Yves Aucoin, lighting designer

The Next Generation Of Vegas Design

“On the island where I come from, the natural lighting of the sun at sunset, and the way it hits the sand and the colors emerging from that, I always thought it was the best thing on earth,” says Yves Aucoin. This year, Aucoin is being honored for his work in a very different kind of environment, although still a sandy one, Las Vegas. The lighting designer's work is currently on show in two of the hottest shows in Sin City, Celine Dion's A New Day at The Colosseum, Caesars Palace, and the Cirque du Soleil show, Love, in a custom-built theatre at The Mirage.

Aucoin got his first taste of life in the theatre while at school in Canada's Magdalen Islands. Under the guidance of teacher Rosaire Vigneau, he built sets and learned about sound and costumes but says, “I was not excited about sewing costumes or painting walls. My eyes were always excited by lights, natural and theatrical.”

After moving to Montreal, Aucoin began working for local bands going out on the road. On one of his first jobs, with Québéçois folk-rock singer Richard Seguin, he was hired for five days to do lighting and drive the truck, stayed for a 200-show tour, and eventually worked with the artist for seven years. Thankfully, Aucoin's truck driving career never really took off, but he went on to design lighting for many different bands in the prolific Montreal music scene and on tour in Europe, learning the ropes on the road rather than in school.

Another successful long-term relationship has been with Celine Dion. Aucoin started designing for her in 1989, when she was well known in Montreal but had not yet become an international star. Dion calls Aucoin “a master in his field.” She adds, “Yves always finds the most beautiful and innovative ways to capture my music and transform it into a visual fantasy. His sense of rhythm, the colors and shapes he uses, and his flare for the dramatic, add an incredible level of emotion to the show experience.”

Along with the advantages of knowing an artist well are the challenges of keeping concepts for each tour fresh. Aucoin says, “We try to always come up with new ways of doing favorite songs,” and he finds inspiration anywhere from fashion magazines to the architecture of different cities and new technology. “I try to be in front of the parade as far as technology goes, to test new stuff and take the opportunity to do new things,” he says.

Coming from a music background was a huge plus when the call came from Cirque du Soleil to design the lighting for their latest show, Love, using music from The Beatles. The designer calls the experience of working with Cirque a special one and describes one unique experience while he was programming in the theatre late one night. “Jonathan Deans and George Martin were mixing ‘Help’ and putting just the bass and drums in at the end. Later on, I was listening to George Harrison singing, just his voice, no music, and that was a really, really great moment,” he says.

Yves Aucoin's award is sponsored by Robert Juliat.
Hannah Kate Kinnersley

Rick Baxter, production electrician

Bridging The Gap Between Broadway And Vegas

When Rick Baxter saw A Chorus Line on Broadway back in 1976, and the house lights dimmed as the curtain rose on the first major production to operate on a computerized board, revealing 270 lights, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to handle that many lights. Things have come a long way in the business over the last 30 years in which Baxter has been working as a production electrician, with computers assisting on much of the programming details and wireless technology controlling lights, gear, and just about anything else.

Now, with over four dozen shows on Broadway, in Vegas, and on the road under his belt, including the just-opened Vegas production of Phantom of the Opera, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia!, and The Producers, Baxter can only dream of the days when a show featured only 270 lights. For instance, the Vegas version of Hairspray, which Baxter also worked on, featured 10,000 channels of control, and let's not forget Baxter's most recent project, Phantom of the Opera, with its state of the art floating chandelier, radio-controlled strobes, and gigantic opera façade.

When asked about working on both Broadway and Vegas productions, he states simply, “I love working with the guys in NYC and Las Vegas. I've made great friends in both places. I have been able to do what I do because I hire really good people. The men and women that work for me are top of the line — I think they are the best in the business. I also get fantastic support from my friends in the shops.”

In an industry where technical aspects can sometimes change as quickly as the shows themselves, Baxter acknowledges his desire to learn and work with others as best he can. “We are always learning, and I feel like I am always teaching as well as being taught,” he observes. “There's so much going on in theatre today; it's changing so fast, and new things are coming out all the time. You can't know it all, so you rely on the people that work for you to do their jobs because there isn't enough time in life to know everything about everything in this business.”

