Peter Gabriel hasn't exactly grown stodgy in the 30 years since dressing up as a flower with his former band Genesis. For the Up tour, his first in almost a decade, the artist performs suspended upside down, riding around on a tiny bicycle, and rolling around the stage inside a giant hamster ball.
Gabriel's willingness to try anything gave director/set designer Robert Lepage and lighting designer Luc Lafortune free rein to explore more theatrical choices than a typical rock show has to offer. Both men admit to being longtime Peter Gabriel fans but Lepage, who is also one of Canada's most respected writers and actors, has a deeper inspiration. “The reason I became a stage director and designer,” he says, “was because as a teenager I used to go to these extraordinary theatrical performances by Genesis.”
This tour continues such theatricality. The show is performed in the round, a decision imposed by its financial backers in order to sell more tickets. The 360° stage didn't pose too many technical challenges for Lafortune who, in addition to his rock résumé, boasts over 15 years of experience lighting circus tents and other venues for Cirque du Soleil. Gabriel's Secret World tour, which Lepage also designed and directed, had experimented with a second stage that protruded into the audience, so a show completely in the round was almost the logical next step for him. Besides the increased intimacy, the director believes that performing in the round gives the audience a different perspective, “Something that's different from a live video clip,” he says.
The process of designing this tour began with the usual discussions in expensive restaurants and sketches on table mats but then took an unorthodox turn. Lepage and Gabriel, an avid collector of art books, spent hours looking at art to find a feel for the tour, and even went so far as to meet with different artists, including a British photographer and a New York sculptor, to talk over ideas.
Although their work didn't make it into the tour, Lepage says the artists' ideas were inspirational to the final look of the set, which includes two stages, one above the other, with a revolving outer ring on the lower stage and a 15'-tall (4.5m) egg-shaped projection screen hanging between the two levels. During the course of the show the egg peels open to reveal a transparent rubber ball called a Zorb that detaches from the upper stage, which has been dubbed heaven. At one point Gabriel climbs into the Zorb and walks around. Later, the heaven stage itself slowly descends to the lower level.
Total Fabrications, collaborating with Stage Technologies, helped build the set. The understage area was required to act as the main storage facility for the tour, and to optimize this space Total Fabrications incorporated a donut revolve made from aluminum; the 15m-diameter (50') revolve is thin enough to provide sufficient height under the 6'-high (1.8m) stage for performer and crew access and working areas. Stage Technologies provided a Juggler control desk and six-way motor drive system.
The progressive scenic changes in the show imposed a fairly strict order on the set list. While the egg is suspended above the stage it acts as a three-dimensional projection screen that is lost when the Zorb has been released, so songs designed with video images have to appear earlier in the show. When the egg is still hanging in place it prohibits the projection of images on the stage floor. Because of the movement of large scenic elements, the environment was designed to have a clean look; even sound equipment typically placed on the stage is positioned underneath it to cut down on clutter.
Lafortune originally wanted to place light sources on the stage floor, and made some preliminary sketches about placement that were ultimately discarded. The next logical place for fixtures was on the heaven stage, a 30' (9m) metal donut with a 15'-diameter opening hanging above the main stage. Unfortunately, the mobility of this structure meant that the cables for each of the fixtures would come all the way down to the main stage when heaven descended. To avoid this, the lighting designer says, “I explored the possibility of having a bunch of disconnects so I could just pull the plug on it, but the logistics of that became somewhat complicated and sloppy.” Instead, he hung another ring, about 40' (12m) in diameter, above the heaven stage on which he mounted Clay Paky StageScans and High End Systems x.Spots™.
He was able to mount strobe lights on heaven for a particular effect on the song “The Tower that Ate People.” “Heaven comes down for the whole song and the stage is lit only by eight Martin Atomic 3000s that are just fantastic,” says Lafortune. “An amazing amount of light comes out of them.” The effect becomes more dramatic as heaven lowers until the strobes are only 12" (30cm) above the floor so the main stage is lit only by reflected light bouncing up.
