Five years after producing the Pink Project in collaboration with Steven Rehage and Nina Killeen, I got the position of production designer for Brad Pitt’s “A Night To Make It Right” fundraiser gala held in New Orleans in March. The star-studded event brought together 1,200 supporters of Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts to raise the funds needed to complete Make It Right’s goal of building 150 affordable, durable, and sustainable homes in the city’s Lower 9th Ward.
When the organization was halfway to its fundraising goal, Tom Darden, executive director of Make It Right, said the group hoped to raise the approximately $5 million needed annually to complete the remaining 74 houses for displaced residents by late 2013. The event, co-hosted by Pitt, Ellen DeGeneres, and Drew Brees, featured a cocktail hour, dinner, performances by Sheryl Crow and Rihanna, and a live auction. Noting that the celebrities traveled from as far away as Paris for the event, Pitt told the press that the turnout was “a mark of their regard for New Orleans.”
Setting The Mood
After becoming production designer with only six weeks to the event, I began the design process without delay, immediately focusing on the basic elements of Make It Right (MIR), from featured colors to unique forms. I strove to create a unique and cohesive production design with a signature MIR look, deciding to approach the design from the perspective of the guests by creating an axonometric diagram that traveled from the point of arrival all the way through to the after-party.
The approach featured an amber-washed façade, sky tracking lights, and large-scale projection that read, “A Night To Make It Right” across the Hyatt where the gala was held. After entering the hotel, each guest walked the red carpet lined with MIR home models, immediately introducing the event’s mission statement and the organization’s work to date. At the end of the red carpet run, the guests were met by the music of Dr. John, performing next to the grand staircase and in front of a beautiful New Orleans-themed mural by German artist Stephan Wanner. The mural, made with thousands of precisely placed, glittering, recycled Mardi Gras beads, reinforced the MIR mission of sustainability and set the stage for this New Orleans-centric event. After traveling up the grand staircase, the guests entered into the VIP reception, where more home models were showcased, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band performed.
Inside The Ballroom
The stage for the gala was based on the angular, overlapping lines of the newly built Make It Right houses and the culturally significant concept of the traditional NOLA “front porch.” Both had to tie together the three major staging areas that the event required: performance areas for Sheryl Crow and Rihanna, a location for Ellen DeGeneres’ interviews with Brad Pitt and MIR family members, and the gala host. We had to create a set that could work like a TV set, awards show, and performance stage all in one.
But before I could start the design, I had to change my approach. Rather than designing and executing from scratch, I had to think of it as a kit of parts based on the availability of components, reaching out to every entity that was involved to talk about what they could contribute. I basically had to pick up the phone and call everybody to get a list of what was available in New Orleans first: linear truss, moving lights, decks, media servers, and from what sources, and what crew could work with it all. This was all a collaborative effort, with the help of The Solomon Group, Swank Audio Visuals, See-Hear Productions, Himmaugh and Co., and the Hyatt’s in-house scenic company, Freeman.
The final result used a 15mm LED video wall as the farthest upstage layer, masked by physical set pieces that framed the LED wall. This set wall, built by Himmaugh and Co., created the first and second upstage layer. With its front wall piece formally tying into the large wall section, these upstage walls created two entrance and exit points to the stage as well as a projection surface for the video mapping content, programmed by Jonathan Foucheaux of Solomon Group and me. Solomon Group also executed all of the rigging and lighting elements to create the three lighting truss sticks installed over the set, mimicking the traditional architectural post-and-beam method.
In addition, we needed a downstage truss for stage lighting and audio, controlled by Solomon Group and Swank Audio Visuals. The raised platform, or “front porch,” served as the programmatic device, separating the large-scale platform in discrete areas while also providing a connection to the audience with its large steps that led up to the play area. The stage deck, built by Freeman, was covered with white and gray carpet, reinforcing the appearance of a 2' concrete slab.
