Having been a performer since she was a child, Janet Jackson has learned one or two (hundred) things about putting on a live show. This time out, her production leans less on the shadowy theatrics that made her 1997 Velvet Rope tour such fabulous eye candy. Instead, the All For You tour focuses on two specific points: It's good to be in control and it's fun to be bad.
Well, bad in a naughty-but-nice-girl sort of way. For all the show's sexual content, the recent divorcée with the biggest smile in the business still maintains her nice-girl image. These contradictions are reflected in the show's look, which Jackson personally orchestrated from beginning to end. The result is a production that physically reinvents itself as often as Jackson's mood changes onstage.
While recording All For You last autumn, she met with set designer Mark Fisher to sketch out some of her ideas for the tour. “We went through loads of ideas,” Fisher says. “She had some very clear ideas from the outset about wanting it to open with this very clean, big look and go from there. Then, I just fleshed out what she wanted.”
Beginning with her entrance on a vertigo-inducing pedestal, Jackson hits the ground dancing and barely stops moving for the next two hours. There is a low-key acoustic set, but that soon leads to her seduction of a young male — taken from the audience — who is strapped to an S&M rack, a bed shaped as a scimitar, and then a whimsical sequence with Jack-in-the-boxes and other playroom-type inflatables (constructed by Air Artists). Towards the end of the show, the stage is transformed into a fantastic Asian City. Throughout, the stage's back wall panels alternately slide open and closed, revealing and hiding the video screens, certain lighting positions, and even the band.
The 77'-wide, 40'-deep (23×12m) stage seems somehow even more enormous by virtue of its light metallic sheen. Fisher created the behemoth per Jackson's instructions, and then LD Abigail Rosen Holmes accepted the challenge of lighting it.
“I love that when it starts — in front of that completely clean wall, with no video or band or really much of anything behind the dancers on their pedestals — it looks like a dance show,” Holmes says, adding, “as much as I've ever seen anything in the touring industry look like a modern dance performance, anyway. The dancing is absolutely important in the show. Effectively, it is a dance show.”
Truly, Miss Jackson hardly stops moving for two hours. So, how to effectively light not just Janet, but the dancers, too? “We used a lot of low and high sidelighting,” Holmes explains. “She wanted the show to be very bright — to see the dancers well.”
MAKE ROOM FOR LIGHTING
Fisher and Holmes began discussing the design last spring. “The set is quite complicated, and because of how the parts move, [lighting positions] were fairly restricted,” says Holmes. “We talked early on about where those places were and where we needed to make more space for lighting — as well as what the lights themselves would look like.”
One prime, scenery-free lighting location is the side truss position. “We came up with paisley-shaped truss sections to make that look more interesting,” Holmes explains. “A lot of my lighting choices were based on the fact that the stage is really quite large and the bottoms of the trusses are at a fairly high trim. So the fixtures had a tremendous throw before they hit the stage. It ended up being steep top light, which is not any lighting designer's favorite angle. It's not the best way to mold the bodies of dancers and it's not very attractive on faces, so we did our best to add some lower positions and to fill in from somewhere lower. We moved the front truss quite far into the house — it was originally over the edge of the stage — to try to compensate a bit.”
For the beginning of the show, the LD created more lighting positions on the lifts that mount to the front of the wall. Each lift has two Vari*Lite® VL2402™ luminaires, as well as a halogen floodlight that uplights the Plexiglas tops and a Diversitronics film strobe on the front. “After they do their reveal, that's a very nice way for us to get some lights into lower and closer positions for the rest of the show,” Holmes explains. “There is also a frame of lights — VL2402s — that is revealed several songs into the show when the sections of the wall move out from in front of these LED screens. There are specific times during the show where we choose to close down parts of the wall to get that clean feeling back, and then those lights are blocked again.”
The bulk of the lighting system is made up of LSD Icon™ and Vari*Lite VL2416™ and VL2402 automated luminaries; the Icons are equipped with plenty of custom-made gobos. “As light as the back wall was, you couldn't allow it to remain neutral,” Holmes explains, adding that it's harder than you think to make a clean set look good. “The only time the stage is crowded is during the whimsical section, so having a lot of patterns to choose from allowed me to create the layers I needed.”
Holmes loves the choices that gobos add to her designs. “I make gobos all the time and there are a couple of patterns that I have used before that I wanted to use again, based on how they move. But I made a number of new ones for this,” she says. “Several of them have the bulk of the open part of the image off-center in the light, which gives an added sense of movement. Also, some of the gobos were specifically made to create soft images and others were made to be spikier and more modern.
“Since I've been lucky enough to have made quite a lot of custom gobos in the past, it's almost like I have my own catalog,” she continues. “I researched a lot of Greek artwork for a show I did with Jean Michel Jarre and there was one that was useless for him — it looks like the big peacock fan — that seemed really appropriate for Janet. I also wanted some special leaves for the start of the whimsical section. For those, I started with botanical drawings, and then made lots of modifications. My friend [and noted LD] Manny Treeson helped me quite a lot with those.”
A frequent collaborator, lighting director Kille Knobel, helped Holmes program the show on the LSD Icon Console™ and runs the show on the road. “We had the most fun with the three songs during the Asian City section,” Holmes says. “We used lots of strobes and police beacons. Kille programmed about 15 chases for the rope light, all with different rates of speed and different versions of blinking. I love that whole part. Big rock fun was had in that section.”
