EDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.
DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
Designing for Concerts and Music Tours
EVOLUTION OF THE TOURING SHOW: FROM 1975 TO 2016
Since designing Bamboozled, the first Cat Stevens music tour in 1975, I have observed and participated in a 4-decade transformation of the touring industry. Spurred by advances in lighting projection and LED technology, I’ve watched the touring show evolve from a band performance into a multi-media spectacle, and while the whole industry has spawned huge sound-, truss-, trucking-, and air transportation companies, two of the innovating forces that are close to me in that transformation are Michael Tait and the late Mark Fisher.
THE MASTER BUILDERS
Michael Tait, an Australian who moved to London in the 60s, started his career as a van driver and roadie for YES. With a background in electrical engineering, he went on to become YES’ lighting engineer, built the first moving lights and invented the rotating stage, the Genie towers, the Swing-wing Truss and the first pin-matrix lighting board. It’s not a stretch to say that Michael has left a lasting imprint on modern live event design.
In the 70s, Michael established Tait Towers in Lititz, Pennsylvania and for years it was the studio from which he worked, applying his inventive brain to solving problems that the touring industry was battling at that time—how to make efficient risers that fit together perfectly and how to make set carts that fit perfectly into trucks–seemingly basic and obvious things now, but he thought these issues through and was the first to provided solutions.
Tate Towers still sets the gold standard of touring set construction, but when I first heard of them, people would roll their eyes and say “Too expensive!“ and “If it’s Tait, it’s late.” But as James ‘Winky’ Fairorth, Tait Towers current CEO says, “Yes but our sets hold up on the road for hundreds of performances, so none of that matters because in the long run you save money.“ And it’s true! Fixing broken scenery on the road is not an easy task.
My own ‘failure stories’ disappeared and my success rate changed dramatically when I started to work with Michael Tait. He brought all the lessons he had learned over fifteen years on the road to designing sets that could be easily and quickly assembled.
I can’t talk about the history of the touring show without a ‘hats off’ to Mark Fisher. I was introduced to Mark in the late seventies and we worked together on a concept that was way ahead of its time—a fully interactive 3D Space Exploration Theater. Mark was an architect by training, but with a different kind of a brain and he became my design hero. With his dry wit and matter-of-fact tone, he was more like an Oxford professor with his ubiquitous pipe than someone who would turn concerts into huge Rock ‘n Roll spectacles.
Mark designed every Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and U2 tour for the past two decades, was the senior designer of the Beijing Olympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies and helped create Pink Floyd’s groundbreaking tour, The Wall, as well as U2’s 360 Tour in ’09. He made me fearless, and after I met him, all of my sets got bigger and bolder.
My favorite story that Mark told me was that he sewed the first Pink Floyd pig inflatable on his Grand Mother’s foot treadle sewing machine. It was a great sadness for our business when he left us in 2006 for bigger projects in the sky, leaving behind an unparalleled body of work!
UNSUNG HEROES OF THE TOURING INDUSTRY
The touring business is above all a collaborative process of all departments. Everything has to work “in concert.” Sets are nothing without the lights and most of all the sound has to be perfect. Every department is jostles the best position on the stage to make a comfortable ‘branded home’ for the artist so that every night, no matter what the weather or the location, the artist can walk onto the stage and feel safe and protected by the familiar stage environment.
The entire process is overseen by the Production Manager whose ultimate responsibility is to make sure the artist walks on stage happy and on time. Bill Leabody, Cold Play’s Production Manager, said the other day that his job in a nutshell is “managing his artist’s expectations.” That goes for everyone’s expectations.
Over the last four decades, I’ve watched road crews grow from 10 people in the early days to 230 for a Rolling Stone tour and everyone, including designers, directors and producers have worked without any mechanism for receiving credit such as the credit roll on a film or in a Playbill. Jobs were secured through word of mouth and brilliant talent went unrecognized. That changed in the 90s with the advent of social media and personal web pages that allowed all the touring personnel—from Producers to Roadies—to have their own web sites listing their credits, contact info, portfolios and YouTube videos of their work. (I was surprised to find that I became well known in the touring world because of my TV credits.)
