Part of the reason Janet Jackson titled her latest record The Velvet Rope was to criticize barriers that separate different classes in society. So from the beginning of her show, Jackson strives to prove her accessibility to her audience. The spectacular opening presents Jackson's life--at least professionally--as an open book.
When the house lights dim, the stage's burgundy red curtains with gold tassels draw back to reveal a 10'-tall wooden easel holding a huge, closed book with a red quilted cover and the words "The Velvet Rope" embossed on it. In the glow of a spotlight, one of the show's dancers, dressed in a master of ceremonies costume, walks onstage and gently opens the book, which is really an LED video screen. Video images of space and colors and planets swirl by for a few minutes, until finally, in true rock-show style, they culminate in a pyro explosion. Simultaneously, the book/video screen splits at the spine and Jackson is revealed as if emerging from it.
Jackson and creative director Rene Elizondo began discussing design possibilities with set designer Mark Fisher late last year. "The songs on The Velvet Rope album are slightly autobiographical, with themes of maturity and independence, so Janet wanted to do the show as a storybook idea," Fisher says. "Each different scene in the show would be akin to turning the pages in this book, and all the albums that she'd done in the past--Control, Rhythm Nation, janet.--would be represented. So we talked about the obvious order of that, and the way in which the scenes could be made different. It would be fair to say that this was lifted from the Beauty and the Beast idea of classic storytelling. She wanted to have a book opening and herself come out of it. So I finessed that book into the video screen."
At the point of revelation, Jackson is seriously backlit by Roy Bennett's design, and the little elevator platform on which she stands brings her both downstage and downwards. While Fisher and Bennett's design for Jackson's 1990 Rhythm Nation tour also incorporated an elevator, the similarities between this lavish setting and that tour's metallic industrial environment end there. "The elevator deposits her gracefully, as befits a princess, on the very front of the downstage," Fisher explains. "The book then closes behind her, still running a video picture, and unseen persons dressed in black whisk the bookstand away from under the book, which is left hanging in space. What's interesting is that the fairy-tale narrative is so strong that you don't worry about the fact that you can see bits of the other set in the background. It's a rock-and-roll technique: if you make your focal point strong enough, it actually works. And of course, the entirely cool and wonderful and breaking-new-ground aspect of it is that it's all made possible by a thin LED screen."
As the audience is being suitably dazzled by Jackson's arrival, the screen raises itself slowly and tracks back upstage, over the heads of the drummer and percussionist, and arrives back behind the riser, which is then brought up into the lighting rig. The band is revealed, and as the dancers all come onstage, as Fisher puts it, "They all get cracking."
The SmartVision LED video screen was specially made by SACO and supplied by Screenco/BCC Video, and while it stays upstage for the first few songs, throughout the show it moves side to side, up and down, and splits into two halves. At times the halves also move asymmetrically. The magic behind all this movement is a tracking system Fisher designed and Tait Towers constructed.
"We built a gantry crane that tracked the video screens up- and downstage as well as on- and off-stage," explains Tait Towers' James "Winky" Fairorth. "Basically, it's an I-beam crane system that holds about 6,000lbs of LED screens. We built that gantry and crane without ever having the LED screens, because they were still being fabricated for the show. So we were hanging skids of plywood underneath the crane to see if it would hold. It left my shop and went to Lille, France, where they had rehearsals; that's the first place it met the video screens, and that's just staggering. In order for that whole video screen gag to work, we had Light & Sound Design build an entire grid, which is a superstructure that not only holds the lighting rig, but also holds the I-beam trolley track."
Tait Towers managed to build the system in a short three weeks. "It was really a quick turnaround for us, but it's also designed to come up and go together very quickly on the road," explains Tait Towers' Adam Davis. "So in the design of the entire system, the speed of installation was most important to us, so there are all kinds of specially machined fittings and connections.
"The crane unit itself and the curtain tracks cross each other, so there are intersections between the different tracking mechanisms," Davis continues. "But one of the more technically challenging parts of the design was allowing the curtain tracks and the 6,000lb gantry crane to cross each other. There are six actuated safety interlocks that sense the position of the track and mechanically lock them together before it allows anything to move. The whole thing is PLC computer-controlled with sensors and cabling from a remote location, and we were also able to do software updates with the PLC from our offices. We could actually dial into it on our computer here and download new software in whatever country they were in overseas, to give them real-time updates for the program."
