What do Mick Jagger, President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, La Musee Moderne in Paris, and Vanity Fair magazine's headquarters in New York have in common? For that matter, how about Swan Lake, the Blues Brothers, and "Lord of the Dance" Michael Flatley? The answer: LD Patrick Woodroffe, who in the past 20 years has worked with all these people and projects, when not on the road lighting acts like the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Tina Turner, Phil Collins, and Garth Brooks, including the latter's spectacular Central Park appearance in August.
The diversity of the above list gives some inkling that there is more to his design work than stencils, CAD, and a fertile imagination. Woodroffe has quietly established a secondary reputation in areas that include theatre, dance, ballet, and architecture. He is the first, however, to recognize that his work in the arts bears no comparison to his achievements in concert lighting. "I wouldn't dream of likening myself to the David Herseys of the world when working in their environments," he says, but he does bring a different quality to his parallel career, which he's nurtured since the late 1970s.
It was 20 years ago that Woodroffe was working on a concert tour for Veronique Sanson, French chanteuse and former wife of Steven Stills. "A member of the Paris-based architectural company Grid-O saw the show and asked me to light an exhibition at La Musee Moderne," he recalls. "Le Jardin Musical was a collection of abstract concrete forms, some containing wind-blown mobiles. They were displayed within a 4,000-sq.-ft. (360-sq.-m) room encircled by a Lycra cyclorama."
Like any designer, Woodroffe used what he had--it's just that in this case the equipment was secondary, and his contacts and ability to persuade came first. Peter Clark of SuperMick Lights, then a competitor to Woodroffe on the LD front, remembers, "I don't recall specifically what I gave him on that occasion, but there was always great camaraderie between us even though we might be competing for the same business. He might ask me for the odd dimmer rack or a few lamps, and if they were available they were his."
Since that early venture in Paris ("It seemed a nice thing to do"), Woodroffe has lit places as diverse as La Grande Cascade, a renowned restaurant in Paris' Bois de Boulogne; the headquarters of Germany's biggest champagne vintners, Schlumberger in Vienna; and over the past few years, several special events for Vanity Fair, which ran a piece about him last year. Most of these were commercial commissions, but Woodroffe typically allows himself to be engaged by the concept before the cash. And some of the concepts have been bizarre.
A classic example is what took place in 1990, when the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour passed through the newly liberated Eastern Europe. Vaclav Havel had only recently become president of the Czech Republic, and he invited the Stones to bring their tour to Prague.
"The anniversary of the Czech Republic the following year was to be a gala event held in the 13th-century Grand Castle in Prague," the LD relates. "A concert conducted by Sir Georg Solti was to be staged in the castle courtyard, with a banquet held afterwards in the Spanish Hall. Havel asked if I would light the event. I decided to light the courtyard with hurricane lamps placed in the hundreds of windows overlooking the site--I wanted something more in keeping with the medieval setting than electric light. I went at night with a guide to see how the lamps would look, and afterwards I was taken to view the Spanish Hall." Woodroffe continues, "We entered the palace in darkness, just myself and the guide walking down a vast corridor. The walls were hung with beautiful oil paintings: kings and noblemen, lit only by the orange glow of our solitary hurricane lamp. At the far end stood double doors towering above us. As my guide threw them open I was dazzled by what I beheld: Decorated all in white and dripping in ormolu, the room was lit by more than 2,500 bulbs in the chandeliers and sconces around the walls."
Woodroffe found that lighting possibilities were somewhat limited, to say the least. To get the chandeliers and wall sconces turned on or off, a call had to be made to an electrician in another part of the castle, who would then have to walk to a switch room elsewhere in the building and laboriously throw breakers of Frankensteinian proportions. Woodroffe decided to visit the castle when a ball was in progress, to see how the room appeared when in use.
"I walked in at about eight o'clock and it looked fantastic with all the chandelier lights on," Woodroffe remembers. "But then I went back at the end, around 1:30am, when the people were just sitting around drinking and chatting, and it was still lit in exactly the same way--very bright."