Whether a headline act or a roadie, the touring life is very difficult. With long, irregular hours, tons of scenery and lights to take down and set up every night as you travel from venue to venue, it takes the leader ship of the production manager, the endurance of the star performers and musicians, the dedication of the technicians and the hard work of the road crews, stage hands, riggers, and truck drivers to deliver on the road entertainment to millions of fans.
The wild stories of roadies and drugs from back in the day are legend, but the road crews of today—talented, dedicated, knowledgeable professional—are the best in the world!
Looking back at my life in design, I find that so many of my inspirations and interests were sparked by growing up on a farm in Central Africa. For instance, my first live music experience was every Sunday when the Reverend Sungwene would gather his choir and congregation on the lawn of our house where my parents would host the weekly service. The choir wore leopard skin capes and hats over black robes. (Leopards were still plentiful in those days and we would have to bring the dog food in at night so the leopards wouldn’t come onto the back verandah to forage.)
The choir sang Christian hymns a cappella with the most amazing harmonies. That Sunday experience made an indelible impression of the power of live music and song, but I had to wait till I arrived in London in 1967 to hear Procul Harum, Cream and The Rolling Stones to reignite the impact of my earlier experience of live music.
While living in London in the early 70s, I became friendly with Barry Krost, Cat Stevens dynamic and entrepreneurial manager. Barry gave me the opportunity to present an idea for a set for Cat Steven’s upcoming Bamboozled tour. My artistic experience at age thirty was limited to theater, circus, and a rather unfocussed desire to be a painter but I jumped at the opportunity. The only criteria I was given was that the set should be easy to set up. I made a model of my idea, which was a tent, presented it to Cat Stevens in LA and he liked it. After meeting his Production Manager, Bill McManus, I had the job!
I submitted the model to a construction shop and they responded to the challenge of the design. The drafting of the compound archways were beyond my skill and training, however the head of the shop offered to help me with something that was quite new to me, a “computer drafting tool.” The final product was a blueprint with angles and measurements that allowed the construction team to build and assemble the set on stage. In that era, I was working in a vacuum with no sense of what had been done before or who else in the world was doing the same thing—the only name I had heard of was Chip Monck, who lit and served as the master of ceremonies at Woodstock and was the ‘go to’ mega talent at the time for lighting. Nor did I know that I was one of the first set designers to design for a musical tour. At that time, sets were always done by the lighting designer.
MY FIRST TRAVELING SET DESIGN LESSON
For my first tour set for Cat Stevens I had imagined a bright and colorful gypsy tent, but when it was set up it was very dark. I timidly mentioned my concern to the lighting designer. “Sure, I could light it,” he said “but you never gave me one lighting position or any room for lights. That’s why set designers should never be let anywhere near a touring show.” I learned the hard way that lighting designers are the set designer’s best friend and many of my subsequent successes were because of a collaboration with talented lighting designers.
The two sets below are from two Cat Stevens tours. The first one with no lighting positions; the second was two year later using the same set but with modifications to allow for light.
That first job for Cat Stevens proved to me how important lighting designers are for touring sets. Set designers just need to give them something interesting to light and a place to hang the lights. Designing for touring shows has been and really still is under the ambit of the Lighting Designers, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the wonderful experiences of designing for musicians if I had not had incredible lighting designers to work with—stars in their own right—like Peter Morse, who I have just worked with on Barbra Stresand’s 2016 tour, Allan Branton (concerts and television), Bobby Dickenson, (Olympics, Emmys, Oscars), Kieren Healy, Greg Brunton and Mark Brickman—the list of talent goes on and on.
And then there is Patrick Woodroffe! Patrick began his career lighting the early Rod Steward tours. Collaborating with Mark Fisher, he went on to light Dylan, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones tours and the London Olympics. He and I worked together on a show I designed for Phil Collins as well as The Dancing Cranes attraction that I created for Resorts World Sentosa. Patrick is an inspired artist who once described his métier as “interpreting the artist’s performance with light… with the stage as the canvas and the lights as your electronic paint box.”
