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ON TOUR

Production: Production Designer And Director • Set And Lighting Designer

JOB OVERVIEW

The designers formulate a concept for artists’ live performance and either create or oversee the design of the stage, lighting, special effects, and choreography. They are involved in song selection, the pace of the show, and the direction of the overall performance.

PREREQUISITES

To succeed, you should have a background in set or lighting design, or both, and the ability to create unique show presentations that are feasible to construct and transport. Willie Williams was once told that he possessed “'a rare combination of eccentricity and common sense.’ When you're designing a rock show, you're trying to show people something that they've never seen before. Obviously, you need a lot of imagination. It really requires both your right brain and your left brain; it is a crucial combination because if you can't turn something you've dreamed up into something that that will work, and that will travel, the tour will be a disaster.”

CAREER TIPS

“The worst technicians are people who really want to be designers. If you have a choice of being a technician on a big tour, or designing a show on a much smaller scale, it's much more important to be doing what you want to do.”

“You have a real relationship with the road, when you're doing this job. It's the nearest you can come these days to running away and joining the circus.”

Classes in theatrical set design and lighting are an asset.

A DAY IN THE LIFE

Much of Williams’ job begins long before the artist goes on tour. “The real job for me is conceiving the show, designing it, having it built, and most importantly, getting it through rehearsals. When you install the show, normally it's in the first venue that you're going to be playing. You'll go in a week early and put the show together. You put the set up for the first time and the band will come in and rehearse. That's when I make my money, when I've really got to perform, because quite often I'm the only person that understands the big picture of what is supposed to happen. That is the hardest part and in some ways, it's the most exhilarating too.” Throughout the process, Williams confers with the artist and oversees the installation of the stage, lighting, and other effects. “I can't tell you the amount of time I've sat in darkened buildings, staring at stages, programming lighting and effects, and just running through things. That's a very big part of the job.”

On a show day, the crew begins loading in around 7 a.m. and Williams arrives around noon to ensure everything is running smoothly. At 3 p.m., the band does a sound check. Afterward, unless some effect or equipment needs attention, there is downtime until the opening act is finished. “During the show, I'm usually on the intercom system talking to the follow spot operators and the lighting operators, giving cues and instructions throughout the show. If there are video cues, I might cover those, and often I'll operate one of the lighting consoles, too.” After the performance, the crew tears down the stage and lighting, stores it on trucks, and the group travels through the night to the next venue.

POINTERS FOR THE JOB SEARCH

“There are many different places to go and learn about the music industry. A lot of people who want to design shows or events will do some associated technical job on a tour. Someone who really wants to be a lighting designer will go out and tour as a lighting technician, just to get a foot in the business. There are some lighting and equipment companies that are always looking for crew people.”

WILLIE WILLIAMS, PRODUCTION DESIGNER AND DIRECTOR

THE LEAST FAVORITE THING ABOUT THIS JOB:

“I dislike not always getting my way. Everything that I do is a collaboration. The thing that hurts me most is when I have a great idea or vision for something, and either I can't describe it well enough to persuade them to do it, they just don't get it, or they disagree. There have been ideas that I absolutely believe in which never see the light of day. You're always dependent on other people to approve your ideas.”

“I think of travel as the best and worst part of the job. You get to see some great places, but constantly traveling is exhausting on a level unknown by most human beings.”

THE BEST THING ABOUT THIS JOB:

“I love the live event. I love that fact that there is no such word as ‘cut’ once the show starts. I love the moment before the video picture comes up, or before the stage does something, because I know what is going to happen and the audience doesn't. There is that moment of anticipation. It's a real thrill for me to hear the audience have this communal thrill of seeing something that they love.”

“I always loved music, but it never occurred to me that it was something I could do for a living,” says Willie Williams. Growing up in Sheffield, England, Williams was an excellent student who had every intention of attending university and becoming an electronics engineer. He fell in love with theatrical design as a teenage extra with the local opera company, but never considered it as a possible career. “Both my father and my grandfather sang opera. My father didn't make a living out of singing opera; he always had a day job as well. Subconsciously, I guess, I just assumed you couldn't make a living out of working in the arts.” That notion was about to change. During the long summer vacation between high school graduation and university, Williams attended a music festival where he met groups of musicians from London and Liverpool. “It was the height of punk rock in England. It was an exciting time when you believed anybody could do anything.” Williams decided to defer university for a year and beginning in 1976, crisscrossed England in a van, working as a roadie for several punk rock bands. Enthralled with the visual and lighting effects possible with live events, he quickly lost all interest in engineering.

With no lighting design or stage production courses available to him at the time, Williams had to learn his chosen craft where he could. In between working with small bands on the road, he found jobs with lighting and equipment contractors, all the while soaking up as much information and experience as he could. After five years, the band he worked with most frequently, broke up and he found himself looking for another gig. “There was this young band from Ireland called U2 that had just put out their first record, which I thought was great. I knew they were about my age. I was 22 at the time. I set out to find them.” Locating the manager's phone number, Williams called from a pay phone, described his experience, and offered to send more details. “He said, ‘Actually we're looking for someone to do lighting,’ at which point I just about dropped the phone.” Williams met the band members when they came to London the following week for a radio interview. “We just got along like a house afire.” Beginning in 1982, and for the next 18 years, Williams and U2 literally grew up together. “When I first got on board, they were doing colleges and small places. In a way it was the completion of my education and the way I was able to gain the confidence to take really big projects. The first time we did an arena show, it was the first time any of us had done one. The first time we did a stadium, it was a first for all of us.”

Between U2 tours, Williams has designed and directed major tours for many legendary rock acts. A fan of David Bowie since his early teens, it was particularly rewarding when Williams began an association with the artist in 1989, on his Tin Machine Tour. In 1995, Williams heard that R.E.M. was planning to tour again after more than a half dozen years off the road, and he telephoned the band's management. Once again, everyone clicked, and he began yet another continuing working relationship. Over the years, Williams’ family has often teased, “You're having fun, but when are you going to get a proper job?” To which he replies, “No sign of a proper job as of yet.”

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareers in the Music BusinessON TOUR - Rehearsal And Storage Facility: General Manager • Office Manager • Operations Manager, Production: Production Designer And Director • Set And Lighting Designer