On the road, "Hydro" Bob Mullin serves as the system's caretaker. "He is a lifesaver if there ever was one," Davis says. "The whole grid and everything hanging was run through a private engineering firm, MJ McLaren in West Nyack, NY, when we were done with it. We had worked with them before on the Rolling Stones tour, and we wanted them to check this system out because the weight of everything was so heavy. All the different vendors really pitched in together for MJ to come in and inspect it."
Tait Towers also worked on other parts of the set, including the band risers, the upstage runway, and the elevator. "It hides underneath the drum riser and rolls out and then lifts her straight up," Fairorth says of the elevator. "It's one little hydraulic cylinder, but it had to be cleverly positioned. Mark [Fisher], Michael [Tait], [production manager] Chris Lamb, Adam, and I all toiled over it, moving stairs around, because it was very hard to make it look like she was just appearing."
Soft goods also play a major role in the show's look. "They were designed by David Perry of PW Stage Productions Ltd., and Roy and I did all the soft goods," Fairorth says. "I mainly acted as the go-between for them and brought in Rose Brand, which created the velvet drape. That is one large curtain, and I don't think anybody has ever toured with a grand drape as lavish as that. The gold tassels were actually all handmade and then sewn onto the drapes."
The remainder of the set pieces come into view during the second half of the show. When Jackson comes out singing her "Escapade" medley, the stage has been transformed into a children's playroom--albeit on a rather large scale.
"The toys scattered about are all inflatables, built by the inestimable Rob Harries of Air Artists, with supports done by Brilliant Stages," Fisher says. "They include: a man in the moon, a vase of flowers; and a clock that looks like a Dali-esque soft wristwatch. There is also a book that I copied from a little porcelain piece in Janet's bedroom. It's two books, one standingupright, and the other lying beside it with its pages open is turned into an inflatable play-slide, so the dancers can climb up on top of it and jump down."
Brilliant Stages built the wheeled chairs on which Jackson and her company perform lap dances during the segment "Rope Burn." For this song, an unsuspecting male fan is pulled onstage, where he is tied to a chair (with velvet ropes) with his back to the audience, while Jackson pretends to seduce him. For the show's more intimate moments, Brilliant Stages also built the show's chandeliers, which can be flown in and out.
Though they are covered in Non Neon little light bulbs set in plastic rope, the chandeliers offer little true illumination for the stage. That task is left to Bennett's lighting rig, which consists of a combination of moving lights (LSD Icon(R), High End Systems Studio Color(R), and Vari*Lite VL4(TM) automated luminaires) as well as Molefays with color changers and Diversitronic strobes. Because the staging was set up for dancing, Bennett had to forego his penchant for placing lights at many different heights from floor to top truss. Plus, the tracking system dictated where the lights could be hung.
"It was a pretty confusing experience at times, because everything was very last-minute, but it's a fun show," Bennett says. "We talked about developing the show around the scenarios of her career. I kept that in mind while lighting each different scene, but I tried to do it in an abstract way, without jumping too far away from the overall look of the show, which reminded me of old vaudeville. Mainly, we tried to keep it quite warm and use the original footlight positions in those shows, with that warm, low front-lighting on the actors onstage. That was the feel we were going for there."
For the footlights, Bennett used strips of MR-16s across the stage. "I originally wanted to make it so that they actually had custom-made lights, little scalloped footlight fixtures," Bennett says. "But in the budget whittling, that got axed, which is kind of unfortunate, because it would have been just one of those touches that would have looked really cool."
One touch Bennett was able to lobby for successfully was changing the fasciae on the band risers from red velvet to gold. "The band was kind of secondary and not really something that they wanted to highlight," he notes. "But then they realized the band [is all dressed in black] and the dancers are all dressed in black, so when you put them in front of a dark red velvet background, the choreography was buried in blackness. There was nothing to make them stand out. Eventually, Mark and I got them to do the whole riser over in gold fabric--which helped a lot."
