Kelly Clarkson ‘Meaning of Life’ Tour

by Steve Jennings (Photos and Text) • in
  • April 2019
  • Designer Insights
• Created: April 8, 2019

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KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

PLSN caught the opening night of Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life tour in northern California. The 2019 shows take place after a four-year touring break. With many Grammy wins to her name and over 25 million albums sold, Clarkson’s schedule is quite busy — not only with this tour, but as a coach on TV’s The Voice and her own self-titled variety talk show to air later this year. We spoke with Jason Baeri, Clarkson’s associate lighting designer and lighting programmer, about working on the tour with lighting designer Roy Bennett as well as set designer James “Winky” Fairorth from Tait and Upstaging’s John Huddleston.

KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

Jason Baeri
Associate LD/Programmer

“Kelly is one of the most down to earth and approachable human beings that ever walked the earth.” says Baeri. “The second she walks on stage, she is instant friends with everyone. She’s someone you chat with at a supermarket, or sitting next to at a baseball game, she’s a new friend you’ve just made at a bar — which made it ever so appropriate that her stage design was mostly centered around a 60-foot thrust that was fashioned into a VIP bar.”

The stage is also supported by a large video screen upstage that largely displays I-Mag so everyone in the house can feel connected with her, no matter how far away they are.

One of the challenges that was presented to Roy Bennett in the design was providing a big impactful look that reads against the huge video surface upstage without unnecessarily competing with it. “We wanted to provide an appropriate environment that complements the I-Mag so that it creates one cohesive visual landscape,” Jason says. “The solution that Roy came up with was to build a grid overhead of 120 Elation Dartz 360’s that provided a huge volume of individual point lights that could fill an arena with big rock ‘n’ roll looks, but were not so bright that they were blowing out the scene. Not to totally kowtow to the video wall, the grid was complemented with 40 GLP JDC1’s to provide that extra punch for when we wanted to take a little power back from the screen. Roy rounded out the rig with VL4K Beam washes for band light/stage wash/heavier aerial effects, and GLP KNV cubes as a new take on audience blinders. I think the KNV cubes are fantastic. They have the spread and punch to provide a big, fat audience wash that’s soft and omnipresent, while simultaneously still being able to break down to individual cells for detailed texture and interesting pattern work that created a sort of articulated eyebrows to the rig.”

Bennett also employed a four operator Follow-Me system, which linked to 10 Claypaky Scenius Unicos as followspots. The learning curve for those was pretty steep, notes Baeri. “We were using a new build of software from them that lets you calibrate to the stage via an imported model, similar to how the disguise media server mapping works. As with any new tech, there were some real world considerations that required new features to be engineered into the software on an almost daily basis. Not to speak in any way disparagingly about the Follow-Me guys, they had written a really solid piece of software, but there are certain things you just can’t anticipate until you’ve got the system in a real environment, asking it to do things that might be slightly out-of-the-box. Little things like the spots dipping off her face when she walked from one part of the stage to another — that just doesn’t cut it for followspots.”

After a few weeks, coupled with hard work of the crew led by Zach Svoboda that were calibrating and operating it, they worked out all the kinks and delivered a fine piece of software that Baeri says he looks forward to using again. “I was especially impressed with their auto iris system that they built for us to maintain iris size from multiple angles automatically. Instead of a convoluted array of faders and operator guessing, I just punch the size beam I’m looking for into the console (head to toe, head to waist, group, etc.) and Follow-Me keeps that beam size consistent automatically, no matter where she is on stage.

“Kelly’s camp, including Kelly herself, is one of the most communicative groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” adds Baeri. “Kelly approached this show with a rough framework of how she wanted to go, but was equally as interested in how we, as a design team, wanted it to go. There’s no 10-layers-of-management to wade through to figure out what she wants or what questions she has. If there’s an issue that requires her attention, you just walk up to her, or she’ll find you, and the issue is solved. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is compared to some of the management dynamics with some other artists these days. So, with that approach in mind, we blocked the show in an afternoon, with everyone communicating and making sure we weren’t digging any holes for ourselves.”

Baeri says there were three to four days of previz and eight days with the rig to put it together. “You couldn’t ask for a better team. Lighting director Fraser MacKeen has been with Kelly for 12 years and knows every secret a person could ask for about where she might go next or how to approach some of the songs. John Huddleston (Upstaging lighting), made sure we had absolutely everything we needed from day one. Thomas Walls (lighting crew chief) and I have worked together for years now, and he and his crew excel in getting a rig up without delay on a daily basis. Manager Brandon Blackstock, Jay Schmit (production manager) and Alan Doyle (stage manager) run a tight ship. Loren Barton (video programmer), Gabriel Coutu-Dumont (video content), and Chris Dye (artist production manager), to name a few, are all fantastic. I’m even getting halfway good at this lighting thing.”

