Up close and personal: Amy Grant's Behind the Eyes tour brings a feeling of home to the road

Almost every website on the Internet dedicated to Amy Grant contains a section filled with stories from fans relating their personal feelings of closeness to the Christian music cum pop singer/songwriter. Perhaps more so than most pop stars, Grant openly reciprocates their affection. In fact, her strong desire to interact with her audience was the driving force behind the intimate setting of her current tour in support of her latest release, Behind the Eyes.

"It was an intentional move on her part to play these smaller places," says LD Abigail Rosen Holmes. "She's much more comfortable, and it's really nice for her to be that close to the audience."

While the tour's budget was also small, the designers were hardly deterred by the parameters. "I was actually excited to do it because my favorite shows to design have always been the theatre shows," Holmes says. "A good theatre adds a lot to a show's design." Naturally, a good working relationship between the set and lighting designers also creates the best results. Husband and wife set designers Larry Hitchcock and Sharon Sinclair had already developed a rapport with Holmes from working the past two winters on Grant's Christmas shows.

"Here the overriding notion was to have an economy of scale, yet we still wanted to create a certain dimension, because Amy wanted the space to indicate two conflicting ideas," Hitchcock says. "The first was the road--meaning both the road of life and life touring on the road. But at the same time she wanted to bring a sense of home to the road. Amy's good friend [choral director and producer] Beverly Darnell was a great help to us in achieving this goal. I call her the interpreter because she knows Amy and the music so well."

Tour manager Bill Thompson was also engaged in the show's pre-production. "He was really involved in a lot of the decision-making and pricing, because the budget was quite tight," Holmes says. "We all made a supreme effort to keep it reasonable."

Sinclair relates that the original set idea had to be scrapped because it wouldn't have fit into the set's allotted trunks on a two-truck tour. "Everything had to fit in two hampers, so fabric is always a good choice for those situations," Sinclair says. "We went in search of different techniques to use on fabrics and sent all the samples to Abbey, so she could light them and see which ones looked the best under lighting. Then we just did a big patchwork, to create a quilt-like effect."

Hitchcock and Sinclair experimented with a variety of procedures to make the drapes more textured. "We played with textures that involved using muslin materials that were sewn or glued, with various depths," Hitchcock says. "In one case we used 'scrunchies,' these squares that look like rough stone--almost like a limestone wall at some points. That was an attempt to give some depth and solidity to it--a sense of mass--and at the same time remain a regular pattern that didn't focus on one particular design. We have a three-panel group inspired by a quilted series of branches, but we stripped them down to just the minimum, and took off the flowers to make a series of sinuous shapes instead."

The designers used a seersucker muslin for the drapes; the fabric behind the panels is upholstery fabric also done in 1'-square seersucker. "We talked to Abbey about this because when you just use muslin andyou have large pieces, they tend to wrinkle in inappropriate places," Sinclair says. "Actually, the more they're on the road being hung up and taken down, the better they look, because as the puckers in the seersucker get puffier, they tend to take the lighting even better."

Holmes agrees. "The drapes are fabulous to light because they have a lot of depth to them; they do a lot of nice shadow-casting and look really rich. And the drape behind them is just a pale gray with a little bit of sheen in it, which also works very well for the second half of the show."

With no opening act, the tour is billed as "An Evening With Amy Grant," during which she performs two and a half hours' worth of material. Using a Light & Sound Design (LSD) Icon Console(TM), Holmes programmed the songs with Doug "Spike" Brandt. "Spike has now truly figured out some of the ways that I like to program, a lot of which involve convoluted layers of timing parked one on top of the other," Holmes says. "This is the fifth show we've done together, so we're almost always both heading to the same place at the same time. I drive a lot of programmers crazy, because having been a programmer myself, I feel the need to touch the desk a lot. Luckily for me, Spike doesn't mind.

"The first few times we worked together, he'd write some cues and then I would, but we've now reached the point where we're often standing there at the same time. He'll be touching the timing while I change a gobo and he'll reach past me and change the color--and it's all good. During rehearsals, one of the sound guys watched us and after a minute said, 'Ah, Lighting Twister.' That's a perfect description for how we programmed the show."

Unfortunately, initial programming conditions were less than perfect because the theatre where they set up in Las Vegas had a rig from Starlight Express hung in it. "That made for a huge ceiling of aluminum truss and PAR cans that was very reflective," Holmes says. "We had a ton of bounce light and it really was deceptive in how some of the lights were going to look. We were programming in the worst room we would hit on the whole tour, and I was really unhappy with what we were getting. We were missing a lot of the richness and the subtlety I wanted. We ended up throwing out huge quantities of what we had programmed and replacing it once we got into the darker room. Programming was an adventure--we just replaced one song at a time."

