LIVE EVENT PRODUCER JO MACKAY ON FINDING HER BUZZ WITH OASIS, WORKING IN THE MIDDLE EAST DURING COVID, AND WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR THE INDUSTRY
Jo MacKay is Founder, Partner and Director at LarMac LIVE & PROJECTS. Specialising in live entertainment, Jo has produced globally recognised shows and festivals including Creamfields, Live Earth Rio, Pink Floyd ‘Their Mortal Remains’ exhibition, Saudi Arabia’s largest ever music and cultural festival MDL Beast, and many more. Originally from Glasgow, but brought up in Buckinghamshire, Jo now splits her time between London and Glasgow.
WW: How did you get into live entertainment production? Did you have any role models?
JM: I did a 3D degree at Birmingham and specialised in set design and lighting. When I finished my degree I wanted to go into the entertainment industry and it just so happened one of the biggest lighting companies in the world were based in Birmingham (Called Light & Sound Design at the time. Now called PRG). They were looking for a recent graduate to work with young bands, go on tour and work with lighting designers to realise their design – getting all the rental and crewing sorted – and that’s how I started. At the time, in 1994, Oasis were just starting out. I met that team and became friends with the Tour Manager, who was about the only other woman I knew in the industry at the time! I started working with the band, and that’s where I got the buzz. We started in tiny venues and then within a year and a half were suddenly doing three gigantic outdoor shows. That’s where I got to see a design evolve from something small into something large scale, and I thought “Ah! I like these big shows!”
As far as role models I’d say I’ve got a couple of mentors who’ve become role models and helped me shape my career. My main mentor is Nick Levitt who I worked with regularly and still do to this day; he really got me into production.
WW: So how did you go from working in a lighting company to founding LarMac?
JM: I worked for Light & Sound Design for four or five years and organically it ran its course. I took a bit of time out, went travelling, and then when I came back I pretty much decided I didn’t want to be in the touring world, I wanted to do one-off shows. So I started working freelance with Nick (Levitt) and from there he started teaching me about full production. Around this time, I also met my now business partner, Ian Greenway. We were regularly working together with a bunch of other freelancers and then he said “Shall we make it a company? We could try and get a team of people that are like-minded, and try to do it our way?” We said it as a joke first and then just set it up. That was in 2007.
WW: How has that evolved since its inception and what prompted you to set it up?
JM: We started just the two of us, bringing in freelancers. We mainly were working on the technical production of festivals and music shows, and a few corporate shows in the Middle East. We got a chance to do some big shows in the Middle East and from there we were able to start employing a team. We’re still a small company but it’s nice being able to choose the right people for whatever the particular job is.
WW: You’re best known for your work as a producer on huge festivals such as Creamfields, All Points East and, in 2019, MDL Beast in Saudi Arabia. What are the challenges pulling big shows like that together?
JM: Creamfields was one of the first jobs I ever did as a freelance production assistant. That was my first big one-off show. It was like “Yeah, I’m going in the right direction.” These days, the amount of production and creativity that’s put into Creamfields is the biggest in the UK for a festival site. We work on it as a company now and Ian heads that up.
MDL Beast (“Middle Beast”) in 2019 was one of the first mixed-gender audiences in Saudi; males and females could go to the concert together and women didn’t need to wear traditional dress. It was really interesting working in new territories in Saudi, especially because the production & design of the show was gigantic and it was really pulled together in true Middle East style – very quickly in around 3 months. The show was a really amazing moment to witness, particularly as a woman, and I hope that the country continues to progress and that Saudi’s can enjoy more live entertainment.
WW: Then last year you went on to produce the hugely technical UAE 49th National Day Ceremony?
JM: Yes! Last year was a funny one because of COVID. The Artistic Director and Designer of National Day, Es Devlin, called me in August to say she had been asked to do the event. First, I phoned Piers and said; “Es and I are going to Abu Dhabi. National Day is happening.” He said “No way”, and I said “Yes way!” Then within 12 weeks it was designed, technically realised and all of a sudden it was built and the show was over.
The show was socially distanced for around 120 VIPs, but it was also broadcast to the Nation. It was so incredibly successful, that for the first time the client decided to keep it in situ after National Day and we turned it into a mini show running three times a night for a further six weeks. We managed to turn the whole show around so quickly because there were a lot of people out of work, so you could hand-pick an excellent team that could really deliver. Everyone was really excited and happy to finally be working on a show, having been out of work during the pandemic, and although there were all the complications with COVID, timelines and budgeting, everyone was so resilient and resourceful. Their hard work made it all possible! It was an amazing thing to be part of after such a difficult year. It’s probably the most beautiful show I’ve ever worked on – Es pushes boundaries every time.
WW: There must have been a lot of challenges getting a hundred tonne rotating cube to appear to float on water?
JM: When the client said “this is where you have to do it” we were faced with a tide, and open water, so we had to build our own dam in order to build in the dry and fill it back up with water. It was quite an engineering feat, especially in the timescale. There were so many Zoom calls – we never even used Zoom a year and half ago and I think in the end we clocked up around 10,000 zoom hours! When we arrived in Abu Dhabi we had to comply with UAE quarantine arrival rules, which included electronic wristbands and hotel isolations, and that was every single staff member without fail. At the end you sort of ran out of your hotel room to freedom! It was an amazing show to do disregarding COVID, but producing the show in the pandemic was a completely different challenge.
WW: Did you have to schedule differently? Did it take longer than you thought it would because of the pandemic and restrictions?
