The xx took over New York City’s massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory last month for a residency that lasted 11 days and featured two shows daily on some days. Originally commissioned by the Manchester International Festival (MIF), the production was designed to accommodate approximately 45 patrons, arranged standing in a circle around, and a step up from, the band.
The New York Times said the production "embraces the themes of closeness and unease that course through the trio’s music," (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com). In fact, audience members entered Drill Hall through an underground tunnel, escorted into a white fabric, 55'-wide room, not immediately observing the intimate show’s juxtaposition with the 55,000sq-ft. Drill Hall.
Creative designer Tobias G. Rylander, who also designed the band’s 2012 Coexist tour, took on lighting, staging, and video design for this production, working alongside creative director Molly Hawkins of Young Turks, the UK-based independent record label that produced the band’s album.
"The initial design at MIF was developed by Caius Pawson and Willo Perron, although space, time, and budget ended up meaning we couldn’t use most of Willo’s ideas," says Hawkins. "It also meant I directed the show in Manchester, a first for me. For this show, Tobias completely reimagined it using the concept of a room within a room. MIF was a perfect opportunity to develop the idea, but we knew for New York City we had to nail it, and Tobias brought a sense of perfectionism that complemented The xx perfectly."
"The philosophy for the show from the band’s perspective was to create a performance art piece, more artistic than a classic rock concert, giving the audience a unique version of the band and something that could never be made or created by someone else or somewhere else but by them, us, and at this very location," says Rylander, who was named a Live Design Young Designer To Watch in 2011. "There is something very intimate, yet airy, about their music, like it’s breathing, something that worked well in this space. I think we really captured this by creating the room within the room at first, both with staging, fabrics, and aerial video projections. I wanted to work with distance, intimacy, perspective, forced perspective, room, and space."
The band played in a sunken area in the center of the audience. The audience riser was a twin-wall Plexiglas® fascia with TMB Solaris LED Flares built into it, topped with glossy black flooring. "We wanted the stage and room to be clean and naked, so no stands or trusses could be seen, which was challenging, of course," the designer says. "The only side light and flown light I used were four short trusses with a Clay Paky Alpha Spot HPE 1500 and two Flares each. I let the projectors do most of the lighting." Michael Straun was the lighting programmer and operator, using an MA Lighting grandMA2 console.
The enclosed 55’x55’ cube of custom white tulle tex from Sew What? featured 360° projections. "The whole cube grew from 11’ trim to 27’ with the projections growing with it," says Rylander, who used six Barco HDF-W26 projectors, one on each of the four sides of the cube and two top-rigged to cover the roof of the fabric structure. Four additional 40kW projectors filled out projections from the corners of the room after the reveal. Zach Peletz and Jason Baeri programmed video on Green Hippo Hippotizer HD media servers, with one output per projector, via an additional grandMA2 console. Lighting, video, and control were supplied by VER.
Philips Showline SL Nitro 510 LED Strobes sat on the Drill Hall floor alongside walls, creating a dramatic effect when the cube’s fabric walls came down to reveal the enormity of the open space. Additional Clay Paky Alpha Spot HPE 1500s shone from each corner, and Martin MAC Vipers sat on the balcony at the short ends of the room.
The projected content was the same as what the band used for the Coexist tour, based on artwork by band member Romy Madley Croft and the artist Davy Evans. "He made visuals that were an attempt to visualize Romy’s concept for Coexist, The xx’s second album, which is that all colors together create black. The visuals are films of oil, nail varnish, water, etc.," says Hawkins. Additional content was created by Rylander and Visual Bandits in Sweden.
The creative team had two days and nights of programming, but had no set list from which to work. "I had done plans and renderings on what content could be used for different looks and how to use the projectors, both onto the set and as aerial projections," says Rylander. "We made sure that all looks could work at all trim heights of the cube and projection surface."
Rylander’s biggest challenge, he says, was "to use the room in a good way, to make use of the size and distances to projectors and light sources. I could easily have made use of a couple of extra days just to play with perspective and placement of lights. Then you are down to a kind of ‘kill your darlings’ situation. Your favorite looks might not work best for the songs performed and might not end up in the show."
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