Four Circles: event behind the scenes


In my last post, I described the Four Circles training experience we created for the 4,500+ attendees at the CHIC 2018 conference. Now I go behind the scenes for those of you who like to hear how things happen — as well as all the things that go wrong!

The team that was in charge of this particular experience (called a “base camp”), had their retreat in April 2018 and had amazing ideas. Then they realized they needed someone with experience in production, events, and scaling up to large numbers to help move things from vision to implementation. Steve Wong, the leader, knew about my experience with large-scale events, production, and design, and invited me to join last summer.

It’s been a blast working with an amazing team of people this past year! They have had a lot of amazing ideas. It’s been so fun to help bring those ideas to reality.

As I mentioned in my last post, the experience was in two parts:

1) Act One, with four quadrants, four circles, four hands-on experiences.

2) Act Two, with a live teacher and interaction. 

The First Attempt

The challenge was the room. The exhibit hall was 70,000 square feet! It was huuuuuuuge!!!!!!

The first iteration didn’t go so well. I did the calculations and said, “Uh, guys, just to rent the pipe and drape for this event will cost us $120,000.” Oops. We knew we wouldn’t have that kind of budget. Back to the drawing board.

The Second Attempt

During a meeting in Knoxville, Steve and I were talking, and I said, “What if we take those hands-on experiences and create really large four circles as a photo op?” This aligned with an idea the team had discussed a long time ago about having some kind of art exhibit.

Steve was excited about the idea, so I pulled up Adobe Illustrator and quickly created a rendering of what it could look like.

I love working out things in Illustrator because I can draw things to scale and figure out logistical issues.

For example, I found some handprint clipart and figured out how many handprints would fit in an 8-foot long slice (32 hands per slice and 512 hands per circle, in case you’re wondering). I suppose someone smarter than me can do the mathematical calculations but for me, this was the easier way!

I did calculations for all of the activities. The handprints took the most room, so we figured a 16’ circle would be needed if we were trying to get 100 kids per day (because handprints could overlap).

No problem, right? After this, I used Revit to draw up a dimensioned plan that included pipe and drape quadrants, hallways, and a large group room with stage.

The quote came back just for the AV and pipe and drape — double our budget.

Oops again. Time to cut back!

Third Time’s the Charm
We did a lot of back and forth with the University of Tennessee Knoxville staff (who, can I say, are totally awesome and amazing to work with!!!) to try to figure out how to get the AV/setup to fit our budget. We went through multiple iterations, even at one point talking about throwing out the quadrants because it would quadruple our complexity for AV.

In the end, we went with the most basic solution of all — quadrants and a little cube of pipe and drape (40’x40’) where we could assemble the circles. It was the lowest priced setup we could get without compromising the program.

Circle Frames

The next complicated task was to figure out how to build the frame to support all of the pie slices.

Steve found a ferris wheel made of PVC pipe and asked me to explore what that would look like. I created a model in Sketchup and animated it to show him 3D views. But I felt a bit doubtful that it would be sturdy enough.

Fortunately, our friend Bill Krause is an amazing inventor and engineer! He created a CAD drawing of a frame made of wood, and even calculated cost, materials, and weight. It fit our budget, and Steve converted the drawings into 9 pages of instructions for assembly! I was super impressed by the amount of detail and planning that went into this.

Delivery Challenges

Meanwhile, I compiled the shopping list for everything else — coroplast boards for cutting, supplies for cutting and painting, and all the activities. It was so complicated it took me a full day to create the shopping list and research best prices for everything. Creating four experiences for 4,000 students requires a lot of supplies!

I also couldn’t find enough stamp pads to do handprints. We changed to fingerprints — which ended up being a blessing because later we had to change even more plans!

It was a bit challenging handling shipping when you’re halfway across the country. They had two addresses — one before July 5, and one after. I put in the after July 5 address because they weren’t supposed to be delivered until after that date.

But June 21, I got a phone call from the delivery person saying, “I’m at the address and there is no one here, so if you don’t call me back, I’m returning it to the sender.” “It” was 100 sheets of 4’x8’ coroplast!!!!

I tried to call back but it kept ringing and there was no voicemail. I had to call the company I bought it from who called the shipping company who called the delivery person, and I connected them with the Tennessee contact. It was very complicated and a bit worrisome not to have the coroplast, which was so central to the activities!

ConstructionBegins / How to Cut Coroplast

When we arrived on site, Steve made a Home Depot run and bought the supplies needed.

