Lifetime Achievement in Theatre Sound Design
A few years ago in these pages, in a profile of the UK-based Autograph Sound, I wrote that the staff of that company tended to wear a lot of hats, noting that in their promotional brochure co-founder Andrew Bruce was billed as “landscape gardener and managing director.” These days, Bruce — who's work on such productions as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Mamma Mia! has redefined the role of a theatre sound designer and earned him this year's EDDY Award for lifetime achievement in sound design — can add another hat to his rack: that of inventor. For Bruce, as you may not know, is the creative force behind the software on the hugely popular DiGiCo D5T digital theatre console, which, ironically enough, was also named one of the ED Sound Products of the Year.
That's just the latest in a long line of hats for the designer, who started out at school as an aspiring musician, playing trombone, drums and writing for a variety of jazz bands, big bands, and what he calls “rather pose-y music ‘n poetry performance groups” in the ‘60s. While still in school, his music teacher — who taught drama as well — encouraged him to study classical music and opera, and through a special program at the school he visited the Royal Opera House to see his first opera, a five-hour production of Parsifal. “I'm surprised my interest survived that, but it did,” he says, so much so that he decided to focus on theatre as a career. After a stint at nearby Glyndebourne Festival Opera as an assistant stage manager and electrician, he found himself back at the ROH, this time working as an electrician. While there, he befriended Philip Clifford — the Opera sound engineer — who was overworked and needed an assistant. Clifford convinced him to change jobs and join the sound department (for a slight drop in salary from 160 pounds a week to 15!). “It was a classic moment that defined the direction my life in the theatre would take,” he says.
He and Clifford formed Autograph Sound in 1973 as a rental house (or hire facility, as they say in the UK), but it wasn't until they established a relationship with Abe Jacob, who was looking for an equipment supplier on the UK production of A Chorus Line, that the company began to take off. And it wasn't until he was asked to rescue the sound on the original 1981 Paris production of Les Miserables that Bruce even considered taking on the role that would define him in the theatre. “I'd never had any particular aspirations to become a designer, because I enjoyed running the company. But to my surprise I found that I quite liked it.”
That fun eventually turned into two decades of groundbreaking sound design work, from the aforementioned productions of Les Miz to such West End shows as Witches of Eastwick, Martin Guerre, and Chess, and many, many more. Indeed, Bruce and his team are responsible for nearly a dozen productions of Mamma Mia! currently taking a chance on theatergoers around the world.
In the last three years, two shows in particular have kept Bruce and associate designer Simon Baker busy: the recent West End openings of Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the subsequent Broadway debut of the latter this spring.
These days, Bruce's thoughts are very much with the D5T. The user interface has its roots in the ill-fated Broadway console from Soundcraft, which Bruce also worked on, as well as Autograph's own G-Type Mixer control software. More recently, he worked on the user interface for Cadac's SAM software, when he happened upon the DiGiCo D5 console at PLASA in 2003; after talking with the company about his ideas for a console geared to the theatre, the D5T was soon a reality.
“I'd spent half my life at the back of theatres watching the lighting people using computer controlled boards and wondering why no one was doing the same for us,” Bruce says. “This was an opportunity to create something specifically for theatre sound designers. And I have to say I'm very pleased and gratified that we've created something we could all use after all.”
Bruce is proud enough of the new console that he intends to continue to juggle his sound design work with the next stages of its development. “I always felt it was our duty to invest in R&D, since — when we started out — there was not a single product specifically made for use in the theatre, and it's the determination of the designers together with the rental companies that have changed all that,” he says. “You need to hold onto an inquisitive mind when you get to my position. You get terribly bored doing the same things all the time. Repeating a design, using the same products, frankly gets quite dull. I do find the prospect of potentially doing 10 identical productions of the same show in five years pretty daunting.”
Still, don't think for a minute that Bruce will have too much time on his hands; he still has a company to run. “Oh, I'll have lots of things to do,” he says. And he'll more than likely be adding even more hats to his collection.
