Chatting with designer Patrick Dierson, faculty member for the Concert Master Classes
Patrick Dierson joins the faculty of the Concert Master Classes in December in Los Angeles at CenterStaging. His expertise has been called upon for numerous high-level productions, and some of his projects include tours for Shakira, R. Kelly, Bon Jovi, and Dashboard Confessional, as well as shows for Wynn Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, the MTV Video Music Awards, various appearances for artists on VH1, and numerous special events for the NFL, NBA, and NHL sporting organizations. He earned an Emmy® Award nomination for his work on the post September 11th musical telethon America: A Tribute to Heroes. Dierson is an associate designer and creative director at Performance Environment Design Group, LLC and a partner in content creation company Idyll Hands Imagery
1. You’ve made your way from working for a manufacturer/distributor to being a freelance programmer to being an accomplished designer in your own right. Is that a normal path in this biz?
No, it's definitely not the norm but certainly one of the more clear-cut paths, if you know where you want to end up in this industry. I had set out with a very clear vision of becoming a concert designer. It's certainly a very specified craft that takes years of learning and tutelage from the other professionals around you—not something that you can dive into and expect to be at the upper echelon immediately.
Traditionally, there are two ways of breaking into that end of the business; you either work your way up from sweeping shop floors, to prepping shop gear, to going out on tour as a technician living in a tour bus, becoming a programmer, and then getting small breaks of design responsibility, or you work as a product specialist for one of the manufacturers where you build a contact base and eventually use those contacts and business friendships toward breaking into console programming and/or assisting for working designers. I had chosen the latter of the two, which yielded very successful results as well as formulating some of my strongest friendships along the way. Regardless of the path, being a console programmer is almost a prerequisite.
2. Why concerts and not, say, theatre?
I’m going to uphold my reputation for being hated in the theatre world and probably ruin any chance to light a Broadway show in the process when I say this, but… complete and total lack of patience for the production process is what kept me out of theatre. I realize the volatility of what I’m saying, but spending multiple months teching most theatrical productions only to yield their results has proven to me to be downright financially irresponsible, particularly in a time when theatre has been struggling financially. It's a bold statement coming from someone who is frequently in charge of multimillion dollar rigs, but you look at what people in the concert world produce in 48 hours versus the average Broadway level show, and you simply have to shake your head.
To play devil's advocate, people in the concert production community simply aren't wired like “normal” people. We take the “show must go on“ motto to much farther heights. Our hours are inhumane. Our pay is sometimes laughable. Our client demands are often unattainable by average standards. However, we rarely freak out at any of this and pull off the seemingly impossible on a daily basis. More often than not, our lives are quite absurd, and once you’ve tasted it, you simply can't see yourself doing anything else. Subsequently, we live crazy lives…A year ago, I was doing trans-Atlantic flights on private jets pulling off seemingly impossible shows for one artist. Last week, I returned from a scuba diving trip with one of my closest touring buddies where we were partaking in the feeding of Caribbean reef sharks...and that was to relax. Any aspect of this business is what you make of it, but life just isn't the same in any other part of the entertainment industry. The concert world is a special club of misfits.
3. Who are your influences?
I have a running list of lessons that I've learned from every designer that I've ever worked with, and I reference it often, particularly when I'm doubting myself. Being a designer that is also still programming, I've been afforded the amazing luxury of working for the top designers in the world on just about every type of project you can imagine. It’s brought me a wealth of professional lessons, and I’m grateful for the chance to have worked for each and every one of them.
My largest influence as a designer has always been Leroy Bennett. The man has been at the top of the design game from day one, and I will strive to my dying day to produce to his creative standards.
Given the fact that you live this business and that it’s not something that you’re ever really able to turn off completely, I’d have to say that Patrick Woodroffe has probably been the biggest influence on me as a young man making my way up through the ranks. Patrick’s creative guidance to me has been undeniable, but his life guidance as a professional in this industry has quite possibly been one of the strongest influences in my life in general, and I am forever in his debt for that and his friendship.
Creatively, I'm very much influenced by visual designers outside of the entertainment industry. Designers such as Philippe Stark and animators like Peter Chung have always been inspiring to me.
4. You’ve worked as a programmer/designer, as a video/lighting designer, as a full production designer, responsible for all. Which is best? Do you prefer to program your own shows?
That’s an incredibly personal question, in a good way. I flail between being a complete and total control freak versus absolutely loving and embracing the collaborative process. I always think that what’s best is what’s ultimately best for the production. Some productions need a single person in charge of all creative. They need that single hangman that’s going to take the responsibility of working hand-in-hand with the artist to bring their creative vision to life—the guy who will spin around and actually say no to an artist when nobody else has the guts to do it. I love being that person. I don’t think that there’s ever been a time in my life where I felt that being quiet to save my job was the right thing to do. You're there for a reason, and you owe it to your client to own your position especially when it's hard to do.
Other productions need you to simply focus on one massive element of things full-time and play nice-nice with all the other creative forces working alongside of you. The results are usually magical, proving that teamwork is always an amazing process.
As for programming my own shows—well, that all depends on what system I’m running. 99% of the time I’m on a grandMA control system, and it’s a little unfair to have any other programmer program for me simply because I’m very well versed on the desk. I can hit the button combinations faster than I can tell someone what I want so it's simply a level of practicality. However, when it's another control system, I prefer someone who's proficient on it.
5. What’s the coolest innovation for concerts you’ve seen in the last five years? In the last year?
The manufacturer Control Freak Systems has put out the coolest devices these past few years, allowing us to take direct control of video processing equipment and cue it via the lighting desks in a fraction of the time that it would take on their proprietary systems. As for this past year, CFS, as well as several other propeller-head companies, have done some amazing things in the realm of bringing the 3D experience into the world of concert arena environments.
6. What do you plan to discuss at the first-ever Concert Master Classes in December?
Whatever the audience wants to talk about. People are coming for a reason. They're hungry for information about this business that they simply can't get anywhere else, and they're absolutely going to have questions. I want to make certain that people walk away having gained some insight and having as many of their personal questions answered as possible. At least that's what I'd want if I were coming in as an attendee.
Check out Dierson’s work at this month’s Project in Focus: Jay Z/Eminen: Detroit To New York.