The Golden Age of industrials, those ubiquitous corporate theatre productions that put the “business” into “show business,” is long over — and you missed it. In fact, you may not even have been born when it was going on. So says projections programmer Paul Vershbow, a recent EDDY Award winner who was active on the scene during what he calls its heyday, the 1970s. “It was great back then,” he reminisces. “The economy, and the world, seemed to be wide open. There was more money around and less scrutiny on how it could be spent by the IRS and stockholders, not that there was anything illicit going on. You had an opportunity to have a really good time as well as do your job well. Now everyone's watching every nickel, there's not enough to do stuff with, and you're usually stuck in a bad hotel staying up all night to get everything done.”
Vershbow, who has worked in theatre since projection designer Wendall K. Harrington tapped his expertise with slides for the Broadway musical The Who's Tommy in 1993, has reversed the usual career path that encompasses business theatre. Most industrials designers find their way into the market after the rigor of touring plays, musicals, and concerts loses its appeal. Says lighting designer Gregory Cohen, who traded in assistant and associate work with LDs Natasha Katz and David Hersey for Volkswagen and Honda dealer meetings as a partner in New York-based Unlimited Visibility Lighting Design, “The travel schedule is just much better. Theatrical projects are extremely time-consuming. Not in terms of hours in the day, because I haven't found an entertainment job that doesn't require 16-hour days, but one year I supervised Beauty and the Beast in Australia and then flew to the Netherlands to do Miss Saigon and was away from home for two-and-a-half months. I wanted to have a family, and while the shows I do now are big, the longest corporate show of all time lasted maybe 15 days.”
LD John Featherstone, a principal in Lightswitch, which counts industrials as the “thickest string in its bow,” recounts a similar scenario from his Chicago office. “I majored in the university of the road on tour with The Smiths. But a family intervened and three, six, or eight months out was not for me.” The Chicago office of lighting and trucking supplier Upstaging “dragged me into the market,” Featherstone says. “I didn't know what it was.” On this point, designers who have found new careers in corporate gigs might agree with Vershbow, who maintains a connection to the market via his wife, an executive producer of industrials. “It's an industry that still flies under the radar,” Vershbow says.
“Nobody dreams of a career in A/V,” says Les Goldberg, president and CEO of Orlando-based industrials supplier LMG Inc., from the floor of June's InfoComm show in Las Vegas. [Except, maybe, for Goldberg himself, who founded the company at age 17, in 1984.] Indeed, industrials, largely located in hotel ballrooms far from the footlights, are a little image-challenged, which may account for their relative lack of visibility. Once, that was part of their appeal. Says Vershbow of industrials (or corporate or business theatre; the labels are interchangeable and have been around since he worked with punchcards and pickle switches back in the day), “There were very few people who could do what we did back then. But the slide technology I used was supplanted by the early 1990s with PowerPoint; the clients would be on your back all the time, which I saw as onerous. Slides kept a client from making changes for the sake of making changes and from self-destructing.”
Vershbow, the “last man standing” in his profession, took his expertise elsewhere. What heated up the market for newcomers as the old ways began to die out was that higher technology was beginning to make inroads into industrials. Today, “corporate is where they're trying out a lot of new stuff, which to me, as someone who has always enjoyed technology, is the equivalent of Natasha and David trying out moving lights in the early 1990s,” says Cohen. Big corporate shows are test beds for convergent products in lighting and video, like High End Systems' Catalyst™, a sea change from the past. “Industrials have gone from a market that had a lot of stuff that was derivative of concert touring and trickle-down technology to a real driving force in the entertainment production marketplace,” says Featherstone, who is working on presentations for McDonald's and GM. “It's now a serious revenue stream, not a fill-in when something else isn't doing so well.”
The heightened technological profile of industrials has had its own repercussions. “Clients see the effects on reality shows like American Idol and say, ‘I want that,’ but their budget doesn't allow for the 350 moving lights required and I have to remind them that, ‘Hey, we're lighting wheels here,’” says Kandi Blomquist, LD and principal of Treehouse Design, whose niche is the large market for small- and mid-range corporate theatre productions in the San Francisco area. “Or they'll ask me to introduce a media server, a big thing for me in the last year-and-a-half or so. Until they realize what it costs — then they go from interested, and asking me to create ‘a rollercoaster of emotion’ with it, to ‘Oh, my God, you've got to be kidding me.’” Virtually channeling the regrets of her predecessors in the field, she says, “It's good and bad to be just-in-time in production. I'll often go backstage and hear guys saying, ‘I'm so sorry we left the slide world behind.’ Now everyone comes up wanting to make a change. For a show in May one client came up to me in my one free hour — the one where I could actually eat outside of the ballroom — and said they wanted to add another eight-minute music module to the closing presentation,” she laughs.
A willingness to make changes is a key attribute for theatre designers looking to make a change themselves. “Theatrical work tends to be permanent in nature, with shows that may last for 12 or more months, whereas it's incumbent upon us to be flexible and agile,” says Goldberg. “There's less luxury in time and planning on a two- or three-day show.” Says Terry Gipson, director/production designer of New York-based MTV Networks Special Events, succinctly, “You load it in, then put it in the dumpster.”
A former theatrical designer who “doesn't miss tech rehearsals that had nothing to do with the set,” Gipson, who then worked for themed impresario David Rockwell [another 2005 EDDY winner] for several years, culls the freelancers who work on MTV's many annual presentations to advertisers and affiliates from Craigslist, Artforum.com, and Broadway designers (“Tony Walton hates us”). LMG has hired staff from digital media, video production, and hospitality management courses — which is to say that theatre designers should not necessarily expect to find other kindred spirits in the industrials ranks. “The diversity of people is incredible,” says Cohen, who added lighting for television and video to his skill set when he got into the field. “You go backstage and meet a graphics operator who has no theatrical background. You use a term like ‘cross down left’ and they have no idea what you're talking about.”
Cohen admits to missing the limelight every so often. “It's nice to be able to Google yourself and have something other than press releases come up,” he says. “And I miss the genuine bond that develops with a set designer or a programmer when you're out of town so long with them that they become part of your family. It's not the same on industrials.”
And yet, once designers choose to focus on the market, they don't look back. With business theatre gradually climbing back to pre-9/11 levels, the ballrooms are bustling. “Each show is very personal for me, and it's never just a job,” says Blomquist. “The shows themselves have graduated from gratuitous flash-and-trash to more finely tuned emotional experiences,” says Featherstone. Is a new Golden Age of industrials on the cards? He adds: “This market won't just go to web-casts, as has been predicted; there's an energy you get from having people in a room all focused on a message. Technology-wise, the convergence of lighting and video increases affordability and puts buzz back into the business, and it gets clients excited again. But you know, I don't care if they're getting excited about a moving light or a video projector, just as long as they're excited about business theatre.”
Robert Cashill writes on arts and entertainment from New York.