— David Johnson
Lifetime Achievement in Dance and Theatre Lighting
“I love it all,” says Jennifer Tipton, one of the undisputed leading ladies of light. An equal-opportunity designer, she feels completely comfortable lighting dance, theatre, or opera. “They are all the same, but each situation is different,” she says. “In dance there is never enough time, in theatre there are previews, and in opera there is big scenery to accommodate. But the intent of the light is always the same, and my lighting choices are always made by intuition.”
Born in Columbus, OH, Tipton majored in dance at Cornell University, but once she moved to New York, she found herself looking at the stage rather than performing on it. She became a rehearsal mistress for the Merry Go Rounders, a group that performed for children in the 1960s. “Sitting out front, I became interested in lighting. I learned to look at the big picture and create a composition of what you see on stage,” she recalls.
One of Tipton's mentors in lighting design was the late Tom Skelton, with whom she studied at Connecticut College. “Tom Skelton lit dance, and I was in the dance world so it was a natural thing that I started lighting dance,” she says. In 1963, she began working with Paul Taylor, and that collaboration has endured over 40 years. She has also designed lighting for hundreds of dance pieces for other choreographers including Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jerome Robbins, Dana Reitz, Twyla Tharp, Jiri Kylian, and Tricia Brown, as well as numerous works for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater. Her name is synonymous with the best in dance lighting.
In the 1970s, set/costume designer Santo Loquasto asked her to join him at Lincoln Center, where she lit her first plays. Over the years, she developed long-lasting relationships in the theatre as well as in the dance world, including two companies, American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where she served as artistic associate. Tipton has also worked with more avant-garde companies such as Wooster Group, where her lighting includes the award-winning production of Brace Up!, and she is a founding member and resident lighting designer for The Builder's Association. She recently collaborated with Laurie Anderson on several projects, including O Composite for the Paris Opera Ballet, bringing her different worlds together in a tidy confluence.
Anderson's The End Of The Moon, which recently completed a national tour in the United States, marked Tipton's first collaboration with the innovative musician/storyteller/multimedia artist. “Our paths had crossed, but we had never actually met before this project,” notes Tipton. The project is based on Anderson's experience as resident artist at NASA, and features her alone on stage in an environment sculpted in light by Tipton. “I created a lighting language for the event as the text evolved.” Her color palette was influenced by the colors of stars, from hot white, to blue and red.
In The End of The Moon, projection was more limited than in some of Anderson's other work, but Tipton was aware that “the light had to respond to the use of video. There needs to be a careful balance of the two things,” she says. “There needs to be light on what the camera is looking at, but not too much light to distort the image.”
As choreographers turn more toward new technologies, Tipton finds herself working more and more in the world of projections. Anderson uses them, as well as choreographer Kathy Weiss. “The light in these cases has to serve the camera's eye,” says Tipton. “There are great needs that must be satisfied.” One problem she points out is that she is often called onto a project late in the process. “The artist has been using the camera throughout the entire rehearsal period, yet lighting comes in at the last minute. We should be there from the get-go.”
Tipton's recent projects also include William Kentridge's production of The Magic Flute at La Monnaie in Brussels. A visual artist as well as a director, Kentridge used a lot of projection in his version of this Mozart classic. “What was interesting was that he made the projections seem very three dimensional,” says Tipton. “My bone to pick is that projections are so often much too flat.”
A member of the design faculty at Yale University where she teaches lighting, Tipton serves as an inspiration to many young designers. “The first semester they learn to do what I do and how I do it,” she explains. “After that I encourage them to find their own way of doing it and try to stimulate them to cultivate their own ideas.” This summer she will also be teaching lighting workshops for students in Beijing, Manila, and Shanghai.
