!nsp!re – theatre students hitting their marks

Students perform a song from "Newsies"
Students perform a song from “Newsies”
Every summer, thousands of high school Thespians bring their love of all things theatre to the Thespian Festival, a celebration of student achievement in the arts. Organized by the Educational Theatre Association and hosted by the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, the Festival is a one-of-a-kind, weeklong immersion experience in singing, dancing, acting, designing, directing, creating, writing, and memory-making. Festival features workshops presented by theatre professionals, individual and group performances, programs for technical theatre students, and opportunities to audition for college admission and scholarship. It’s an incredible experience for teachers and students and I’m proud to have been involved for the second year.

The week begins with a performance of “An Evening With…”. This year, the show centered around the theatrical work of 8-time Tony-winning composer Alan Menken. Alan couldn’t be with us in person, but a video crew had been dispatched to his home to capture his thoughts.

The show is unique because of how quickly it’s assembled. A cast of 20 student performers is pulled together through remote auditions along with 15 student technicians. They all converge on Lincoln and meet, for the first time, on Saturday night. While the performers attend a vocal rehearsal (conducted by Jason Yarcho, Musical Director of Wicked), the tech students meet and create a plan for each of their respective departments.

The crew for "An Evening With..." meeting for the first time.
The crew for “An Evening With…” meeting for the first time.
On Sunday, the performers have 9 hours of rehearsal, which includes learning the choreography and blocking, cleaning it, then running it in a rehearsal space, all while running lines and attending costume fittings. While they do that, the tech students are devising cue sheets, coordinating microphone plans, and mapping out backstage traffic and activities. In the afternoon, the techs get three hours in the venue to load in and test their respective gear. Platforms are placed, show files are loaded, and other tech elements are set.

The crew for "An Evening With" loading in staging and lighting.
The crew for “An Evening With…” loading in staging and lighting.
On Monday morning, cast and crew meet in the Lied Center for the Performing Arts where they meet the 10-piece band. As they work through the show, the audio crew sets levels, the lighting crew creates cues, the projection crew runs their piece, and the dressers set up their backstage quick-change areas.

The crew for "An Evening With" loading in staging and lighting.
The crew for “An Evening With…” loading in staging and lighting.
After lunch, the cast and crew have one dress rehearsal, then doors open for two back-to-back shows. It’s a somewhat unique experience in that it materializes so quickly, then vaporizes less than 24 hours later. The students run everything backstage – lights, sound, followspots, projection, costumes; under the direction of industry pros. Like last year, I had a great crew with top-notch talent.

Running the show
Running the show
For the remainder of the week, I conducted lighting and projection workshops for a total of about 500 students. This is a rewarding experience because it’s where you see the lightbulbs start going off; as students realize that the soft and hard skills they learn in theatre are suitable to all areas of the entertainment industry and that they can work in concerts, clubs, television, cruise ships and many other areas.

What struck me most is the level of super-engagement of these students. Their passion, dedication, and commitment are extraordinary. One wonders why that is; until you meet their teachers. These theatre teachers are deeply engaged with their art and their students; forming a bridge that carries the students from knowing about theatre to creating theatre. They inspire these students to commit, to create, to embrace, to BE their art. It’s thrilling to watch; and I’m already looking forward to next year.

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!nsp!re – U2 iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour

With the roar of last nights crowd still ringing in my ears, I thought I’d share some observations about U2’s current tour. This was my first time seeing the band, though I do own most of their tours on DVD, as well as several of the books that have been published about their shows and production. I hold their show designer, Willie Williams, in very high esteem; as a pioneering creative artist in the concert touring industry.

This tour returns U2 to arenas after the overwhelming scale of the U2360º Tour, which toured the world’s stadiums for about 2 years. The smaller environs of an arena suit the band, allowing them to connect with fans in a more accessible way. But just because the scale is smaller, it doesn’t mean the show is less high-tech. U2 have always been at the forefront of concert and entertainment technology; and i+e is no exception.

The first thing I noticed upon walking into the Los Angeles Forum was just how clean everything appeared. Most rock tours are a cluster of cables and gack. I could see clearly into the backstage area where it appeared someone had taken great care to make sure everything the audience could see was meticulous.

The area behind the stage, about an hour before the show.
The area behind the stage, about an hour before the show.

The tour is wrapped around songs of innocence and songs of experience. The set up reflects that idea, and consists of the “i” stage and the “e”stage. The two stages are connected by a catwalk. Suspended above the catwalk, bisecting the arena, is an enormous double-sided low-resolution LED display surface which raises and lowers throughout the show. Set into the floor of the stage is a ribbon of light that glows, reinforcing the “i-e” shape.

Until the End of the World
Until the End of the World

Sandwiched between the LED wall is a catwalk bridge. Contained within the LED wall is additional lighting, strobes, and cameras. When lit from within, the LED wall becomes semi-transparent (similar to a theatrical scrim) allowing the band to be seen playing inside the bridge as images cascade over them. This was especially effective in “Cedarwood Road” (with Bono walking through the streets of Dublin) and “Until The End of the World” (with Bono superimposed over The Edge – perfectly fitting, given the Judas/Jesus nature of the song).

Cedarwood Road
Cedarwood Road

During one sequence, the LED wall rises and four mirror balls lower from beneath it to form a different look for “Mysterious Ways”. Show designer Willie Williams always finds a way to use mirror balls and seeing them show up in such an unexpected way was delightful.

There were also a number of lights used as architectural interest, lying horizontal on the stage and catwalk floor. These units rose during “City of Blinding Lights” to form brilliant pillars of light. They were joined by similar fixtures which flew in from above. These units combined creatively with the video content on the LED wall, rendering an incredibly beautiful scene.

City of Blinding Lights
City of Blinding Lights

Surrounding the upstage side of the “i” stage were lighting fixtures and strobes, all placed very low to backlight the band. These were especially effective in “Vertigo”. Perhaps what struck me most about the show was how “minimal” it was. I know – how can a show with this much tech be considered minimal?

I suppose it’s in the approach. The lines of the stages are super clean. There is no color on the set, only black.The use of color in the lighting is minimal, with very little saturation (a touch of blue here, a light addition of amber there). The only songs with any real “color” were “Mysterious Ways” and “Where The Streets Have No Name”. Even the cues were minimal. I remember seeing Willie Williams at a conference a few years ago and he mentioned then that he didn’t really do lots of cues. He said something along the lines of, ” I just set a look I like and then live in that for a while”.

The massive screen/catwalk
The massive screen/catwalk

One would think that approach would result in cueing and stage “looks” that are boring. But it doesn’t. It works in a magnificent way; allowing the band to inhabit the space and the audience to not be distracted by the constant changing of lights. The creative blend of music, lighting, and video is elevated by using a light hand. Practicing such restraint and putting in only what needs to be there is one of the hallmarks of a true artist.

If you have the chance, it’s definitely a show worth seeing. If not, here’s a great video of the entire show from May 26th, 2015.