Editor's Note: As LDI (Las Vegas, October 18-20) approaches, we're taking a look at some of the top industry people in town. First up is Ellen Lampert-Gréaux's chat with Jeanette Farmer, lighting director for Cirque du Soleil
Born and bred in Las Vegas, Jeanette Farmer rose through the ranks from followspot operator in community theatre to lighting director for Cirque du Soleil's O at Bellagio. Here she plays a dual role. First, she is the keeper of the flame, maintaining the look and the artistic integrity of Luc Lafortune's lighting for a technically challenging show performed in and around a giant swimming pool. Secondly, she runs a 17-person lighting and electrics crew in a theatre that is active 365 days a year, and where safety is a major concern in a very wet environment. Farmer has worked for the Cirque du Soleil since 1992 when its Nouvelle Experience performed in a tent outside the Mirage Hotel. She then was part of the planning team for Mystère and Cirque's first permanent theatre at Treasure Island, and again for O and the new theatre at Bellagio.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: How did you first get interested in the industry?
Jeanette Farmer: Growing up in Las Vegas, I was always keenly aware of show business and the importance of entertainment and the impact of lighting. As a kid I used to love to go on a family drive and look at all the lights on the marquees, and I saw the burnouts and used to wonder whose job it was to change all those light bulbs. Also, in high school I saw a play that was really fantastic, so I signed up for a technical theatre class and I was bitten. I started to tell everyone that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I also had a great teacher, Betty Sabo, whose dad was in the stagehands' union. She talked to him and I got to see what it was like in the big league.
ELG: What was your first job?
JF: My sophomore summer in high school I worked at Spring Mountain Ranch, as a followspot operator for the outdoor theatre. It was fun but the light of the spot attracted moths, and the moths attracted bats. I had to learn to run the followspot while fending off the bats.
ELG: What is your best project to date?
JF: Definitely O. First, for the incredible people I work with, from Franco Dragone, our director, and Luc Lafortune to Rick Gray, Scott Fisher, Rod Hickey, and Patrice Bilodeau. They are the best in the industry. And what I love so much is that it's part artistic and part technical. You have to understand the show conceptually and visually and then maintain that, especially when changes are made.
ELG: What was your least favorite project?
JF: I was LD for a show in town called Hot Lips. It was Vegas' cheesy best, a topless show with awful comics. But when you're on your way up, well, you know. I think I got the job because I could run the new computer board they had just bought. I was just a young kid.
ELG: Where were you in 1988, the year LDI was founded?
JF: I was at another off-Strip joint called Arizona Charlie's. I lit the “Naughty Ladies,” sexy ladies singing songs. Showgirl pink was made for us. But I moved on to Siegfried and Roy in 1989 and was on the verge of something amazing but didn't know it. I got the job thanks to Barbara Brennan [then of Cinema Services] who knew I was serious. There were all these important New York and London people coming to town and they needed some young assistants. She told me I could work with Andrew Bridge and I didn't even know who he was. She told me to look him up in Lighting Dimensions.
ELG: When did you first attend LDI?
JF: In Dallas in 1992. This was a transition period for me and I begged Todd Dougall [entertainment director at the Mirage] to let me go. I was hoping to get involved with Cirque du Soleil and I knew I needed to know everything that was out there equipment-wise. So I went with Luc who was shopping for Mystère.
ELG: What makes Vegas a special place to work?
JF: I'd like to sound magical and sentimental about it, but it's really the money and the egos; people who are willing to invest in mega-productions. Nowhere else is there such a concentration of the latest and greatest equipment and such larger-than-life productions. It's also a place where there is a lot of work for people and a lot of room to grow.
ELG: What's different about working for Cirque du Soleil?
JF: One thing that's special is that the art comes first. The primary goal is to do it well, and to be unique, invent something new, be left of center, and make people think.
ELG: What haven't you done that you want to do?
JF: By staying put in Las Vegas I've missed out on being exposed to different cultures and seeing different theatres. I would like to work with people all over the world and see how they experience entertainment, and travel more for work, but I'm not ready for that yet.
ELG: What's the next great trend in Vegas?
JF: I think one thing is pulling entertainment out of the showrooms and creating a more interactive experience with the casual audience member, creating more of an environment throughout the casino to give each hotel more of its own personality. Steve Wynn understands this and did it to some extent with Buccaneer Bay at Treasure Island. We are also at the beginning of a whole new growth spurt. The next few years will be a great time for people to come and be part of this world.