Tipton's EDDY Award comes after two “Bessies” (New York Dance and Performance Awards) and an Olivier for lighting dance. Her theatrical lighting has won a Joseph Jefferson Award, a Kudo Award, a Drama-Logue Award, two American Theatre Wing Awards, and an Obie. She has also won two Drama Desk Awards, the first for The Cherry Orchard and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf and the second for Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Waiting for Godot, and Long Day's Journey into Night. She is also the recipient of two Tony Awards (The Cherry Orchard and Jerome Robbins' Broadway). She held a Guggenheim Fellowship for the 1986-87 season and received the 1989 Common Wealth Award in Dramatic Arts. In 1991, she received a Dance Magazine Award. She has been a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Theater Program Distinguished Artist Award, and a grant in the National Theatre Artist Residency Program funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
How does Tipton feel about art versus technology as lighting becomes more and more complex? Her answer is very clear. “The technology is only as good as the people using it,” says our leading lady as she enters her fifth decade of designing environments in light.
— Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Sustained Achievement in Technical Direction
Like most technical directors, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis' Steve Ryan got his start in lighting and set design in high school. It was not long after enrolling at Webster University that Ryan discovered he was “a better problem solver than a problem creator.” And thus, a life as a technical director began.
However, do not mistake Ryan for a frustrated designer who “settled” on being a TD; nothing could be further from the truth. “It wasn't a surprise,” he says of his career choice. “I got quickly pulled into technical direction, became master carpenter my first year, and evolved quicker in that area. I don't see my job as not being creative. It's very creative, especially when it comes to a budget! For me, it was a lot more fun translating the design and figuring out how to get a model or sketch onto the stage. It became a more interesting process to me.”
Ryan also saw that as he and his classmates matured in the program at Webster, those who were designers spent a lot of time on the road, which did not particularly appeal to him. “I always knew that I wanted to have a family,” he explains. “So if I'm a technical director, I can find a place to live and have a normal life outside of this crazy job path I'm choosing. I don't want to fly all over the country for nine or ten months out of the year. Plus, I was happy as a technical director.”
While at Webster, Ryan was able to work with the TD for both the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and St. Louis Repertory Company where he spent his time “solving problems and spending money.” By the end of his junior year, Ryan was hired by Black Hills Playhouse in Rapid City, SD as technical director which allowed him to continue to grow at his profession and avoid some of the “growing pains” his classmates were going through. When it came time to apply to graduate school, Ryan had a portfolio full of finished, professional projects rather than student or school productions so that made him a hot commodity to several programs. He chose the University of Missouri/Kansas City because it had a relationship with Missouri Rep. “I was used to the idea of sharing resources,” he says, “and I knew there would be more resources available, be it teachers, designers, or projects. It was a model I had capitalized on at Webster and I wanted to keep going in that direction.”
Ryan arrived at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis during his second year of grad school when the company created an assistant technical director internship with Webster University. He assisted OTSL's TD Mark Wilson and Webster's TD John Wiley and at the end of the season he was hired full-time even though he had to go back to school in Kansas City. “I did a lot of driving up and down I-170,” he says. “The day I did my portfolio review, we were loading in my second season as technical director in St. Louis. A professor asked, ‘what's your next step?’ and I told him that I had to go back to St. Louis and load in the season; I already have a job.” Ryan is currently in his tenth season at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, “a spooky long time,” he adds.
Despite his tenure at OTSL, Ryan maintains that he is constantly surprised by different challenges and problems that crop up virtually every day. One production that stymied him in particular was John Adams' opera Nixon in China (ED, Oct. 2004), which used a lot of TV and video technology, something that Ryan had not faced until that point. “As I jokingly say, I went to grad school all over again but it was in video production and computer control,” he says. “It was one of those areas that I never kept up with because I never thought it would touch me, literally. That was the first time I felt like I didn't have the needed skill level and that was frightening, to say the least.”
Since Nixon was a co-production with funding from, among others, AT&T, Ryan was equipped with cash and a good design team so he wanted to do the production right. “I quickly realized that I was going to spend a lot of money for a consultant or somebody to build the system, which would mean we wouldn't have any money left over to actually do what we wanted,” he says. “Or I was going to have to become an expert.” With the help of intern Eric Woolsey, Ryan split the duties between the two of them — Woolsey would master the computer network, the Dataton Watchout system, and everything else inside the machine while Ryan dealt with building the system, finding computers, cables, the right signal path, etc.
