Audiences for Spirit — The Seventh Fire, are taken back to a simpler time, a time before cell phones and satellites, a time when people could not only stop and smell the roses, they could grow them too. To accomplish this journey the Spirit design team used several million dollars' worth of equipment to help interpret the vision of the show's creator, Peter Buffett. So much for the tyranny of technology.
A touring production which first went on tour last year and returns to the road this spring, Spirit uses aspects of Native American culture, including dance and music, to show what happens when people lose sight of where they come from, and where they are going. The show is staged in a tent, an environment that lends itself especially well to evoking the landscape and symbols of America's First Nations, but one that proved to be challenging to the show's designers, Christien Methot, Chris Anderson, Marty Hartshorn, and Chris Jones.
Sound designer Chris Anderson admits, “I was very nervous, but I've heard some Cirque [du Soleil] shows and they sound pretty nice, so it is something you can do.” He describes his approach as “hard line control” to avoid the ricocheting bullet effect of sound bouncing off the slanting, reflective vinyl walls. “You can't control sound once it's in the air but you can control its sources,” Anderson says. To that end, he specified Shure PSM700 in-ear systems for the seven-piece band to avoid monitors onstage. The drummer graciously consented to playing a VDrum kit from Roland Anderson chose because it makes a noise only in amplification. Although Anderson says the VDrum is the closest thing anyone has come to emulating a real drum set, he calls the drummer a “trooper” for agreeing to use it because, “it's not as responsive and it didn't always give him what he was looking for.” Anderson cites being able to have that amount of input in the show with the backing of Peter Buffett as the most satisfying part of it.
The designer did have to make some concessions, however. He specified a DPA 4088-B cardiod headset wired for Shure U1 beltpacks for Chief Hawk Pope, one of the narrators, but after trying for two weeks the Chief said “I do not want this thing on my head.” When the chief of the Shawnee Nation asks for a handheld mike you give him one, in this case a Beta 87.
Some of Anderson's favorite moments in the show are when four powwow drummers play and sing several songs without any kind of sound reinforcement. Anderson says of his decision to go au natural, “I was thrilled it was an option,” and calls the difference in sound between the multi-channel extravaganza and the authentic drumming dramatic. Anderson did mike them at the end of the show using Sennheiser MK2 ear mikes so they don't get lost in the rest of the cast and band during the finale.
Part of the show's message questions whether technology enhances or interferes with our lives; Anderson illustrates the point at the start of the show with an audio gag. As the audience takes their seats they hear sounds from nature, like wolves howling, and then the show starts with the sound of a cell phone ringing behind them. “We've had people yelling ‘shut it off’” says the designer. Anderson uses a 6.1 surround system with three channels behind the audience and EAW JF80s and EAW KF730 speakers. Anderson uses the surround sound to involve the audience more intimately in the show, but he admits that live surround mixing is not a science yet. He says, “You can't put anything rhythmic behind people's heads, like a shaker, drums or a high hat, because you have the desire to turn your head around all the time.” Mostly Anderson uses it for effects that draw the audience's attention to something, or for the choir to envelop the audience. Anderson mixes the show from a Yamaha PM1D console, and most of the equipment is hung from trusses coming off the four masts that hold up the tent. “The tent is an organic thing, and never really sets up the same way twice,” says Anderson. At 118' in diameter it is unusual to find a large enough piece of perfectly flat ground, because of this the tent walls can be out of sync by 18 or so inches, changing the whole geometry and changing the dull and direct areas from city to city.
These changes in the tent angles present the same focusing problems for lighting designer Christien Methot. Worse than that, convection currents in the circular structure and uneven AC create temperature variations so wide that lights won't restrike because the top of the tent is 50° hotter than the stage area. The new Martin Maxxyz console Methot used had to be replaced twice because of dust kicked up in the tent, and frequently there were light leaks during matinee blackouts. As the designer says, “It was a really difficult environment for electronics.” And sometimes for people; the tent was evacuated in Omaha during dress rehearsals three days in a row because of tornado scares. Twice the order to abandon tent came during the same song, prophetically named “An Eagle Above.”
The original lighting was designed by David Bozer of ITC in St. Louis. When Methot came on board his approach was more dance performance than rock and roll. He added fixtures at a lower level to fill in eye sockets and muscle definition using ETC Source Four® Lekos mounted just above the audiences' heads to soften the angles of the fixtures mounted on a self-climbing truss that hung from the four main masts of the tent. Methot says 95% of the fixtures were automated, giving him a lot of flexibility without a lot of lamps. Most of the fixtures were brand new, occasionally making them not so much cutting edge as cutting out edge. During the song “The Place Where the Crying Begins,” the designer wanted a slow fade but found that the Martin MAC 2000 Wash units with automated barn doors would dim down to about 20% and then the doors would slam shut. The show was halfway through its run when they got the software updates from Martin to fix the problem.
Referencing the color tones used in the projection was also problematic. “I found it hard to mix the color sepia with CYM color-mixing fixtures,” he says, adding that the levels were different for MAC 300 and MAC 600 Wash units, and MAC 2000 units, and the three different units took an hour or two of playing around with to get the color right. “With CYM color mixing there are certain colors you just can't get easily,” he says.
Methot wanted the lighting to emulate and interact with the video, which was projected onto three screens that followed the contours of the tent wall like an IMAX theatre. “The Martin 550s have a fantastic animation wheel in them and we used that to create rustling leaves, or rippling water,” he says.
The 45-minute video was created by Purple Onion in Milwaukee, and Marty Hartshorn of Image Technologies designed the playback and projection system using three Barco SLM R12+ projectors. He says, “We chose them because of the high brightness and the dark chip, (DLP technology from Texas Instruments,) just blended so well with those scrims, you don't get the typical glow associated with projection.”
“Those scrims” were three traditional sharkstooth scrims from Rosebrand, each 28' tall by around 110' wide, designed by production designer Chris Jones.
Hartshorn put a projection tower at the very back of the main tent in order to make the angles around the four main tent masts. Both he and Jones agree that that was the biggest headache. Jones says, “It had to be front projection, there was no way to do rear projection,” because of the tent geometry. The show's creator, Peter Buffett wanted the dancers to interact with the video so at some points the dancers perform behind the screen, a lighting cue bleeds through it to reveal them and the screen rises out of the way, a traditional theatre move familiar to anyone who has seen The Nutcracker but possibly the first time it's been done in a tent. The automated screen is from Hudson Scenic, and the sprung dance floor, circular main stage and two satellite stages either side were built by Staging Concepts of Minnesota.
The Spirit environment includes the big top, which is 118' in diameter; a tent for the performers and a lodge tent, which are both 65' in diameter. The lodge tent holds merchandise and the work of local Native American artists, and Jones is currently redesigning it to be more of an educational environment before audiences enter the big top.
Because the tent only seats 750, Jones tried not to break up the intimacy of the feeling with large set pieces. The largest single piece is an office cubicle for the everyman character that is bathed in focused light, creating a feeling of confinement. Jones says, “In a tent you feel very connected to nature, so there is a lot of less traditional scenery happening.”
The Spirit-The Seventh Fire tour returns May 20 in Philadelphia.