Religious conference Mega Fest posed lots of staging challenges

With a name like Mega Fest, one might expect an event loaded with different types of music and other forms of entertainment. Indeed, Mega Fest 2004, a multi-day conference held earlier this year in Atlanta, did provide music, comedy, and even celebrities. What makes the event different than a typical conference is that Mega Fest involved a host of different types of entertainment, all designed to promote the Potter's House Ministry, led by Bishop TD Jakes. The Ministry, based in Dallas, can be seen on BET television, and has members around the world.

This year, though, Mega Fest was designed to bring all members of the ministry together for the first time. Bishop Jakes held religious services at the Georgia Dome, other events were held in the Georgia World Congress Center, and a series of nightly shows also took place at Atlanta's Phillips Arena.

The events at Phillips Arena included the Magic Johnson Celebrity Basketball Tournament, the Women of Purpose concert, and the Just Churchin' comedy night, which included a Universoul Circus performance in an adjacent parking lot. All were produced by Potter's House, in conjunction with AEG Touring/Concerts West, based in St. Louis.

Practical Issues

“Their overall desire was to have something exciting going on for their attendees,” explains AEG producer and production manager, Jim McClellan. “They really tried to counter-program it, so when the men were at services at the Georgia Dome, the women were at the concert, and when the women were at the Georgia Dome, the men were at the comedy special.”

Although the Potter's House had ambitious plans, one of McClellan's biggest challenges was making those plans a workable, practical reality.

“The biggest challenge was converting the original concept into a real show, as well as converting the preliminary budget into a workable budget, and then just executing the elements that people weren't used to doing,” McClellan explains.

Some of those realities included transportation for the performers, hotel rooms, providing a backup band, rehearsal space, and so on.

“They came to us with a concept, but we really had to sit down and realize that we needed to build the show,” says McClellan. “I think that everybody is so used to having performers come to them with their gear, that they just don't think about logistics. [AEG] has a concert sensibility in regard to the most efficient way of doing things, [so that is the approach the company used on the project].”

The first event on tap was the Celebrity Basketball Tournament, which took place on Wednesday, produced in conjunction with KC Associates, Los Angeles. McClellan loaded his sound and lighting in on Tuesday, and programmed that evening. The original plan was to fly sound and lighting during the basketball games.

Upcoming on Thursday was the project's big production day — the Women of Purpose concert featuring Patti LaBelle and India Arie, among others. McClellan wanted more time for the production on Thursday, however, so he found a way to make it happen by altering the plan for the basketball tournament.

“We started discussing the possibility of setting up the basketball tournament in almost a proscenium style, rather than doing 360 degrees around the basketball court,” he explains. “Instead, we got rid of the retractable seats on the arena floor, moved that basketball court a little more toward one end, and closed off the other end of the venue, where we put out lighting, sound, and stage.”

The idea worked well, since it allowed the basketball game to have a halftime performance on an actual stage, instead of a riser in the middle of the floor. “Killing the retractable seats let me preset the stage, preset the monitor system, as well as put up our set and backdrop,” he says.

Big Shows

Finally, in a cost-cutting move, McClellan found some local experts to work the basketball tournament. “Rather than us providing technicians for the basketball game, we used the inhouse staff, since they do pro basketball games all the time,” he says. “Plus, they were cheaper.”

The next event was the Women of Purpose Concert, which was the most ambitious of the three events.

“This was a concert, rather than a religious service,” he explains. “Consequently, I was looking for a set that would be dynamic and exciting, but still have a sense of elegance and class. I didn't want anything overtly rock 'n' roll, because, at the end of the day, these people were in town for a religious purpose, and that was the underlying thought.”

To make the set for Women of Purpose and the upcoming Just Churchin' performance a reality, McClellan turned to scenic and lighting designer, Matt Clouser of Active Production and Design in Atlanta.

“A lot of the design elements came from an awards program we did about nine months prior to Mega Fest,” Clouser explains. “We just did a few tweaks on it, and it worked.”

The cornerstone of the set were three 40'×25' fiber-optic panels, and a semi-conical piece of stretch spandex that was 25ft. tall and 30ft. wide at the top, and 16ft. wide at the bottom.

“We had a number of different looks that used the set's spandex surface as a projection surface,” comments Clouser. McClellan originally had more ambitious plans for the spandex, however.

“The original concept was to use that spandex surface for image projection and lighting. I wanted to use [a Catalyst control system] on it, but it wasn't in the budget this time,” McClellan recalls.

Instead of using Catalyst, the production team adopted a careful lighting approach, in the form of High End X Spots for gobos and graphics.

“The entire lighting system was fully intelligent, which gave us a lot of diversity as far as the looks and visual effects that we could achieve,” Clouser remarks. The rig comprised 40 High End X Spots and 60 High End Studio Beam PCs that were controlled by the Whole Hog II board operators, Calvin Johnson and Will Tyson.

“This wasn't a particularly cue-heavy event, and the scheduling was such that we had plenty of time to install and program,” Clouser notes. Overall, Clouser's truss configuration was a mix of circular pods and straight trussing. “That configuration gave us different angles that you don't usually find,” Clouser adds.

Another integral part of the production was the projection, which was done on two 22'×16' rear-projection screens, set up and operated by I-Mag Video of Nashville.

“I took a more concert approach to the video, as opposed to a corporate approach,” says McClellan. “On corporate shows, you have a lot of onsite playback, so you'll use a corporate-oriented video company. This was fast and off the cuff, and since I know IMAG Video, and know how much concert work they do, I knew they would come in and we'd get a great show.”

The final event, Just Churchin', took place on Friday, with Steve Harvey and Sinbad headlining, among others.

“We packed up and loaded out the monitor system on Thursday night, because we weren't going to use it for the comedians — we just used flown side fills and had a couple of wedges onstage,” recalls McClellan.

The next step to transform from Women of Purpose into Just Churchin' involved the set itself. “I reconfigured the risers onstage, and then we peeled off the downstage 8ft. of the stage, which allowed us to sell two more rows of premium seats,” he notes.

In the end, Women of Purpose, as well as Just Churchin', both sold out.

“The Potter's House pre-registered over 85,000 people for the conference, and, according to the city of Atlanta and its transportation department, they said that they probably had an excess of over 200,000 attend, so it was quite the success,” McClellan notes.


Sharon Stancavage is a freelance writer based in Detroit and who has written on a variety of industry related topics for publications in both the US and the UK.