Some people measured and cut the coroplast. By the middle of the week, we discovered the best way to cut so many sheets of coroplast is:

  1. Create a template.
  2. Put a 4×8’ sheet of plywood on the ground.
  3. Put sheets of coroplast to be cut. The guys cut 3 at once.
  4. Place the template on top of the coroplast boards.
  5. Line up the big ruler bar with the template. We used a 2” x 96” aluminum flat bar: Place the ruler against the edge of the template where the cut will be. Put it not on the template, but against the edge.
  6. Remove the template and the ruler will be along the line where you’re supposed to cut.
  7. Have a second person stand on the bar.
  8. The first person uses a matte knife to cut through all the pieces at once.

I wish I got a picture! Before this, we were cutting each sheet individually on a table. At first we drew the lines, then we used a chalk snap line. At first we cut with a ruler and by the end people were cutting freehand. It was very tiring! Had we known about the easier way above, we totally would’ve started with that method.

Meanwhile, another team cut the wood. What do you do when you don’t have a sawhorse? You use a folding table. (I’m sure safety experts must be cringing, but we tried to be as safe was we could!)

They assembled the wood into a circle shape. A 4×4’ square of plywood served as the central support. They also learned drywall screws have too small of a thread and you need wood screws!

The circle didn’t look all that large on the ground, but once they tipped it up, it looked huge!

It felt like a workshop going on, with people working on wood, people working on coroplast, and people prepping supplies.

Fortunately, I had used a punch to cut out 4,000 cellophane stars at home already so we didn’t have to do that, our we would’ve never gotten done. We only had two days to prep before the event began. 

Prepping Supplies

The stars were punched out of iridiscent cellophone with a glue dot on the back.

We had amazing volunteers from North Park University, who cut apart 4,000+ circle stickers. (They’re called “inventory labels.”) Can I just give a shout out to North Park’s amazing volunteers? Not only did they pay their own way to get from their home to Chicago, but after arriving, they worked tireless from morning until late at night, and I never heard a word of complaint. These girls were amazing!

I organized the supplies into bins:

1 bin per quadrant

Each bin had a gallon-sized bag for each rotation/activity.

Each of those bags had four quart-sized bags, one per table. we had four tables per quadrant.

All bags were labeled by rotation and day.

All bins were labeled by quad so the quad leaders knew which bin to pick up.

AV Snafu

Meanwhile, the AV crew were setting up the rest of the room.  They had big trusses…

…that were raised up high to create our quadrants.

Unfortunately, after it was set up, I realized they did not follow my diagram and left a large part the room empty! But they remedied it by putting up a big curtain of pipe and drape to create a more intimate space. It really made a big difference. Also, it was a big plus to have such a huge space to handle our construction stuff.

Construction Quandary

The guys got done building the wheels and they were super heavy. They lifted them up and propped them against the wall. It was a lot of work.

It was at this point we realized that our plan was not going to work. We had originally planned:

  • Every day, hide the wood frames in construction area.
  • After every activity, mount the pieces on each circle.
  • During Act Two, bring out the circles and lean them against the wall.

Unfortunately, the frames were just too heavy to do this easily. Plus, with the triangle wedges attached to the frames, it would be too hard to lift them without damaging the circles.

Steve came up with a good idea. “What if we just leave the frames out and every day attach a selection of pieces to create a layered effect?”

It was perfect!

Perfect Painting

Meanwhile, the painting crew spray painted the pieces. I had tried to get colors that matched the official conference colors.

The team started with solid colors but we realized we didn’t have enough paint to make it work. So Marisa said, “What if we make a cloudy texture?”

It just so turned out that the newest member of our team, Debbie, had a background doing stage and set construction, wedding decor, and furniture making! We had no idea. She had tons of spray painting experience and taught the students how to spray. We marveled how God brought all the right people to make this happen!

The loading dock outside was converted to a spray painting location. There was a lot to paint — a total of 192 triangles sides, 32 double-sided and the rest single-sided.

While this was going on, I picked out the best pieces to create the base layer. I tried to match the sides to fit together because with the handcutting, they were not perfectly straight.

I then numbered each piece with a letter for the circle and a number for position. Then I realized our measurements were off and the triangles were just a fraction too thin, leaving about a two-inch gap at the end. This meant that we had to space out all the triangles with a gap between the slices so that no one would notice.

This now meant that the wood would show, which meant we needed to paint the wood.

Our wonderful helper Pam made a trip to get us some white paint and the construction team rolled it on to create white frames.

After we put the pie pieces on, we were delighted. This was the first look we had of how the circles would actually look! They looked even better than we had imagined.

Steve posted up this photo and said it looked like oversized Trivial Pursuit. Haha!

The construction team put heavy-duty double-sided tape on the white parts of the wheel so that the triangles would attach. They blended in because the paper on the tape was white.

In addition, each circle had a round black circle to attach. These were printed on large squares of coroplast and I cut each circle out with a matte knife. Debbie came up with an idea to put plywood squares under the circle to lift them up. This way we could insert the tips of the triangles in under the black circles, which hid the untidiness of the tips. We chopped off the tips for easier insertion.