The three 40'-long lighting trusses ran upstage to downstage, like the structural beams of a house, not the usual stage-left to stage-right configuration. The framing shutters in Martin Professional MAC III Performance units were used to complement the projection by outlining the geometry of the set and adding the saturated blues, purples, and reds. The downstage truss was angled in on each side to mimic the lines of the stage. A mix of additional MAC IIIs and High End Systems Intellaspot XT-1s provided frontlight. For a one-off special event, not having to pull a conventional focus greatly improved our production timeline along with the ability to make changes to our special positions as the talent rehearsed just hours before doors opened.
The after-party stage design began by taking a simple line drawing of an MIR house and abstracting the form. We used the truss to create a free-standing structure that we could hang lights from and to introduce the floating gables. This gave the stage that signature MIR look I was striving to create. The back LED wall was put together with 30mm tiles from Solomon Group, hung from and divided by vertical truss to emphasize verticality in a low ceiling interior. To also emphasize the vertical element, I took the standard 8'x16' side screens used in hotel ballrooms and turned them horizontally, also lending well to the lineup, as all of the acts were single performers.
In addition, the 30'x60' stage deck was turned into the audience, creating a triangle thrust that allowed people to wrap around the stage from both sides. When designing a stage for a small room where you know the audience wants to be close to the performance, it’s important to come up with a strategy and design that allows the audience to wrap around the stage, making it more intimate and giving the audience the feeling of being part of the show.
Then, when Patrick Theriot of See-Hear Productions stepped up to contribute the entire lighting and programming for the after-party stage, I immediately knew how to elevate the design further. Having worked with Theriot a lot in the past, I knew about these bright linear fixtures that he has, Mega-Lite Bright Stripes, and asked that he add these to the truss to emphasize the flying gable element. These flying gables created an intimate, club-like atmosphere in the completely darkened room for the performances of Soul Rebels, Seal, Snoop Dog, and Kanye West, who brought up Rihanna to close the night out.
The rigging capabilities of the venue and low trim height were the major deciding factors in our final equipment selection. Select sections of truss were only rated for 200-300lbs, greatly reducing our options for intelligent fixtures. For this reason, we relied heavily on GLP Volkslicht units, which weigh just around 15lbs. each, and then used the heavier Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance units and MAC 250 Beam fixtures on the floor to give greater effects in front of the LED backdrop. Since the upstage truss was ground-supported, we were able to add MAC 700 Profiles and additional MAC 250 Beam units to either side of the LED backdrop.
The biggest challenge in executing these designs was working in a traditional hotel setting. Normally, we work in large-scale arenas with almost unlimited rigging points and massive interiors. In contrast, the large chandeliers, low ballroom height of only 19', and very limited rigging points posed quite a challenge. In addition, it was a very busy weekend for the Hyatt New Orleans, as it hosted hundreds of Final Four fans.
“We had to approach this build out very strategically,” says production design assistant Jensen Killen. “It was a challenge to coordinate everyone as they were simultaneously building out two stages while also working around the very busy schedule at the Hyatt.” With careful planning, hard work, and dedication, the designs our team set out to accomplish were achieved. Everyone did a great job, and it was an honor to be part of such a special event.
Stefan Beese is the co-founder of RE:BE Design, a joint entertainment design company with Stephen Rehage. He resides in New Orleans, LA.
Production Designer: Stefan Beese, Re:Be Design
Design Assistant: Jensen Killen, Re:Be Design
3D Design: Seyavash Zohoori
Production Company: Rehage Entertainment
Production Manager: Megan Grant
Lighting Director: Jonathan Foucheaux
Video Director/Engineer: Scott Buford
LED Technician: Jay Taylor
Camera Operators: Swank Audio Visuals
Lighting/LED Screens Vendor: Solomon Group
I-MAG Screens/Audio Vendor: Swank Audio Visuals
Lighting Director: Patrick Theriot
Lighting Arrival & Performance: See-Hear Productions
Audio Vendor: VER, Swank Audio Visuals
Set Build: Freeman, Himmaugh & Co, Inc
Rigging: Corporate Lighting and Audio Visual
Camera Vendor: Full Motion
Furniture Rentals: Mardi Gras Productions