As producer, Darnell was instrumental in helping the LDs through this tough spot. "Beverly has perfect judgment of what is appropriate for Amy," Holmes says. "She also did a lot of work putting together the set list, and modifying it after we had done a few shows and determined where the dead spots were. It's really nice to have someone in that role."

While she kept some of the custom gobos she had used on Grant's Christmas show, the LD took a different approach for the songs on this tour. "This is way more intimate and quite a bit sexier visually," Holmes says.

The main lighting system hangs from a simple box truss upstage of the proscenium and a straight truss downstage. "It's a big-looking show for its size," Holmes says. "While some of the looks are intended to be really pretty because a lot of her music is that way, much of it is more rock-and-roll than would have been appropriate for the Christmas shows. We got to rock out a little more. The [eight-member] band is amazing; they are all great musicians. The show ranges from her pop numbers to five or six acoustic numbers that she does by herself."

Another difference from the Christmas show is the lack of video screens. "We learned a lot about what looked good on Amy in the process of making her look good on video," Holmes says. "Some of the color correction techniques we use tend to look really good on her whether we're using video or not. So, while we use different colors on the back spotlights, we don't change what we have on her. We found what works and we're sticking to that."

The fairly simple lighting system includes 24 each of Vari*Lite VL5(TM) wash luminaires and LSD Icon(R) automated luminaires, as well as five DHA Light Curtains. Although Holmes knew that Light Curtains did not have a track record on touring productions, she chose them because she felt they were the most appropriate instrument to light the drapes. "There are not a lot of them in this country," Holmes acknowledges. "So I made my poor crew work with this equipment that was largely unproved. We had some teething problems getting them to work at first, but they've proven to be quite reliable. They are really lovely light fixtures, and they provide a nice, beefy wall of colored light that pans down the stage. They give us a lot of different looks--especially considering there are only five of them."

The Light Curtains also appealed to the LD because they are distinctly unlike most touring luminaires. "As much as new gear keeps coming along, there is only so much that hasn't been used over and over again."

Even more distinctive than the Light Curtains are the five floor lamps designed by Sinclair, whose lighting company, True West Designs, manufactures custom lighting fixtures for Disney, Universal Studios, hotels, and retail stores. "They give this soft amber incandescent glow that contrasts nicely with the saturated colors of the backdrops," Hitchcock explains. "They're like the lights you leave on in the living room for when you come home."

Sinclair explains that these units, dubbed Floor Lights, were fairly simple to create. "Larry and Beverly and I mutually worked out the concept for them," Sinclair explains. "They wanted something a little homey onstage to keep the stage from feeling quite so big." After creating mockups on paper in various sizes and standing them up around the room, the designers chose the different sizes to build. "We finally got the proportions right and then made them out of welded steel; the diffuser panels are the same seersucker material as the curtains. They range in size from 3' to 6'. They have incandescent bulbs in them that are run through the dimmer so that Abbey can control what light she wants to come out of them."

During the show, Holmes uses them for much more than just decoration. "There are portions of the show where the musicians stand out, but for most of it they are in the background, so these lovely practical lamps actually provide very useful and good light for the band."

Lighting director Charles Cochran has taken over running the Icon Console. "Charles is doing a lovely job and my LSD crew is great," Holmes says. "I'm comfortable that the show looks the way it should. It was a fun show to do."

Lighting designer Abigail Rosen Holmes

Lighting programmer Doug "Spike" Brandt

Lighting director Charles Cochran

Producer Beverly Darnell

Set designers Larry Hitchcock, Sharon Sinclair

Lighting crew chief Richard Wold

Lighting technician Matt Hamilton

Tour manager Bill Thompson

Production manager Robert Smith Stage manager Terry Cooley

Assistant stage manager Jage Jackson

Main lighting contractor Light & Sound Design

Additional automated lighting Vari-Lite, Inc.

Lighting equipment (24) Light & Sound Design Icon automated luminaires (24) Vari*Lite VL5 automated wash luminaires (5) DHA Digital Light Curtains (5) Scenic prop custom lighting fixtures by Sharon Sinclair (2) Reel EFX DF-50 hazers (2) truss spots (1) Light & Sound Design Icon control system