Building The Perfect Stage

Seven Design Works’ Roy Bennett talks with Pollstar about creating spectacular stages for Beyoncé, Nine Inch Nails, Prince and other artists.

Quite often when fans leave a venue after a concert  they find themselves praising the incredible stage allmost as as much as the act that appeared on it.  Not only can great stage design provide an artist with a perfect environment for presenting music, but it often serves as a setting, a glimpse into the performer’s world from which he or she attempts to give you a show like none you’ve ever seen previously.

For a broader picture of stage designing in the new millennium, Pollstar turned to Roy Bennett of Seven Design Works.  Bennett, along with his partners Cory FitzGerald and Tobias G. Rylander, have designed stages for tours by such acts as Bruno Mars, Kelly Clarkson, Madonna, Tegan And Sara, James Taylor & Carole King, and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill.

When we caught up with Bennett, whose stage designs can also be seen on this year’s tours by Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney, he was in Glasgow, Scotland, at the SSE Hydro just minutes before Beyoncé launched the first of two nights in the city.

The stage for the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour designed by Roy Bennett of Seven Design Works.

You’re with Beyoncé in Glasgow.  Do stage designers often tour with artists?

Here’s the thing – I’m not just the production designer or the stage designer.  I’m also the lighting designer as well, so I do both functions.  That’s why I have to be here.

As a stage designer or a production designer, anytime … you’re adding something into a show, you want to be there.  You don’t travel on the road with them.  That’s not what I do.  I kind of get things going and then I leave.  It’s why I’m actually out here at the moment.  We’re adding some new songs to the show, some new props [and] things.

Were these changes planned way in advance or were they made after the tour began?

Depends on the artist.  Sometimes you plan those changes out. Sometimes they happen while they’re in rehearsals.

What are the first steps to creating spectacular stage productions?

Normally I’ll have an initial meeting with the artist, kind of feel them out, even if it’s an artist I’ve worked with multiple times.  When I design something it’s strictly for that particular artist. I don’t [have] a style that I use for every artist because every artist is their own individual.  When I’m meeting with any artist I try to figure out or understand and discuss really what the feeling is of that particular tour. What’s the personality they’re trying to portray on the tour?  Once I’ve got a full view of what I feel is the vision for this particular show, I go back and start to design things.  The process is always designing the stage set first and then I add the layer of lighting on top.  But a lot of the times the stage set is also being designed as a piece that is going to be lit.  For me, stage set and lighting is all one cohesive unit, as well as video.  So it’s taking what I’ve learned from the meeting with the artist and then piecing it all together with all three of these elements.

How far in advance before the tour does this process take place?

It depends on how A.D.D. the artist is (laughs).  When you’re dealing with more established artists, you usually have, in most cases, more time to put things together.  Then there are a lot of younger artists, and again it stems from management and all sorts of things, where it’s very last minute. … It can be quite a process.  Sometimes I can have four months or even almost a year. Sometimes I may only have two months to put things together.

Hooligans In Wondaland 2011 tour.  Stage design by Roy Bennett and Cory FitzGerald of Seven Design Works.

How long does it take after the initial meeting before you have something to show the artist in terms of sketches or descriptions of the stage set?

Again, it depends on the complexity of what we’re trying to accomplish. … I can come up with a concept in a week [but] it may take me three or four weeks depending on how complex it is.  Then you put together … how long, realistically, it would take to manufacture this thing and then see how much time you’ve got left to be able to design it.  It’s kind of a step-back process.

Are you given limitations to consider at this point, perhaps being told you’ll have only so many crew members or a certain number of trucks to move the production?

Yes, there are times like that.  Sometimes I get a budget.  Sometimes I don’t get the budget until after the design. Again, it’s how well thought out it is and how far along the process is.  Anytime I design, I design on a concept first with the realization that there are going to be compromises, but those compromises will never take away from the integrity of what the initial design is.  The compromises are based on budget, on trucks, on crew.  All those elements come into play but in order to sell an idea to an artist first, you have to give them what they want, and then it’s a bit of process of reality. Sometimes it’s all fine, sometimes it’s a financial thing or a logistical thing.

I started as a lighting technician in the beginning of my career. I always think about what it takes to make things happen.  You don’t go into a thing with just random great ideas that may logistically [cause] trouble. Unfortunately I’ve seen [that] happen a few times in the last few years with other artists and other designers that kind of come out of a position where they don’t really have an understanding of logistics.  A little bit of a rash of that going around during the last couple of years.  It’s great to come up with a fantastic idea but if it’s not logistically possible it’s a useless idea.  Unfortunately some people are finding that out.

How do you hear about what’s going on with other productions? Is there an informal network where stage designers communicate back and forth about what’s going on with their projects?

It’s a combination.  It’s production managers, crew people, set companies … people around having to deal with this on a day-to-day basis.  If you’re around long enough you know everybody.  We all talk.  As big as the industry is, there’s a handful of  people, really, that actually deal with this all of the time, at a certain level.  When these situations happen, everybody starts talking about it.