The production was a success and Ryan even created a trouble-shooting guide for future productions that plan on using the same system. Ryan has prepared himself to provide answers to other TDs around the country for years to come. It should be noted that since Nixon in China was part of a full rep program, it was unplugged and rolled out every night. “We put it through the hardest part of its existence,” Ryan says. “Now everything is very easy for future productions to just plug in and run.”
As far as future plans are concerned, Ryan has no intentions of leaving a job he loves in his hometown. But he does have future plans for OTSL and its new facility scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. “The big dream is that we will do more training and keep pushing young people out into the real world,” he says. “We have an apprentice program where we are identifying people and promoting them into resident assistant designer positions.”
Ryan has been working with his alma mater, Webster, as well as Washington University and St. Louis University and wants to get seniors into the program for a year to work an entire season and then send them off into the world. “I want to create something better than I had,” he says. “I'd love to see us identify the best students and really give them a look at what it's like to work at a nonprofit. I want to take advantage of their youth and new ideas and keep things alive and interesting around here at the same time.”
— Mark A. Newman
Artfag: Doug “Spike” Brant & JUSTIn Collie
Taking Concert Lighting and Projection to the Next Level
Doug “Spike” Brant and JUSTIn Collie pooled their talents in 2001 to create a force in the business of entertainment design: Artfag LLC, the purpose of which is to provide not just lighting design, but performance environment design.
Both Brant and Collie started in lighting in the ‘80s, and they have amassed some serious experience in lighting, set, and production design in TV, video, concerts, and special events. Before aligning forces, each was accomplished in his own right, Brant doing design work for such acts as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Korn, and the Foo Fighters, and Collie designing for Prince, Jodeci, and P. Diddy (then Puff Daddy), to name a few.
The two met while on tour for Def Leppard's Hysteria tour in 1989 — Collie was the crew chief and Brant was the self-proclaimed “second or third lighting guy down.” They were on the road as technicians, and both evolved into lighting designers from there. Years later, when both designers were both up for the position of LD for Korn, Brant not only suggested that the management consider Collie as his competition in the bidding process, but when Brant got the gig, he brought in Collie to collaborate.
“Artfag was started soon after that,” says Brant. “We have different strengths, so together, we're a good dynamic duo. Justin is a much better show programmer, and he's got better timing. He's the king of intricate cueing — very much in the same way Roy [Bennett] is known. He can figure out the impossible, spatial relations, and putting pieces in the right place. We also have a lot of crossover, and it's always evolving anyway. I used to be better at doing 3D drawings, for instance, and now he's better at it.”
“One thing I always remember about Spike from the beginning is that, rather than wait on others to get things done or complain, he would simply go ahead and take down the corner of the PA that was in his way to get to his stuff,” says Collie. “When we worked on Korn together, we seemed to get a lot done, and we did it well, and it was productive and fun. So, it just sort of grew from there. We started working together and gradually discovered those things that each one is better at or prefers doing or doesn't like to do.” He added that Brant is also adept at bringing reality into the situation. “Whatever fancy ideas we, or the pop star might have, Spike has the ability to see how to make it something real, just exactly how, what gear, or who to bring on board to make it happen,” he says.
With their combined strengths, the two set out on a mission: to consolidate all the visual aspects of production into one design element and, basically, conquer the world of production design by providing a one-stop design shop. When the technology doesn't exist, they build teams to find solutions to get the looks they want. They shoot their own video content. They hire VJs to work on their shows. They assemble crews of “propellerheads” for tours in the same way any genius builds an empire: surround yourself with really, really smart people, and you'll come up with a spectacular product.
And that's taking nothing away from how smart and creative these guys are themselves. They've practically invented the concept of convergence of video and lighting. “The idea of complete performance environment design came out of us both being lighting guys and having to always fix how things looked with lighting,” says Brant. “A lot of it has to do with us being control freaks, but we're respectful of each other's territories. Sure, someone else can do the job, as long as they do it well. If they don't, we take it over.”
