Thursday, June 18, 2015

Willie Williams On U2’s Innocence + Experience

U2 is full steam ahead on the iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE Tour, playing arenas this time around, rather than the huge stadiums of past tours like 360° and continuing on after the blow of the band manager’s unexpected death last week.

We caught up with creative director Willie Williams for a multi-part interview on working with set designers Es Devlin and Ric Lipson (Stufish), sound designer Joe O’Herlihy, the evolution of this tour design, and designing U2 without the late Mark Fisher.

Live Design: So, given the propensity for you and the band to start early, how long ago did this one start?

Willie Williams: The first meeting of the band and creative team was in March 2013, so the design process was a little over two years. That said, the first conversation I had with Bono about “the next tour” was on the last tour, which tends to be where these things start. Even then, on the 360°  tour, Bono was asking where we should go next and suggested that, in contrast to the 200 trucks of steel, we should start the next show under a single, naked light bulb.

The tour was due to start in the spring of 2014, but, what with one thing and another, ended up being delayed for a year, so we had a very extended design period.

LD: What were your design goals, as well as the band’s?

WW: As ever, this U2 show was borne of dialog with the band. Every U2 tour has had some kind of touchstone from which everything has grown—white flags, The Blues, architecture, a job reapplication, and of course, once it all stemmed from a pair of wraparound shades. On this project, the genesis was narrative. It’s the narrative that runs through the album: the story of four teenagers growing up in ‘70s Dublin looking out of their bedroom windows and trying to figure out how they fit into the often violent and disrupted world outside.

LD: We talked at LDI about this notion of two different shows, alternating nights. Did that happen?

WW: We fully intended to have two different set lists and make it a pair of shows. This idea survived all the way to the beginning of the music rehearsals, at which point it became apparent that it wasn’t really viable. I really believe that they could have rehearsed enough songs for two shows, and I would have very much enjoyed being able to delve into the catalog, but the question of which songs would be left out of any given show became too big to get around. The potential upset that a punter buys a ticket for the “wrong” show, depending on their personal taste, began to make it a bit of a minefield.

LD: What is the overall feel of the design?

WW: We appear to have created a mash-up of performance, sound, video, and lighting, some of which I honestly don’t think anyone has been seen before. It’s quite a strange show in some ways, but the arc of it manages to hang together in an unexpected and pleasing way. The centerpiece is this screen-bridge-stage-light-rig hybrid object which at times is the performance area and at other times obliterates the performance area. I say it’s the centerpiece, but for much of the show, we completely ignore it, opting for the most basic rock ‘n’ roll stance imaginable.

At the other extreme, the more theatrical moments combine all of the show elements in a new and entirely modern way. After half an hour of no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll, a giant double-sided television fills the airspace of the arena. We show some pictures, and then the singer climbs into the television, and we see him in there, physically part of the video images, hanging in the middle of the room. It’s really quite odd but entirely magical.

Live Design: Let’s talk a little about the creative team on this tour.

Willie Williams: The team is wonderfully diverse, being drawn from many different directions. Gavin Friday is executive director, though his role has been very hands-on during rehearsals. He has been a friend of the band since childhood and is a performer and artist in his own right. He has extraordinary instinct and radar about all parts of the production.

Es Devlin and Ric Lipson have been the set designers though this. Again, doesn’t begin to cover the scope of their work, having been my primary collaborators since the beginning of the project and through its many, many iterations.  

Joe O’Herlihy has been a star, as usual, being audio director in unprecedented circumstances. Joe has worked with U2 for even longer than I have, and weaker men would have quit decades ago, given the parameters within which he has sometimes been required to work. The sound is one of the real stars of this show and was borne of the fact that the staging is spattered all over the floor of the arena, so a standard one-end PA system just wasn’t going to do the job.

Sharon Blankson is head of wardrobe but, having been part of U2’s lives forever, is also able to contribute to all areas, as is Morleigh Steinberg, officially the choreographer but again contributing to the whole show. “Smasher”—Stefaan Desmedt—completes the creative team, being the touring video director who directs the live camera switch whilst flying the plane with his left hand.

LD: What about working with two set designers. How do you all collaborate?

WW: Es, Ric, and I have enjoyed our collaboration enormously, particularly as we realize that we three are unlikely to work together again, it being unlikely that a show would hire two different companies to design a show.

It came about because by the time we began designing this show, I was aware that we were going to lose Mark Fisher, who has been an integral part of our lives for many years.  As a strategy to help shoulder this loss, I invited Es to join the team and come to the first creative meeting with the band in March 2013. Mark was still well enough to come, and I was keen for Ric to come too, having enjoyed working with him on other projects. Initially, Es joked about not being sure what her role could be, as Mark was clearly the lead designer amongst us, so decided she’d be "the intern" and learn from the master. Ironically, and very very sadly, Mark died just three months later so, far from being an intern, Es’s presence has been a big part of helping to fill that void.