Because the show is so dance-oriented, the lighting cues come fast and furious. Bennett and his longtime right-hand man, Gary Westcott, programmed the show on the Icon Console(TM), which is hooked up to a Vari*Lite Artisan(R) console through a MIDI program called SAM (Sound and Music), the software package designed by Richard Bleasdale that they used on the Cure's 1996 tour [See TCI November 1996]. The LDs left the show in the very capable hands of lighting director Guy Forrester, who took over when the show went out on the road. In addition to looking after both consoles, he also calls spots.
"I had all my front-of-house spots on a flat truss, so we didn't have to rely upon house spots, which is always good," Bennett says. "Obviously, with video such a big part of the show, the spotlights have to be reliable."
During rehearsals, Bennett worked closely with video director George Elizondo as they ironed a few of the new LED screen's problems. "It was still pretty much new technology, based on the original one that went out on U2's PopMart tour," Bennett says. "What they did was refine the pixels, and make them smaller and smaller. But we had some trouble with the software for its drive engine, and it couldn't read grayscale. So it was very harsh. The shadows were really black, there was no subtlety in it. But eventually they got the right software, and they were able to turn it down. It is really bright, brighter than any Jumbotron I've ever seen. And Gary and I both enjoy working with George. He's a pretty cool guy."
Despite the glitches during rehearsals, the tour came together incredibly well and received some of the best reviews for production design of any 1998 tour. Responsibility and credit for bringing all the departments together falls to the production manager. "Chris Lamb came into the project a little bit later than the rest of us and got it road-worthy and made it work," Fairorth says. "He's really done an exceptional job of moving it. Especially considering it's in 12 trucks."
After wrapping up the tour's North American leg in November, Lamb and the rest of the crew came together again, in South Africa, where Jackson performed for the first time. Then in December, the tour traveled to Australia and Australia and New Zealand. Reconvening after a holiday season break, the tour will then finish up with dates in Japan and Hawaii in January.
Set designer: Mark Fisher
Lighting designer: Roy Bennett
Lighting programmer: Gary Westcott
FOH sound engineer: Rob "Cubby" Colby
Monitor engineer: Peter Buess
Lighting technician : Lee Gipson
Sound technicians: David Moncrieffe, Francesco Sgambellone
Video director: George Elizondo
Production manager: Chris Lamb
Production director: Dave Russell
Production assistant: Aimee Moreau
Lighting director: Guy Forrester
Tour coordinator: Rusty Hooker
Tour managers: Dave Russell, Jaime Mendoza
Stage manager: Anthony Giordano
Lighting crew chief: Clay Brakeley
Vari-Lite technician: John "Big Nose" Bedell
Icon technician: Ken Delvo
Lighting technicians: Robert Fry, Robert Braccia, William Cherrington, John Lovegrove
Electrician: John Zajone
Head rigger: Thomas Thompson
Rigger: Charles Melton
Head carpenter: Frank Carra
Carpenters: Robert Mullin, Peter Turchyn, Anthony Whitehead, Timothy Shanahan
Video crew chief: Gerald McReynolds
Video engineer: Jon Huntington
Camera operators: Redo Jackson, David Sykes, Mark Stutsman, Giles Conte
Video technician: Neil Broome
Pyro technician: Robert Hood
Costume designers: Helen Hiatt; David Cardona for Bowman Cardona; Constance Joculvar (millinery)
Head wardrobe: Bonnie Fleslan
Wardrobe: Leanne Doescher, Tony Villanueva
Lighting: Light & Sound Design/Nick Jackson; Vari-Lite/Lee Frankham
Sound: Showco/Robin Magruder and M.L. Procise
Set construction: Tait Towers/Michael Tait and Winky Fairorth
Inflatables: Air Artists/Rob Harries, Brilliant Stages/Charlie Kail
Backdrops: P.W. Stage Productions/David Perry
Video: BCC Video/Danny O'Bryen
Pyrotechnics: Associated Pyrotechnicians/Francis Pilkerton
Power: Showpower/John Campion