Not one to shy away from progress, Baxter was one of the first in his profession to begin working on and carrying laptops with him, sometimes even traveling with both a PC and a Mac to get the job done. Recalling that he first began writing software himself in 1967, and his first complete experience using lighting software came while experimenting with John McKernon's ALD program one afternoon during work on the IBM Golden Circle Awards back in the early 1990s, he says he hasn't looked back ever since. “I was able to get what would have taken me two or three days done in a single afternoon,” he says. In fact, Baxter actually writes his own version of software now to work with Excel through Visual Basic to help him get his mountains of paperwork done. Baxter says one of his colleagues out in Vegas jokingly calls it “Rick Write” but modestly assures any would-be users that it's “really quite buggy.”

Perhaps it's his ability to embrace both change as well as the people involved in each production that makes Baxter such a success and, according to others, a great pleasure to work with. Says Steven Ehrenberg, vice president of technical supervision at Live Nation/Broadway Across America, who worked with Baxter on Phantom, “The job is not only about your electrical skills, which is a given for anyone doing it, but most importantly, it is about people skills, up and down the ladder — that is why Rick is among my favorite people to work with. He is so good at what he does, and he does it with a smile. We went through a lot on Phantom, and Rick was always a pleasure to work with.” Ehrenberg also notes, “I don't get to work with Rick that often, but as soon as I find out that he is involved in any project that I am working on, I know the electrical job is covered, and I know that the project is covered the best that it can be all the time.”

Rick Baxter's award is sponsored by City Theatrical.
-Lisa Murphy

Bruce Rodgers, set designer

Sustained Achievement In Set Design For Live Events

Bruce Rodgers, founder of Tribe inc. production design studio, originally studied to be an architect at Texas Tech but soon discovered that the school of theatre design was next to the school of architecture and much closer to his heart. With the help of his theatre department mentor, Rodgers persuaded his architecture professors to let him do his final thesis on set design, a groundbreaking move back in the early 1980s.

After college, Rodgers set out for Hollywood intent on making movies but discovered a whole other world of production design. Rodgers began working with established production designer Jeremy Railton on live TV, award shows, and tours. He says, “I never realized that touring set design was a thing, but that first month, Mark Fisher walked through the door and took us to the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels Tour,” Rodgers was struck by the enormity of the production and the way the design drew the audience into the show. “I fell in love with it.” says the designer. “How could I not?”

One of the most important projects for Rodgers, personally and professionally, was his work on the AT&T Global Village at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. The side of the transparent structure was used as a giant screen to project live images of the games during the day and concerts at night, but the glass walls also allowed fans to catch a glimpse of their favorite athletes inside the pavilion, and competitors could see out. Ironically, the Global Village was supposed to be a safe zone for athletes to meet with their families, but a bomb placed at the foot of one of the two control towers proved it was anything but. When Rodgers returned to the tower after the bombing, he saw “a million pieces of sharp metal embedded in the ceiling so far you would have to pull them out with pliers.” Fortunately, the control tower had been evacuated by Richard Jewell, and Rodgers was about 100' away when the device exploded. After the experience, the designer took some time off for reflection, and Tribe inc. was born. Collaborating with art directors/scenic designers Sean Dougall and Mai Sakai and assistant art director/set designer Matt Steinbrenner, Rodgers has tackled production design for projects as varied as live TV news shows and Madonna's Drowned World Tour.

After receiving a last-minute call to meet with Ricky Martin, Rodgers sketched through the night to avoid showing up unarmed. Martin's hit, “Livin' La Vida Loca” had just exploded, and Rodgers says, “His face was everywhere, so I thought, let's design a set based on the proportions of his face.” The designer blew up the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine on a hotel Xerox machine and sketched the $5 million set around it. Martin loved it, although he was concerned at first that people would think he was a stuck on himself. In their first meeting, Martin chose four defining elements of his philosophy to embody four pillars on the stage: love, life, music, and peace. Rodgers' philosophy for interpreting a performance in physical space is much simpler. “If you can hit the essence of what the music is,'' he says, “it is all about following the drama.”