NEVER SAY NO
One of the lucky things in my career is that I could never say no to any job, not only because everything was fascinating to me but as a young man, all I had was a mouth, an eye, a pencil and my Dad’s words ringing in my ears—that if I wanted a career in art, I should be an art teacher or I would end up starving in a garret! From the beginning, that primal image of failure drove my ambition.
A few years later the world of KISS hit the pop charts. Costumes and Glam rock seemed to be the fashion–perfect for a theatrical designer/wannabe music concert designer! I made some headdresses for the Sky band. Hard to imagine musicians today loving these!
Then I met Warren Entner and David Josephs, band managers who hired me to design a set for Quiet Riot and after that, the whole image package for Angel, including album cover, touring sets and costumes. I worked with the band and we came up with a look that fit their name. Perhaps the costumes are hard to look at now but it was my first lesson in ‘brand harmony’—integrating all aspects of design to embody the band’s message and vibe.
Jack Shafton, whose shop built the Cat Stevens sets, and also made sets for the magician/illusionist, Mark Wilson. I designed a few stage shows for Mark and through him I met Johnny Gaughn, an illusion builder and magic memorabilia collector, who designed and fabricated many of Mark’s illusions. Thus, it was logical that I would bring this recent experience of illusion technology to my next job for Angel. The set had a giant head that opened its eyes and called out to the audience, “Do you want to rock and roll!” The idea of using interior projection came from seeing Little Liota, the ghostly character at the end of the Haunted Mansion attraction in Disneyland that urges guests to “Hurry back.” (Incidentally, on that visit to Disneyland, they almost did not allow me back because of my long hair which I had to tie back and tuck into my collar. Times have changed.)
Four empty boxes were wheeled on stage and the band made a magical appearance, alla Mark Wilson. The cross-pollination of different disciplines has helped me stay fresh and bring a new eye to each genre.
Angel – The Full Package – Logo Album Cover, Set and Costumes
Through Allen Branton, Fleetwood Mac’s Lighting Designer, I got to work with Fleetwood Mac and later with Ozzie Osborn. At first, when I was introduced to stars, especially iconic performers, I was shy and tongue tied, but that went away when I realized they were creative artists like myself and wanted to participate in creating an on-stage environment where they would feel inspired to play their best music. To this day I regard myself as a ‘creative collaborator’ because designing a stage set for a musician is as personal as designing a family living room. You’re responsible for making a space that feels like home so that every night, no matter what country, what city or what venue, the familiarity and comfort of the set eases the incredibly difficult stress that everyone lives with on the road.
I met and became friendly with Joe Gannon in 1979. Joe had been Neil Diamond’s lighting director, set designer and road manager. I was fascinated by his stories of managing undisciplined musicians and the early tour days when promotors would pay the musicians in cash from the door take. Joe was the first to use moving sets on rock concert tours and once, cut a hole in the back of a truck to accommodate the scenery. Working with Joe, I designed sets for Alice Cooper, an incredibly disciplined and focused musician/performance artist. The theatrical themes of his shows, punishment and retribution, ran through each tour and was right up my puritanical, Victorian ally: ‘Bad Alice’ is punished and comes back as ‘Good Alice’. His concerts told a subtle story without the music pausing for dialogue like in a traditional musical.
I loved collaborating with Joe, as well as Ron Vols who had been working with Alice for years. In the first of the three tours I did for Alice, I was able to inject my illusion experience into the mix by bringing in Franz Harary, a talented magician/inventor who had just designed illusions for Michael Jackson’s Victory tour. A funny tour note: Normally when you are on the road, a huge amount of effort goes into keeping the set clean but with Alice, Joe would complain that the sets were too clean and couldn’t I spill some paint or empty some dirt on the floor.
ATTRACTION OF OPPOSITES
By an irony of scheduling, one of the Alice tours that I was working on happened to be on a stage adjacent to a stage that housed a Bugs Bunny Tour that I was also designing. I worried about the contrast between the two brands (as well as my own) and tried to keep my work on both a secret, but my worries turned out to be unfounded. When Alice’s band was not rehearsing, they spent their break watching the Bugs Bunny rehearsals and the Bugs Bunny cast kept disappearing next door to watch Alice. I was so relieved that Alice’s musicians didn’t think I was uncool.
