There was a day when the inhabitants of the worlds of theatre lighting and concert touring would come no closer than to peer suspiciously across the vast chasm between them. Being the curious sort, as a keen young rock LD some time in the early 80s, I remember attending a theatre lighting seminar in London. Speakers were design legends Ralph Koltai and Richard Pilbrow, who dispensed pearls of wisdom for an hour or so before inviting responses from the audience. An opinion was solicited regarding the lighting of rock shows, which our heroes dismissed in one line as “that flickering nonsense.” (I couldn't help feeling vaguely crushed at the time, though 20 years on I find myself beginning to concur.)
Now, it appears, it's open season. Theatre design techniques are finding their way into pop shows, installation artists are collaborating on corporate events, Broadway designers are working on TV specials, Whole Hog programmers are in opera houses while concert LDs seem to be running amok all over the place. Is this a good thing, we wonder, or is it doomed to end in tears?
Certainly, there is a lot to be said for focusing and honing a craft to master-class quality. By comparison, there are outstanding contemporary artists who arguably had one key idea then spent 50 years, refining, developing, and reworking it. Conversely, those with an enormously varied resume could stand accused of dilettantism.
Lighting, however, is a different kind of art form, invariably part of a larger collaboration. While, on the surface, this makes each situation appear different, when working continuously in one genre, it soon becomes apparent that the basic parameters remain constant and usually inflexible. With concert touring, it doesn't matter who is on stage at the end of the evening. You can guarantee the set up will involve a column of speakers left and right, a couple of video screens, a microphone downstage center, a drum riser, and a guitar roadie who absolutely must have his huge tech area right where the dimmer racks are. After a while, attempting a truly “original” design can feel much like seeking new and exciting ways to rearrange a cup and saucer. Little wonder we see the same ideas endlessly doing the rounds.
Consequently, for many designers, sticking your head out above the parapet becomes an interesting option. At very least, as an exercise in stimulation of the imagination, it is important to go and see other kinds of shows, even beyond stage productions. Art galleries, installations, even movies can be valuable sources of inspiration, however oblique. Crossing boundaries is a healthy source of ideas, as being stimulated by other disciplines forces reinvention, while taking “inspiration” from one's own genre can soon become plagiarism.
It is one thing for a designer to incorporate ideas from other genres in to a show of his or her own, but it is a much bigger step to actually leave the fold and attempt to work in a different discipline. Especially, perhaps, for an older and more experienced designer, the feeling of being a novice again might not be entirely comfortable.
There are many plus sides, though, not least that you come to the work with entirely fresh eyes. It's a little like living abroad where, no matter how superficially similar the culture might be, you can't take anything for granted. It can be a lot of work, but it means you see everything; you are free of the preconceived assumptions that hamper real observation. There are dangers too, of course, like not being aware that some of your new and brilliant ideas might be howling clichés in this new genre, but that's all part of the learning curve.
When making my initial foray into the wonderful world of musical theatre, among the early shocks were the level of notational detail required, the concept of an invisible third party calling my cues, and the size of the cast. Conversely, an opera designer friend of mine who had been invited to work on designing a stadium rock tour could never quite get over the unpredictability of the show, let alone the mind-stopping concept of the performers being in charge.
On a good day, though, it is incredibly stimulating to mix things up, not only with regard to the show, but also simply in the people you meet when you step out of your own box. Once over the initial bemusement and suspicion, it is a real privilege to spend time with people possessed with knowledge and experience of worlds so alien yet often with elements that seem quite familiar.
It's humbling and also very brave for a designer to branch out into unknown territory when it would be much easier to stay on successful home turf. It might look like an act of borderline irrationality to deliberately place yourself before a task that, in simplest terms, you don't know how to do, but if you are up for the challenge, it can be an extremely stimulating experience. All you have are your instincts and, for want of a better word, your basic ‘talent,’ which is put to the test in assessing this new situation, deciding what works and what doesn't. Besides, it is no bad thing to remember how it felt when you first started out, and having spent time away from the fold, home will never look the same again.
© Willie Williams 2004
Willie Williams designs and directs multi-media events. His work has included rock tours with R.E.M., U2, and The Rolling Stones; performance pieces with Kronos Quartet and La La La Human Steps; the stage musicals Barbarella and We Will Rock You, plus installations at Experience Music Project, Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, Cleveland, and Canterbury Cathedral, UK.