And how do two control freaks manage to work together in creative harmony? “One of us is always the lead designer, but each job is different, and we almost always work together,” continues Brant. “We share feedback with creative or certain concepts, and we pass ideas back and forth constantly. Sometimes, we don't at all on smaller gigs. But it's really the relationships we built in the ‘80s and early ‘90s that has really gotten us in the door. Actually delivering once we're in the door has been the key.”
“What has always gotten to me about the partnership is how much braver it makes you and how much more you can do,” says Collie. “Our process is one of constant discussion back and forth, and we're always sharing new ideas, without necessarily having an exact idea of where they will be used. Then, maybe down the road, we'll find a fit for them. I had never really experienced that before — the ability to always be discussing design concepts in general with another designer. It makes you think about your own ideas more closely and justify yourself to the other person, but it also makes you take more risks. Performance environment design was just the next step in this ongoing process, as we realized we could really be in control of everything seen in a production. And we don't have to experience the situation that often occurs where the video director and lighting director don't collaborate or even speak to one another.”
For those who may be thinking, “Jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none,” think again. In 2004 alone, this team cranked out performance environment designs for tours for Destiny's Child, Green Day, Gwen Stefani, Beastie Boys, Blink 182, No Doubt, and Eminem, and that's to say nothing of the clubs, radio concert series, TV specials, corporates, and slews of other gigs this team pulled down last year.
So far in 2005, they've locked up the lighting and video for the annual benefit for The Robin Hood Foundation, performance environment designs for Bon Jovi, New York's Z-100 Zootopia Festival, and the NFL Opening Kickoff in the fall.
And, here's the clincher: they're starting to dabble in product development. That's right — product development. Artfag's work on the intricate lighting, video, and networking for the Beastie Boys To the 5 Boroughs tour (Lighting Dimensions, January 2005) has attracted so much attention that they're now developing a control system for lighting designer Jim Lenahan for an upcoming Tom Petty tour with the help of Stuart White, the team's longtime collaborator who acted as system engineer and custom video software programmer on the Beasties tour.
“I've been working with Stuart since designing for Prince, and he's such a great mind,” says Collie. “He was the keyboard tech back then, and Prince wanted to run everything via MIDI, and we were running the lights so that every guitar chord triggered a cue.”
“We've basically started to develop complete visual control systems with Stuart,” adds Brant. “We're developing a product called The Conductor, which allows you to automate shows via DMX or MIDI, etc. On Tom Petty, we're automating the Encore video control system from Barco to be controlled from the lighting desk. We're also developing an [Element Labs] VersaTube™ controller for Lenahan. It can be a media server on some level, as well. This is all happening as we speak, so we're still feeling our way around this part of it, but there seems to be a need for it.”
So there is.
— Marian Sandberg-Dierson
Bridging the Gap Between The Artist and the Technology
It would be interesting to know what George Ballanchine or Martha Graham would think of Troika Ranch, the multi-media dance troupe that uses the latest computer technology as much as it uses pas de deuxs. This unique melding of dance and technology is precisely why Troika Ranch received a 2005 EDDY Award as time and again the company seamlessly blends the artist with the atmosphere via groundbreaking uses of new technology.
The artistic co-directors of Troika Ranch are Mark Conigilio and Dawn Stoppiello. He's the composer/computer whiz, she's the dancer/choreographer and the two began their unlikely alliance more than a decade ago at California Institute of the Arts. They were both in a class for composers and choreographers that aimed to teach the two disciplines to work together. Stoppiello and Coniglio were paired up on a lark and that pairing has lasted ever since.
Although the duo were first randomly paired in 1987, Troika Ranch was officially formed in 1994 and they still don't really have a name for what they do. “We've called it so many different things,” Stoppiello says. “People were calling their work interdisciplinary, then it became multi-disciplinary, then multi-media. Mark started calling us ‘slash’ artists because people like us were multi-talented and they were calling themselves poet/composer/ video artist or choreographer/media artist. The slash became the unifying theme.”
