He Was a Family Therapist. Now He Lights the Black Party. One LD's Journey

In many ways, Guy Smith is the very model of a modern LD. He's lit corporate events for Tommy Hilfiger, Christian Dior, and Credit Suisse/First Boston. He's done concerts for Betty Buckley, Luciano Pavarotti, and Busta Rhymes. His special events include George Soros' Millennium Party and the James Beard Awards. He's even designed moving lights for the short-lived cable TV series The Street — plus theatre, movie openings, you name it.

But we're not here to talk about any of that, as interesting as it may be. We're going to focus on only one distinctive aspect of Smith's career — as a designer for gay circuit parties.

The circuit, if you haven't heard, is a loose collection of dance-all-night events, held all over the world, that harken back to the disco-obsessed gay night life of the 1970s (Many of these events are produced by The Saint at Large, descendant of the Lower Manhattan pleasure palace that was a gay mecca in the 1980s). Circuit parties start late, run all night, and last well into the next day. The music, and dancing, are non-stop. Some circuit parties are just for fun — many of them are charity fundraisers — while others are notorious for drugs and sex. In fact, circuit parties are controversial among some members of the gay community.

Nevertheless, circuit parties are going strong after all these years, and they represent a considerable challenge to designers like Smith, who have to load a rig into a not-always-ideal party space, put together a design, and then keep the lights in motion and in sync with the music for 18 hours or more, a task usually accomplished via a combination of creativity and caffeine.

Of course, Smith points out, there are circuit parties and there are circuit parties. For example, “The theme of the White Party is music,” he says, adding, “the music is melodic, soulful, with lots of gospel riffs.” The aim is to keep partygoers dancing. With that 18-hour running time, he says, “The environment must be constantly, dramatically transformed through lighting — you don't want boredom.”

For this year's White Party, which was held in February at Roseland Ballroom, Smith put together a rig that included a 36' (10.8m) ring of truss as the centerpiece, with an 8' (2.4m) fabric dome on top, made to Smith's specifications by costume builder Martin Izquierdo (the fabric was a white spandex, with Mylar strands woven in). Hung on the trussing were Martin MAC 600s and MAC 2000s, which were used to project patterns, with a ring of Martin MAC 500s hung on the perimeter of the dome, “which allowed me to do radial patterns at different angles.”

In addition, says Smith, “A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest, drew the shape of a Byzantine church — it was two half domes — and I used that in my design. I had one 24' (7.2m) circle of truss, broken in half, with each half placed on the side of the room,” giving him extra lighting positions. Finally, as a pièce de résistance, there was the inevitable 5' (1.5m) disco ball — but in this case, Smith had it covered in fabric so that, late in the party, it was unveiled — to cheers from the guests — and gave him a new set of effects to work with in the small hours. (The designer used a pair of Reel EFX DF-50 hazers plus four High End Systems F100 fog units to give the lighting some extra support.) Smith is eclectic in his equipment choices, but the White Party rig was entirely made up of Martin units. “I really like the patterns in the MAC 500s,” he says. Equipment was supplied by Vision Technical Group and the circular trussing was supplied by See Factor.

In contrast to the uptempo, music-centered White Party, there's the Black Party, which, says Smith, “is all about sex. It's about everything that's dark in gay culture and the music reflects that. It's a really heavy sound, with an enormous sound system.” This time, he put together a rig of 122 moving units, including High End Systems Cyberlights — “still the best moving-mirror fixture around,” he says — and Martin MAC 500s, 600s, and 2000s, along with Diversitronics strobes, the latter supplied by Jauchem and Meeh. The Black Party rig was “totally angular. There was one right angle, and all the rest of the trussing was hinged. The centerpiece for the party was a single cross — it was Easter Sunday — with 16 MAC 500s on it.” While he used a broader color range for the White Party, at the Black Party he “stayed with purples, deep reds, indigos. I had a training as a psychologist, and I know that color has an effect on people.”

Again, the equipment was supplied by Vision Technical Group — with one exception. Also placed on the center truss was, not a disco ball this time, but a Coemar M1200 Venus, a piece of equipment that's nearly as old as Donna Summer's career. “It no longer exists,” laments Smith. “It's completely analog UFO. It's a motorized disc that moves on four axes, with four different parameters of motion. It has a single MSR 1200 light in it, like a Cyberlight does, but there's no reflector. It shoots out light at 360° through a continuous glass lens. People rave about it, and it's 20 years old. There's nothing like it on the market. Coemar laughed when I asked about parts. It's co-owned by the Roxy [a downtown NY club] and The Saint at Large. It has its own controller — I've trained a couple of friends to run it — and I call cues to them via a radio connection. They should definitely come out with a DMX version. There aren't that many units that shoot light 360°. I'd love to sit down with them at Coemar and tell them about my dream Venus.”