During the creation process, what other tools do you use other than sketches?  Do you build models of the stage?

That depends on the complexity.  Most of the things I do are built on a 3D virtual model.  As you’re building the stage design, putting the lighting in … you can see how it works in the virtual 3D world. So when you go into a venue there are no surprises, or very little.

I’m actually doing something with Lady Gaga right now where we have a model maker making this one sculptural piece.

Photo: Steve Jennings
Tension Tour 2013-14. Stage design by Roy Bennett.

When do you actually see the final stage assembled?

You see it, physically, in rehearsals when you’re loading in, setting this whole thing up and starting the process with the video and lighting.  That’s when everything comes together.  For me, the finished product is the first show.

About creating something that’s unique to the artist – are there times during the initial meetings when artists say they want something another artist had for their tour?

I don’t want this to sound egotistical … I won’t copy what I’ve done for somebody else.  I don’t like to repeat myself. … But I try to understand the principal of what they’re thinking, what they liked about it.

Do those early sketches ever become collectors’ items to be traded among fans?

They might be.  I’ve never thought of it. Unfortunately when that stuff becomes marketable it’s when somebody is dead.

It’s funny.  I do have all my designs that I’ve done over the years, all my hand drawings.  Now it’s all computerized but I have my original drawings somewhere in storage.

Who was the first artist you designed for?

Prince in 1980. “Dirty Mind” was the first tour I did with him and then I did everything 14 years after that.

Of all the artists you’ve designed for, who were the most challenging?

For me, I like a challenge.  I’m hard on myself and I’m always pushing myself.  It’s a positive challenge.  I’ve never had any difficult challenges as far as designing and putting a show together.  I’ve always loved working with Trent Reznor.  I’ve done [stages] for 15 years and what I love about him is we’ve always pushed the edge of technology.  His great understanding of it all … makes it fun.  As challenging as it is it’s also fun because I’m able to do something in a way that you can’t normally do with other artists. 

Working with Prince at the beginning was probably the best thing I could have ever done only because he is probably the most demanding person I’ve ever met.  It made everything else after that easy.  I learned the hardest thing first, which was good.

Tim McGraw & Faith Hill Vegas stage.  Design by Roy Bennett of Seven Design Works.

You’ve talked about logistics, but when does your stage design meet reality?

As long as there is a production manager in place, once I’ve given the initial design to the artist, then the logistical side comes in where you take the drawings to the production manager. … Then the process comes around to where you see what it’s going to take – truck space, how many planes it will take to fly around the world, how fast it will go together – every set company has their different methods. Some are more efficient, some are more expensive but whatever you pay upfront you save in the long run over the course of the tour because it’s less labor and time intensive.  You go through all that before you even start cutting metal.

I’ve done it so many times, hundreds and hundreds of times over the years, that I have an innate sense of what it’s going to take.  But then you still have to refine it down some more.

Designing stages for more than 30 years – can you go to a show and just enjoy the music?  Or do you immediately focus on the production and design?

I think, unfortunately, being a designer, you can’t help it.  You’re always going to be looking at the production person’s [work]. Unfortunately I rarely get to see a show, only because I’m running around doing my own thing. When I see a show, I find myself … going to see what the production is.

Right now it’s only a few minutes before Beyoncé takes the stage.  What will you be doing once the concert starts?

Basically … watching the show, taking notes.  We’re doing two shows here.  I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon before the (second) show and kind of touch up the notes we’ve got.  We’ve added eight songs into the show. … The show, as a body, is pretty much locked in but it’s the new stuff that we have to refine up to the same level as the prior show.

Happy To You Tour 2012.  Stage design by Tobias G. Rylander of Seven Design Works.

Is there a second version of the production traveling to the next location? 

No.  We’ve had that before on other tours but this one just has one [stage].  There are pieces that have multiples.  Part of the lighting system has been duplicated and gets sent on to Asia, or South America or whatever, prior to the production getting there.  To save plane space, [they’ll] put it on a boat, which is obviously cheaper.

Do you ever see an artist performing, either live or on TV, and want to design something for them?

There are a couple of artists but their designers are friends of mine so I don’t put that into my head.  I appreciate what my friends do and I don’t go after other people’s jobs. … But I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked for pretty much every artist I would ever want to do anything with.

How about acts that came before you?  If you could step into a time machine, is there someone you’d love to have designed for?

I would have loved to work with Led Zeppelin.  Fortunately I worked with Queen, the last tour Freddie was alive.  Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd [are] two acts I have always wanted to work with.   I’d have to say I wouldn’t mind AC/DC either.  I like AC/DC.  Everybody does.

Those are pretty high-octane acts.  Is it the energy that spurs your creative muse?

The artists I work for, they’re so diverse.  I’m a big electronic music fan but I also really love rock music.  I love the drive and the ballsy-ness of it.

Is this the greatest job anybody could have?

I would have to say I’m a very lucky man to do what I do.

(Building the Vegas stage for Tim McGraw & Faith Hill in less than 60 seconds)

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