Fall into the Gap

There are not many professions about which someone can say they "fell into it," but lighting design seems to be one of these. Case in point, Alex Reardon: He began working for lighting companies "as a general-purpose grunt" then learned to program the Wholehog® and Icon Console™. His first show as LD was in 1994 for UK-based boy band East 17; he was also crew chief, programmer, and board op. He went on to light European tours including Vanessa Mae, Des'ree, Tears for Fears, and Kim Wilde, and in 1995 he toured US theatres and clubs with Adam Ant (see LD July/August 1995, page 18).

Since then, in addition to designing for Crowded House, Judas Priest, and Duran Duran, Reardon has programmed for a variety of musical acts from Dixie Chicks and Dwight Yoakam to Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, and Toni Braxton. In 1998 he moved to California, and is now "a very happy denizen of Venice Beach." LD spoke to him just before he went to Europe to design and operate Judas Priest's latest tour.

Amy L. Slingerland: How did you decide to go into lighting?

Alex Reardon: I fell in. I knew a guy who knew a guy, and I went along to change bulbs in PAR cans. To be honest, I still don't know what I want to do when I grow up. I was looking for a job, it interested me: I thought, that looks fun. Pretty much as everybody did, I believed the hype, I thought it was glamorous. Then shortly afterwards, I realized it was actually a lot of hard work. But also very rewarding.

I started with Fisher Lighting in London; they did big private parties and corporate stuff. It was a pretty good foundation, but I didn't really learn much about lighting. I started freelancing for Meteor Lights and Essential Design. Meteor was then doing a lot of rock and roll, and Essential were doing a lot of corporate one-offs. Then my old school friend, Nick Archdale from Flying Pig, brought out the Wholehog I, and I was one of the first five or 10 people to learn how to use it, so all of a sudden I was needed in a slightly more able capacity than as a truss-bolter and started programming shows.

That's basically where I learned how to busk shows, because the things I could do on the Hog you could previously never do. I did a lot of TV shows where they have three or four bands in and just go. About a year after that the Icon desk started making its appearance, so I got trained on the Icon Console and stayed in England doing European tours.

I did a lot of raves as well. With a rave you have no real artistic temperament dealing with you, you're totally on your own recognizance. You can play with the latest and greatest equipment because the money is fantastic, and try and break it, see how much fun you can have with it, and then bring it into a more creative environment like a show.

ALS: What are your favorite kinds of projects to work on?

AR: I had a really good time recently lighting the Midtown Music Festival in Atlanta, where the venerable RA Roth got me to design the main stage. We had Live, Fuel, Black Crowes; we had 20 bands. Doing a festival, you kind of have to be all things to all people. It was the modern rock stage, so I couldn't just do cliché; I also had to program the Icon board so that visiting LDs could very easily get their head around how I had laid it out, to busk a show for themselves, so that it would look like it had been programmed a lot better than it had. It wasn't just my own creative criteria to satisfy, I had to try and do something that everybody would be able to find something useful for themselves, and it worked really well.

I love the challenge of jumping from a design for Duran Duran to a contemporary rock festival to Judas Priest and giving each a unique style. The best compliment I would hope to receive would be that the show I designed was perfectly suited to the band.

I would say I have the most enjoyment in my job when I'm dealing with bands that have been around for a while or who are brand new. The ones that have been around for a long time understand what it takes to do the job, the hours and the effort that it takes. Once they're satisfied that you know what you're doing and you've got the idea, you can sort of run with it and have fun.

One of the most important things any LD can do is to get communications sorted out immediately, from the very first time you meet the management or the band, work out exactly who's pulling the strings, who you have to keep happy, and exactly what they want. Although you have to listen to everybody else, it's pretty much who's the key player in this, who's going to throw a fit if it all goes wrong, and keep them happy.

ALS: Would you say you have a philosophy or style of lighting, how you approach a project?

AR: Balance creativity with budget. Ask as many questions as possible before submitting a plot. This will force others to think it through and hopefully catch problems before they happen. Some designers take very little responsibility for their initial drawings and end up changing everything because they didn't pay enough attention. Changes at the behest of the band are one thing, but making everybody work until they drop because you didn't think it through is unacceptable. In every production there are teething problems. If you can have a fix for the problem before someone higher up the food chain asks you, "What are you going to do about that?" then they will let you get on with it. And don't yell at the crew!

I will simplify a show's color structure, in that I like to make very strong identifying color palettes with each song. Two, maybe three colors per song, which I can then vary the degrees or shades of. I think when you're following the ebb and flow of the set list, it's good to be able to follow that flow chromatically. If you can keep it simple and strong in each song and identify them, then each song will sit up more to the eye. You can always add on bells and whistles as you go down the tour.

I think I've been lucky in that I've only been touring for about five years, but I've been able to be involved in either programming or designing myself a major spectrum of musical styles. I think I can bring into most shows a fairly wide amount of experience without being too old and tainted by the gig.

And I love that moment when what has up until that point been an idea on a piece of paper becomes reality, and you actually get to turn on your new toy and play with it, and go, "OK, that worked," or "that didn't work," or the ideas that I had wanted to have actually look the way they're supposed to look. Which is why I like doing a lot of stuff in 3D first. I do a lot of VectorWorks drawings and wander around them in the virtual space, just to make sure, for example, that the truss spots can actually hit where they're supposed to hit. And then you can transplant that into a two-dimensional top view for rigging plans.

ALS: Is there another genre of lighting you'd like to branch into?

AR: When I was living in Europe I had a better mix of industrials and rock and roll; since I've been over here, it's been pretty much all rock and roll with occasional Wholehog programming shows for other LDs and industrials. I'd love to break into it because it keeps you fresh. There's a certain amount of scale to worry about, a certain sense that it has to be right the first time, which is good. It focuses you.

ALS: What would be your dream project?

AR: One thing I haven't done is one huge stadium rock concert. I've done from arenas to nightclubs, and I just want to move up the next rung in the ladder. Unfortunately, I think I got into this slightly after the door had closed into the "supermodel" territory of the Woodroffes and the Bennetts. I think people are now spending so much money on these huge shows that they're kind of terrified of using anybody else. They do a great job, but the chances of getting a break into that world are going to be very hard now that the budgets are just astronomic. But some of the shows I've seen of Roy Bennett's have just left my jaw on the floor. I'd love to program a show for him one day.

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