A conversation with Es Devlin, creative/set designer for U2’s Innocence + Experience tour, she worked alongside Ric Lipson of Stufish Entertainment Architects, both of whom contributed various ideas for the tour design, in what she calls a "really long, beautiful, and completely pleasurable collaboration spanning two full years."
Devlin had collaborated with U2 creative director Willie Williams in 2009 when she was lighting designer for the US theatre leg of Lady Gaga's Monster Ball Tour, followed up in 2012 by their work together on Complicite's The Master and Margarita at Palais des Papes in Avignon, France. "We have a similar aesthetic and approach in many ways, and we both enjoy the collision between genres. Willie approached me in Feb 2013, and I began collaborating with him along with Mark Fisher, Ric Lipson, and Gavin Friday, Sharon Blankson, Morleigh Steinberg. Willie described it as becoming a member of the 'board' of U2 creative."
With two powerhouse design companies working on the set, one might think there'd be a bit of knocking heads, but Devlin says quite the opposite, noting that the creative team's first meeting went back to March 2013 and the chemistry was instant. "I think each member of the team felt pretty established and confident, and able to pass the various aspects of the process to and from one another in a completely collegiate and supportive spirit," she says. "Everybody was sketching; everybody was making visuals to communicate the ideas. My studio team made up physical models. Ric's studio team made animations and worked closely with Tait on the construction drawings. We all inputed into a sketchbook, which became the basis for the video content."
Devlin says one of her favorite days of the two-year process was the day that Williams, Lipson, and she were in a rehearsal room in New York, while Chris Martin of Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen were downstairs rehearsing with U2 for a one-off performance in Times Square. "We were upstairs cutting and pasting and collaging and sketching and painting this final sketchbook storyboard of the show," she says. "Kanye's team came by as they were also playing in Times Square, and John McGuire, Kanye's show director, came upstairs and joined in, cutting out and pasting with us: all very analog and human and great."
Also involved in the design process are the four members of U2. Too many cooks in the kitchen? Still no. "It's been one of the really rewarding aspects of the adventure," says Devlin. "They and Willie have led progress in the art of the rock show, and they understand the craft of it and that the show will reflect the depth of their engagement with its design. We were keen to recalibrate the connection between performer and audience in an arena. We wanted to respond to the geometry of an arena: all that oval air, how to energize the whole mass of air in those spaces so that the atmosphere reaches everyone in the room equally."
Driving the creative process was the idea behind the band's thirteenth album, Songs of Innocence, which was written thematically as a look back at the band members' youth in Ireland in the 1970s. "Even before we had heard it, we were hearing about it from the band," says Devlin. "We honed the manifesto of the show down to two phrases: 'I can't change the world, but I can change the world in me,' and 'I can change the world, but I can't change the world in me.' The first phrase is a lyric from the 1981 song "Rejoice," and describes the feelings of a teenager living with his dad and looking out of his bedroom window, feeling powerless to change the exterior world of 1980s 'troubles' in Ireland but assuming that changing his own interior psychological landscape would be more possible."