Recently, I had the opportunity to spend the evening at MorYork. It’s tempting to call it an art gallery (which it is) or a studio (true also) but a better description might be what Los Angeles magazine describes as a “modern day cabinet of curiosities” in this article from March, 2015.
Located at 4959 York Blvd in Highland Park, in a building that formerly housed a Safeway and a roller rink before falling into dereliction in the mid-80’s when it was purchased by artist Clare Graham, it serves as gallery, studio, incubation, and event space.
The building, with high ceilings and wonderfully creaky original wood floors, is packed to the rafters with Clare’s work and collections of ephemera.
Furniture made from soda can pop-tops sits next to a display case filled with primitive carved sex toys. A whole series of art features stuffed animals sealed in plastic and bound together with twine.
Still other corners reveal furniture inlaid with human teeth, woodblock art, armoires covered in scrabble tiles, and display cases filled with animal skeletons and doll heads.
One enormous section of shelves near the entrance is filled with vintage carnival knock-down dolls while the opposite end of the space is dominated by a stunningly gorgeous lighthouse mirror.
It’s a mind-boggling, fascinating, and intoxicating environment. Added to the mix is Clare’s recent decision to invite music artists in to perform at MorYork. Alma Sangre (a trio with flamenco) and Edith Crash (LA-based French singer-songwriter) provided a lively evening during our visit, interspersed with drinks and munchies, all surrounded by this incredible collection.
The mix of art and music works, especially because neither is held up as being particularly “precious”. Clare’s work (which has often used recycled materials) is as much about craftsmanship as it is about anything. He’s an approachable artist who has a tremendous respect for, and love of, craft. That’s evident by his work on display at MorYork, and in the musicians that are selected to perform there.
If you’re looking for a deliciously surreal place to spend some time, I’d suggest taking a trip down the rabbit hole that is MorYork.
For those who have read his book, “Cabinet of Curiosities“, this exhibit is especially thrilling. In the book, readers get a view inside Del Toro’s suburban Los Angeles home (named “Bleak House”). The home is packed with all manner of unusual oddities, props, artwork, and collections.
In this exhibit, those collections have been placed on view for the public; and it is horribly magnificent. The show is not a retrospective of Del Toro’s work; but a look at his influences and inspirations. In keeping with that idea, the exhibit is laid out thematically. Paintings, drawings, maquettes, full size sculptures, and more bring Del Toro’s unique visions into full relief in this exhibit that surrounds and immerses you into one mans fever dream.
The work of many artists is on display, and its easy to see where Del Toro derives his inspiration.
Taking its inspiration from the tone and architecture of Bleak House, the exhibit is housed in an architectural shell, with long hallways that twist and turn, opening into room after room. The walls and other elements are in muted tones of black, gray, and blood red. The use of rafters overhead is enhanced by lighting that casts shadows onto the ceiling and surrounding walls.
One room in particular is modeled after Del Toro’s writing room, in which a perpetual rainstorm falls outside the “windows” of the room.
The exhibit is truly wondrous. It’s a through and detailed examination of artistic inspiration and process. A good example is that there are several of his notebooks on display. Since they could easily be damaged by the public, all the pages have been scanned and patrons can flip through them virtually on a touch-screen adjacent to the actual notebook. It’s a great way of revealing the artist while preserving the work.
I have only two small quibbles with the overall exhibit. The first is that it appears to have been put together quickly. The finishes on the display vitrines are somewhat slap-dash, with visible paint brush marks and drips. One would think that an exhibit with this sort of “draw” in the marketplace would have warranted a greater attention to detail. My other minor negative comment is that I would have loved to seen LACMA embrace a greater degree of theatricality through lighting and video. The black costume from “Crimson Peak” is especially poorly lit, diminishing its detail and beauty.
In Part I of this post, I talked about some of the practical issues to be aware of when preparing a presentation. In Part II, I offered some ideas on structure, theme, connection, and research. Now lets talk about building and rehearsing your presentation.
Keynote/Powerpoint or no? Your first decision is whether you even need this element. Consider your audience, consider your ideas, and then remember the old chestnut that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. It’s a cliche but it’s true. Powerful images can allow audiences to connect to your idea more quickly and to recall it with greater clarity later.