We realized that we needed a meticulous plan because we had 30 minutes to attach all 64 pieces and only one 14’ ladder and one 8’ ladder.

To save time the following day, Sunday evening we peeled up the corner of every single piece of tape. This was not an easy task because the tape stuck to the paper. I had to use a knife to peel up the corner!

We had to lay all the pieces down and then trace the edges so we could position them perfectly. We also labeled on the wood the number of each piece.

We worked until past 11 PM and when we were done, they propped all the circles up against the wall, ready for the next morning.

Event Logistics

The morning of the first event, volunteers took their places. Here’s a diagram of the setup.

People outside greeted and directed people in. We had a person on a megaphone telling people where to go, because another base camp was set up right next door to us.

Two check-in people stood at the door. The leader of each group gave their headcount. The check-in people had calculators to figure out how many people to direct to each quadrant. Cutoff point was 250 people per quadrant.

Each quadrant had a quadrant leader and assistant. These people directed people where to go.

Once the program began, runners brought pie pieces from the construction area to the tables. After the activities, the runners took them back to the construction area, where the construction team added double-sided tape.

During Act 1, the quadrant leaders and assistants set up the tables with activities.

During Act 2, the quadrant leaders stayed in the quad to answer questions and count people. The assistants went to help add pie pieces to the circles.

Sara Nelson served as live host, and by the last day we found that having her facilitate the entire time, from opening to closing, brough cohesion and clarity to people in what they were experiencing.

I served as the coordinator, communicating via radios to our key leaders. We could not have done the event without radios! The radios were assigned to:

  • Event director
  • Construction lead
  • Greeter/check-in lead
  • Tech lead
  • Each quadrant leader

Precision Teamwork

At the beginning of Monday before everything started, large circular frames stood against the wall. Each circle was 16 feet tall. Here’s part of our building crew to show the sense of scale.

We had 30 minutes to do what felt like the imposible:

  • Peel off all the double-sticky tape on the wheels. (We couldn’t peel them in advance because they made ugly black stripes after the paper was removed.)
  • Carefully place each triangle to align correctly with a 1/4” gap. (The triangles were cut a little too small so we had to space them to be visually correct.)
  • Place all 64 triangles correctly, each one labeled in advance.
  • Use only two ladders, which was all we had, only one of which was tall enough to reach the top of the circles.
  • And do it all quietly because the wheels were only about 30’ from the quadrants in the same room!

Needless to say, this was a task of high precision! My next blog will detail the ridiculous detail we had to do in planning and prep to get this done, but suffice it to say, it paid off and they got it all up in time. It was awesome to behold! Team work, communication, even gesturing to one another so as to not disturb the session going on.

We were thrilled with the results!

The day after, we only had to put up half the triangles to add to the art piece. We selected the best ones and put them up in a staggered fashion so that they broke the edge of the circle. This created more interest.

After this, our plans went awry. We were going to paint more triangles but got banned from painting. So we went for a creative solution to use white triangles at half size.

The result ended up looking better than if we had stayed with colored triangles. Now each day looked unique from the previous days. Also the activity items added stood out more. The stars especially looked great!

The last day, we put up smaller white triangles.

The Problem

At the end of Day 2, we ran into a problem.

We were banned from painting.

Apparently, we were never supposed to paint in the first place. We didn’t know, and it’s a miracle we got in two days of painting pie pieces, enough for two days of rotations.

But now we needed to paint for Days 3 and 4, and we couldn’t paint!

I think it was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, because we came up with the solution of keeping the wedges white, doing the same activities, and cutting them thinner.

And the fourth day, we made even smaller triangles and put those between the white stripes. It turned out it was a good thing that I hadn’t been able to find enough stamp pads to do handprints and we did fingerprints instead, or we wouldn’t have had enough space to put all those handprints on these small triangles!

By the end, the circles looked lively and fun, and really impressive up close!

Team Time

At the end of each day, we had a team debrief time, celebrating stories and then talking about what to improve each day. I am so grateful for our amazing team!!!! Each person was vital to the operations and was a joy to serve with.

It was really a blast and at the end of the event we celebrated by taking pictures by the big circles.

The last day was teardown. We found we could just tip the circles over and they fell softly because they were like big sails.

Teardown went super quick. Our team danced for joy on bubble wrap. You can get the sense of fun that of the team!

The next day our leadership team went out for brunch to celebrate and debrief. (Pictured below: Debbie Baumgartner, Marisa Morton, Sara Fisher, Troy Tisthammer, Steve Wong, and Angela Yee)

We generated a document of 60 celebrations of things that went well and 57 things to improve for next time. We all celebrated how God was at work and the impact that we saw through His working in the lives of those who served, those who led the students, and the young people’s whose hearts were changed. It made all the hard work worth it!

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