Working in the round in a mobile scenic environment posed the most challenges for the video projections. Standard house positions were too far out from the stage for the Barco R-12 and G-10 video projectors, so they were mounted on four spokes above the stage at between 110° and 80° intervals. Followspots needed to be close enough to prevent light spillage on the projections but far out enough to cover the performers without hitting the egg, so Lafortune mounted four Robert Juliat spots on the same spokes as the projectors. Because images were focused on unconventional surfaces — including the giant egg, the stage floor, the audience and a circular scrim — the production needed a very flexible system that could react in real time. Lafortune chose High End's Catalyst™ system — six of them in all — because, he says, “It opens the door to a number of different possibilities, allowing you to project onto different shapes of screens and in a number of different positions.”
The video images were created by Dan Blore, Marc Bessant, and producer Lisa Howe for Real World Design, with Lafortune serving as technical consultant. Some images that worked well on a flat screen became less effective in three dimensions but the designers managed to come up with a bank of about 300 video files, of which between 25 and 30 are used during the show. According to Lepage the video bank is crucial in accommodating Gabriel when he wants to integrate a new song into the show mid-tour. “That's Peter's way of always having wet paint with him so he can continue painting,” says the director.
In addition to pre-recorded video effects, during the song “The Barry Williams Show” Gabriel uses a video camera to throw images of the band and audience onto a circular scrim hanging like a column from the mother truss to the floor inside heaven. This inclusion of the audience is an integral part of the show for the artist. “Sometimes performers are annoyed by the audience because they make it difficult to concentrate,” says Lepage. “Peter, I think, has no interest in playing with the band just for the band. And the audience is facing each other and interacting toward each other so that's very important.” Lafortune agrees. “You can't just have them sitting in the dark if you want [the show] to be interactive.” The LD used strobes and x.Spots on the spokes above the audience to illuminate them rather than blinding them with stage-level fixtures.
The inspiration behind the egg-shaped projection screen was partly functional and partly thematic. The projection surface had to be three-dimensional rather than flat to accommodate the surrounding audience, and themes from Gabriel's new album involve life cycles and growing up, so an egg seemed entirely appropriate. Playing in the round without traditional wings makes it awkward to introduce props from backstage, so the egg was perfect to house the Zorb as its nucleus. Most of the images projected on the egg had a watery theme, such as water plants and algae, the idea being that the images would become drier and closer to fire as the show progressed until the egg was “peeled” to give birth to the Zorb.
Created by New Zealanders Dwane van der Sluis and Andrew Akers, the Zorb was originally intended for extreme sports enthusiasts to roll down mountains inside. It consists of an inflatable plastic ball about 10'-high (3m) which contains a smaller ball suspended in position by more than 1,000 strands of nylon. Gabriel was able to roll around the stage inside the contraption while performing the song “Growing Up.”
Lepage recounts that when they took delivery of the Zorb during rehearsals in Wiltshire, England, they inflated it on the lawn outside Peter Gabriel's Real World studios and started playing around with it. They knew they were onto something unusual when within minutes they had attracted the attention of British military helicopters, hovering overhead and observing their antics. Fortunately the army decided that the new object was not hostile but, Lepage laughs, “We're definitely on file!”
Although the plastic spheres of the Zorb are transparent Lafortune found that the ropes in between the layers caught the light so well they almost became a screen. The effect can resemble the sparks from a Van de Graaff generator or, when images are projected on to it, as though there is colored liquid inside the sphere.
It is important for Gabriel to be mobile during the show so that one section of the audience is not presented with his back at all times; to solve this quandary, the creative team took advantage of the artist's open-mindedness. For the song “Downside-Up” Gabriel and a backing singer don harnesses and circle the stage upside down on the underside of the heaven stage.
The outer ring of the main stage is equipped with a revolve that carries a boat for the song “Mercy Street”; at various times Gabriel walks and runs on the device, so the “front” of the stage changes frequently. For the song “Solsbury Hill,” Gabriel and Lepage wanted to convey the idea of a carefree youth on a day out in the countryside; they also needed to find a different way to use the revolve. They hit on the idea of a child-sized bicycle because, according to Lepage, “It allows us all sorts of interesting illusions. He can bicycle at the same speed but because the stage under him is turning in the other direction he can give the illusion that he is pedaling faster than he is or he can look stationary.”