JM: COVID was part of us delivering the show from the beginning, and having a strong international team with a wealth of experience was crucial. We just had to create a solid plan, whilst still remaining reactive and flexible, and sent people out to the region early so they could complete their isolation. We were in a bubble in our hotel and getting tested regularly; starting weekly, then every three days and near to show day it was every day. It was a very strict process but it was completely necessary to reduce any risk of jeopardising the show. It was an interesting time and such a challenge for all departments, but everyone remained really positive and totally dedicated to the show, which was reflected in its success.
WW: You’ve worked with Wonder Works for a number of years, initially on Clusters of Light, which saw a £20m mock-Roman amphitheatre built to stage a musical production about the prophet Muhammed. What was the process like working with WW and how did that production come together?
JM: We arrived in January to start building the set and the amphitheatre wasn’t built yet. It was probably two thirds there. It turned out we were building the set quicker than the amphitheatre was being built! So, we built the set and just kept carrying on as they were building the physical building. It was challenging because you couldn’t get the sound system in or the projectors in because there was nothing. There were no physical walls or anything to put anything on. Piers just kept saying, “Let’s not worry about things we can’t change, let’s just keep moving forward and it’ll catch up” – he was so calm! Everyone was – it was surreal. When eventually the amphitheatre was built we brought the cast and full team on site to start rehearsals within the venue, and it all started to become a reality. The building continued and then when show day was due, there was such bad rain, we had to stall the show for two days! When it did happen it was such a beautiful show – visually it looked amazing. You never would have believed 8 weeks prior, we were standing on a building site with a set already built but still on a construction site. I’ve gone back to the same amphitheatre since for another show in it two years ago and it was nice to see how it had developed.
WW: What’s it like being a woman in a largely male industry? What are the advantages and challenges?
JM: It’s a very male industry, although there are lots of amazing women in the industry now. I’m the youngest in an all-boy family so I wasn’t really that phased by it; my Dad always said “keep pushing forward, don’t give up.” You can often be the only woman in a meeting of ten. When it comes to decisions I think we can be a bit more measured; some women I know in the industry challenge the male thing, but for me, I think we bring a different dynamic. I have a large female team, and that’s just how it’s happened. The women who work for LarMac, their attention to detail is excellent. They’re strong women and they can really hold their own.
WW: What kinds of developments and challenges does the future hold for the live entertainment industry?
JM: Firstly, COVID will likely be with us for a while and it’s something we will all start to live with. I think it makes people a bit more thoughtful.
Obviously technology is constantly changing and we’re finding different ways of doing things. Working remotely and being able to deliver is a challenge and it does seem impossible at times but we know now it’s something that can be done – it’s all about the prep work. Digital technology is moving fast and it’s so important nowadays – it can really enhance the customer experience and offer something really unique. More than ever people want to feel connected; feel, touch, interact. So often at concerts nowadays people have their phones up filming rather than watching the show live, and with relentless screen time and social media overload people have become desensitised to the live experience and emotional connection that can be made. I think there will always be an appetite for live entertainment because there’s nothing better than seeing something live. You feel very connected which is also what the artist wants. I think we’re going to see a lot more AR and more immersive experiences in the future facilitated by new technology.
I also think we have to really consider the environment a lot more and massively reduce wastage – especially with one off-shows. Given we work internationally, we do fly an international team in to a country for a show, but we really try to integrate the local community, up-skill and promote local growth. I don’t know how that’s going to affect the touring world, but in every area of the industry we need to make changes to reduce and re-use as much as possible.
WW: How’s the last year been for you?
JM: It’s been a total rollercoaster of emotions – I’ve got a company with full time staff and need to keep everyone working. Our mainstay of Summer music festivals and shows was completely wiped out last year. We found ourselves at the beginning of March with shows steadily getting cancelled and by 1st June everything in the calendar had gone. We did lots of pitches and tried to stay steady and keep our small team together. Then Es called about National Day 49 in Abu Dhabi and that totally invigorated everyone in the company. We all got to work straight away and really finished the year on an absolute high. It’s been tough for the industry but we feel very blessed that we managed to deliver one job that year and it be a really fantastic job – it was hard but it gave us all purpose again and brought everyone together in a really positive way!
WW: What satisfaction do you gain from your work? What keeps you doing it?
JM: Interestingly during my six months of not really working, I personally really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the downtime – you don’t realise until you have it that you really needed time off. I was wondering if it was time to leave the industry and do something different, but after the time off and coming back to deliver such an amazing show it actually invigorated me and reinforced my love for what I do. The year before I’d had a difficult year on a job and I’d lost my buzz a little bit; the enforced time off made me relax and reflect. Es called and I was like “hang on a minute, of course I want to do this. Especially with someone like Es Devlin!” It was very satisfying delivering the show against the odds.
WW: Which project(s) are you personally most proud of?
JM: 100% National Day last year was just fantastic. I feel very proud of being asked to do it and being able to deliver it in the circumstances – it truly was a work of art.
In 2016, I was the Parade Producer and Production Manager on HRH The Queen’s 90th Birthday celebrations on The Mall. Like all these shows with tight timelines, it was another intense roller coaster juggling lots of elements, including working with Royal protocol, all the different patrons and charities involved in the parade, plus a live broadcast. We did the rehearsal in torrential rain, but when it came to the actual parade, the Queen came out of Buckingham Palace and the sun came out! You couldn’t ask for better than that…