Country Stars Stretch Conventions of Concert Stage Design

As anyone can attest after attending a major Country artist’s show, live stage production is phenomenally complex and sophisticated, a many-headed monster with lots of moving parts that take an army of personnel to control. Aesthetics, logistics and economics are the drivers of production design, so regardless of the visions any particular tour wants to explore, these key considerations apply to bringing those visions to life.

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Carrie Underwood sings during her “The Play On Tour” in 2010.
Photo Credit: Matthew Baron

Production is a Team Effort

From concept to implementation, production design involves lots of skilled personnel from many disciplines, including the artist and artist’s management, production manager and stage manager and the production designer. Each participant, in turn, has a support crew, so coordination between all parties is critical.

At the head of the team is the production designer, who is ultimately responsible for coming up with a design that not only presents the artist and his or her music in the best possible light, but can also carry out that mandate from night to night, venue to venue, even country to country, for months at a time. It is vital to choose a production manager who is up to this task.

Let the Designer Design

The production designer’s first contact is usually with the artist and the artist’s management. During initial meetings, it’s important for the artist and management to have some ideas of what they’d like the overall presentation to convey, but, at the same time, not be too literal. “The skill and the challenge with first meetings is to take general notions and turn them into an abstract,” said Jonathan Smeeton, a production design veteran since the early 1970s whose clients have included Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Taylor Swift, Dwight Yoakam and Keith Urban. “At the end of the day, the abstract wins because you can use it longer. Things that have literal meaning become tired too quickly.”

“I give Zac Brown a lot of credit,” said Ryan Gall at Filament Productions, which has designed for The Band Perry and Tim McGraw. “He starts with, ‘How can we make this show pop, make it idea- and impact-driven?’ One of his ideas was that it had to be a music-driven show and not ‘gag-heavy.’ He wanted a video wall, but he didn’t want it to overpower the lighting on the solos they do. So we split the video wall into five different screens and sometimes really dim the back wall to really focus on their musicianship.”

Look Before You Build

Whether using computer-aided design (CAD) drawings, artist renderings or preferably physical, to-scale models, designers must present a tangible, visual form of their designs to the artist before implementation begins. “At the first presentation meeting, there’s a lot of very elaborate, very accurate stage renderings,” said Michael Cotten, a band member, videographer and set designer for the Tubes in the 1970s and subsequently a stage designer for Michael Jackson, Katy Perry and Carrie Underwood, among others. “It’s not conceptual. It’s very concise — a real, true, in-scale scenario to show how the start will look inside the arena.”

“Model-making is the best way for me,” said Smeeton. “They can touch it and move it, and it often sponsors huge ideas because the artists can visualize themselves in real space with little cardboard dolls that they can move around. The model for Taylor Swift was very useful. In one case, I’d put on a little thrust, a T-stage, about 16 feet into the audience, and the first comment was, ‘We should push that way into the audience!’ I just added cardboard to the model, but they had to add wood and stage decking and everything else!”

Serve the Artist First

The first goal is to put the artist at ease. “You also have to insert the band and the musicians onstage into the design,” noted Smeeton. “You have to defer to them because that’s actually the most important thing happening: The band has to keep playing.”

Serve the Audience

“The missing ingredient in design, of course, is always the audience,” said Smeeton. “But if you don’t think from the audience point of view, you don’t really know what you’re doing. The audience comes with an imagination and a willingness to be entertained and join in and pretend, so you have to think about how they’re going to react to particular moments in the show — ‘wow’ moments, capital moments — and expand on those.”

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Zac Brown Band performs during its 2012 tour.
Photo Credit: Cole Cassell

Serve the Music

Good production complements the music and presents its message effectively. It should work in tandem with the set list, matching the ebb and flow in the show. “You should come to know the songs note by note,” Smeeton stressed. “And you should read the lyrics because they might have visual suggestions.” Cotten describes this advance study as “seeing what the music is asking for.”

Don’t Let Technology Dominate

The role of technology should be to enhance the artist’s connection with the audience. Too much visual distraction can have the opposite effect, actually detracting from the impact of the show.

“LED video screens are all we see onstage anymore,” said Cotten. “It definitely dwarfs many performers. With Carrie Underwood, we used projection instead, to create a more cinematic, scenery look around her that was very slow moving and not so flashy. You want to see her. I don’t want to lose her for one second.”

Make the Design Portable and Scalable

If a huge, awe-inspiring piece of a stage set can’t be broken down into pieces that can fit into a semi trailer, it won’t be any use. Designers must constantly ask themselves how each component can be built, loaded, transported, set up, used, taken down, reloaded and re-transported quickly and efficiently.

“You’re always asked, ‘How are you going to make it bigger?’” said Smeeton. “But the real, practical question is, ‘How am I going to make it smaller?’”

Designers should also concern themselves with the many types and sizes of venues on a concert tour, particularly in terms of sightlines. This not only affects ticket prices and how many seats can be sold, but also what percentage of the audience will be able to enjoy the full concert experience. Smeeton noted that this is one area where CAD software can be a godsend by allowing the designer to precisely address sightlines in advance.

Make the Design Usable

A good production design also has to be streamlined and practical enough for real-world use, night after night, by the stage and lighting crews. “We want to be bleeding edge as far as designing the show, but we’re not necessarily going to be the ones running it every night,” said Gall. “So we want to make it realistic for the operators to run it. With Zac Brown and Tim McGraw, we wanted to build shows that flexed the technology but be as safe as we could make it. Between the media servers and the screens and a lot of other components that had to work together, we want to push the edge as much as possible, but we realize that the thing’s got to work 60 or 70 times a year in different settings.”

Allow Adequate Rehearsal Time

“We want to have the product tested as much as we can,” Gall explained. “With Tim McGraw, we spent 22 days at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for a lot of technically-driven rehearsals. We didn’t spend a lot of time with the artist actually onstage — that’s usually less than 25 percent of the total time. But we choreographed each song. We went through the set list song by song. A lot of that time was spent with the lighting and video programming and getting it all in sync. We did a lot of 3-D imaging for Tim, so we took all of the content that had been shot and created in 3-D programs — Final Cut, After Effects and all that stuff — and played that into the screens and lighting to balance them.”

“If you’re working with an act that’s going to do the same set list every night, that’s one thing,” added Fenton Williams, who works with Gall at Filament Productions. “But if you’re working with an act that’s going to mix it up and can pull from 100 songs and you don’t know what they’re going to play each night, it requires a lot more time to be prepared for anything they might throw at you.”

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Tim McGraw performs during his “Emotional Traffic” tour in 2011.
Photo Credit: Brian Bieber

Curtain …

The larger and more complex the production, the more vital it is to hire a designer with extensive experience. Seasoned production designers are well worth the price and end up saving their customers a lot of money. “You’re spending a lot of the customer’s money on something they won’t actually see or experience until they’re on the stage. It’s a huge leap of faith. You’ve got to keep in mind that they’re looking for, ‘Can you do it? And can you do it well? And do you understand my ideas?’ Those are big challenges.”

He ended with a grin and four words of wisdom: “Choose your designer well!”

By Fett

About Kimberly Michele Durham

ONE ME * MANY TITLES * A THOUSAND TASKS

Posted on May 17, 2012, in Entertainment News, K*Chele Magazine, Music and Entertainment and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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