“We define ourselves as a dance theatre company that creates media-intensive performances,” Conigilio says. “The dance and the theatre are on equal footing as is the media. Troika is Russian for three, so for us, those three are: dance, theatre, and media. We slide around the disciplines a little bit. Surfacing, the piece we premiered at St. Marks church last May, was a dance piece. But the piece prior to that, The Future of Memory, was far more theatrical. The piece tells us what it needs to be and we drift around between dance and theatre.”
Conigilio was something of a rare breed at 16 as he was getting paid to program computers in 1977. He began to seriously study music at 18 when he enrolled at CalArts, where he began working with electronic music composer Morton Subotnick. Stopiello entered CalArts to study dance with modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky. After the two were randomly paired in class, they found themselves working together on various projects of Subotnik's, who was still using analog technology at that time.
In one of those projects, Coniglio created the MIDIDancer that would attach to a dancer's body and make different noises based on the dancer's movement. After college, Coniglio continued his collaboration with Subotnick noting that the composer became his “artistic father.” While Stoppiello worked with various dance companies after leaving Lewitzky's tutelage, she partnered again with Coniglio to work on projects full-time. “I am often asked how my choreography has changed by using interactive systems,” she says. “My answer is it hasn't changed, because I was a beginner choreographer when I started with Mark so my choreographic abilities grew up at the same time as the integration of these hardware and software packages we were using.”
“Our work has matured for us as artists,” Coniglio says. “The ideas that we wanted to implement are finally possible with the technology now available to us. Technology caught up to what we could imagine. The dance community in general is pretty conservative about accepting new ideas into the fold. It was hard for people to see technology and media as being a part of dance. Now all choreographers are using it.”
After almost a decade of working together, the last few years have yielded the most professional accolades for Troika Ranch. Aside from the 2005 EDDY Award, Troika Ranch also received a 2003 Bessie Award for Dance for the troupe's The Future of Memory, and an Audience Dance Award by the readers of Time Out New York. The same piece also received an honorable mention at Prix Ars Electronica, Europe's premiere festival/competition for digital art. And last Fall, Stoppiello received the Princess Grace Foundation Statue for Sustained Achievement in Choreography. “It's been crazy the way people have been recognizing the work we've been doing for a long, long time,” Coniglio says.
Next on their plate is 16revolutions, a new piece they hope to premiere in New York in November that they have been working on with Essexdance in England. They are also working with new 3D-manipulation software where dancers create 3D worlds in real time through their movements. “You can't believe what [this software] does and it's free and that makes it more unbelievable,” Coniglio says. “It's wild new technology that's incredibly spectacular and goes far beyond what we've been able to do and is a big leap.” Coniglio compares the technology to the motion capture methods used by Hollywood, but emphasizes that the software is free and done with a single camera.
Troika Ranch appears to be maturing hand-in-hand with the technology. “Technology is faster and it can do these wonderful things but we have 10 years of experience behind us to let us know what we want to do,” Stoppiello says. “The tools are fine but to know what to do with those tools and make a really beautiful expression is the hardest part in any art form and we're ready to match that.”
However, Coniglio points out that Troika does not use technology just for technology's sake. “We don't use new technology just because we can; it depends on what the piece is about and how that medium will enable us — and the audience — to see movement in a different way,” he says. “When people see our work they expect a super slick, glitzy show, but afterwards they are always surprised at how human it is. We take that as a great compliment. Even though we use some pretty edgy technology, it is still about people and stories and what you have to say and that comes across in the work.”
— Mark A. Newman
Bridging The Gap Between The Designer and The Technology
An incredible projection in a Broadway show, dance production, rock concert, or even a church doesn't just go from the designer's brain onto the screen. There is a conduit for that information that is largely unsung in the annals of entertainment design — the projection programmer. That is, until now as projection programmer, Paul Vershbow, is receiving a 2005 EDDY based on his stellar abilities to bridge the gap between the designer and the technology. “I fill a lot of different roles,” Vershbow says. “It really depends on the production and the designer.”
If he's working on a smaller scale production where a lot of input from several different people is not needed, he will typically concentrate on the technical aspects and “go from A to Z and make sure everything works,” he says. “If it's a more involved production and the designer seeks out input from other sources, which I have to say is true with virtually all the designers I work with, then I end up doing not only doing the technical aspect, but also as another design eye.”
