emotionally and that resonates for them. If you achieve that, then you have created something. That’s a good definition, I think. 

 

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