The Lighting of Two Divas: Midler and Brightman

Mister D: I thought this was a fascinating article with its’ glimpse behind the scenes. A must read for those that like reading on a higher plane!:-) Kudos to Mr. Peter Morse for outdoing himself on this tour

Divas In Arenas
Lighting Dimensions Magazine
March 2004
by Sharon Stancavage

In the world of arena concert tours, there are numerous constants from one tour to the next. There are usually overhead lighting positions and floor lighting positions. There are usually spotlights, and although the gear may vary, for most arena tours, there’s a mixture of automated and conventional fixtures. The set design can be simple or elaborate, and there’s always some sort of variety in a designer’s color palette. There’s usually a band as well, or a solo singer with a backup band or orchestra.

Two arena tours featuring female solo artists appeared on the concert scene this past winter. Bette Midler opened her burlesque inspired Kiss My Brass arena tour in early December, with the help of lighting designer Peter Morse, who has worked with her in the past. Less than a month later, modern opera diva Sara Brightman went out into arenas with her Harem tour, which features the lighting design of Patrick Woodroffe, who has also worked with her in the past. Although their styles differ wildly, Midler and Brightman are two female solo artists playing in arenas in the US at the same time. From a production standpoint, their shows sport notable similarities as well as differences.

Before a lighting designer can even think of his rig, the scenic design of the production needs to be fully developed. In Midler’s case, the show takes place in an old style, East Coast amusement park designed by Michael Cotton. “It’s based on Luna Park, a now deserted amusement park much along the lines of Coney Island,” Morse explains. “It’s a classical, theatrical layout, with a cyc, a backdrop, midstage travelers and all kinds of scenic elements and props.” The production also features a mid-stage LED wall on a George and Goldberg motion control system, and Bette does actually fly in (and out) on a fanciful carousel horse. Then there’s the beach scene, which looks very theatrical indeed. “For the beach scene, we have a beachfront backdrop, cabanas, beach chairs, all to create a ‘boardwalk’ look,” Morse notes. In Act II, the Luna Park look becomes less predominant, and instead relies on a series of drapes, the video, as well as a large staircase that completes the visual picture.

Brightman’s production takes the audience to a place far from America. “We [UK based Woodroffe and set designer Johan Engels] wanted to have something that was Middle Eastern in flavor and style, but without being too kitsch and too pastiche about it,” Woodroffe reports. The raked stage is shaped in the form of a crescent moon, and includes a thrust that leads to a small, Middle Eastern-flavored B stage. “There’s a series of lifts in the stages — she goes up, she goes down, and she flies,” the designer notes. The production also features three drops depicting sunsets, a curved cyc, a star drop, a large cantilevered arm and a ribbon lift. The size of the stage is essentially controlled by a series of drapes. “We have several different gauzes that float in around the space, so you can really make the space smaller, and you can make it huge as well,” adds Woodroffe. Brightman’s production also makes use of projection via a Catalyst 3.0 media server and four Catalyst DL1 digital light engines.

Once the spaces are established, and the elements of the scenic design are determined, it’s up to the designers to create a truss configuration. In this case, Morse and Woodroffe took very different approaches to their truss configurations. One is very theatrical and based more on straight lines, while the other relies heavily on curves.

Midler’s Kiss My Brass tour has very apparent theatrical elements to it; there are several scenic drops that fly in and out during the production, a grand staircase, three vertical LED walls and numerous props. “The light plot was based on the set design,” Morse explains. Because of the theatrical elements to the production, Morse chose to go with a truss configuration that relied heavily on straight trussing and “torm” positions on stage right and left. “Basically, it’s a very straightforward, theatrical kind of hang utilizing straight trussing that runs stage right and left, with ladders, some shin kickers and a front of house truss that gives us a front wash,” the designer notes. The bulk of the rig is hung on five electrics, one apron truss, two side trussing positions to augment the ladders, and a far downstage truss that Morse has labeled the FOH truss.

From a trussing standpoint, Woodroffe chose to interpolate curves and circles into his design, along with several straight pieces of truss. “The lighting followed the basic scenic treatment,” Woodroffe explains. For Brightman’s Harem tour, the primary scenic pieces are a curved raked stage and a much smaller secondary stage. “We put a huge, 70′ wide circle over the main stage, then have a series of curved trusses that take a lot of lights, as well as curved curtain truss that runs across the stage so we can make the stage bigger or smaller with these curved rags,” he adds. Woodroffe also has two small side torm positions stage right and left of the 70′ circle; there’s also a 35′ straight truss that insects this circle at its center.

To keep Bette, her dancers (the Harlettes) and her band illuminated, Morse turned to a variety of automated and conventional gear supplied by Premier Global Productions of Nashville. “The hard-edge lights for the entire layout are High End x.Spot Xtremes,” Morse notes. These x.Spot Xtremes can be found on all of the stage electrics, the apron truss and the far downstage FOH truss. Working alongside the x.Spot Xtremes are a total of 130 wash lights, both in the air and on the ground. “The wash behind the proscenium arch is done with Studio Beams, and the wash downstage of the proscenium arch is done with Martin Mac 2000s,” the designer notes. Morse also illuminates the drops with 10 1200W Altman single cell flown cyc units with Wybron CXI Color Faders, and also has some relatively new units on the floor. “We’re using the new High End ColorCommand for shin kickers. They’re non-automated fixtures, with full color mixing capability, and probably weigh about ten pounds. In fact, we almost have to tape them down, they move so easily — especially with the foot traffic,” Morse adds with a chuckle.