Aside from staying on top of the technical aspect, i.e., making sure that the digital files he is given can make it from the idea stage to the projection surface, Vershbow also tweaks the design when needed. “Oftentimes, I'm given material that can be enhanced,” he explains. “There may be a whole bunch of files that could sit there as a still, but maybe there's music involved and maybe there's movement on stage, and maybe there's no reason why the info on screen couldn't move as well. I end up editing movement to enhance the information on the screen in a dynamic way.”
Vershbow has been a theatrical projection go-to guy since 1993 when he was recruited by Wendall K. Harrington to work on The Who's Tommy on Broadway. Prior to that, he spent a couple of decades working in the world of corporates and industrials. He got the idea to move from the convention center to the theatre after working with theatrical projection designers who would freelance in the corporate world for a few extra bucks. “The skills were always there and the need to enhance a product, given my job description, was always there,” he says on making the transition. “Part of my learning curve has been to first accept that I had the ability to do it and that I had the green light to go ahead and make it better. [In the corporate world] people were satisfied the way a projection was, but they were happy to make it better. However, they weren't in a position to make it better. It took me a little while in the theatrical world to be more proactive, because it was new territory. The worse [a designer] can do is say no. One good thing about projection is you usually can't kill anyone if you screw up.”
Vershbow is the first to admit that he is nothing without the designers he works with because the process is a very even-handed game of give and take. “We learn from each other out of necessity,” he says. “I'm not much of a tech head. I'm happy to learn new stuff, but I don't seek it out. You get into situations where you have to learn something new and the only way for me to learn is to do; I'm not much into reading manuals. I may not be the world's greatest user of those things but I know more than enough to be dangerous. But as with anything the more you use it, the better you become and I'm actually pleased at my skill level at this point.”
One thing that is not necessarily pleasing to Vershbow, however, is — as he calls it — the C-word, better known as convergence. “Every time I read a discussion in Entertainment Design, I can certainly understand why convergence is a goal, especially since producers want as few people as possible on a show,” he says. “Some designers feel it's important that they handle all aspects of visual design (lighting and projection). All I know is that most of the shows I work on have so much information that it is very difficult to do justice to both aspects. Maybe some people are clever and smart and fast enough to stay on top of things, and many people can. But I don't know that it always benefits the end product. I guess I'm more of a traditionalist. In the projection world I feel we have to fight for our territory because we're usually the low man on the totem pole. I accept that for what it is, but on the other hand a lot of people are fooling themselves into thinking they can do both really well.”
Currently represented on Broadway with Avenue Q, Spamalot, 700 Sundays, and the forthcoming Lennon, Vershbow says the bigger the production, the more you shouldn't converge. “It depends on who's on the design team and if everyone's on the same page,” he says. “If someone has a chip on their shoulder and wants this singular vision, then fine, you should do it all because it's not worth anyone's effort to force people together. It really comes down to whoever's making the decisions but they need to make an educated decision. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen.”
— Mark A. Newman
Blurring the Line of Environmental Design
David Rockwell was destined to design for the theatre. His mother was a former Vaudeville hoofer and his family was heavily involved in community theatre. “I was brought up being in love with the ability to go into a school auditorium and transform it,” he says of his childhood. “It was very Waiting for Guffman,” he says, alluding to Christopher Guest's 1997 film that skewers amateur theatrical troupes.
However, at age 11 Rockwell and his family moved south of the border to Mexico, where his infatuation with theatre was supplanted by a fascination by what he calls public theatre: public spaces, market places, the vibrant color of bull rings, mariachis, etc. “I got more interested in space and architecture and then went to school to study it (at Syracuse University), but I always had in the back of my mind this fascination with live theatre.”
While at Syracuse, Rockwell became intrigued by the way architecture used ideas from the theatre: the notion of entrance and transformation, and he says he was lucky enough to see the original Broadway production of Dracula with lighting design by Roger Morgan and sets by Edward Gorey. He was so impressed with the design that he called Morgan and eventually went to work for him as a theatre designer for a semester.