The key to working these parties, however, lies more in the designer's sensibility as he pilots the rig to the music through an ever-changing series of looks, most of which are conceived on the spot. Each party features what Smith calls “production numbers,” cue sequences built around well-known songs that are calculated to get the crowd pumping. Otherwise, he works improvisationally, running cues himself as a live accompaniment to the music in true light-jockey fashion.

Of course, nobody can work for 18 hours straight, so Smith frequently works with Ross Berger, a Miami-based LD. “He's one of the few people I trust to take over for me,” says Smith. They work in tandem, he says: “I set up a program, then Russ comes in and does the same. He might do the opening of the show, then I might follow — it's whatever we agree on.” Typically, Smith may work 11 hours of an 18-hour event. Even so, he says, there's no real down time: “I can't relax. I'll hang out, talk to friends.” The Super Bowl of these events, he adds, was the 20th Anniversary of the White Party in 2000. “It was 38 hours long, so with the load-in it was a 66-hour gig,” says the LD. “Basically, I went 66 hours straight — on cups of coffee. I was so tired I started to have hallucinations, but the music kept me going.”

He's not kidding about the music: “It's a great energizer,” he says, adding, “I had musical training as a child, on clarinet and piano. My mother is a concert pianist.” You could say Smith's lighting control console is part of the music.

Another regular gig on Smith's calendar involves lighting for Atlantis gay cruises, a series of chartered ocean-going trips. Here, the designer lights nightly dance parties on the main deck. Before he came onboard, Smith says, the parties were troubled by outbreaks of inclement weather: “They used club lighting equipment — but there was no way to keep rain out of the ballasts. I figured the only fixtures that would work in the rain would be those that have their ballasts elsewhere — in other words, Vari*Lites®.” With them, he says, the ballasts can be covered up in case of rain in the middle of a party.

In addition, he says, “Nothing has worked as well as the Vari*Lite fixtures, which have extremely bright optics. Outside, we're working without haze, and you need that brightness. Of course, we turn off many of the ship's lights, but maritime law requires that certain lights stay on.” Smith's designs have generated some amusing incidents. “We were on a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship in the Caribbean,” he says, “and a Carnival ship came from the other direction. Our captain got a radio query, asking, ‘Are you in trouble? All your lights are off, and there's a fire.’ Well, they had seen the lasers at the party. The captain radioed back, ‘We're having a party! Come on over!’”

A typical rig for the cruise ship will include 24 units, usually 12 VL5s and 12 VL6Cs. “Later this year,” he says, “we're adding VLM mirrors, a Series 300 moving-yoke unit.” Speaking of the gear, he says, “The VL6Cs are hard-edged, with a fast zoom and great image-making properties. The VL5s have some of the best color-rendering I've seen.” For control on this, and virtually all other, gigs, Smith uses a Wholehog console from Flying Pig Systems. “I always use a Hog when I can,” he says. “I use it on 80-100 gigs a year.” The board's familiarity, he notes, is its biggest selling point: “All the handles are right there; I don't have to look down while I work,” a crucial feature for an LD who works live most of the time. Also, he says, the console has “a great effects library.”

Otherwise, he says, his work on the ship parties is similar to the circuit events. “I plan some things and some of the DJs set up production numbers with preset cues, but the rest is basically freeform. Parties start around 11pm and go all night. I sleep most of the day on the ship. Fortunately, the coffee's good, and, on a ship, you can get food at any hour.”

So how did a nice Jewish boy from Tennessee end up the king of the circuit parties? It started when he was an undergraduate at Brandeis University checking out Boston's gay club scene. “I went to a club called Avalon — I was just 21 — and I looked at the lighting system,” he recalls. “I'd never seen moving lights before. They had Intellabeams, Color Pros, Dataflashes. It was fascinating.” He returned to the club the next day and got a job: “I was vacuuming the catwalk,” he says. “But as I worked, I learned about the rig.” First he learned to clean and repair fixtures, then he became a board op, working at other clubs run by the same owner. “I was working as a family therapist for the State of Massachusetts. Then I took a course called Landmark Forum, to find out what I was really passionate about — which was lighting.”

Smith quit his day job, then started full-time as a light jockey at the Venus de Milo, another Boston club. He started picking up gigs designing for corporate theatre. Then, he says, “I fell in love with an actor in the national tour of Rent,” an on-the-move relationship that eventually led him to New York, where he started working Off Off Broadway while programming for designers such as Stephen Strawbridge and Don Holder. As mentioned above, he now balances a diverse portfolio of assignments from events to theatre work, the latter most notably for the outdoor company Shakespeare on the Hudson. At press time, his schedule included a number of Gay Pride events in Los Angeles and San Diego, a fundraiser for New York's American Museum of Natural History, and a corporate meeting at Grand Central Station.

Also looking to the future, he's designing a 30,000-sq.-ft. (2,700 sq. m) club and concert venue in Tokyo. He also has ambitions to design concert tours and television awards shows. And lest he be stereotyped as a disco ball wizard, he adds, “I just did an event for the New York Church of Christ — and they loved it.” With an ecumenical résumé such as this, who knows where he might end up next?

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.