For the Asian City, Holmes also used a handful of ellipsoidals and Mole lights as well as seven DHA Digital Light Curtains hung over the back wall of the set. Most noticeably, this section features yards and yards of rope light, some of which are formed into Japanese symbols and arranged into words. “They say ‘Rhythm Nation,’ ‘The Knowledge,’ and ‘Television’ in Japanese,” explains Fisher. “My friend, Yoichi Aoki, did the translations and Brilliant Stages constructed them from my drawings. It was always Janet's intention that there would be a really big change towards the end of the show, an Asian moment going into the sort of urban songs like ‘Rhythm Nation,’ ‘Black Cat,’ and ‘The Knowledge.’ It is a very big transition because it's the full width and height of the stage. The piece of scenery that comes out is 70' wide and 40' high, and therefore it looks very spectacular — because it is — and the whole set opens up.”
Because of the set's changeable nature, creating unobstructed spotlight positions also proved to be a real challenge for this show. “Working out the spotlights was difficult for a couple of reasons,” Holmes says. “Since the stage is significantly brighter than normal, finding spotlights that would cut on top of it was extremely difficult. The fabulous Tom Beck came to rehearsals to give us some help in color-correcting the spotlights. We carry four with us because I really wanted to be in control of making that choice myself and not leave it up to chance at each venue. You have to keep several points in mind: How Janet looks to the eye compared to the color temperature of the stage, what color temperature we choose to balance the video to, so I knew where everything else was going to be and how it would look. On most days, they're color-correcting the spotlights. The two in the back that follow Janet are Robert Juliat spots and they hold their color temperature incredibly well, which is really nice.”
SCREENING THE DIVA
“I tried to be cognizant of how the video looked at all times,” Holmes continues. “You're always going to have to make a choice, but for the eye, when you're sitting at the back of the arena, it's important that Janet is brighter than everything else. That's not a choice you'd make if you were lighting it for TV, but we're absolutely involved with the video and the design is intended to make sure it looks great at all times.”
Working along with Holmes on this, video director Christine Strand also had the multi-level task of running the content on the three now-you-see-them-now-you-don't 15mm Sony LED screens (each 30' wide [9m] and 20' high [6m] with 12" [30cm] between them) as well as the two 12'×16' (3.6×4.8m) side screens, which mainly have image magnification (IMAG) projected on them. “For the LED screens, you can either put one image across all three of them or separate them and have different images on each section,” Strand says. “That's a fun toy to work with. It's fun having the panels slide in and out and alternately reveal and cover up the video screens, but it does make it more technically challenging. I often feed three different images to those screens and then another image to the side screens at the same time. It does take a lot of concentration. We have five cameras, two with 70/1 lenses out at FOH, one with a jib in the pit stage right, a hand-held in the pit stage left, and a hand-held onstage. BCC Video went out and got us a new digital system, and the cameras make beautiful pictures.
“Because the dancing is so important in the show — that is really what her trademark has been from the beginning — it's a big part of the video,” Strand continues. “The video is really all about storytelling — the stories Janet is telling and visually relaying to the audience. Her body of work is also featured prominently, as she is so famous for her music videos. So we used excerpts from those and also the films she's been in: Poetic Justice and The Nutty Professor. We open the show with a montage of pictures from her career — it's projected onto the white silk kabuki from one of the new Barco 12kW projectors, which really cuts a very sharp and bright image on it. This was all her idea, and she chose the pictures.”
Jackson also had specific ideas for video graphics that she wanted to go with the themes she was devising in her head for the stage. “For instance, we created graphics for the Asian City and for the whimsical section to tie the visuals onstage with those onscreen,” Strand explains. “Janet's show is always changing and morphing, which adds a little something exciting for the audience. You can hear them gasp when the set changes or when certain visuals come on.”
“It was an absolute delight working with Abbey; I thought she did a lovely job, and Janet was very happy with it. It's a nice, good-looking, positive, vibrant show,” Fisher concludes. “A good showcase for Janet and her music in the end.”
Catherine McHugh is a New York-based freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JANET JACKSON ALL FOR YOU
Abbey Rosen Holmes
Candida Boggs, Bobby Braccia, Drew Finley, Jason Gange, Greg Gore, David Larrinaga, Connie Paulsen, Jeremy Schilling, Aaron Stephenson
Video Jib Operator
Video Screen Technicians
Neil Broome, Kraig Boyd
Simon Cadiz, Scott Lutton, Dave Lopez
Gordon Hyndford, Courtney Jones, Robert Reid, Heather Rogan, Dewey Shepard, Rick Stucker, Ernie Wagner
Fourth Phase/LSD, John Lobel
Vari-Lite, Inc., Curry Grant
Tony Bowren and Charlie Kail
Winky Fairorth and Michael Tait
BCC Video, Inc., Danny O'Bryen
|80||LSD Icon luminaires|
|9||DHA Digital Light Curtains|
|2||Strong Gladiator xenon FOH spots|
|2||Robert Juliat 2.5 HMI Heloise truss spots|
|8||High End Systems Turbo Cyberlights|
|40||Diversitronics DK-2000-DMX Dome Strobes|
|6||Diversitronics 3000-DMX Linear Strobes|
|8||LSD 8-light Molefays|
|10||ETC Source Fours 26º|
|4||LSD ACL 4-way black PAR bars|
|8||LSD police beacons|
|6||Reel EFX DF-50 hazers|
|1||LSD Icon Console|
|1||LSD Icon Mini-System Backup|
|1||ETC Sensor 72x2kW dimmer rack|
|1||ETC Sensor 24x2kW dimmer rack|