After working for Morgan, Rockwell studied in London for a year where he saw a lot of theatre. “Theatre always propelled my architecture, and I was always looking at the theatrical possibilities of a space,” he says. “Not theatrical as in looking theatrical, but as in being immersive and interactive and communal. A public space — a restaurant or a hotel — is a shared communal experience just like theatre.”
After years of attending theatre and taking notes and doing sketches in the dark two or three times a week, Jules Fisher suggested he design something for the theatre. He started researching the history of theatre design and became somewhat of a student in it and even started discussing theatre at various seminars. He started meeting with directors, producers, and writers and his move to the stage slowly evolved.
After Jordan Roth, the producer of The Rocky Horror Show, introduced him to director Christopher Ashley, his fascination with theatre finally became a reality in 2000. Oddly enough, Rockwell had never seen the movie and after renting it he asked Ashley, “Why in the hell would anybody do this?” Upon which he was told that if he saw the movie alone, he didn't really see the movie at all. Ashley told him that the show was very much about creating yourself in your own image as well as about self-determination. Rockwell was sold: “It was the perfect first project because there were not a lot of expectations about it,” he explains. “People thought Circle in the Square was limited space, but in some ways constraints are helpful design-wise, because they make your design more specific.”
Since Rocky was his first show, Rockwell learned that previews are not supposed to be perfect. “The first challenge I had to get over was the incredible pressure to get it done by the first preview,” he says. “Design-wise, combining the familiar with the unfamiliar, is much more powerful than just dealing with the unfamiliar, so having this movie theatre break apart at the beginning then come back together at the end provided an emotional push to the show that was the reality.”
After Transsexual Transylvania, Rockwell found himself in Baltimore, designing the sets for Hairspray, directed by Jack O'Brien. Rockwell says his experience on this show is one that will never be duplicated as his research began with a tour of Baltimore with O'Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and John Waters. “We turned down a very scary street and it looked like a drug deal was going on,” Rockwell says. “And the only advice John Waters gave us was that it was important to laugh with them, not at them!”
As per the director, Hairspray needed to move lighting quick, which further inspired Rockwell. “As a designer what interests me about theatre is all the transitions. The one thing theatre can do that no other art form can is physical transformation right in front of your eyes,” he says. Aside from the transitions, Rockwell also found inspiration in the classic Lite-Brite toy as well as Necco Wafers!
Rockwell returned to stark reality when he designed the sets for the intimate off-Broadway dinner party play, Omnium Gatherum, which was very personal for the designer as it was set post-9/11. Living in Tribeca, Rockwell was personally affected by the events of September 11th. “I felt so paralyzed after 9/11,” he says. “Why create something for pleasure, when there's this amazing hole in the city and this power of destruction? But the act of creation is such a powerful reaction to such a horrifying event.”
This season, Rockwell is represented on Broadway with a show in the French Riviera and one in a “square town in a square state” with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and All Shook Up, respectively. These are two very different shows in two very different locations. While Elvis Presley influenced his design in All Shook Up — “The buildings all have a swagger and sway, just like Elvis” — he got more inspiration from the South of France setting of Scoundrels. “The most memorable image of the Riviera is how the sky meets the water with a sort of endless horizon,” he says. “We created something elegant and reminiscent of the Riviera, without being literal, so as not to overwhelm the comedy. The physical manifestation is as light and airy as the humor.”
Theatre is not the only entertainment design Rockwell has been up to lately; he also created an entire world — from Mount Rushmore, to a Broadway Theatre, to South Korea — for the movie Team America: World Police by the warped minds behind South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Movies, like theatre, are an extension of Rockwell's penchant for storytelling. “Even with the Mohegan Sun casino, the biggest architecture project we've ever done, or the W Hotel, there is a storytelling component to it,” he says. “In some ways it's a natural evolution. It also confirmed my interest in collaboration because the thing that's most thrilling about theatre is the chance to collaborate and work with such amazing people in real time. You're sitting in a room working together to make this story come to life.”
— Mark A. Newman