Mary J Blige 'Strength of a Woman' Tour

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Wide Focus
The show is a mix of timecode and manually-triggered lights. Pictured here, GLP impression X4 Wash fixtures can be seen lighting the stage. All photos by Kevin M. Mitchell
The show is a mix of timecode and manually-triggered lights. Pictured here, GLP impression X4 Wash fixtures can be seen lighting the stage. All photos by Kevin M. Mitchell

LD Ryan Williams Brings Arena-Style Lighting to Theater-Sized Show

Ryan Williams launched an arena-style look made for a theater tour — and at the Mary J. Blige Sept. 13 show in St. Louis’ Fabulous Fox 4,500-seat theater, he did it impressively. “The Fox is an intimate space, but believe me, we have been in even smaller venues,” William says. “We rig for where we’re at. Overall, this tour rig is a little modest compared to her normal arena tours, but it packs a bit of a punch.”

In addition to Williams being the lighting designer, programmer and director, he also had input in the video and set design as well. “I’m originally trained in theatrical lighting design, and I took inspiration from a standard approach to lighting for this show,” he says. “Mary is very much in tune with musical changes, and it helps that she has a stunning band.” For this show, she explored new takes on old classics as a tribute and celebration to the 25th anniversary of her first album, What’s the 411?

Meanwhile, Blige’s latest album, Strength of a Woman, released in late April, is the tour’s source of personal and powerful music. The album, Blige’s 13th, is her highest-charting release since 2009’s Stronger with Each Tear, and for the tour that followed from July through September, Williams provided a lighting design that was dramatic and big, though that arena look has made for some challenging moments in some of the tighter rooms on the itinerary. “At the Pier Six in Baltimore I had to cut out an entire truss,” Williams says. For the St. Louis gig, however, he had no problems putting in the full rig.

Robe BMFLs provide the patterned beams.

‡‡         Med School Can Wait

When asked the “how’d you get into the business” question, Williams laughs and shakes his head; then tells a story in a manner that seems even he’s not sure he believes it. As a kid growing up in Gary, Indiana, Williams excelled as a student and got accepted at Loyola University in Chicago. There, in possibly the most curious double major, he graduated with degrees in biology and theater. Then he picked up a Masters’ in molecular genetics (but of course!), followed by acceptance into medical school. Meanwhile, though, he was hanging out in Chicago clubs working lights, eventually working a show as an LD at the Arie Crown Theater, the 5,000-seat venue at Chicago’s lakeside McCormick Place convention center. Then, R&B artist Fantasia Barrino, winner of the 2004 season of American Idol, asked him to come on the road and light her show. Williams was like, “um, well, I’m supposed to be going to medical school, but sure, why not!” He notes, with a chuckle, that he’s “lived my life asking, ‘why not?’”

LD Ryan Williams

Williams then worked with rapper Yo Gotti for a few one-offs, eventually handling the lighting for his I Am tour in late 2013, working as designer, programmer, and operator. Prior to that trek, Williams had also received a call from the Jackson family. “This was after Michael passed, and four of the brothers were going out on a live international tour,” he explains. “A conversation ensued when they learned I was from Gary, too, and they were like, ‘Why didn’t you say that in the first place?’” He went out with them from mid-2012 to 2013. Tour manager Michael “Huggy” Carter had been at the wheel for that tour, and it was he who brought Williams on for MJB. “It was nerve-racking, because my first show with her was in a stadium,” he says.

Williams is a partner at Live International, a lighting company in Chicago owned by Karol Kadziolka, and he frequently works with and sub-rents back and forth with Chicago-based Performance Lighting, the lighting vendor for this tour. “Performance is wonderful, and I’m good friends with [president] Russ Armentrout,” he says. “I put some fixtures from my company on the gear list, as we work together a lot. I can’t say enough good things about having Performance as our vendor out here.”

Williams is running the show off a grandMA2 full size console and carries the Light version for back up. “I’ve got some Robe BMFL’s and Robe Robin Pointes, which were the real stars of the show. These are both versatile fixtures, and I can get many things out of both. I love Robe and have already contacted them and said I need more from them on our next tour.”

