Breaking from design conventions of 21st century touring sets, the first headline stage for Sugarland is an unprecedented blend of the steam punk genre with sophisticated mechanics and scenic artistry. Based on current “Incredible Machine” tour reactions and reviews, the set has become a real show stopper and may be the impetus for a new design trend.
Rather than rely on digital graphics, the “Incredible Machine” tour set is a heavy dose of opera-style scenery technologically engineered for function and durability and finished with fine art. Designer Steve Cohen has integrated gear and tube stanchions, an arched bridge, wood and brass-like surrounds, curved chandeliers, and Victrola horn embellishments to the P/A system to draw the audience into a visceral time machine experience. The design concept so vividly captures the band's spirit that it inspired Sugarland to pen “The Incredible Machine,” the tour's title song.
“It is very brave for country artists to go with a set that's so stylized,” says Cohen. “But they recognize the audience appetite for this type of fantasy-laced reality. They are the first to do this and it is making an impact.”
He points out that this style has proven popular in films such as Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland” and Disney's “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But it has not been tried with a modern concert touring set.
While the innovative stage performs well for band and audience, the show-behind-the-show is equally impressive. A production team headlined by Cohen and supported by Atomic Design and Tait Towers has solved Sugarland's need to create a seamless experience with artistic and technological elements spanning the 19th through 21st centuries. Although high def video has a strong presence onstage, it's the soft goods and painted scenery that infuse the show's ambience.
Master designer Cohen envisioned a 24-foot diameter circular video screen on a 60x40-foot stage footprint. He surrounded it with a “brass” mirror-like circular oculus framed in “wood” with font notations saying “then” and “now.” A floating bridge connects the keyboard riser with the drum riser replete with a nostalgic railing, scenic levers and gears. Flying over it all are curved chandeliers reminiscent of the great steam power era.
Cohen describes the set as ultra-modern technology anchored in Victorian looking materials and embellishments. He sees the oculus as a window into the “Incredible Machine” world. “I think the audience finds it more interesting to walk into a real environment rather than a virtual reproduction. They become part of the actual experience.”
While the design style sets the concert tone, functionality was of paramount importance. Cohen's concept was translated with modern technology and logistics for function, installation efficiency, and durability at Tait Towers in Lititz, Pa. The Tait team built light weight screen surrounds from foam and high strength alloys. They custom molded 100 light bulbs, filled with 8,000 LEDs, to resemble their 19th century incandescent counterparts. Tait electrical engineers custom built DMX LED control drivers that allow the lighting programmers to have full control of the bulbs.
“Steve's design is so unique because it focuses on scenic artistry in a world where automation prevails,” says Adam Davis, president of Tait Towers. It's unusually elaborate and decorative. It stands alone in the current touring environment.”
He adds, “The design came to us in perfect scale of size and shape as it relates to and fills the stage.”
The design's clever use of space and form enabled Tait to engineer a highly efficient set that can be installed and torn down in less than two hours.
Modern technology-turned-old was the challenge for Atomic Design, across the street from Tait, when it transformed the ultra-modern engineering feats into old-looking contraptions and weathered floorboards. “This style really needs to serve two masters – the artists and the audience,” explains Cohen. “The scenery needs to feel real to the artists on stage and to the audience members in the back of the house. Atomic Design accomplishes this very well.”
Atomic realized the set's romantic time machine feel with innovative finishes and fine art. Aluminum, plywood, plastic, and foam constructions were made to look like rusted heavy steel, burl wood, brass, and antique Verde Gris ironwork. Victrola horns were built to accent P/A system speakers and were finished with zip ties that look like elegant leather stitching. A kabuki cloth with mesh screen openings was sewn as the show's front curtain to impart a sense of the gritty steam power period.
Realizing that the physical environment must support the artists, the tour theme, and the audience experience, Atomic went to extra lengths to include trademark Sugarland icons. “We incorporated such elements as their winged heart, umbrella, and feathers, into the artwork,” says Atomic scenic artist Tim Nies. “Those icons are all in the scenery to pull the steam punk design into focus as a spotlight for Sugarland.”
For added theatrical effect, Atomic has built the group's iconic scalloped umbrella with a gear assembly handle. Jennifer Nettles flourishes it while singing “The Incredible Machine.”
“This project is a textbook example of efficient collaboration between the designer, the engineers, and the scenic artists,” says Soren West, president of Atomic. “We can be only as good as our client who, in this case, is Steve Cohen. He's drawn from the synergy between Atomic Design and Tait Towers to form a true collaboration and fully realize his vision. That's the best way to nurture a concept and bring it to life.”
Cohen echoes that sentiment. “The project has come together very well. The soft goods and painted scenery approach works beautifully for artists with multi-dimensional dynamics. Sugarland is loving it!”