Working with Joe, I designed two tours for Luther Vandross, so sweet and so precise, but with a temper that could instantly turn into a sound that makes babies! Luther had an amazing ability to match visual cues to the music; he knew that when he was singing a certain phrase, a certain light in the grid would turn on. All well and good when the lights were programmed, but it was the follow spot guys that often found themselves in the eye of a storm. Luther would watch a run through and memorize his stage positions by the lighting and music. Such a sweet man that I loved and was lucky enough to never feel his ire! What a privilege to be able to sit next to him in rehearsals and hear that one in a million voice, live from six feet away.
Luther was very proud of ‘his girls’—his backup singers who were not only note-perfect but beautiful. On one tour he had En Vogue as his opening act. I was standing next to him on the first run through as the cute girls came out in their little sparkling outfits. Luther was appalled. “I don’t want that thrift store trash on my stage,” he proclaimed in his soft southern accent. “My girls are in three thousand dollar gowns!”
At the time, En Vogue was at the top of the charts and had been brought in to try to broaden Luther’s appeal. After a negotiation through the managers, a solution was negotiated: En Vogue would keep their miniskirts and sexy little outfits. At every arena, a black pipe-and-drape wall was put up down the middle of the hallways so Luther wouldn’t see them when he was on his way to the stage. But when the music is that beautiful it’s worth the trouble to accommodate those whims.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
The first tour I designed for Luther was built by a Los Angeles shop that was not used to building touring sets (the shop I wanted was too expensive.) On a cold morning in Atlantic City, I stood watching in horror as the set was being off-loaded down the ramp on set carts. As each set cart reached the ground, the wheels snapped off! I had been diligent in telling the shop to bolt and weld the wheels, so I was shocked and embarrassed in front of the crew as they manhandled the set on to the stage. It turned out that the wheels were not spaced correctly—one of the many small and painful lesson that I learned at the ‘school of hard knocks’.
DESIGNING IN THE ROUND
Neil Diamond was next, with Joe Gannon and my brilliant lighting designer friend Marilyn Lowey. It is worth noting that ‘in the round’ is wonderful for promoters selling tickets (more front row seats) and good for the audience, but a lot of hard work for the artist. Even with a giant turntable the artist must be constantly on the move to share with the audience. Standing at the mike, down stage/center does not make for a good show in the round.
The ‘in the round’ set allowed us to magically produce a Christmas tree in the center of the stage.
Barry Manilow was another of Joe’s artists that I enjoyed working with and after a tour, I ended up doing his set for Copacabana as well as designing the set for Barry Manilow at the Gershwin (my only Broadway credit.)
For this particular tour set I wanted to do a projected scenic backdrop as a way of doing quick set changes; however, the projectors were either too big or too weak back then, but we did it and the set looked cool and worked for Barry’s Broadway music style, although not the projection dream we could do today.
I designed Phil Collins’ Up on the Roof Tour with my lighting designer friend, Patrick Woodroffe. I was given the job because Phil wanted a narrative design, rather like in a musical with scenic vignettes. Still on the hunt for touring set changes before projection and LED scenery was perfected, I came up with a scrolling billboard.
FINDING THE ARTIST’S BRAND
One of the most important aspects of designing for artist is not only designing a set that fits the mood of the music and pack well for travel, but also that reflects a visual brand—a unique creative identity. Sometimes it would come to me in a flash, but other times it would be illusive and I would have to search for it. The year I designed a Diana Ross tour is a perfect case in point. This was my first design, and I thought that it perfectly show-cased her personal style:
It was one of my favorite renderings, but the Producers pointed out that the orchestra seemed too far from Ms. Ross and as I reviewed the rendering, it was obvious they were correct.
I designed another set with the band inset in the turntable, but that proved to be too cramped. Finally, as time was running out, we created a model and this is what was built.
Jane’s Addiction happened to be one of one of my favorite bands, so when Doriana Sanchez introduced me to their front man, Perry Farrell, it was a great personal treat. Here was another vision for a tent—something loose, romantic and gypsy like. I had learned my lesson from my Cat Stevens days and had the tent made from netting for maximum lighting effects!