Cryo units were placed in the set

Williams is also working with eight Martin MAC Viper Profiles, eight Martin Atomic 3000 Strobes and 24 GLP impression X4 L Washes. “Another set of fixtures I’m using are the Elation ACL 360 Matrix fixtures. These are working out great, as I just needed something for the transitional moments of the show. Mary is doing medleys, and those lights are giving me ‘Oooh’ and ‘Ahh’ moments as she goes from song to song.”

Williams says that rigging-wise, he normally goes for an asymmetrical set up. “But on this, everything is symmetrical, but my cuing is asymmetrical. It’s worked better for the load in, as it’s easier to work with a bunch of straight sticks of truss.”

Gallagher Staging supplied the set, which is a five-riser look with a nice reveal for MJB built in. The video, supplied by VER, has gone through some changes on this tour. In the beginning, there was a separation and a pitch to the individual columns on stage. But since they use that surface for content as well as I-Mag, they decided to flatten the way it hung. While it was creative and artistic, the I-Mag wasn’t working on it too well. StrictlyFX is the pyro vendor, and there are ten CO2 cannons through the set. “They are inconspicuously placed to get the maximum ‘wow’ effect each time they are fired. I generally get a lot of people that tell me they didn’t expect us to be carrying pyro on a theater tour, but you gotta keep ‘em guessing, right?”

Gallagher Staging provides the set

‡‡         Let’s Talk

The show is a mix of timecode and manually triggered lights. “The previous iterations of her shows were heavily locked into the time code which made the possibility of additions and subtractions pretty tedious. I went with the mixture, because the base is there, and I can layer on from that point. The show remains consistent night after night, but there are little nuances that change. I wanted to make sure that the lighting was as fluid as the show and never fell flat.”

During the show, there are several moments that have been designated as “intimate moments” with Blige and the audience. At one point, she sits in a chair and has a personal talk with them like she’s at the kitchen table. “I did a lot of ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ as I’m a theater kid at heart! This engaged the audience more. In throwing some light out into the audience I feel as though the people singing along feel like they are on stage as well. As I said, I treated this as a ‘mini arena’ and had some sweeping aerial looks to make the modest rig look bigger than life and to also engage the audience throughout the venue.”

MJB was heartfelt during these chats, and to her credit, the audience stayed with her through long monologues. Williams did his part to keep that connection. “I was able to play with color and texture to make her stand out in an eloquent way as she addresses the audience,” he says. “Her fans really enjoyed the personal touch when she fills them in on why she’s still here, absolutely killing the game. There are few powerhouses that are still commanding audiences like she does, and I foresee she will be doing it bigger and better for many more years to come.”

Mary J Blige Strength of a Woman Tour

An 8 piece band backs Mary J Blige

Crew

  • Lighting Designer/Director/Programmer/Operator: Ryan C. Williams
  • Lighting Co: Performance Lighting/Chicago
  • Lighting Crew: Gerron Johnson (Crew Chief), Brian “Junior” Suchocki (Dimmer Tech), Matthew Graff, Kevin Roder
  • Video Directors: Ben Johnson, Blake Hopkins
  • Video Co: VER
  • Video Crew: Harry “Chin” Kimmel, Monica Sepulveda (LED Tech/Camera Ops)
  • Pyro Techs: Lewis Aleman, Josh Jackson
  • Tour Manager: Michael “Huggy” Carter
  • Road Manager: Toshi Iizuka
  • Production Manager: Victor Reed
  • Production Coordinator: Isabella LaForet
  • Stage Manager: Rodney “Puff” Camper
  • Special FX: Strictly FX
  • Staging: Gallagher Staging
  • Audio: Eighth Day Sound

VER supplied the video

Gear

  • 1       grandMA2 full size console
  • 1       grandMA2 Light console
  • 21     Robe BMFL Profiles
  • 12     Robe Robin Pointes
  • 8       Martin MAC Viper Profiles
  • 8       Martin Atomic 3000 Strobes
  • 10     Elation Cuepix Blinder WW2’s
  • 12     Elation ACL 360 Matrix fixtures
  • 24     GLP impression X4 L Wash fixtures
  • 12     Philips Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12’s
  • 2       Reel EFX DF-50 hazers
  • 1       LED strip lighting system (In set, provided by Gallagher)
  • 10     CO2 Blast Cannons (provided by StrictlyFX)

 Performance Lighting/Chicago provided the lighting gear.

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