Tribe put Fleetwood Mac under a tree for their 1997 reunion tour and delivered Madonna in a space ship for her Drowned World Tour. Rodgers found inspiration in MC Escher's Ascending and Descending for the temple themed section of that show. Tribe inc.'s most recent design work includes Sting, several high-profile awards shows, and Rascal Flatts.

Rascal Flatts manager, Trey Turner, has nothing but kudos for Rodgers' work with the band. “Bruce has brought a cutting-edge production to a show that people wouldn't expect,” says Turner, adding, “He has been able to create something that melds country and pop culture together, and that's a hard bridge to build.”

And Rodgers' next project? This West Texas native who grew up playing football is fulfilling a long-held professional dream: the Super Bowl half-time show.

Bruce Rodgers' award is sponsored by Barco.
Hannah Kate Kinnersley

Design Team For The Lord Of The Rings

Pushing The Envelope Of Theatrical Design

Audacious! Bold! Daring! That's the only way to describe the chances that were taken in bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's literary trilogy, The Lord Of The Rings, to the stage of Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre last spring. The primarily British creative team includes set and costume designer Rob Howell, sound designer Simon Baker, lighting designer Paul Pyant, and The Gray Circle, a London-based moving-image design firm, providing the projected images. The only North American on the design team, New York City-based Gregory Meeh, provided the special effects. Each of the designers faced, and answered, specific challenges.

For Rob Howell, it was a step away from the usual. “We understood it would not be the usually clean, sharp polished lines and production values, but rather a more organic and natural world,” says Howell. “These textures and colors are not normally part of musical theatre. We are asking the audience to engage in a different way and use its imagination. We're telling them there's not much here, so let's summon it up together.”

Working with Yuri Tanaka of The Gray Circle on the projected images, Howell notes, “What's important is not that we have an LED wall with its endless potential that can be an excuse for real scenery. Rather than a series of figurative images, the imagery and projections are more for mood and atmosphere. They have to share the stage with the actors in a three-dimensional environment that is textured with energy and dynamics. It was clear we did not want to use pictorial references, but rather use the LED wall as a luminous light source adding texture and color.”

To costume the various cultures within the story, Howell used a distinct silhouette to define each group. “I want the audience to be able to tell within ten seconds of someone walking onstage who they are, in terms of age and status,” he says.

Pyant created a rig that was designed for flexibility, since at the time, the script had not been finalized. “In the end, there are over 1,200 cues. The lighting is cinematic at times, with as many as 50 people in a battle scene or as intimate as two people in a conversation,” he says. “The lighting follows a journey from light to darkness to a new dawning.”

In creating the special effects for the show, Meeh used atmospheric fog and wind to set a specific location, enhance the mood onstage, change focus, and accentuate transitions. Black confetti representing ash from the depths of the Earth is delivered via large fans to engulf the audience during the scene when the Balrog, a giant monster awakened in the underground mines of Moria, “eats” the wizard Gandalf. “Eight pounds of confetti are used in each performance,” notes Meeh.

The Lord of the Rings is such an epic show that it took everything I know about theatre sound,” says Baker. The full cinematic moments are hard in terms of gain structure, and you want the quiet moments to be as good as the loud ones. There are no traditional musical theatre numbers, so the language of the sound is new and had to be understood.”

“This is tremendous news,” said producer Kevin Wallace, when he heard of the award. “Thank you to the judges for honoring The Lord Of The Rings design team, who has achieved what many previously believed was impossible — creating Middle-Earth onstage with such success that audiences found themselves stepping into Tolkien's world with their imaginations released.

“Paul Pyant took the wonderful environmental design of Rob Howell, and through the magical and inspired use of light, created one distinct location after another in Middle-Earth — one more beautiful, exhilarating, or enchanting than the next. Greg Meeh's special effects, coupled with the magic of Paul Kieve, the projections of The Gray Circle, and the encompassing sound design of Simon Baker complete a three dimensional world-of-wonder within which the story takes place. Congratulations to the entire design team, their associates, and technicians on this award.”

If you missed this design team's outstanding work in Toronto, hold tight, as it will open in London at the Drury Lane Theatre in June 2007.

The Lord of the Rings design team award is sponsorted by Q1 Production Technologies.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux