Loreena McKennitt is an unlikely pop star, but with her song "The Mummer's Dance" on the charts this year and its video playing on MTV and VH1, she has achieved a measure of mainstream recognition. For her recent Book of Secrets tour, the musician wanted to bring her show to a higher visual level than she has had in the past.
Westsun Lighting won the contract, and then production manager/tour coordinator Dan McGee called LD Tracey Ploss, with whom he had worked on k.d. lang's tour, to design and operate the Vari*Lite(R) VL5(TM) and VL6(TM) automated luminaires. While every artist is involved in how his or her show looks to some degree, McKennitt (pictured) is used to controlling all aspects of her career. Her CDs are produced by her own record company, she handles her own merchandising, and even prints up a program outlining her show for audience members. Also, as McKennitt hails from Stratford, Ontario, home of the renowned Shakespeare festival, she is no stranger to theatrical lighting, and is very interested in design.
"She knows a lot of theatre designers and is used to really dark looks broken up by pools of light," Ploss explains. "But she had never worked with automated lights before, so it was a challenge to get her to understand how they work. She kept telling me, 'It's got to be theatrical, it's got to be really moody; I want people to walk into the pools of light.' That's really hard to do when you're trying to light everything onstage including a set and a band. So it was a matter of showing her that just because you have automated lights, it doesn't mean they have to move, and they can actually do a whole lot of effects beyond beam looks."
Throughout rehearsals, Ploss gradually won McKennitt over with certain looks. "In her song 'Dante's Prayer,' she talks about the stars and the sea, so I used the star gobo in the VL6s," Ploss explains. "At one point, she looked up, right into the beam of it, and she asked, 'Can we do that every night?' I said, 'Yes, we can.' And she loved that. Obviously, I have to use fog to be able to see it, and even though that was the first night, she had fog and it didn't bother her at all."
Ploss had to design the lighting system without having heard the music. Nor had he seen the completed set. "I had to create a show that would fit into any venue," Ploss says. "It had to be flexible, to the point where the trusses could be removed and put back in and the integrity of the design would not be lost. That alone was the hardest part of doing it. We had to go from 800-seat venues to ground support to 2,500-seat venues, some with raked stages. It was just amazing, the places we went into."
Ploss credits his crew of two with the design's success. "We had Dan Kassar, the Tragically Hip's LD, whom I have worked with many times. And, since the tour began in the UK and we were picking up rigging and trussing from Neg Earth Lights there, we got Jonathan Sellers, who is our rigger," Ploss says. "These two guys worked so well together. I couldn't have done anything without them. Dan and Sell were able to fit it into every venue with very little decision-making in the morning."
Lighting equipment included 24 VL5s and 12 VL6s, 12 cyclights, and eight 5-degree ETC Source Fours. "I chose the Vari*Lites because the show is so quiet and also because the VL5s look great on the scrims. Then the VL6s make a perfect contrast--they work well together," Ploss says. "I love the optics in the Source Fours. When you dim and shutter-cut them, you don't lose a lot of intensity. Because all the musicians' positions are so tight together, you have to shutter-cut all your specials, and losing intensity is a big problem. You've got to pick the right fixture for that because you also don't want to blind her--she wants to be able to see everybody else onstage."
Ploss chose the Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II console and WYSIWYG software to program the show. "We only had about three weeks before we had to start prepping the show and building the sets, so the time factor was a huge problem," Ploss explains. "I had to listen to the tapes, and figure out what I could and couldn't do with the set, so the Hog really helped me save time."
Programming was especially challenging, as McKennitt's music is very layered. "The music doesn't offer a lot of moments that you can catch on to for lighting changes," Ploss explains. "There's very little bump-and-flash. When you get used to pop artists, the songs are mainly verse-chorus, verse-chorus, solo. Here it's prologue, bridge, verse--you've got to learn all these segues at different parts of the song and then try to highlight those moments."
The LD's overall approach for designing the songs was to work with the Venetian-styled set to enhance the music. "I wanted to keep the golds in the set and enhance the surroundings onstage so as not to take anything away from the music," Ploss says. "Obviously, everybody is there to hear the music, but you can't sit out there and stare at her all night long--your eyes are going to wander. I tried to make sure the audience has something to look at beyond just pools of light. You want to have a background with some depth to it, and when the music changes you want to be able to interpret that artistically."
One of the show's most beautiful and truly theatrically lit songs is "The Highwaymen," a dark ballad from Book of Secrets. "I wanted to create a look that's dark enough to suit the song, while also just bringing her out, but it's a 13-minute song, and you want to make sure the audience can also see the musicians in the background," Ploss explains. "They play with so much heart, and most people want to be able to see how involved they are with their music. So I create the trees and the dark woodsy look with the moon shining--I just turned a VL5 backwards. It's so close to the scrim that you just turn it, and bring it up at a little bit of intensity. Then you take the frontlight and shine it directly on her so it looks like a moonbeam. That's sort of the small theatre way of doing things, as opposed to building up a gobo and giving that kind of image. We were on a budget, so we couldn't do a lot of effects, but with the lights we had we could do so much more than what you'd normally do on a pop music tour."