To inject some atmosphere into the room for the banquet, Woodroffe arranged for only selected areas of the hall to be lit by electric light, picking out the corners of the room and some of the statues that were dotted about. For the main illumination, 1,000 small night lights were used on the tables, which President Havel thought very beautiful.
"Some time after the banquet I received a letter from Havel saying how much he liked the temporary lighting effect I had produced and asking if it would be possible to do it permanently. I thought it would be a really nice thing to do, and I offered my services for free," the LD recalls. "But I did warn it would cost quite a lot of money to actually put things in there, and asked if they had any sponsors in mind. I said I would also try to find somebody."
Figuring that if you live in an orchard you should sell apples, Woodroffe turned to the music business for possible funding. He knew that the Stones had come in 1990 at Havel's invitation and asked them if they would help now, which they readily agreed to. "They gave us a real financial bedrock to work with," Woodroffe says.
"The go-ahead came in June 1995, when the Stones were due to play Prague with the Voodoo Lounge show in August, so I made their visit a target date for completion--not very long when you're dealing with architectural considerations," Woodroffe says. "Fortunately I'd already done a basic design and Bruce Kirk at Lighting Technology in London had identified the perfect dimming system for the job."
The whole purpose of this system was, as Woodroffe says, "to control the room lights and have lamps like fireflies at just 5%. Before the installation of dimming, the room was only ever seen in one of three states: daylight, darkness, or with the chandeliers full-on. So as soon as you could make the lights flicker like candles, or have just the ceiling lit by the wall sconces with no chandeliers on at all, it was physically a different space."
The LD conceived eight different lighting states for the 36-channel dimming system. Having spotted Havel's love of gadgets, Bruce Kirk made one further addition to Woodroffe's design that would prove to be the icing on the cake: For an extra few hundred dollars, tiny infrared receivers were put in around the room so all dimming control could be done from a small handheld remote.
"We, myself and all the band, went up to the castle at about 7pm after the concert," Woodroffe relates. "All the press was there. The Stones had been pretty discreet about their involvement--they didn't really care one way or the other whether people knew. As we entered, Vaclav greeted us and said, 'The reason I've asked the press here is that I want the people of my country to know that you've got some interest in supporting our culture.' I then made a brief speech about how one of the main reasons for what we had done was so that he wouldn't have to go through the lengthy procedure of calling a distant electrician to get the lighting changed. I finished by saying, 'You should have the power to control,' and then handed Havel the remote, which we'd just managed to have engraved with the Stones' tongue logo."
When the president pressed a button, "For a few seconds nothing happened, then all the lights came on at a glow and over a period of 12 seconds came up to full brightness. Havel was enchanted as the lights went to other presets. He looked at me very seriously, paused, and said, 'One day, all presidents and kings will want one of these.'
"You have to ask people to trust you," says Woodroffe, explaining how ideas like this, and his recent lighting of Swan Lake in the round at London's Royal Albert Hall, come to life. "I have to find a way of understanding what people want, especially when they are under pressure, and still be able to hang onto my own vision. That doesn't mean I can't change things, but what's important is retaining the shape of the whole show and keeping it distinct. God forbid I should end up making Swan Lake look like a rock show." The Royal Albert Hall staging was the first time the ballet had been performed in the round.
The LD has a confidence and certainty of purpose that has reassured the most volatile of performers. In dance alone Woodroffe has lit talents as varied as Joaquin Cortes ("an intransigent but entrancing performer") and Michael Flatley. "There's a man very sure of what he wants--very straightforward. While Riverdance is a charming show, Flatley's Lord of the Dance is more Springtime for Hitler in tight leather pants."
There are two factors to this hidden element of Woodroffe's work that make interesting reading for the devotee of lighting design. One is the knowledge the designer has gained from these extracurricular activities that allow him to share techniques across disciplines; the others are the abilities he has--above and beyond the functional demands of lighting design--that have made him the success he is in these areas. He is first and foremost a diplomat who also happens to be a skilled lighting practitioner, and it's this quality that sustains his position. If further proof is needed you have only to ask the future King of England, HRH Prince Charles--who has also availed himself of the designer's talents.
Contributing editor Steve Moles, a retired roadie based in Yorkshire, UK, can be reached at email@example.com.