Lighting Director, Mystère

Tommy Hanlon was hired as the assistant lighting designer for Mystère, Cirque du Soleil's first permanent show in Las Vegas, when it opened at Treasure Island eight years ago. Now lighting director for the show, a role he took over from Jeanette Farmer in 1997, Hanlon ensures that audiences see pristine lighting every night. Born in Youngstown, OH, the 41-year-old Hanlon moved to Las Vegas in 1975. He refers to himself as a “motor-head” who builds, repairs, or modifies engines of all sorts, and has a passion for riding jet skis, dirt bikes, a Harley, or anything with an engine. He and his wife Pam are also busy with their two-year-old son, Kaiman. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux checks in with Hanlon, who will participate in the panel “Maintaining the Show” at LDI2002 in Las Vegas.

ELG: How did you get interested in the industry?

TH: In 1988, one of my friends in Las Vegas had a T-shirt that said “Local Crew, Ratt-Poison.” I went to that concert but didn't see that T-shirt for sale. I asked him about it, and he said he worked at the Thomas & Mack Arena as a stagehand and they still needed help. I went down there and signed up. My first day there they put me on electrics. I did the in and the out. The next day I was on followspot for the opening of the Running Rebels basketball game. Knowing that it was a nationally televised game I started to get nervous. I went in early the next day to practice aiming the followspot for my pickups. I had so much fun that night being part of the lighting crew, even though it only lasted about five minutes. I started running followspot for every show at the Thomas & Mack. While working there I discovered quickly that if you came in early to rig the points, then did the in and the out, and then put the basketball floor back down, it made for a nice paycheck. I guess you can say I became interested in the industry for the free T-shirts because I thought they were cool.

ELG: What is your best project to date?

TH: It was risky to leave the Golden Nugget (where I was the only full-time person on the staff) and sign a one-year to work in a tent for Cirque du Soleil. But, that is what turned out to be my best project to date — Mystère.

ELG: What is your least favorite project?

TH: While at the Golden Nugget all the focus shifted to the new Mirage Hotel on the Strip. We stopped having headliners and contracted the Comedy Store. All the fun of having new performers every week, meeting new LDs, and working under one of the best LDs in town, Randy Brown, was over. We were diminished to having two followspots following one comedian in front of a curtain. Sometimes funny, but very boring.

ELG: Where were you in 1988?

TH: Working at the Thomas & Mack, the Aladdin Hotel, and taking any calls I could get out of Local 720.

ELG: When did you first attend LDI?

TH: I think it was in Miami.

ELG: What makes Las Vegas a special place to work?

TH: It's where I grew up. I used to deliver newspapers on the Strip when I was a kid. I remember seeing Elvis and Frank Sinatra while doing my route and they always had a big crowd around them. Vegas has always been called the entertainment capital of the world. There is no better place in the world to be involved in the entertainment business.

ELG: What do you find rewarding about working with Cirque du Soleil?

TH: Cirque du Soleil allows you to grow artistically and technically. With eight productions worldwide, lighting designer Luc LaFortune can't be at all of the shows all of the time. The occasion arises when I have to make artistic lighting decisions. Watching Luc design our show, I have learned what is acceptable and what is not. Since Mystère opened we have had six artistic coordinators, all with great ideas and visions. Over the years the show has evolved and changed, and recently hit its 4,000th performance. Every night it seems there is something new that happens. An injury to a character, new sounds or music, or artistic input keeps the lighting directors for Cirque du Soleil from just sitting there and hitting buttons. Technically speaking you have to take care of your gear and learn how it works. Especially when the acrobats rely on the lights being there to safely perform. We have never started a show with a piece of equipment that we knew had failed. Recently someone asked me if I had a hard time with service from one of our vendors that we share. I asked what could possibly happen that would require sending a piece of equipment to a vendor for service. It occurred to me that we have never sent a piece of equipment for service to a vendor. All of our repairs are done in-house.

ELG: What would you like to do that you haven't?

TH: In my personal life I would love to take my family to Europe for at least a couple of weeks. Industry-wise, I have always wanted to learn to program moving lights more efficiently or learn to operate motion picture cameras. For automated lighting fixtures I have all the tools at my disposal. It seems I just can't find the time to learn enough. You have to be thrown into it and learn to sink or swim. The classes are great but there is nothing like live theatre.

ELG: What's the next trend in Las Vegas?

TH: Huge productions with design teams showing off all the new technology out there, and interactive shows where the audience can participate if they want to. Lately it seems the seating capacities are growing in the new theatres being built. Competition is great to watch, with everyone trying to one-up each other.