Clarkson’s story was presented in three different ways — big rock song moments, theatrical moments and live TV moments. Therefore, the rig and the set had to be approached in three distinct ways that were visually unique. For her rock songs, the rig had to reflect the scale and grandeur of those songs. Those were the big looks that utilize the whole rig and the audience. “They were the go- big looks that fans have come to expect of a Kelly show. The theatrical songs, most notably the Broadway medley, allowed us to bring the show down and give us deep dramatic breaks in the set that were a strong juxtaposition of high-energy to deeply emotional. There’s no one that can accuse Kelly of not being connected to her music, and these moments allowed us to see that connection in-between high energy extravaganzas. The third moment was the broadcast moment. Every show had a 15-minute segment called ‘Facebook Live,’ where she would talk a little and sing a song or two for the audience streaming along at home. This, of course, required a TV-friendly look that made it look like her set was a part of the big show. This wasn’t too much of a stretch; more and more shows these days are keyed with the artist in broadcast-friendly spots to aid in the I-Mag and cell phone picture, and Kelly’s show was no exception. Roy had most of that framework in place in the design, we just needed to come up with a set of TV talk show looks that could be flexible enough on any given day to accommodate the 27 different guests and songs she’ll have throughout the tour.”

The “lift” that Kelly Clarkson is on later in the show evolved in the show’s development, notes Baeri. The screen is about seven feet off the deck to accommodate the prolific use of I-Mag for the Broadway medley Clarkson does. “I had this idea to get her up on a box to see if we could get her in front of the content — just a little bit. We were trying to achieve a backdrop effect for this gorgeous piece of content that Gabriel Coutu-Dumont and his team made. So just to see how it looked, I asked them to bring out a box and put her on it for the song. This led to a chain reaction of sorts that could only be rivaled in speed by the Large Hadron Collider. The two-foot-high box became a four-foot set of stairs. Those stairs became a five-foot platform with mirrored legs, and those mirrored legs eventually became what Winky air-freighting in — a spiral lift that put her 10 feet in the air and smack dab in the middle of the screen. She took a few tries to get comfortable up there, but the look was worth it — no matter how much she may hate me for making a small suggestion about a box.”

Both James “Winky” Fairorth and Roy Bennett have been working with Clarkson for years (Fairorth pretty much from the beginning of her career) so the rapport was solid before the design even started. “Having worked with Roy on the last Kelly tour, we came in with a good vocabulary for how we wanted to tell our story,” Jason says. “The audience is just as important as Kelly in the show, so Winky designed a set that made the audience a physical part of the show, not just with the bar as a thrust but also by wrapping a wing of the thrust back towards the stage creating a VIP section that put Kelly inches from her fans. Roy also designed a rig that was very post proscenium heavy to accommodate the amount of time she spent on the thrust with her fans and with her bar. There was never a sense that she was in front of the stage, the rig just extended past the down stage edge, so she was always inside of a versatile playing space,” Baeri adds.

KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

James “Winky” Fairorth
Set Designer/Tait

The ideas behind the stage design started with Kelly Clarkson and manager Brandon Blackstock, with the concept of a bar and various VIP sections down close to the stage to create a party atmosphere. Tait’s Winky Fairorth was brought in, where he says they embellished the stage to allow for 54 seats at an illuminated bar/runway. “We also allowed for a standing-room-only VIP pit directly downstage, as well as a half GA floor to keep the energy close to the musicians,” Winky says. “We thought about sight lines, the close interaction with the audience, etc. One of the goals was to make it all about the music and an intimate party environment. We also focused on creating unique camera angles to embellish the I-Mag presentation for the giant high resolution screen. By having a tracking navigator camera cover the main stage and a Furio Robotic camera track along the bar, we are able to create beautiful shots filled with depth and scenery.”

The design was quite different from the last tour, notes Fairorth. “We really utilized the video screen to show the fans more of Kelly and the band. In addition, we put some staging in the far offstage wings to allow Kelly and the band to get offstage into the crowd. The other challenge to the design and the production was based around Kelly’s busy schedule and the fact that we only have six weeks of touring but needed to design a spectacle worthy of a full-blown arena tour. The result was quite a big look that everyone involved was quite proud to be a part of.”

KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

 John Huddleston
Account Rep/Upstaging

PLSN caught up with Upstaging’s John Huddleston, who has been the account rep for this artist since her career took off many years ago. “I would say that working with Roy [Bennett] is an exercise in attention to detail and logistics while remaining on the edge! One of the things I love about Roy is that he was also a technician many years ago — he understands how the parts of a system assemble and what it takes to build a successful system every day. That’s not to say he is not consistently pushing the envelope, but his innovations are always based on the reality of the touring constraints. The design for all Kelly Clarkson tours have always been cutting-edge, as you would expect from Roy,” Huddleston adds. “I always thought the shows looked really fun and relaxed for her, and that is projected out to the audience. Kelly is so funny and relaxed on stage. Her show complements her style…Roy and his team complement that well. Fraser MacKeen, who operates the show, nails it every night. The show is a joy to watch,” Huddleston concludes.

KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

Kelly Clarkson Meaning of Life Tour

Crew

  • Lighting Designer: Roy Bennett (Seven Design Works)
  • Associate Lighting Designer: Jason Baeri (Northern Lighting Arts)
  • Lighting Programmer: Jason Baeri
  • Lighting Director: Fraser MacKeen
  • Lighting Co: Upstaging
  • Lighting Crew Chief: Thomas Walls
  • Lighting Techs: Chris Donati, Calvin Mosier, Zach Svoboda, Josh Harvey, Yoshi Shinohara, Shawn Whitton
  • Upstaging Account Rep: John Huddleston
  • Tour Manager: Dennis Sharp
  • Production Manager: Jay Schmit
  • Artist Production Manager: Chris Dye
  • Production Coordinator: Kim Hilton
  • Stage Manager: Alan Doyle
  • Video Director: Steve Fatone
  • Video Programmer: Loren Barton (Lumitech)
  • Video Content: Silent Partners Studio
  • Silent Partners Account Rep: Gabriel “Mr. Fabulous” Coutu-Dumont
  • Video Co: Vision Visuals Inc.
  • Video Techs: Anthony Morgan, Jonathan Burns, Collin Johnston, Tony James, Russell Spann, Christopher Campbell, Lance Strader
  • Vision Visuals Account Rep: Scott Bishop
  • Set Designer: James “Winky” Fairorth (Tait)
  • Staging/Set Co: Tait
  • Automation: Shaun Quinn, Ricky Baiotto
  • Tait Account Rep: Phil Mitchell
  • Riggers: Chuck Melton, Ricky Baiotto
  • Carpenters: Jimmy George, Rey Rodriguez, Graham “Naylor” O’Neill, Byron Lau
  • Trucking Co: Upstaging

KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

Gear

Lighting:

  • 3         grandMA2 Full size consoles
  • 1         Follow-Me 3D Spotlight Control System
  • 68      Ayrton Magic Dots
  • 10      Claypaky Scenius Profiles
  • 40      Claypaky Sharpy Spots
  • 130    Elation Dartz 360 fixtures
  • 40      GLP JDC1 LED fixtures
  • 26      GLP KNV Cubes
  • 12      Robert Juliat Dalis 862S fixtures
  • 4         Cirro Stratta 6 fixtures
  • 4         RE Pro Fans

KELLY CLARKSON © Steve Jennings

Video:

  • 168    ROE Carbon 5 Led Tiles in T4 touring frames
  • 2         M8 Led Processors w/4 data distribution units
  • 4         Barco HDX W20 projectors
  • 1         Vista Systems Spyder X20 1608
  • 2         Green Hippo Taiga DVI media servers (each w/6 active DVI outputs)
  • 1         Lightware 8×8 Dual Link DVI Matrix
  • 4         Sony HDC-1500 HD Multi-Format Camera
  • 1         Sony HDC-P1 camera
  • 6         Sony RCP-1500 remote control panel
  • 5         SonyHDCU-1500 CCU
  • 1         Ross V-100A Vision dual display touchscreen
  • 1         Ross V3MP Vision3 control panel
  • 1         Evertz 64×96 Quartz Xenon Hi-Def  3G/HD/SD router
  • 1         Evertz 5601 Master Clock
  • 1         Evertz VIP24 Multiviewer
  • 1         RTS Zues3 Digital Matrix
  • 3         RTS KP12 LCD Keypanel Stations
  • 1         Decimator Designs quad multi-viewer

More Kelly Clarkson Meaning of Life tour photos by Steve Jennings

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