Peter Morse, Lighting Designer

in PLSN Interview

Peter MorsePeter Morse is one of the most sought-after lighting talents in the live event industry. He was named the Parnelli Lighting Designer of the Year in 2004, was nominated for an Emmy in 1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, and won the Emmy in 1997 for Bette Midler’s Diva, Las Vegas HBO Special. His list of clients includes Madonna, Prince, Christina Aguilera, Andrea Bocelli, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Barbara Streisand, Usher and many more. He’s had an enviable career and continues to do big things — but he paused recently to go on record with PLSN about his journey so far.

PLSN: How did you get into the business?

Peter Morse: I used to be a singer/songwriter. I cut my first folk album at the age of 16. I did some touring and eventually ended up in New York, where I studied music and drama. In the midst of this, I got hired by the New Christy Minstrels, and I toured and performed with them for three years.

Following that, I spent several years in L.A., continuing to record, write, and work as a session singer. I began working part-time for a college music booking agency, and would travel with the various acts as the agency’s rep. One of these acts was Mac Davis. As Mac’s career grew, he hired me as his tour manager. Then he called me one day and said, “Hire someone to do lights for me, and I’ll pay $500 a week.” I said, “Well, I do lights!” I had never done lighting in my life. Mac and I negotiated a small raise in my salary, and I started doing lights for him.

Hold on — you had never done any lighting?

[Laughs] The secret is, I was able to do it because I didn’t know I couldn’t. I would just walk into a theater and say [pointing up], “I can’t see that fixture from here, what is it? Oh, it’s a 6 x 12? Okay, aim it over here …” In this fashion, I learned the nomenclature and the application of the various conventional fixtures — hopefully while convincing anyone around me that I knew what I was doing!

Who did you work with next?

While working with Mac, I began lighting his large Vegas production shows, and I was also designing creative for Dolly [Parton]. This was in the late 1970s, and I didn’t know if I wanted to continue in the production and tour management field or to return to songwriting and singing. I recorded an album and several singles that were produced by Al Kooper, followed by some isolated gigs as a performer. Then, one day, I received a call from Loretta Lynn’s manager. She and her manager had seen my work on Mac’s TV and live shows, and wanted me to direct/produce/design her upcoming appearance in Las Vegas. So I signed on … designed a set, multimedia content, lighting, and laid out a show for her, including scripted elements, etc.

What was your next break?

I got a call from Tina Turner’s producer saying she loved a song I had written. She recorded it, and we became friendly, and the next thing you know I’m staging, producing, and lighting for Tina. Now this was before her “come back” [with “Private Dancer”], but she was a huge attraction internationally. That association — along with work with The Pointer Sisters, Michael Bolton, etc. — gave me an open door into the pop field. From Tina I worked with Lionel Richie, Kim Carnes ... and then the real turning point came with Madonna. Madonna’s agent saw a Kim Carnes concert I had designed and was directing. He brought me to Madonna for a meeting regarding her first tour, which was just in the beginning planning stages. As a result of that meeting, I was hired. In fact, I was the first person ever hired by Madonna. Within a period of only two weeks, she fired me! Thus, I was the first to be hired, and the first person to be fired by Madonna! [Laughs]

Madonna wanted her first tour to be theatrical, in theater settings. I gave her a scenic idea that she liked. She asked that I have it properly drawn, since I do not draw artistic renderings myself. Later, when I showed her the drawings, she asked: “...but... where am I?!?” I pointed to the various stage areas where she could appear, and she said, “no, I need to see me.” So I leaned over and drew a stick figure. I’m afraid that didn’t impress her. Upon returning to her manager’s office after the meeting with Madonna, he informed me I’d been fired.

Soon after that episode, I designed and directed Lionel Richie’s next tour. Coincidentally, Madonna’s manager had also become Lionel’s manager in the interim. Once we got to work together on Lionel’s tour, he went to Madonna and apparently advised her to hire me back for her next tour. As a result, I ended up being brought in at the last minute to “salvage” the lighting for Madonna’s Who’s That Girl tour. This eventually led to me designing and LD’ing her Blonde Ambition, Girlie Show and Drowned World tours.

