I DON'T THINK ANY DESIGNER WOULD argue that all our projects have turned out perfectly. To be sure, we've all had our good and bad shows, some that bring a smile to our faces, and some that make us recoil in horror and contemplate early retirement. I wonder, looking back, what made the good good and the bad bad? Without exception, the best shows have been the ones with the best producers and the best production companies. With someone at the top putting together a good team, the chances of success becomes exceptionally higher.
To be sure, corporate is a bit different than theatre. We don't have “directors” in the legit sense, an omnipotent leader who has brought us on board and with whom we've developed rapport over the years. Our relationships are with the producer, the person responsible for the coordination of the entire project and, more often than not, the creative vision behind the show. The best producers provide you with an environment in which you can thrive by creating a great team of collaborators and by encouraging the exploration of ideas. The worst producers micro-manage everyone in thrice-daily conference calls that always involve more than 20 participants.
I had the opportunity to work with many of the good guys, great producers I've been lucky enough to know. By exploring their relationships with their designers, I've been able to discern what makes these relationships work and can hopefully extract some of these best practices for use in our work in the future.
Don Kobayashi, vice president and senior executive producer for Jack Morton Worldwide, has done a wide variety of projects, from automotive national dealer meetings to 12,000-person events for PeopleSoft to small to medium sized projects for a well-known biotech firm. I asked him about his methodology for extracting good work from designers. “My style has always been to hire the best and let them express their talents,” he says. “My job is to offer guidance to the team based on the strategic and creative objectives, client preferences, and to ensure that we'll be on schedule and in budget.”
The team Kobayashi brings together is the best in the business. Regardless of the size of the project, we'll all do what we can to be there for Kobayashi. This is hardly accidental: “Life is too short to not enjoy whom you work with,” he adds. “I learned from my mentor, Robert F. Jani, that a successful show isn't just what the audience experienced in front of the stage but also what the crew experienced backstage during the entire process.”
Jennifer Kurland Madover, partner and executive producer at Matthew David Events, brings a unique perspective. MDE is a firm that has made the transition to a boutique design and production company from a décor house. Their consistent methodology is to center on design throughout the creative process and execution. Because the décor business relies on freelancers for so many positions, the integration of a freelance designer has been seamless throughout the evolution of MDE's business.
“We have a core staff, but rely on independent, cross-disciplinary designers to fill out our team and develop the creative vision,” Madover says. “This is how we've built our business, and we feel it gets us the best people on each project. It also keeps the ideas fresh while offering the best of the industry to our clients. Every project has unique design needs and requires a hand-picked team appropriate for the job.”
Knowing when to bring the design team together on a project is a tough call producers have to make. Call everyone in too early, and people become stretched thin quickly. Ken Kirsh, a New York-based producer with 25 years of experience, says, “I strongly believe in bringing all heads of departments in early, but not keeping them on so much that they get burned out on the project.”
The balance of time between multiple projects is difficult. We all get busy, and no producer is anxious to hear that you have to miss a conference call because you're on site with another job. This doesn't phase Kirsh, as he feels our pain: “I'm in the same situation — I do multiple projects at the same time and have to shuffle client priorities.” Kirsh even has a healthy attitude towards designers working on other projects during the load in: “I know people are busy, because the best people are usually busy. If you're not advancing the next show while you're in mine, you're not the right person for me.”
Designers literally control what the client sees, therefore there must be a palpable nervousness. We blackout the stage and we feel like a jerk, but to the producer, it could mean the difference between getting the show next year and never hearing from the client again. I asked Kobayashi if this uncertainty can lead to problems on site. “Producers are by nature always looking for what can go wrong,” he admits. “The downside of many producers is that they can be too negative and will always need to be in their comfort zone of the known. I need the LD to recognize the situation that they're in and scale their design accordingly either up or down, because producers and clients don't like surprises.”
“A producer's relationship with a lighting designer has more to do with trust than with lights,” Kirsh adds. “I trust my designers to bring new technologies, deal with the clients and the crew, and then deal with me appropriately.”
I am fascinated by the random element of client interaction on site. We all can remember moments when we are having a particularly rough day, where we are trying for the 50th time to get the console to start up without crashing, when a client walks up and asks for a major change. It's hard to not turn to them and say, “Go speak to the producer! I am very busy!” I discussed this with Madover, and asked her if she ever worried that a harried LD would blurt something out to the client that would make their ears curl.
“We give our people their independence in that we don't micro manage,” she says. “We know that they can handle their jobs, and by having things buttoned up before we go on site, the inevitable last-minute changes are responded to efficiently and creatively. We have an extremely close relationship with the people who work with us, and we know that if they have to interact with the client that they will play as part of our team, that they will represent us well.”
Kirsh agrees and, to an extent, is relaxed about this sort of client interaction. “If you hire the right people, you don't have to worry about what they do or say.”
When the team is in place and the designers up to speed on the clients' needs, the producers can do their magic. “The client gives us the seed of the design,” Madover says, “and we take it as a team to the next level. We start with their idea and then bring it to a place beyond what they could imagine.” Kobayashi recalls the process on his most successful shows: “It's always a great collaboration from every department being led by a great TD. He makes sure that lighting talks to scenic who talks to audio that coordinates with video to ensure that everyone can do their job with little compromise. There is respect and agility from everyone on the team.”
This isn't to say that with the right producer every show will turn out great. It is up to us as designers to create a picture appropriate for the project. It would be irresponsible to say to our lighting buddies, “Ah, the show would have looked good, but I didn't really click with the producer. I wish there were less conference calls.” However, when we are lucky enough to work with a good team and a strong producer, we can really put our skills to work. Having a great boss sure does make it easier to do a great job.
Gregory Cohen is a founding partner of Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design. He can be reached at www.uvld.com.