The Rise of the House of Usher

Peter Morse Learns the Meaning of Evolution

Rising young R&B star Usher has had a major success with his 8701 Evolution tour, seen throughout the US this summer. Lighting Dimensions' Sharon Stancavage caught up with Peter Morse, the LD for the tour.

Sharon Stancavage: How did you become involved in this tour?

Peter Morse: During the Madonna tour, Jamie King, who conceptualized and designed Madonna, Ricky Martin, and [the Las Vegas spectacular] Storm, asked me if I wanted to be involved, since he was getting involved in the tour. After a few meetings, Jamie decided to bow out, but an associate of his, Omar Lopez, took over and tried to get me hired. They didn't hire me initially — they went with someone else. Then, at the 11th hour, they asked me to help them get through Europe with the former party's lighting design. I made what alterations I could with the time I had (basically four days) and we went to Europe and had a pretty good run.

SS: It had to be difficult coming in at the last minute.

PM: Well, they'd already rehearsed the show. There was no videotape of it. There was no audio recording. There was nothing. We went in and programmed it blind because the rehearsals we saw were kind of disorganized. It was really tough, but we got through it. In four days' time in Amsterdam, Eric Wade, my programmer, and I knocked it out. I stayed with it for a few shows in Europe and, once it was flowing, I came home. I was then asked to start conceptualizing a US tour.

SS: Did Usher have any specific ideas about the look?

PM: Not really. Usher is a brilliant performer. He's one of the best performers I've worked with in a long time. But he has a difficult time settling on a set list, on an arrangement, or on the choreography. He's always trying to reinvent things, and that's to his credit. His creativity never stops. There's never a time when you can sit down and say, “It's complete, now we're on auto.” Day by day, he's asking for changes — sometimes very big changes.

SS: How did the design for the US tour come together?

PM: Well, one of the problems I had with the original design, which I didn't do, was with the ramp. There's this beautiful spiral ramp on the stage, but the lighting truss was a box truss overhead with no sidelighting, and there are a lot of dancers. So I had to work with that. But on this particular tour, we came up with trussing that accentuates the curvature of the spiral approach of the set. It reflects that, plus there's also a lot of low-level sidelighting, which really helps the dancers. It's more of a theatrical rather than a rock-and-roll approach.

SS: How big is the rig?

PM: The lighting is in two trucks. It's not a huge show. It's working sheds and a few arenas. I think the set itself is pretty ambitious. The lighting is rather conservative for me, but others probably think it's ambitious.

SS: Did the overall look of the show change for the US tour?

PM: Originally, the band was in the pit. Then we got to Europe and, little by little, day by day, they wanted the band on the stage. Now it's been redesigned with video and the band onstage. It works quite well.

SS: Did the show's look change with the addition of the band onstage?

PM: It's very asymmetrical. The entire band is stage right, the ramp is basically center, but all the choreography and dance takes place either across the apron or at stage left. It's actually quite a nice look.

SS: Is the lighting asymmetrical as well?

PM: The sidelighting is very symmetrical, but I'd say 50% of the lighting is asymmetrical and that's the part that follows the curvature of the set.

SS: Visually, was it a challenge balancing the amount of light on the band against the amount of light on the dancers?

PM: I personally felt that the focus of the show was on the dancers and Usher — and I lit it that way. Usher lately feels that the band needs more light, and that's an easy fix. I felt when they put the band onstage that yes, we should light them, and yes, when they're featured we light them. But when there's dancing that's where the focus should be.

SS: What kind of gear is out with the show?

PM: We're using mostly High End Studio Colors® and Studio Beam PCs for wash. We're using some Vari*Lite® VL6Cs, some [High End] Studio Spots®. My highest-output units are the Martin MAC 2000s, which are there because of the video. I also added Studio Color 250s as downlight on the band.

SS: What kind of conventionals do you have in the rig?

PM: I use Mole lights. We knocked nine-lights down to three-light strips. They wrap around the proscenium and surround the stage. Usher wanted more audience light and he wanted it in the fashion of the Mole. Frankly, I had kind of an aversion to that, so we came up with something that followed the outline of the proscenium arch and it has a nice look to it.

SS: Your gobo use?

PM: There are onstage gobos. Usher was concerned, because of the original designer's use of them. I ignored that, because I had a feeling he used them in a different way than I would use them. I was careful about what I picked and the way I used them — I never go hard-edged with anything. I love the mottled look that gobos give you if they're focused properly.

SS: Do you use stock or custom gobos?

PM: About 50/50. I have a preferred list of gobos for every light I use and some of that varies, of course, because of the artist. I also have a preferred list of color in the lights that have a color deficiency, and as long as budget permits, we use the replacement colors.

SS: Is this a show filled with vibrant color, or is it more subdued and pastel?

PM: It's a little bit of both. It's really vibrant on most of the songs. But there's a section of the show that he calls “the romantic section” where we're in blues, lavs, and real pale blue-greens, which he hates. Usher has a good sense of color and he's very conscious of it. He didn't want a rap show or a light show, and I agreed with him. But, little by little, as the tour progresses, he wants more of a light show and that's OK, although he could get away with fewer lights. But I'm happy to give him what he wants.

SS: Does the show have more single-color or multicolor looks?

PM: I have a hard time with monochromatic looks. To me, a monochromatic look has no more than three or four colors in it — even if they're just strikes of color.

SS: Are there any colors that you avoided?

PM: Green, which is unfortunate, because there are some greens that work beautifully with other colors. I never light people with green and green is a great highlight color. One of the purposes of lighting, in my opinion, is to direct the eye to where the action is, and, sometimes, vivid colors such as that will pop through an otherwise monochromatic look. But, for Usher, green is verboten.

SS: What's your next project?

PM: I'm definitely doing Disney on Ice in the fall, which will be a fun experience. I have a few other things that are in the discussion phase right now.

Contact the author at [email protected].


Lighting Designer
Peter Morse

Lighting Director/Programmer
Eric Wade

Lighting Programmer
Kille Knobel

Lighting Crew Chief
Russ Felton

Lighting Technicians
Bill Boyd, Paul Costa, Peter Feher, Robert Gallegos, Mike Ryder

Lighting Supplier
LSD/Fourth Phase Nashville

Lighting Equipment

40 High End Systems Studio Colors
26 High End Studio Spots
34 High End Studio Beam PCs
16 Martin Professional MAC 2000s
24 Vari*Lite VL6Cs
14 Mole-Richardson 9-lights
1 Syncrolite SX3K
4 Reel EFX DF-50 hazers
3 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II consoles