Wasn’t this the beginning of moving lights?

Yes. My first real experience with automated fixtures had been with Lionel Richie a few years earlier, but I still remember his first big arena tour, which contained hundreds of conventional lighting fixtures. But by the time of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition, we were working with practically 100 percent movers, an all-Morpheus system. That gear was revolutionary at the time and evolving daily. You had to learn “on the run.” The technology was beginning to develop at a rapid pace — far faster than I could keep up with. Hence, the early stages of dedicated programmers.

I maintained shutter, pan, and tilt override control with a manual console, while the programmer/operators would establish the base positions, color, etc., that I required. I had a good selection of fixtures at the time, including Telescans, PanaBeams, and Panaspots. John McGraw designed a beautiful, masterful set, which contained actual columns and a large staircase, among other scenic wonders — all of which raised and lowered with the aid of hydraulics. I still hear people talk about how Blond Ambition was their favorite Madonna tour — both, musically and visually.

How did you get to work with Michael Jackson?

My first project with Michael was his Dangerous tour. It was a large system, containing 80 percent conventional lighting, and the balance was covered by automated. One great element was the “Periactoid” wall upstage. This was a series of vertical, three-sided columns that rotated in unison. One side was all mirrors, the second side was set up to take different scenic applications — via Velcro. The third side was a combination of aircraft landing lights and Dataflash strobes. The ACLs numbered close to 350. This was one of Michael’s favorite elements.

During programming in L.A., Michael would call daily, asking if the wall lights were ready to view yet. Finally, when the day came that it was operable, he came down to the sound stage, sat next to me on the downstage edge of the stage, and we fired up the wall. It was blistering. And we were merely 40 feet from the wall. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “can we get that on the sides of the stage, too?”

Michael continuously had ideas that were either unaffordable, impractical, beyond the current technology, or all of the above! However, if he wanted it, there was always a means by which it was provided. In short, he was a lighting designer’s dream!

For example, Michael was pushing for was a special Xenon source that would shoot straight down on him during his moonwalk, and would track as he moved across the stage. So Xenotech in L.A. constructed a specially ballasted xenon fixture that could aim straight down and track with his movements.

The most unique and intriguing aspect of working with Michael was that no matter the size of the show, the amount of performers on stage, or the size of the scenic elements or the stadium in which the show was being presented, each and every audience member was constantly aware of his location and presence on stage. His aura was immense.

Tell us about your work with Barbara Streisand.

I went to work designing Bette Midler’s and Barbra Streisand’s tours, which coincidentally were the long awaited return to the concert stage for both.

In the beginning the work with Barbra proved a bit of a challenge. As her reputation purports, besides her extreme concern for her close-ups, Barbra has a discriminating eye for color and the overall look of everything surrounding her. She even explained to me her eye for detail and color, and how it emotionally affects various scenes in the movies she’s directed.

So, while my initial meetings with her were wonderful and positive, when she eventually came to the sound stage at Sony Studios to view the lighting cues I had been programming, the mood changed. She sat with me near the stage, looked at the many lighting “looks” on the all-white set, and suddenly said: “The set is white. Let’s drop all the color for a minute, and just light it in white.” I asked the programmers to go to a no-color wash on the scene. She looked at the stage, and said: “It looks blue! I don’t want blue! I want white!” Technically she was correct. The automated fixtures, having a color temp of 5600 degrees K, would naturally show a bluish hue when in no-color. I explained that small, somewhat indiscernible problem to her, whereupon she responded: “You can’t correct that?”

So, I asked for the guys to add some color correction to the lamps, thus bringing them to a warmer tungsten level. “Now it’s yellow!” she exclaimed. At this point I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I have an all-white set, and I can’t even give her white!”

So we’re sitting there uncomfortably as and I’m trying to work through this. She’s obviously unhappy. Suddenly her manager came down and ask how we were doing. I looked up, smiled, and responded: “Good — we’re just bonding!” She thought that was pretty funny. After a moment or two, she turned to me with a smile and asked if I’d care for a corned beef sandwich, whereupon she ordered lunch for us both. Thankfully, the bonding continued!

