“The best free show on the Strip,” is how production director Dale Sahlin describes the services at the Central Christian Church in Henderson, NV. Although it is roughly six miles from the high kicks of the Vegas showgirls, Sahlin may be on to something; after losing the farm at the casinos, weary gamblers may be in the mood for a little salvation. And if they can't afford the stellar prices for the latest Cirque du Soleil extravaganza, why not check out what the church has to offer?
Although the church has been in existence for about 30 years, its current facility is roughly six years old and was designed by Craig Jansen of Acoustic Dimensions, a veteran builder of stadiums and mega churches. The auditorium seats 3,500, but on the weekends, the crowds surge to 10,000 who attend various services. According to Sahlin, when Mr. T showed up in March (“He's a Christian now,” he says), the crowd was closer to 15,000. Pity the fool who won't seek salvation!
Sahlin shares the production duties with technical director Kurt Hoff because the church has over 70 volunteers to create the productions, which include musical performances, sermons, pageants, as well as video that the church uses each week instead of live action. Sahlin, a 14-year tour veteran, including stints around the world with the Rolling Stones, is focused on using touring technology and design in the sanctuary (he designs the lighting for all the productions), and Hoff is involved in mentoring and training the army of technical volunteers. While Sahlin was on the road, Hoff was a technical volunteer at the church for almost 20 years, “so he knows the inside of the building very well,” Sahlin adds. “I'm the guy who makes all the gear happen and brings the real world element in.”
Those elements include a large complement of High End Systems fixtures — 12 x.Spots®, 14 Studio Color® 575s, eight Studio Spot® 575s, eight Studio Beams®, and four Cyberlight® Turbos — plus 24 Vari-Lite VL2Cs. The new rig is a big change from what Sahlin found when he arrived at the church. “It was mainly Leko-based theatrical design with some moving lights,” he says. “They only had 10 High End fixtures. I came in and changed that around and made it more concert lighting than theatrical. We added in 60 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® LED fixtures, which we use for everything.” By everything, Sahlin says that the ColorBlasts are virtually the only fixtures used to light the sets and scenery, all of which are designed in-house. The moving lights take aim at not only the performers, but also bring a bit of energy to the congregation.
As enthusiastic as Sahlin is for the other fixtures, he gives high praise for the banks of LED units he uses extensively. “The ColorBlasts have been awesome,” he says. “We have 60 12" units with a 30' throw, and we put them all over the place. We put 30 on a cyc, and it's killer. We can make any color we want, and it's a seamless wall of light with an endless amount of colors.” Sahlin firmly believes that LEDs are certainly the wave of the future in terms of lighting design because they “are cheap; they don't get hot; they're low voltage. What's not to like?” And while the church has added more moving lights, they are used strategically, i.e., there aren't a lot of “bells and whistles” or moving fixtures for moving fixtures' sake.
Sahlin also brought in Flying Pig Systems Hog® iPC console to control it all. “I bought the Hog and put that in because it's very user friendly, and our volunteers love it,” he says. “It's been a great console.” The church has added two additional Hog iPCs in the chapel and the rotunda.
To train the volunteers, Sahlin says that he and Hoff start each one out as a stage tech in a specific area — video, lighting, staging, audio — and they are right there throughout the process. “Then we slowly bring them up,” Sahlin explains. “We start them on a Wednesday night service, when it's not so critical. We do all hands-on training, no classes. It's real experience, and we throw them into the fire. You can't teach live production. You can spend $30,000 on a class, but it doesn't do anything for you. You've got to get on a tour [to learn]. It's all real world experience.”
To support the lighting rig, Sahlin brought in a new trussing system to augment the catwalks that run the length of the auditorium. “They were all catwalks, with scenery and lighting flying in from bars and hanging from the catwalks,” he explains. “I put in truss and motors to make it easier than theatrical design. We use a Motion Lab distro system and a Skjonberg Controls fly system for 16 CM Lodestar half-ton motors. We have a complete motor system, and all the trussing and motors give it a concert look, but they also give nice mobility to fly the rig in and out. Rigging-wise, we have hard points everywhere, so we can move motor and truss anywhere we want. There are major I-beams right in the middle, so we do it just like arena rigging and grab an I-beam. We're fortunate in that we have way more than we need.”
Since Central Christian has moved from live productions to video, Sahlin decided it was time to upgrade. “We just installed two Christie 16K Roadies, and those are awesome,” he enthuses. “With 16,000 lumens in the main room, we're kickin' butt. They're so bright. Not a lot of churches have those, so we're very fortunate. We also have an 18'×24' screen.” However, he stresses that the church is in transition from the four-camera, analog video world the church has occupied for a number of years, to high-definition. “We just purchased a Ross Video Synergy 2 high-def switcher, so we're in the process of getting that in place.” Sahlin also added that the church is going to purchase seven more projectors from Christie and is planning to add a 25,000-lumen center screen Roadie projector.
One of the reasons for the upgrade, aside from taking advantage of the latest technology, is a satellite campus that the church is launching 20 miles away in a school. Sahlin explains that these satellite campuses for mega churches are becoming quite popular and, for the Henderson/Las Vegas area, even more so since there are a number of worshippers who want to be involved but do not relish driving across the valley. However, the satellite campus won't have images and audio “piped in,” but rather an HD front of house camera will capture Central Christian's pastor, Jud Wilhite, and beam it to the satellite campus on a huge, floor-to-ceiling screen that will appear as though he is in the room with them. “Each satellite has its own worship, band, etc., but when it's time for the sermon, the screen comes down, and they are watching it live from the main campus,” Sahlin explains. “It's as if he is on the stage.”
Sahlin first became involved with production at Central Christian a little over a year ago, when Wilhite said, “You need to get your butt in here,” he says. “We need what's out there on the road in the church.” Besides, the 14 years Sahlin had spent touring around the world was starting to get old, and he was ready to be in one place for a while. “It's important for us to be technically relevant, and we make it a world-class production every night,” he says, which he can do from home rather than hotel rooms at far-flung spots around the globe. “At the end of the night, what's it all for?” he asks, reflecting on his years on the road. “Then, I was just helping to sell seats for the Stones. Here, I'm changing lives. We have 10,000 people out there each weekend, and if we change one life, it makes it all worth it. When I did rock ‘n’ roll, I didn't change anybody's life. Now, I have a purpose for what I do, and I feel rewarded by that.”
Mark A. Newman is the former managing editor of Live Design (and its parents Entertainment Design and Lighting Dimensions) and is currently a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O. magazine.