However, if your primary reason for using Keynote is to “snazz things up”, please reconsider. Visual aids should be deployed to reinforce your ideas, to provide visual cues to your audience, and to illustrate key concepts. If your material allows you to accomplish those goals without visuals, then Keynote may be an unwelcome distraction.
I’ve had numerous discussions with colleagues about the “best” ways to use Keynote and virtually everyone says the same thing (keep it simple, don’t rely on animation, don’t fill the page up with text and don’t just read the slides). These are all good points so I’ll take them in order.
Keep it simple. YES. Think of the most powerful speakers you’ve ever heard. Chances are, the words they used were carefully chosen for clarity. Your images and page design should do the same. Your audience must understand your point; select images and words that communicate your idea with simplicity. If you have complicated information to convey, either simplify it in an infographic style or include it in handout materials.
Don’t rely on animation. Wise words, indeed. Every now and then, a little bit of text, picture, or slide animation is welcome. Consider how the animation is used. Does it support the ideas you’re presenting? Is it a button to your speech? Can it be used humorously? The point here is to use a light hand with animation effects. They shouldn’t distract the audience from you or the point you’re making.
Don’t fill the page up with text. This goes along with keeping it simple. Presenters who do this seem to think of Keynote as a way to display their notes. It’s not. Either memorize your text or use notecards; just don’t fill the screen with all the words that should be in your head. When people are distracted by reading every word on your slide, they’re not concentrating on you and your message.
Don’t just read the slides. This is death by a thousand paper cuts for an audience. You are there to make a point, tell a story, and engage the audience. You can’t do that by rattling off a list they can read on a handout later. Take a look at the slide below for a typical corporate presentation.
Now try this: For each point, eliminate all the unnecessary words. Arrange those words on the page in an interesting way. You’ll find that your image is more striking and your point is more clear. This would be the uncluttered version:
The main points are clear, and the design even allows the presenter to visually represent that their three goals are interconnected (ah…corporate America…).
Using a key word or image creates a visual prompt. The prompt helps you remember your story (and your point) that you’ve memorized and rehearsed. It also helps your audience recall information after the talk.
To the above points, I’ll add the following:
Cite your sources.If you cite statistics, cite the source. I typically use a smaller, italicized font to indicate my source. That allows your audience to see it’s a verified source without adding visual clutter to the slide.
Similarly, give credit for the images you use. Obtain the photographers/artists name, if possible, and credit them accordingly (by adding their name in a small, italicized font in the lower corner of the image).
Rehearse. Rehearsal will allow you to gauge the length and pacing of your talk; and is your opportunity to experiment with delivery and timing. Even if you know your core material inside-out, rehearsing your talk will put you at ease with the presentation itself. During rehearsal, you may discover that slides need to move around in order to establish your ideas more effectively; or that the order of your most important points are better delivered in a different way.
The quantity of rehearsal may vary with your talk (more rehearsal for a new talk, less for one you’ve given previously). I recommend rehearsing several times, making quick adjustments as needed, then setting the material aside for a few days. This gives you time to think (between sessions) about cadence, tone, and pace. After you’ve made adjustments (rearranged or cut slides, re-ordered talking points, etc), circle back and rehearse several more times.
You may benefit from having a quiet place to rehearse; free from distraction. It’s helpful if you can do this in front of a mirror. Set up your laptop with the first slide ready to go and begin. This may feel a little ridiculous at first. Don’t worry, it’ll pass. During your rehearsal, listen to your voice: Are you varying your tone and speed? Experimenting with emphasizing different words or phrases? Looking for ways to engage audience interaction? Watch your movement: What are your hands doing? Are you standing straight, but comfortably? Be conscious of your voice and your body; audiences pay attention to both. Practice operating the wireless presenter (that’s the device that forwards each of your slides remotely) and making the timing of your delivery to match your slides. Feel free to stop and start. When you stumble, try to figure out the root cause of your stumble. Too wordy? Weird slide transition? Fix it and move on. Your final rehearsal should be start-to-finish without stopping, as if you were actually presenting to your audience.
