The entertainment technology industry is dotted with famous families on the business side — everyone is familiar with such names as the Kliegls, the Altmans, and the Harrises. It's much more unusual to find families of designers. Take, for example, the Irwin Brothers — Michael, David, and Steve — all of whom have worked as lighting designers, programmers, and suppliers, and who now are pioneering the latest techniques in education for lighting professionals.
Michael, the eldest, takes the credit (or the blame) for leading his family into lighting. The brothers grew up in Athens, OH, where their father taught computer science at Ohio University. “In the mid-1960s, Dad was bringing home the old phone-on-the-top acoustic modem terminals,” says Michael. “We played Star Trek on the IBM360 mainframe that ran OU.” However, the brothers were destined to move in another direction. “There was a psychedelic club in town called the Appalachian Lighthouse,” says Michael. “I met them and knew that was what I wanted to do.” Before long, he was working on regional rock tours, then he moved to San Diego, where designed for club shows. Soon, his younger brothers were visiting him, and getting into the act themselves. “When we'd visit him, we'd be the tennis ball boys, ready to catch anything that fell off the stage,” Steve says, laughing. Soon, he adds, “We were fighting for who'd get to run the opening act.”
And so it went, with Michael taking on new projects, and his brothers following suit. Michael started a company called Genesis Lighting, to do club shows, with Steve and David coming onboard as well. Then, when Michael and Steve moved into corporate theatre, David kept on with Genesis Lighting. As the 80s moved into the 90s, the brothers moved across the country, starting lighting departments in numerous AV/production companies, then moving on to the next challenge. As they did so, they were riding the wave of a trend, in which corporate productions became slicker and more high-tech. “Our slogan was ‘Rock-and-roll lighting on any stage,’” says Steve. “We encouraged companies to put on larger productions. We built a lot of great departments. It was fun — you could build it and then move on.” Steve adds, “We were more like consultants than employees.”
Eventually Michael settled in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, where he runs Irwin Lighting Design. Steve moved to Atlanta, GA, and set up his own company, The Show Design Network. David ended up closer to home, in Cincinnati, with his firm, WYG Design. All of them have enormous résumés of corporate events (Proctor & Gamble, IBM, Philip Morris, Kodak, GE, Kraft), corporate entertainment (David Sanborn, Bill Cosby, Aretha Franklin, the Pointer Sisters, Joan Rivers, Rita Rudner), and political events (the Summit of the Americas, former presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton).
To have all three brothers surviving and thriving in an industry best known for its hard knocks is remarkable. Now, however, all three brothers are converging in what may be their most interesting project yet. The Show Training Network, which was officially started by Steve, is intended to offer designers and technicians state-of-the-art classes in the most advanced forms of show technology. The inspiration came from the WYG retreats, which are held to teach people how to better use WYSIWYG. “David was doing them,” says Michael, adding, “they filled in a lot of gaps in people's training, and let them exchange ideas. Steve saw a real need there, one that could take training one step further.”
“We've spent so many years with different crews,” says Steve. “We have often gotten crews that were lacking in basic skills, even in how to interact with each other. I saw the need for accessible, affordable training, so we started with the idea of tours.” The brothers book the Show Training Network into a major city for a few days and offer courses in Wholehog, WYSIWYG, production management, and many other key techniques.
This may be the best possible time for such training, adds Mike. “Because of WYSIWYG, we can hold a class without hanging a rig. We're all WYSIWYG owners — all three of us wrote the WYG 3.5 tutorial CD. Now we're doing the interactive CD for the new version that should come out in March. With WYSIWYG we can do this kind of classwork. The training can be more personal — you're not shouting across a 60' stage.”
In fact, the brothers are planning on taking their training even further. Says Steve, “We're exploring how, in the near future, we can offer classes electronically, over the Internet, to make them more accessible.” Michael adds, “We've already done fairly large training sessions on the web — I've had a dozen people doing it, with full video/audio conferencing and interactive design collaboration.”
All of which means that the three sons of the computer science professor are now deeply involved in the digital worlds first explored by their father nearly 40 years ago. “That certainly makes him happy,” says Michael. “He didn't see it coming, but it's been a really nice thing.” Adds Steve, laughing, “I'm sure he thought that there were times when these brains were going to go to waste.”