For me personally, it has been extremely beneficial to have the resources of two design companies to hand, particularly as Es’s studio and Stufish work in such completely different ways. I’m trying not to get too used to the idea. The division of labor has come about quite naturally, but the favorite times have been when it’s just the three of us "messing about" on paper.

LD: How does the everything in the design integrate, artistically and technically?

WW: The central piece is the screen-stage-bridge-lighting object that runs the length of the arena floor. It comprises a walkway between two walls of [PRG Nocturne] V-thru semi-transparent LED screen, with lighting trusses both overhead and below the walkway. It flies in and out and, via self-deploying stairs and a lift, is used by some or all of the band members at different moments, so it is an object that involves practically all the touring departments.

There are numerous songs where we create tableaux combining live humans, lighting, video content, and camera pictures. There’s one which is a nod to David Bowie’s Sound and Vision tour, where tiny, live Edge plays whilst standing in King Kong-sized video Bono’s hand. Another scene has all four band members in a line appearing and disappearing through manic day-glow yellow digital sash that Raff Bueno, our motion control chief, describes as “if Nine Inch Nails had a Mardi Gras float, it would look like this."

Live Design: What were the challenges for you in the design process?

Willie Williams: I suppose the biggest challenge is not to repeat ourselves whilst working within the surprisingly strict "rules of combat." The requirements of backline, monitoring, and so forth, are far from insignificant, and it would be a brave man that would mess with the known format. For a long time, we were proposing to do away with the backline "bunkers" that conceal the crew and gear, but ultimately, this just makes things ugly. The technical requirements for a U2 performance are very concrete, and the stage footprint has remained pretty much the same for the past 25 years. We have squished the shapes a little from tour to tour, but the basic stage layout and bunker set up is always there. Eventually I understood that there’s no point in fighting it, so opted for a thematic approach, with a stage that echoes their "Innocent" period. The square stage is, in fact, the Joshua Tree stage. It’s exactly the same, a trivia point that has been noted and enjoyed by several of the U2 trainspotting community.

LD: Talk about the lighting rig and the fixtures you chose.

WW: The lighting is really very simple and—don’t laugh—actually very minimal in a spread-all-over-the-arena kind of a way. At first glance, the staging looks like a fairly standard “A” and “B” stage set up with a catwalk in between. However, the different parts of the staging are used at different times and each area, including the catwalk and the "video screen," is a performance areas in its own right. The sheer acreage of staging means I need quite a few fixtures, but they are used very sparingly.

Consequently, I have found myself working in a minimalist way on a very large scale. As I often seem to do, I managed yet again to design an environment with extremely limited placement possibilities for lighting instruments. When the screen-stage is deployed, it cuts the space in half, making it really tough to light the staging areas. The set-up also demands enormously high trim heights for sightlines so, when it came to it, the rig pretty much designed itself around the given parameters.

The rig layout is very simple; there are three trusses above the square stage and further trusses that follow the line of the edge of the arena floor. The mood of the square stage is straight forward rock 'n' roll, echoing the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, which is thematically where that part of the show is set. We’ve essentially built a punk club, and I wanted to summon that kind of mood in the equipment.   

At floor level, there are vintage [Martin Professional] Atomic strobes with scrollers and actual DWE molefays for that fantastic brown low color-temp feel. LED be damned! It’s the glitchiness of these fixtures that I enjoy the most.

The signature fixture is a caged fluorescent strip, inspired by the kind you might find in an underpass or dodgy public toilets. At first, I was insistent on using real fluorescent strips but was eventually talked out of it due to the accompanying RF nightmares. In the end, I agreed to go with cool white LED facsimiles but only on condition that each unit was one circuit only and that they weren’t able to change color.

My programmer/operators, Alex Murphy and Sparky Risk, have spent forever building manual chases to simulate random fluorescent tube flicker and non-linear strobe effects. Sparky has done me proud in his embracing of manual bump-button strobe hits that feel like lighting time travel. It all feels vastly more organic and human than anything you’d ever get out of an effects engine.

PRG Bad Boys and Best Boys, both spot and wash, are the workhorse units. I chose these primarily for their output, given the throw distances involved and my desire to minimize the number of fixtures. I am loving keeping it bold and unfussy. The three trusses above the square stage house a total of only 16 fixtures, which is fewer than we had on the War Tour in 1983!

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