Besides being good at what you do, what generally has allowed you to work with these huge artists?

I go into everything with a sense of humility and a self-imposed “check” on my self- confidence. I have to go in with eyes and ears wide open. It’s important to keep in mind that this is the performer’s livelihood. Artistically, it is what they live for and care about. I’m there to transmit their music and lyrics visually to the audience and I consider this a huge responsibility. The way in which I try to approach each project is to get as close to the artist as I can including absorbing and understanding their music, lyrics, and past performances.

How have the changes in technology over your career affected how you do your job?

Technology doesn’t make my job any easier, as it’s important to stay on top of the newest developments and ever-changing capabilities of the many various lighting products. However, it does allow for continual expansion of creative ideas. It certainly has allowed the programmers to become an “institution” on their own.

In the early days I was totally hands-on. But like many designers, more and more I have chosen to distance myself from the hands-on operation, and leave the actual button-pushing to those amazing folks who stay on top of the almost daily changes in the sphere of lighting programming. Instead, I dream up color and fixture combinations, static hang positions, and compound movements that tend to initially create anxiety in my programmers, but which only they can make happen in the end.

I feel that, had I remained intimate with the ever- growing knowledge of what it takes to create some of the looks I visualize, I would probably put subconscious limitations on my ideas and willingness to follow through.

Shania TwainWho is keeping you busy lately?

We had Usher out last year, and we’ll do another one with him next winter. Currently I’m working with Carrie Underwood and Shania Twain on upcoming projects ... Barbra Streisand is also planning a fall tour.

AR Rahman JaiHo TourIs there anything you’d like to do but haven’t?

The one “hat” I haven’t worn is the rock/heavy metal hat. Though I’ve worked with Butch Allen on many projects [Aguilera, Usher, Glee, A.R. Rahman, Eagles, Jennifer Hudson, JLO, Marc Anthony, B2K among others] I’ve never had the opportunity to work with him on any of his Rock or Metal gigs.

From the beginning I became more identified with Pop, R&B, and theatrical acts. I got “close” to Rock with Prince, but he’s still very theatrical in his process.

Most importantly, I love to see the various genres of live performance have an influence on each other. Technologically, there’s no question that live concert lighting has had a very strong influence on the Broadway community. At the same time, I feel strongly that more and more performers in the pop, rock, country fields have embraced the theatrical environment.

Madonna, I feel, embodied one of the strongest theatrical influences in her concerts. More recently, I worked on [Indian composer] AR Rahman’s World Tour. His show contained a vast amount of 3D mapped projection, along with state-of-the-art lighting and set design. Yet it also combined the elements of traditional Indian music and choreography with the latest technology in all departments. It was a great example of the merging of theatrical presentation with modern concert technology. It was an exciting project to work on.

What do you see happening in the future?

Video is now an important ingredient, and in the next five to ten years lighting will likely become more and more integrated with video. In the meantime, it remains an ongoing challenge for the two elements to work together. As mutual coordination becomes more important, these two may eventually become totally integrated. At the least, with improved LED quality in both screens and lighting fixtures, and improved projection quality, the mutual dependency of these two entities is now more important than ever.

Is bigger always better?

Many times I’ve walked into a venue and viewed a very large lighting rig, only to be disappointed in its actual implementation during the performance. I can more readily recall the startlingly small lighting rigs that eventually revealed a stunningly affective design. The size of the lighting rig isn’t the issue — and those who know me I’m sure are giggling ….

It’s really all in the initial concept, an understanding of the artist, the programming, and the actual operation of the show. It doesn’t always take five-plus trucks of lighting!

What’s your favorite part of the job?

There are two. I always look forward to the first time we run the cues in real time with rehearsals. It’s a feeling that we’ve crossed over the first major hump, and can now view our work with bodies on stage and music at volume. My second favorite moment is the first actual show. The audience is there, all elements are running at full tilt, and we feel the appropriate response from the audience to the entire package. That is electric!


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