A Night At The Circus With Britney Spears

Never one to put on a dull show on or off the stage, Britney Spears’ latest outing, The Circus Starring Britney Spears, doesn’t disappoint, with lighting design by Nick Whitehouse and Bryan Leitch of Visual Light, and production design by Road Rage, a newly formed partnership that includes Whitehouse and Leitch with William Baker and Steve Dixon.

“During the early talks, we knew it was called Circus, and we came up with the concept of the three rings, and Britney loved it,” says Whitehouse. “We had a good idea of what the production design should be and then brought it to [director/choreographer] Jaime King who did the casting of the dancers and the acrobats, and he works with Britney on the flow of the show. Britney was very involved with choreography and set list.”

The stage is literally three rings under which several dancers, hundreds of props—provided by ShowFX Inc. and including everything from garden-variety circus items to flying picture frames—and many lifts are housed. I got the grand tour when the show stopped at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and you can’t quite stand up straight under there, but it’s quite the behind-the-scenes (or should I say under-the-scenes) vantage point.ShowFX Inc. also provided custom VIP couch seating that lines the perimeter of the stage. Tait Towers built the intricate staging system that includes nine lifts. “Just for moving lifts, there are over 100 cues,” says Whitehouse.

Video plays a role in the circus, as the center ring is encircled in a 360˚ 14’-high by 62’ diameter Element Labs Stealth screen comprising 960 panels that Solotech built into custom frames. The Stealth runs content designed by Dirk Decooedt, as well as a super-campy opening film—featuring Perez Hilton in drag at the circus—created by Veneno (who also created a Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” sequence with Spears covering the song, as well as a finale montage).

VYV provided the video control and playback system, which includes two Photon Show media servers and two Photon Controllers. The servers take timecode for the show and wrap the images around the Stealth screen. “The servers and software permits us to control a large number of video layers on the 360˚ LED screen, composite the layers in realtime, and transform the final output so that everything look seamless after going through the LED controllers,” says Emric Epstein of VYV, who worked with Martin Granger-Piche on the programming of the video elements. “There is also an astounding 3D preview of the stage and video screens in the software so you can control or re-program the show without being inside the arena bowl.” Alexandre Barrette from VYV is touring with the video system.

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Solotech also provided the lighting package, including a mostly Vari-Lite rig, with 80 each VL3000s and VL3500s in various positions, and 60 VL500s built into the stage deck. Whitehouse also has 18 PRG Bad Boy luminaires, 16 of which sit in pods that hang in various positions lower than the rest of the rig, with two more at either end of the stage. Each of the eight pods house two Bad Boys, two of the VL3500s, one Robert Juliat Ivanhoe followspot with scroller under DMX control, and a Molefay. Fifty Martin Professional Atomic Color strobes and four FOH Robert Juliat Aramis followspots round out the lighting package.

Whitehouse, who also did the lighting programming says the team was in rehearsals for a month, “two weeks on ESP Vision—some at home, some onsite—then two weeks on the rig.” He also has the first-ever touring version PRG Virtuoso V676 console to control the system, having used the Virtuoso on the US leg and then switching to the V676 for Europe.

Whitehouse adds that the biggest challenge for the design was probably weight. “The rig was originally very heavy, so there was a lot of redesigning and some slimming down so we could play more venues,” he says. But additional challenges involve the aerial work, including the six crew that have to move about above the stage to deal with props and aerialists. And then there’s lighting the aerialists. “We had to light both the performance on stage and the aerialists but not distract one from the other,” says Whitehouse. “It takes a lot of people to make it work, and being in-the-round, we have to do it from every angle.”

The automation is all by PRG Scenic Technologies, the division’s first venture into the touring market. PRG engineered the overhead automated flying system on the show including all 15 winches. “The winch and control system is all custom, including for the aerialists,” says Whitehouse. “We also have a brand new automation console based on the Virtuoso design.” The actual control of the winches is via a PRG Commander™ console. PRG also provided four performer fly winches that the aerialists use with both ring choreography and fabric routines, and a tracking system for the three large picture frame assemblies that each contain one performer. All three frames revolve, lift, and lower.

Of course, no circus would be complete without some fire and cryo. Lorenzo Cornacchia of Pyrotek Special Effects worked with Tait Towers to build a ring of fire and cryo jets into the stage deck for that extra punch.

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