The key here is to rehearse enough to that you’re prepared to speak, with a solid grasp on your material, but not SO rehearsed that you come across as an automaton.
Alright, you’ve collected your images and words, you’ve built your presentation and rehearsed it. Whew. Lot of work isn’t it? Yeah it is – good presentations take time to create. But now comes the payoff. In the next post, I’ll talk you through the day of your presentation.
In Part I of this post, I covered some of the practical issues in preparing for a presentation. Now that you know when and where you’re speaking AND what you’re speaking about, it’s time to begin collecting your thoughts, words, and images.
Consider theme. Most of the talks I give are meant to be inspirational, as opposed to informational so I tend to start by thinking thematically. Recently, I was asked to speak to high school students about the importance of arts in education. I knew I wanted to include a personal story, given that I have received the benefits of arts programs; and I knew I wanted to include a few statistical examples that reinforced the overall point of arts education. After some thought, I landed on a theme of creativity since that is common to all arts classes. My story and my data both spoke to the importance of arts education to those who pursue and (perhaps more importantly) do not pursue the arts; and how it improves their overall education (and aptitude in non-arts subjects). Having an overarching theme allows you to connect seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive presentation. You don’t have to put your theme in the title; in fact, no one even has to know you have one. It’s simply a tool to help guide you in assessing whether or not all of your points fit under one “big idea”.
Along with theme, consider your point of view. Audiences respond to speakers who know their subject and, perhaps more importantly, are passionate about their subject. Infuse your presentation with words and thoughts that originate in your core. If your words are rooted in conviction and reinforce your points, you will deliver them in a more genuine, honest way. Otherwise, your audience may sense you’re being disingenuous which will cause them to disengage.
Create structure. People are story-based. We crave a beginning, middle, and end. You can insure that you deliver on this by carefully considering your presentation in the context of your theme. Typically this involves presenting a point, providing illustrative information that reinforces the point, then referencing it back to your larger theme before moving onto your next point.
There are several ways to create your structure. Analytical, logical types may want to start with an outline in a word program. Others might choose to create mind maps. I actually prefer to work in Keynote. Many presenters believe this is a bad idea, because it can place too much emphasis on “snazzy visuals” instead of content (and it can, so beware). My work, however, inherently relies on relaying concepts in a visual way so I find “thinking” in Keynote to be very helpful. I usually start with a theme/title page, then create pages for each of my points and fill in some preliminary information. This forces me to stick to my point when I’m putting info on the page. I can instantly see whether or not it fits on that page or should move to another. It’s essentially an outline built in Keynote, but it works for me. Your approach can also depend on the style of presentation. Experiment with a few different approaches and use what works best for your style.
Create connection. People also crave connection. Anyone can stand up and read stats from a slide. Make your presentation personal by sharing a story that illustrates your point (bonus points if its humorous and allows people to see themselves in a similar situation). Take a look at this video on TED. In it, Sir Ken Robinson establishes his points, but then goes further by telling several compelling stories that illustrate his ideas; some are about other people, some are about him or his family. What stories do is open a window between the audience and speaker, allowing the audience to see themselves (or someone they know) in these stories; creating a connection. This brings the audience closer to the storyteller and makes it easier for them to digest the ideas the speaker is presenting.
Collect your visuals. Eventually, you’ll need to start gathering all of your images. I’m primarily motivated and moved by visuals; so I allow a lot of time to browse for images and video that support my subject.
You’ll create a folder for your talk. In it, create a subfolder for notes, another for images, and another for video. Then search through your own files and the internet, remembering that this exercise is all about volume. It’s okay to harvest a LOT of images. You’ll edit later (more on that in part II).
Go for striking, uncluttered, high-contrast images because those tend to read best from far away AND can be seen clearly even when the projector is dim or low-quality. Steer clear of the banal and the literal. You want the visual to support your idea, not bludgeon the audience with its obviousness. To that end, don’t be afraid to be abstract or whimsical.
Collect high-resolution images (aim for 1920×1080 minimum). Crop out any extraneous or distracting details. Rename the file to something that is easy for you to remember or locate quickly; and place all of the files in your respective folders.
