Creating Pandemonium For The Pet Shop Boys, Part 1: The Designers' Roundtable

British pop duo Pet Shop Boys has had over 20 years of success in the music industry, recording 10 studio albums, a slew of remix and compilation albums, and releasing over 55 singles. With singles ranging from originals like “West End Girls” and “Rent” to popular covers including Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind,” Pet Shop Boys solidified a place in the pop/dance music scene, continuing to expand the electronic music genre. The group has produced, remixed, and collaborated with Dusty Springfield, David Bowie, Kylie Minogue, Girls Aloud, Liza Minnelli, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Rufus Wainwright, and Robbie Williams, to name a few. This past spring, the duo—Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe—took home the Outstanding Contribution to Music Awardat the Brit Awards in London. The band released its latest album, Yes, in the Spring and is currently touring Pandemonium in Europe, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Creating the Pandemonium tour fell to creative director and set designer Es Devlin. Devlin, usually a scenery and costume designer for opera, has previously worked in concert design with PSB, Kanye West, and Mika. In 1995, she was awarded the Linbury Biennial Prize for Stage Design for her first commissioned work (Marlowe’s Edward II). Lighting designer for the tour Rob Sinclair, whose previous work includes designs for Human League and Keane, is also touring the show as board operator, and video direction is by Sam Pattinson and Luke Halls of onedotzero. Wespoke to these designers to get a sense of the creative harmony behind Pandemonium.

Live Design: How did you come to work with the Pet Shop Boys?
Es Devlin: I first worked with the Pet Shop Boys in 2000 on their musical, Closer to Heaven. My work is primarily in opera so that was my first experience of working in pop.
Rob Sinclair: I was very kindly recommended by someone with whom I worked on the Goldfrapp show last year.
Sam Pattinson: In the summer of 2008, we commissioned Es to create a visual backdrop for a Nitin Sawhney concert at the IMAX in London. She then asked us to supply the visual content for the PSB performance at the Brit Awards [at Earls Court] in February.

LD: How does this tour differ from the 2006 Fundamental tour?
ED: In some ways, this tour is the sequel to Fundamental. Fundamental started with a single cube that unfolded in an origami sequence of permutations. Pandemonium begins with two walls of cubes, each the same 4m x 4m proportion of the Fundamental cube, but from there, it develops into a multitude of cubes including cube-wearing characters.
Fundamental played with the idea of PSB operating as two halves of a single band brain with the two dancers functioning as alter egos to Neil and Chris. In Pandemonium, the role of the dancers has developed into a more complex narrative around the theme of the individual and the system.

LD: Did the tour grow out of the Brit Awards performance?
ED: In part, we developed some characters for The Brits performance, particularly the Asian business people in “West End Girls,” and these have found their way into “Suburbia” on Pandemonium. The two giant heads of Neil and Chris started out as a joke in “Always on my Mind” on the Fundamental tour, evolved into a celebratory framing device for The Brits, and recur in Pandemonium in “Building a Wall” as pixilated talking heads that get bricked up as they recite.

LD: When did pre-production start for Pandemonium?
ED: We started work on Pandemonium straight after The Brits. I was working on the Take That tour during this period, so it was relatively intense.

LD: What is the Pandemonium tour’s design concept?
ED: Neil and Chris were inspired by Gerhard Richter’s stained glass windows in Koln [most notably, a 65'-tall pixilated window in Cologne Cathedral]. This led to longtime PSB graphic designer Mark Farrow’s artwork for the new album [the cover of which features a white background with a checkmark of multicolored squares]. We extruded these colored squares into three dimensions and arrived at a world of cubes. We were also attracted to the idea of a disposable set; it’s entirely composed of cardboard boxes. We have seen so much LED—and, of course, a lot can be achieved with LED—but we found it refreshing to create the sense of a high-tech video screen and let it crumble into its cheap, low-tech constituents of cardboard boxes.

LD: Describe the sections of the show.
ED: The first section of the show is something like a performance in an art gallery: Neil and Chris, and two musicians clothed in cubes, perform a set of songs against two walls of cubes that display films introducing some of the threads of the narrative of the show. Section one ends as the walls of cubes collapse, revealing a chaotic mass of more boxes. Here we develop characters that have been introduced in the films during section one: a couple has met and fallen in love during the film. In section two, they emerge from the strictures of Olympic gymnastics and find themselves in New York amid a world of fashion and clubs.
In section three, the relationship falls apart. When we first talked about this show, Neil and Chris said it should feel like a great Friday night out, complete with “tears in the toilet.” Section three is the bleak tears in the toilet ballad ballet. Section four brings a sub-plot twist as the cube-clad characters reveal themselves to be ‘80s disco twins, leading to a general celebration and more anarchic activity from the boxes.

