This article was adapted from a Learning Session with professional touring lighting director, designer, programmer and technician Jenny Bass. Throughout her career, Jenny has worked with a variety of touring acts including Lea Michele, The Avalanches, Mary Mack, Rae Sremmurd, Tinashe, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
As a touring lighting designer, you’ll have to adapt to many different venues with a huge range of stage sizes, lighting rigs, consoles and other aspects that will affect your design. To put on a great show every night, you’ll have to be able to translate your lighting design to venues of any size and shape, adapting to their limitations while also taking advantage of the unique opportunities each space has to offer. Understanding how to scale and adapt your design will help you consistently put on an amazing show and have a successful tour. In this blog, we’ll explore key tips and tricks to adapt to venues of all sizes, including:
- Preparing for your tour
- Scaling a touring rig
- Scaling a house rig
- Scaling a festival rig
Preparing for Your Tour
Before the tour begins, get information about each venue as soon as possible to help you plan how to adjust your design. This information should include limiting factors like stage size, trim height and any other aspect that could affect your plans. It’s often helpful to keep a log of venue information from past tours to reference them during this stage.
While preparing for your tour, use drafting software like Vectorworks or AutoCAD to plot your design. Drafting software can provide you with detailed measurements, which will allow you to precisely adapt your plot to different stage sizes or trim heights. You can even create a plot for every venue on tour, which will make everything much easier on the day of the show since you’ll know exactly what will fit on each stage. If your ideal design doesn’t fit in a venue, now’s the time to create a plan.
In some venues, you may need to cut parts of your lighting rig. When this happens, it’s important to make sure you still preserve your lighting design’s core elements. When adjusting your design, be sure to prioritize your artists’ requests and keep them and their management informed on any significant changes to the original design. Sometimes, this means simply keeping the production manager in the loop, but some artists may want to be closely involved as well.
Once you have all of the venue information you need, you can plan your fixture patching before the tour begins. Patch information may not exist before you arrive at a venue, or it may not be up to date, so patching in advance can save you valuable time when you get to the venue. If you are utilizing any of the venue’s fixtures in your design, wait to clone anything until you arrive at the venue, just in case you don’t have the fixtures you thought you would. Likewise, go through the venue fixtures and familiarize yourself with their capabilities, especially since some venues may have fixtures you’ve never used before. This will help you effectively use the venue fixtures in your design.
It’s best to have all of your information organized and easily accessible on your laptop or mobile device as well as in the cloud. Be sure to clearly label and organize your files and back everything up twice for good measure. This is especially helpful when you start to get fatigued on a long tour, so you don’t have to spend unnecessary energy tracking down information.
Scaling a Touring Rig
When you’re using a touring rig, you will likely need to adjust and scale it to fit in different venues. During this process, it’s important to stay true to your design, especially as a lighting director. Before making alterations to your design, ask yourself what elements are most important to the design concept, and use this determination to make decisions like cutting fixtures.
If you collected all of the necessary information before the tour, you should know exactly what fixtures you’re going to cut before you step into the venue. If a venue fails to provide you with enough information to plan, see if you can find a similar setup from a previous show in a similar venue and use that as a starting point.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to keep a cue list with all of your notes in it. Some lighting consoles, like the MA Lighting grandMA3, allow you to add notes to your cue list that specify exactly what happens in the cue. You can write notes such as:
- Guitar solo
- Wait three seconds
- Add movers
This practice helps you differentiate each cue and makes it easier to delete or move cues around. You may need to do this if you cut elements out of your rig that were programmed for specific cues.
Scaling To a House Rig
Depending on the tour, you may need to rely on the house rig for your entire show or use a combination of the house rig and your touring rig. This presents a challenge because house rigs can vary significantly from venue to venue. Some venues may be using conventional incandescent fixtures, while others may have only the latest moving head LED fixtures (or a combination of the two). If your budget allows, consider bringing a floor package to help you maintain a consistent look when relying on the house rig.
To scale to the house rig, find out how much time you’ll have at each venue between your arrival and the show. This will give you an idea of how much you’ll be able to refocus, program and run through your design before the show. Since you’ll have limited time on the day of the show, it’s critical to go into the venue knowing what needs to get done.
Also, try to get the venue’s fixture information beforehand so you know if the fixtures in your show file will work with the house rig or if you need to update or re-patch anything. If possible, program the house fixtures into your show files and create presets, palettes and groups. This will help you save time because you can easily clone them when you get to the venue, so you don’t have to start from scratch. Likewise, it can be helpful to have multiple cue lists for venues with only conventional fixtures, venues with LED moving lights and venues with a mix of both.
Each venue on tour will be different, and some may present unique elements you can work into your design. For example, some theaters will have architectural lights installed on windows, arches and prosceniums that you can use in your show. Architectural lights inside a venue can work well for highlighting the audience or emphasizing big moments in your show.
Likewise, venues may have other unique elements like disco balls, video walls, cycloramas or uncommon lighting fixtures. While you don’t have to use venue elements, it can be interesting to incorporate them into your show for the night. If you decide to use venue elements like this, try to make them feel like they’re part of the original design so everything feels cohesive. You may discover a venue element you love, like a disco ball, and may want to incorporate it for every show. However, it’s important to communicate with your artist and production team about using venue elements, so everyone is on the same page with the design.
Scaling To a Festival Rig
Festival gigs often present unique lighting challenges. During a festival, you’ll have to share a stage with many different acts and have limited time to set up. Usually, headlining acts will have time to load in and program the night before, but if you’re working with a smaller act, you probably won’t have that luxury. You may have as little as 20 minutes to set up, so prioritize what’s most important to your artist and have a solid plan in place before you get to the festival. If possible, pre-visualize your festival design in your drafting software since you won’t have much time on site.
Sometimes, it’s better to use the festival’s own show file instead of your own. This can save you time because you won’t need to patch fixtures, and you may be able to take advantage of preprogrammed groups, presets and effects. Likewise, you may discover a new workflow from someone else’s show file that you can add to your toolbox. Additionally, you may have to use the festival’s house console instead of your own, which may be unfamiliar to you. If so, find out what type of console it is, then research it as much as possible before the show.
Ultimately, it can be challenging to tour different-sized venues and festivals because you need to constantly adapt and scale your show design. While things may not always go as expected, having a plan going into your tour will make it easier to operate in each unique venue and ensure an amazing show every night.
I hope you enjoyed this blog, but I also invite you to view the video version of this presentation by watching my Martin Learning Session webinar video replay: ‘Touring Different Sized Venues: How to Scale and Adapt a Lighting Design’.