One last point on visuals. Someone went to the effort to create the visuals that you find so wonderful. Be an awesome human and give them credit. The easiest way to remember the creator is to put the credit info in the file name; but the best way is to right-click on the image and fill out the meta-data (using Properties on PC or Get Info on Mac). Both platforms provide editable fields, allowing you to enter the creators name and other info, along with tags to make it searchable.
So now you have your thoughts together, an outline made, and a collection of images and video. What’s next? Part III will cover creating your visual presentation and rehearsing. Part IV will cover presentation day.
I’ve been giving a lot of presentations recently. Some of these are pitches at work; others are talks at various conferences for a variety of audiences. After nearly a decade of talking to groups of people, I thought I’d revisit some of my favorite sources of inspiration to prepare for a recent round of presentations.
First stop was TED. TED is known for Ted Talks, of course. These inspiring, instructive, illuminating presentations set the bar for public speaking long ago and continue to be a major source of inspiration. What I take from these is the appearance of ease with which these presenters conduct themselves. Watching these talks is the antidote to so many of the presentations we’ve all seen: presenters getting lost in their notes, not making eye contact with their audience, and mumbling their way through a plodding slideshow of poorly-prepared content.
I also re-read “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte. She does a wonderful job of talking through each step of presenting; and her advice on “story” is peerless.
But, while crafting my two latest talks, I was asked by a colleague what MY process was. I’ve given that some thought and have decided to cover the answers to that question in a multi-part post; the first of which covers the initial stages.
Chances are, if you’ve been asked to talk, it means you have demonstrated a high level of understanding or mastery of a certain subject, a willingness to share your knowledge, and (hopefully) an engaging way of speaking. Now, you just need to prepare:
Gather logistical information. It’s tempting to want to jump right in and start preparing content. However, I like to get answers to some practical questions first. Getting those out of the way up front leaves my brain free to think more clearly about the talk. Avoiding these questions until the end can create unnecessary stress, right when you need your resources to prepare and rehearse. Answering these questions also gives you a sense of how prepared the client is (and a heads up to get cracking if they can’t answer your questions). Some points to consider:
What day and time is the talk? Where are you speaking? How long are you expected to speak? How many guests are anticipated? Are you speaking before or after others? Will Q&A be expected afterwards? Is this part of a panel? Who is your contact on the day? Where do you park (and is there validation involved)? Do they have the proper technology to support the needs of the presentation? Is there a podium? Does it have an attached microphone? Or will you be expected to use a lavalier or hand-held mic? How early should you be there to make sure the technology works correctly? Is this a paid speaking engagement? Can you do your own marketing on social media for the event?
Gather content information. The answers to these questions should assist you in tailoring your content to the specific audience you’ve been asked to address.
Who is the audience? What do they want to know? What is their age-range? Is the audience required to attend or is their presence voluntary? Is there a theme or main idea to which you’re meant to speak? Most importantly, WHY are you speaking? Are you meant to share your story? Present research? Sell an idea? Impart new information? Inspire?
Research your subject. While many people are asked to speak because of their expertise with a particular subject, it’s often necessary to bolster your points with objective or updated research (new polls, recent statistics or developments, etc). I talk a lot about entertainment technology so staying current is important. By not relying on what you think you know, you open yourself up to new learning which will grace your presentation with fresh, relevant information.
In addition to the usual resources (books, published papers, etc), I find talking with knowledgeable colleagues to be valuable. I ask them about the subject and get their perspective on it. Often, their thoughts inform or clarify my own thinking.
In Part II, I’ll discuss preparing your words and visuals, and in Part III, we’ll cover creating your visual presentation and rehearsing. Finally, in part IV, I’ll cover presentation day.