Along with “Sledgehammer,” “Solsbury Hill” is also one of the few songs where Lafortune used a strong color palette of green and magenta to convey, he says, energy and youthfulness. Part of the reason for his restraint with color was the staging. Lafortune explains, “The stage floor was a light gray which was meant to receive projections and colors but, with lighting being an additive thing, the moment that you start mixing a whole lot of colors it becomes a white floor.” To combat this washout effect the designer used a lot of green and white, or amber and white, so that many of the songs have a monochromatic look. Another reason for the predominance of white was intuitive. The design team rejected traditional notions of what a rock show should look like; Lafortune particularly didn't want to choose a palette based on that. “Choices ought not to be reasoned, they ought to be motivated by intuition,” he explains. “I chose colors based on what the songs imposed on us.”
Staying true to the meaning of the music prompted some unusual staging choices. Originally the song “Here Comes the Flood” came in the middle of the set list but, after a few warm-up gigs, Gabriel decided to open the show with it. It had been designed to begin in darkness with just a followspot gradually revealing the singer. Lafortune says, “It would have been dishonest to relight the piece because of where it was in the set list. It can't be gratuitous.” As a result, the show opens in total darkness, just as the song had originally been designed.
The collaboration between the artist and his creative team hinges on this desire for meaning in design choices. According to Lafortune, Gabriel often asks for an explanation of the motivation behind a decision, which the designer thinks is appropriate. “If you are able to relate to [a cue] on a level other than merely the logistics of lighting, then it becomes all the more interesting,” he says.
Lafortune uses different textures of white light as well as color highlights to create different moods during the show. At one point he uses incandescent 1kW scoops on the stage together with the Atomic 3000 strobes above. “The strobe is a very white, arc light-type source and the incandescents have a warmer glow and the mixture of the two was so interesting,” he says. “It was unconventional and it had a hard, industrial quality.” At another point in the show he illuminates the band with reflected light from High End Studio Beam™ PCs bouncing off the convex surface of the egg. “It doesn't look particularly pretty but it doesn't always have to look like a sunset over the Pacific,” he says.
Bill Frostman serves as lighting crew chief for the tour; lighting technicians include Tyler Roach, Ken Burns, John Shelly-Smith, and Andy Potter, while Dave Cox is the Catalyst technician. Brian Knight handles grid rigging control. The lighting rig, provided by NegEarth and Upstaging, also includes sections of black Tomcat truss, ETC Source Fours, Diversitronics 3000 strobes, Wybron 7" Coloram color changers, Reel EFX DF-50 atmospheric hazers, Le Maitre G-150 foggers, all run on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console.
In keeping with the spirit of the show, one of the most intriguing pieces of lighting gear — adopted for the huge crowd pleaser “Sledgehammer” — was a piece of new technology that Lepage says was literally lying around on the rehearsal room floor. Frederic Opsomer at System Technologies in Belgium created miniaturized LEDs that can be embedded in fabric and made into clothing. The team had a jacket made from the material and its appearance reminded them of the end of the “Sledgehammer” video when the artist is absorbed into the cosmos. Lepage says, “It's a revolution in light because [the LEDs] are very, very bright but they operate on very low energy; that means that you could have the apparatus on you and it's cold and lightweight.” Tobie Horswill, technical designer at Lepage's company Ex Machina in Quebec, created the jacket using 128 of the 11/5" (3cm) LEDs, hooking them up to two dimmer packs with 32 DMX-compatible channels, four LEDs per channel. Horswill designed the software and dimmers for the project and used a Wybron Coloram 24V power supply; Lafortune programmed chases for the jacket.
Lepage calls the process of performing the show a negotiation between an audience which mostly wants to hear familiar songs, and the artist who wants to play new material. “There are 20,000 fans who want to listen to ‘Sledgehammer’; you know it's the last song on the set list and you have to get them there,” he explains. By choosing unfamiliar ways to perform the old songs the creative team was able to establish a vocabulary that opens up the audience to the new ones. “Whatever you do,” notes Lepage, “it has to be playful and poetic enough for them to be mesmerized.” And they certainly are.