Julio Iglesias was brought to me by Joe Gannon and I designed his concert two years in a row.
Yanni’s set came to me with a history of live concerts performed at amazing locations like the Acropolis in Athens, so I had to do something that could compete with classical architecture. This was the first year that I had one of my tour designs made into a 3D model
This was the first pass at doing the Spinal Tap Tour. It was fun to meet everyone and try and reach a consensus as to what the set would be.
Coincidentally, a few years earlier, my friend Anjelica Huston had called me up and said that she had a part in a rock n’ roll comedy in which she was playing a set designer and asked me what the worst ‘nightmare’ could be for the designer. I said that getting the scale wrong was possible and a definite disaster, so in the Spinal Tap movie, the set for Stonehenge was built to the scale of the tiny model. For this tour we designed to a scale closer to reality, so a very low budget Stonehenge set wobbled its way onto stage!
DESIGNING FOR CHER
Doriana Sanchez, my director/choreographer friend introduced me to Cher and her management team after Dori and I had worked on the Dirty Dancing Tour.
Dori was one of the lead dancers in the 1987 film and after choreographing the tour, Cher asked Dori to give her dance lessons which grew into a deep creative and personal friendship that spanned Cher’s Love Hurts-, Believe-, and Living Proof tours as well as 192 performances at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace.
It hard not to fall in love with Cher. She bubbles with creativity, sweetness and fun. I have been so thrilled to design four tours and two of her Las Vegas shows, but the best thrill is sitting with Doriana and Cher as they ping pong creative ideas back and forth and where nothing is too outrageous! There are very few experiences like this where the designer gets to build on the ideas for a tour as if concepting a musical.
THE FAREWELL TOUR
CHER AT CAESARS COLOSSEUM
The stage was flanked by two towers, each with decorative cladding that had to be screwed in place, a long and tedious job. I left the stage for twenty minutes and when I returned half the panels were up! Tate had come up with an ingenious installation system using magnets. The positive poles of magnets on the panels were indexed to match the corresponding negative poles of magnets on the tower. The stage hands just had to hold a panel up and the magnets pulled it into the exact position! Designers can always learn from innovative shops like Tait as well as creative production managers, in this case, Michael Weldon, who guided me with a pragmatic but open mind.
In 2006 Mickie Weiss contacted me and asked if I would be the designer for Barbra Streisand’s new tour. Of course, what could be better?
I can’t remember whose concert I had just seen, but it was so overloaded with props, effects, and light beams that it turned me off. Working with Streisand’s director, Richard J. Alexander, it became obvious that this show, more than all the others, was about designing for sound. After all, this was Barbra Streisand, with multi-platinum quartet, Il Divo as her special guest and a 52-piece orchestra of hand-picked musicians, conducted and arranged by William Ross. This was not a show of elaborate decorative elements, huge LED screens and drawbridges, but a show that had to move from city to city, in halls with sometimes less than adequate acoustic properties, and yet our design must truly support the genius of the artist.
To add to the audio and visual challenge, the show would play in the round in some venues and in 270⁰ configurations in others. Another overriding desire was to provide a comfortable home for the huge orchestra and ensure that Barbra would not be lost in a sea of musical instruments. She had to be able to visit different sides of the arena, yet remain in eye contact with her musicians and her audience.
We decided to go for visual simplicity to deliver the best experience for Ms. Streisand without overpowering her. The intent of my set design was to support perfect sound. We brought Barbra up in the middle of the orchestra where she could be surrounded by her musicians. Ultimately, the stage became a series of ramps surrounding a sunken orchestra. I put small Juliet stages on all sides, creating intimate visiting spots with a table, a vase of flowers and a pot of tea which allowed for each side of the audience to receive a visit from our beloved Diva!
Streisand’s attention to detail and her absolute discipline is legend. At one rehearsal, I watched her call out a viola player, among the 52 musicians, for coming in a fraction late in the middle of song. When she steps out on the stage she is in perfect control and the audience feels it. Both Streisand and Cher have the ability to make each member of the audience feel like they are their best friends!