I tend to not dwell on the past. The future, after all, is strange and unknown and exciting – so I’m nearly always focused on that. Once a show has opened, I move on pretty quickly. But every now and then, a show comes along that challenges and changes you. For me, that show was The Who’s Tommy. Given that it was five years ago this month that the show opened, I thought it would be fitting to take a look back…
It began when I was designing a production of Merrily We Roll Along. During rehearsals for that show, the director approached me and mentioned he had two choices for the upcoming summer musical – Disney’s AIDA or The Who’s Tommy. If I recall correctly, I begged him not do AIDA. When he asked why, I told him it was because I could see Tommy in my head. I knew, from the moment he said the title, what the show would look like. One cue sequence “Pinball Wizard reprise” came into my head fully formed, with the final version being virtually identical to my early thoughts.
I suppose it goes back to the original 1992 version of the show which brought Broadway kicking and screaming into modern times as far as technology was concerned; largely attributable to the efforts of Wendall K. Harrington and her groundbreaking video design. The narrative of the show, a pop-rock opera with a disjointed story, demanded a unique visual language that Wendall found through video. I was deeply inspired by her work (combining projection with video monitors in an artful, story-driven way) on the original; and quickly added it to the list of shows I wanted to tackle. The initial design brief I wrote proposed an approach that obliterated the line between lighting and video; such that it would be hard to tell which was actually which.
I did a significant amount of research in preparing for the show, since I was doing the lighting and video design. I culled through hours and hours of historical footage to craft the opening sequence, which is a little over 15 minutes long; and full of exposition that reveals itself entirely through music and movement without one sentence of dialogue. Grounding the story in the mindset of a specific time and place was important, and the sequence ended up working magnificently.
With each design, I like to try something new. With this show, I used a lot of backlight (fairly typical for me) but this time, I added a lot of texture to the backlight. This gave the show some interesting aerial beam architecture, but even more fascinating was what it did to the stage surface. As the actors moved in and out of the shadows, their movements added to the shadow layers; creating new combinations of color and texture. It’s an idea I have had the opportunity to build on in the years since.
Then, I began to experiment with coloring the shadows themselves. This experimentation really paid off in “Eyesight for the Blind” and “Acid Queen”.
I also experimented with specific color arcs through the show. From the deep blues of the “history” moments, to the light blues of Tommy’s youth, to the colorless aura of his teen years and the blues/greens of the “medical” scenes; to the introduction of yellows in “Acid Queen” (overlayed and penetrating into the blue of Tommy’s youth), and finally to the searing red/yellow combo of Tommy’s rockstar days – I had tremendous fun creating the arc of Tommy’s life with color.
I also learned how to blend lighting with video and have one serve the other. Many people are worried that lighting will wash out the projected image. By and large, that’s true, but it’s also possible to use lighting (especially in highly saturated tones and with judicious amounts of texture) on top of the video image to create entirely new landscapes.
Mind you, all of this would have been technical overkill had everyone else not been firing on all cylinders; but the cast, crew, musicians, musical director and director were all deeply engaged in the show. It’s not the easiest musical to do, primarily because it hangs on the thinnest of narrative and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but there IS a story there. For some reason, I’m always attracted to shows that are problematic; and this was no exception. Finding the core of the story took some time.
Most directors feel that lighting and video should “gently support the narrative”. Luckily, I was working with a director who allowed me to use the lighting and video language to, in some moments, drive the narrative. It was an incredible experience – visual storytelling that I rarely got to do, at the time.
The show opened to pretty great reviews and we were lucky enough to remount it about six months later at a larger venue. With most of the cast returning (and reinvigorated by a new choreographer who reimagined the movement of the show, turning it into a more muscular, visceral piece of theatre) we managed to top the original, which was no mean feat.
The show also provided me with my favorite review ever, from Paul Hodges of The Orange County Register, “I felt as of the afterlife was beckoning at the end of an explosively lit ‘Pinball Wizard’. KC Wilkerson’s lighting and video design ranges from delicately beautiful to tyrannically overpowering – effective in this narrative context.” I have lit quite a few shows at this post in my life, but there are only a handful that I can claim as my best work – and The Who’s Tommy is near the top.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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”.
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.