LD: The set list is a mix of mash-ups and medleys. Whose idea was this?
ED: The Brits performance was a nine-minute mash up of highlights of PSB. We adapted this approach to the tour. With the invaluable input of genius producer Stuart Price, we started with the entire PSB catalogue, reduced it to songs we couldn’t live without, and then reduced them to the parts of each song that we couldn’t live without, and ended up with a 90-minute sequence of highlights, old and new, interwoven.

LD: Did PSB have any looks they wanted for any specific songs?
ED: Neil and Chris knew that they wanted to use Derek Jarman’s film for “Kings Cross” and a new version of Han Hoogerbrugge’s promo film for “Love, Etc” [the first single from Yes]. Neil knew his look should be something like a futuristic Elizabethan spy. Other than that, the looks evolved as we went.

LD: Describe the set. What are the white cubes constructed from? How many cubes are rigged to fly?
ED: The cubes are 99% white cardboard boxes—flame-proofed—80cm square and 40cm square. About 50 boxes fly using simple yachting pulleys. The rest are some Element Labs Versa® Tiles and a bit of white cyc.

LD: Where did the idea come to have the set break apart halfway through the show? I love the way this shift in depth onstage plays with space and perception.
ED: Chris and Neil had the idea of building a wall while singing, “Building a Wall,”and it started there. I think you’re right; the change in space and depth gives periodic lift to the event.

LD: It’s great how the set has the ability to be configured in a number of different ways, allowing for varied looks and spaces. Were you able to do everything with the set that you wanted to do, given the time and budget for the show?
ED: Yes, and more—we were fortunate to have the time to evolve the show over a number of the early shows in Russia.

LD: Did you design the costumes?
ED: I sketched the cube costumes, Chris’s mirror jacket, and Neil’s Elizabethan spy look. The rest of the costumes were designed and made by Jeffrey Bryant, who has been working with PSB for many years and is a fashion genius.

LD: Rob, what is the concept behind the lighting design?
RS: I treated this as a theatre show. The lighting is there to illuminate the band, cast, and set—to set a scene and help move things on a little. The lighting is not there to distract the audience or to upstage the show. It’s very simple: four straight overhead trusses and two sidelight trusses. The tour is picking up local equipment everywhere, so the spec needed to be as easy to replicate as possible in strange parts of the world.

LD: Did Neil or Chris have a specific color palette for certain songs?
RS: Not really—Es’ notes were rather obscure but made perfect sense. My favorite was to create “tears in the toilet” lighting for “The Way It Used To Be.” For most of the show, the palette came from the video content and from the music.

LD: Were there any challenges lighting around the set or video?
RS: Yes—video is king, so I have to be extremely sympathetic and keep levels down during the video songs, particularly in the first act. The set takes light wonderfully, but I had to cut almost all the floor lights on the first day when the extent of the chaos revealed itself.

LD: Sam, what is the video system like?
SP: The tour has a very simple setup—SAMSC Design Catalyst and three Barco 20K projectors—so the focus is more on making the content integrate with the unconventional surfaces we are projecting on. Also, Chris’s DJ booth is clad in Element Labs Versa Tiles.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we share LD Rob Sinclair’s plots for the production.

Pandemonium Design Team
Creative Direction & Set Design: Es Devlin
Lighting Design: Rob Sinclair
Video Design: Sam Pattinson and Luke Halls (Onedotzero)
Costume Design: Jeffrey Bryant, Es Devlin, Carisa Glucksman, Pet Shop Boys
Tour Music Producer: Stuart Price
Video Collaborators/Animators:
Blinkin Lab
Mark Hough
Damian Hale
Jan Urbanowski
Luke Halls
Mike Chan

Pandemonium Equipment
1 Jands Vista Console
19 Martin Professional MAC 700 Profile
36 Martin Professional MAC 700 Wash
14 Martin Professional Atomic Strobe + 4 With Atomic Color Changer
12 GLP Impression
3 Truss Mounted Spot
6 Birdies With MFL Lamp
3 ARRI 2kW (With Low Stand)
4 60' Lighting Truss
2 24' Lighting Truss
1 15m Scenic Truss

1 SAMSC Design Catalyst Media Server
3 Barco 20K Projector
Element Labs Versa Tile

Steven Battaglia is a technical director and production manager in New York City. He is also a lighting and video designer for theatre, dance, and concerts. Writing about the Pet Shop Boys tour opened his eyes to the idea of creating sustainable/recyclable scenery.

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