I am very proud of that set because it did exactly what the director and I wanted it to do. Even though it went around the world twice, I got the least amount of attention I have ever received for a set. People actually said to me, “You did the set? I never noticed one.” That old line—that the audience should leave the theatre humming the music, not talking about the sets is so true and fits perfectly with my early theatre training: sets support the story, they don’t tell the story.
In 2016, we were invited back to design the set for Barbra’s nine-city tour, and although we were still ‘designing for sound’ we added a big media element to the set and used a large screen to extend the depth and theatrical nature of the show. Like Cher, Barbra is always intimately involved in the creative design of her sets. If she hadn’t been a singer she could have been a great interior designer for sure and I loved collaborating with her on all of the small details on her stage.
The design for Barbra’s 2016 tour as imagined.
Final Set Trimmed To Fit the Budget
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
A collaboration using Ms. Streisand’s home collections as inspiration
NICKI MINAJ’S PINKPRINT TOUR
When Malcolm Weldon, Beyoncé’s Production Manager, introduced me to Niki Minaj’s choreographer to see if we could design her Pinkprint Tour, It seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring in Francesca Nicolas, one of EDC’s brilliant young designers. We had a good creative meeting on a Thursday and the set had to be designed by the following week as there had been a few delays. Francesca and I worked the weekend and Francesca was able to deliver an approved set design to Tait Towers by the following Monday! She flew to Lititz to watch it being built before it was flown to Paris for the kick off of the tour. At 25, Francesca was able to lead one of our projects due entirely to her technical skills, creative ingenuity, and dedication to the work.
ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME
With all of my forays into different genres and types of entertainment it is seldom that two design modes—TV and concert touring–come into play at the same time. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened in 1995, I was asked by Joel Gallen, producer of the opening night television show, to design the concert stage. I was thrilled at the opportunity, as the lineup of amazing artists included Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Al Green, Jerry Lee Lewis, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, and many others.
I immediately went into concert mode and came up with a grand design that would have made Mark Fisher proud, forgetting for the moment that the wide shot in television is a throw away and that TV is all about the close ups! The first Idea I had was to suspend the stage grid and lighting by huge cranes.
Then the reality of a TV Special budget struck home and I rethought the design with budget and close ups in mind. We also had to have a roster of iconic artist on a stage with a vibe that worked for all of them. I decided on a turntable with a mix of pre-built scenic element so as one set was being used, the crew was changing out the band gear behind for the next act.
It was a little nerve wracking when the truck pulled up with the miscellaneous scenic items that I had never seen and started to unload. We laid everything on the deck and with screw guns and zip ties we built an instant collage sculpture down the center of the turntable. The lighting designer lit the hell out of it and all of the artists were pleased that they had a personalized look.
This hybrid improvisation was an unexpected reward for working in many entertainment disciplines and never consigning myself to just one thing, as my father had always counselled!
TOUR DESIGN 2.0
As the performance landscape changed and new bands popped up, I realized that my grizzled face did not inspire confidence that I would give them the coolest of set designs; if I wanted to continue my company’s legacy, I better start introducing Alex Calle and Francesca Nicolas, my two top designers, to the next generation of performers. Having grown up with video games, social media, and the internet, Alex and Francesca are innately comfortable with the synergy of digital art and technology that continues to transform themed entertainment.
Today, aspiring designers, like Alex and Francesca, begin their careers with degrees and practical experience at school like Cal Arts, SCADS and Carnegie Tech that teach all aspects of tour-, theatre-, and theme park design, thus their graduates are better equipped than my generation that was discovering and inventing the techniques of tour design through inspiration, trial and error.
I love working with this talented young generation – they continually connect me with new trends and concepts that I would never think of, and reciprocally, I can cash in on the ‘scar tissue’ acquired from years of touring experience, accelerating their learning curve and reaping the incredible rewards of passing on a creative legacy!
EPILOGUE and SPECIAL MENTIONS…
Lighting designers are so important to collaborate with. Greg Bruntom, Allan Branton, Bobby Dickenson, Norm Shwaab, Jeff Salmon, Keiren Healey Lisa Passamonte, Marilyn Lowey, and Abby Holmes are all designers who I have worked with and who continue to inspire me.