One of the most unique films I saw last year was Grand Budapest Hotel. It was filled with all the oddity and quirkiness you’d expect from a Wes Anderson film. Wes truly embraces that film is a director’s medium; and his specific perspective and style permeates every frame. What I love most about his films is the borderline-obsessive attention to detail. From how the shots are composed to the music choices to the color of the teapot far off in the background, Wes treats each decision about each detail as an important one. I respect and admire that sort of attention to craft that many artists possess.
That tireless pursuit of getting the smallest detail right is something I strive for (and sadly, don’t quite achieve many times) in my creative life. I’m of the mind-set that it’s okay (indeed, necessary) to sweat the small stuff. Now, mind you, I’m not talking about breaking a nail or spilling your morning coffee; of course, those things happen and we have to let them go (and quickly). What I’m talking about is how we create.
Broadway and film composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim states in his book, Finishing The Hat, “God is in the details”. And he’s right. Every single musical note of every single musical instrument has to be selected; then paired with every single word and note that is to be sung. Every decision you make informs and effects every single decision downstream of it; so caring about the details enough to get them right can seem like a monumental task. But when you care deeply enough to make each small detail correct, it can bring a you sense of peace.
Taking care of the details in my own creative life allows me to see when the work is “finished”. There have been numerous times I’ve endlessly fiddled with a show I’m lighting. Often, it’s in the pursuit of narrowing down the list of details that have yet to be addressed. In my work, those notes often come from others (a director or producer, perhaps), but I always have a running list of details I need to complete before I can walk away from the work with a sense of satisfaction. Sometimes it never gets there, and I walk away unhappy with the piece. It’s in those times that I try to figure out what didn’t work.
To be clear, I’m talking about constructive self-examination; not beating yourself up. Putting yourself through the wringer is an unnecessary and unproductive diversion in which far too many artists indulge.
On those occasions when I do have the opportunity to truly get the details right, the sense of accomplishment and the feeling of “completeness” is truly fulfilling. So if you’re one of those insufferable goobers that annoys your friends and co-workers with your relentless attention to detail, just know you have lots of company and that it’s okay to sweat those small details; just like Wes.
I recently lit the 25th Anniversary of the South Cost Chorale at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center. SCC is a chorus based in Long Beach, CA. One of the unique qualities that sets them apart is that they aren’t a gay chorus, or a straight chorus for that matter. They are open to anyone and everyone who enjoys (and wants to sing) choral music. I realize that, in this day and age, choral music is a somewhat tough sell; and it’s to their credit that they (and other choruses similar to them) are celebrating milestones of longevity.
I was asked by the producer to light the anniversary concert. Knowing that the chorus is all volunteer, I understood I was to be donating my time as well. These gigs are always easier/more fun if you’re surrounded by people you know so I asked two friends of mine to join me as programmer and assistant designer. They, too, donated their time, as did the stage managers and other production personnel.
I do a few events like this every year; and I’ve been asked why I volunteer to do something I would normally get paid to do. The answer is: I respond to passion – to people who do something for the sheer joy of doing it. The other reason is, quite frankly, I’m not good with the conventional methods of volunteering; so this is a small way that I can actually offer something of value.
The volunteer environment is fueled by everyone’s genuine desire to be there; and that the purpose for being there is contribute something. In this case, it was their voices. Their voices, raised in song, to celebrate each other and their community. Their producer and their artistic director are both passionate about the group and what they can do; and the outlet it offers both the singers and their audience. How can you NOT respond to the powerful pull of passion?
Volunteering has also been proven to carry a number of benefits. Obviously, you can make new friends and contacts, allowing you to connect with people whom you might not normally meet. It can help increase your self-confidence and can combat depression as well as lower symptoms of chronic pain or heart disease. It can provide career experience to someone young, who is building their resume; teaching you valuable job skills. Perhaps most importantly, in many volunteer situations, you are helping others or contributing to something larger than yourself – both of which result in increasing happiness in your own life.
Of course, everyone is busy, and finding a way to incorporate volunteer opportunities into a busy schedule is not without its challenges. But I believe the benefits are entirely worth the sacrifice.
If you’re interested in volunteering, there are a lot of organizations out there who utilize volunteers. Animal shelters, rescue organizations, youth groups and sports teams, libraries, senior centers, museums, and community theaters are all great places to start looking.