For Sara and her dancers, Woodroffe turned to automated gear from Vari-Lite, provided by VLPS Los Angeles. “Our lighting system is made up of a series of VL-3000 ™ wash and profiles and VL-8 ™ s (aka the 2416 ™ ),” Woodroffe explains. For Woodroffe, in many cases it’s what the instrument does that’s more crucial than a specific brand or a specific instrument. “I’m much less precious nowadays on my choice of lighting fixtures because the standard is very high over a wide range of products. If you specify a particular light, it often limits your choice of lighting companies, and that’s not a good thing. In other words, it doesn’t really matter what sort of light you’ve got — it’s a matter of how you use it,” he adds. There are, naturally, situations where Woodroffe is more specific about his gear. “There are certain shows where you want a very specific application and you might choose a light that’s a bit quieter, if you’re doing an opera for example,” the designer comments. Working alongside Woodroffe’s automated Vari-Lite fixtures are a number of conventionals that include PAR ACLs located on the straight truss connecting the main stage and the B stage (the thrust truss), eight 5K fresnels with scrollers in the air and 12 eight light Molefays with scrollers at the base of the cyc.

The gear, of course, doesn’t end with the automated and conventional fixtures. Spotlights are also part of the equation, and, as one would expect, they were a part of both tours.

When Morse originally envisioned his production, he wanted a front-of-house spot bridge. “The necessity for a spot bridge was rather obvious. However, due to projected production costs and additional rigging time and manpower, it was determined that we’d use house spotlights,” Morse reports. Although using house spots wasn’t his first choice, there was a trade off. “For the first time, we’ve put upstage truss spots on her,” Morse reports. The truss spots aren’t on Bette the entire time. “A third of the time the truss spots are blocked by scenery and we can’t use them,” Morse concedes. “But there are a lot of looks where the light level is so high that it’s very hard to make her ‘pop out’ of the scene around her. But with a couple of truss spots, we can consistently draw the focus to Bette — no matter where she ends up on stage (she can be somewhat unpredictable) — which helps the situation tremendously,” he concludes.

Woodroffe also makes use of spotlights, but they’re not a dominant part of the production. “We have a couple of front followspots [Lycian Starklites], although often we don’t use them. Often we just light her with specials, particularly when she’s upstage or offstage,” he notes. The show is very choreographed, so he’s able to use fixed lighting rather than relying on front spotlights. Truss lights are part of the visual picture here as well. “We also have a couple of spotlights upstage to pull her out, particularly when there’s dancers around,” Woodroffe adds.

In practical terms, all lighting instruments are used to keep the talent and the scenery illuminated. But they’re also used as color, and a designer’s color palette is one of his visual signatures.

For Midler’s production, Morse looked in one very obvious place for the inspiration for his color palette. “Our color palette was tied to the scenery,” Morse admits. “The set is basically painted blue, which drove me crazy. All of the scenic elements are painted in a pretty dark to medium blue — even the cyc is dark blue on the top. Consequently, we were really limited in some areas as to the choice of color on some of these elements,” the designer explains. To cope with the primarily blue set, Morse had a very specific plan of action. “We either had to use really rich and vivid color to punch through, or just carefully choose our pastels so the color wouldn’t turn to mud,” comments Morse. When the Luna Park theme becomes less dominant in Act II, the color palette opened up somewhat for Morse. “Once we’ve done away with some of those set elements from Act I, we have a little more freedom in regards to color.”

Morse also wasn’t the only person who had a direct interest in the color palette. “One area that Bette and I have always communicated very carefully on is the choice of color for different songs and how they blend,” Morse confides. “She’s very much into that and communicates a lot with me on it,” he adds. In the past, Midler actively avoided certain colors, namely pink and magenta. This wasn’t the case this time out. “I went to her and asked her if we were still under the ‘no magenta and no pink rules,’ and she smiled and said ‘God no, I’m too old for that’,” Morse reveals.

While Morse based his color palette on the set and on input from Midler, Woodroffe had a bit more flexibility. Brightman’s Harem set consists of a raked stage with a reflective black surface and several harem-inspired gauze drops, which perhaps gave him a bit more visual freedom. “The color palette is a mixture, and, at times, we try to create very realistic moments. There are sky backdrops that are lit very literally with white light on the principal and dark surrounding,” the designer comments. However, it isn’t all about literal color interpretation. “There are also some very deep saturated blues and reds which we use for some of the dance numbers; they’re much more to set a mood than they are to simply change the color of the stage,” Woodroffe explains.

Midler’s raucously fun Kiss My Brass tour concludes at the end of March, in Atlantic City, NJ, but may extend through May. Brightman’s opera-meets-lighting opus Harem tour continues in the US until the 18th of this month, then moves to Europe in mid April.

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