The brightest lights in West Michigan's entertainment scene are at a national level

Whether it's an acoustic street side gig at Rosa Parks Circle, a sold-out club show at 20 Monroe Live, a DeVos Performance Hall production, or even a movie in the park, the artists provide the music and emotion but technology amplifies the experience.

When is the last time a performance has changed your life?

Of the hundreds of artistic expressions played out in West Michigan every month, no doubt many leave audiences with lasting memories and a story to tell for years to come. Whether it's an acoustic street side gig at Rosa Parks Circle, a sold-out club show at 20 Monroe Live, a DeVos Performance Hall production, or even a movie in the park, the artists provide the music and emotion but technology amplifies the experience.

The world backstage is almost just as complex and intriguing as the artists themselves, and with companies like LiveSpace, Levitation, and others engineering new and innovative ways to highlight those artists, the world of musician and medium have fused in dazzling harmony.

The Flaming Lips performing at 20 Monroe Live. Photograph by Anthony Norkus.A list of 2017s most illuminating events thus far would certainly include the Flaming Lips' April 19 performance at 20 Monroe Live. Even amidst unexpected smoke alarms and power interruptions, Wayne Coyne and company forged on into wonderful weirdness, providing the audience and 20 Monroe staff with a moment neither will soon forget.

"Our production staff had a blast at The Flaming Lips," says Production Manager Lindsey Dubey. "Their crew was awesome to work with and the entire setup was non-stop excitement the entire day."

The Lips' lighting and video equipment was hung from eight different points, the downstage truss was draped with a curtain of LED video tubes, and a massive 5-foot mirror ball hung from the ceiling, and that was just mood lighting. Cryo jets, creating "frozen fog" out of liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide, were set up next to old school fog machines and hazers, which lent their own atmospheric artistry to the set.

Audio consoles, wedges, microphone, stands, cables, risers, and a backline setup for the band added even more punch to the performance, but may have gone unnoticed by the audience as they watched Coyne move through the crowd on a glowing unicorn.

"We rigged two confetti machines in the air and had two on the ground, and there were about 50 massive balloons that we blew up for them and helped them throw into the crowd at the beginning of the set," Dubey said.

One of the balloons, emblazoned with expletive admiration of our fair city, truly captured the spirit of the current technological revolution and wizardry being put into today's performances. A short and succinct four words, it also helped to answer the question of how much more interesting performances are about to get. Are we headed in a brave new direction?


Making Room

Not too long ago, the mind-blowing experience of a fully-formed Flaming Lips concert may have been a lofty goal for even the most well-known venues in the area. The potential of modern entertainment surpassed the capacity of what many stages could handle, but those stages have evolved and advanced their own tech to accommodate these experiences.

The production is changing the place, and has been for decades. According to Eddie Tadlock, Assistant GM at DeVos Place Convention Center and Performance Hall, when theaters like the DeVos Performance Hall, or what was once the Welsh Auditorium, were built as part of the Works Progress Administration following the Great Depression, there was little variety involved.

Eddie Tadlock. Photograph by Adam Bird"Theaters all over the country are almost the exact same size and footprint, with the exact same stage and backstage," says Tadlock, who moved to Grand Rapids from Seattle nine years ago. "They never evolved. They didn't have to. That was just kind of the standard."

But that standard is now changing, thanks in no small part to the work of a headstrong green woman in a large black hat. Broadway Grand Rapids, in an effort to attract the current productions that tour with much larger sets, facilitated a fundraising campaign and contributed to the construction costs of building out the performance hall's backstage.

"They had these huge set designs without thinking if it would fit in 70 percent of the theaters around the country. Broadway GR was having to turn away a lot of great shows because we didn't have the physical space to accommodate them," says Tadlock. "One of those shows was 'Wicked.'"

For four years, the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention Arena Authority worked with Broadway GR to expand the stage, and now plan to host 'Wicked' in the fall of 2017.

"If you're sitting in the audience, you wouldn't notice anything different, but from a set design perspective, it's a huge difference," Tadlock says.

As the cast of 'Wicked' defies gravity on stage, there may be many more gears in motion behind the scenes, but technology is gradually becoming more of a front-facing element of the concert hall experience, as well.

Conductor Emmanuel Fratianni and the Grand Rapids Symphony brought "Video Games Live" to DeVos Performance Hall in January, treating the audience to tunes from Mario, Zelda, Halo, Final Fantasy, Warcraft, and others. A month later, "rePLAY: Symphony of Heroes" saw Ryan Hamlyn playing actual video games, projected onto the back wall of the hall, accompanied by the full symphony, and about 2,400 young audience members playing along on their smartphones and tablets.

"He's actually playing the game, and all these kids are following along with him on their smartphones and tablets, and they're cheering," says Tadlock, who has been in the entertainment industry for almost 30 years. "I had no idea who this guy was, but I don't have a 12 year old, either."

With new audiences come new needs to accommodate, and when a few thousand kids are using up your bandwidth, the limits of technological capacity become quite clear. Whether or not you appreciate seeing a smartphone at a concert, it's nearly impossible to control the proliferation, so why not embrace the change?

"You have 2,400 users at that performance with 2.5 devices on average," says Tadlock. "We had to make sure we had enough internet connectivity to support it, and give them the full experience of the show."

Setting Up

It could be argued that the performance begins as soon as tickets are ordered online, or shared on social media, or scanned from a digital QR code at the door. There's no limit to the ways in which productions can market to connected users. And while handheld devices become more involved in the entertainment industry, large scale equipment isn't lagging that far behind.

Where the schedule of Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc's Movies in the Park was previously dependent on sunset and ambient light interfering with projection performance, a massive backlit LED array provided by LiveSpace is now able to entertain Ah-Nab-Awen Park audiences any time of day.

The massive backlit LED screen is made of many smaller panels that interlock together. Photograph by Adam BirdTodd Ernst, Sales, Marketing and Business Development for LiveSpace, is quite proud of the display, which takes a few hours and a handful of technicians to set up, but offers as vivid and clear a picture as any theater system when fully functioning.

Ernst and LiveSpace President AJ Sweeney oversaw the installation of the display at Heartside Park the morning of the Food Truck Fest.

Several dozen square alloy frames, about two feet to a side with industrial-grade video and power cables and an interlocking system on the back and a few thousand LEDs on the front, fit together like bricks. As one row of the panels is locked in, a motor connected to the large truss turns on and the entire array is raised, allowing the LiveSpace team room to attach the next row.

It's the first test of a new transformer and winch setup, and a slight rain is testing the LiveSpace crew even more. But the show must go on.

Moments later, "Ratatouille" and "Chef" were displayed in full clarity and sound for park goers and others at the festival.

Turning On

Staring at the unlit front face of the assembled wall of LEDs is an unsettling experience. Vertigo sets in as the tiny components seem to flex and wave in an optical illusion. A knolling of thousands of tiny white squares. Ernst explains, LiveSpace's first digital wall left little more than 6 millimeters between LEDs, while the current incarnation boasts a meager 3.9 mm. He is excited about seeing a 1.9 mm screen later this year, and extrapolated by way of Moore's Law, he says, it's feasible that seamless imagery may be emerging onto the market soon, too.

Complicated technologies require careful maintenance and repair in the workshop at LiveSpace by Matt Motyka, left, and Chris Motyka, right. Photograph by Adam Bird"This is clearly our flagship right now," says Ernst. "This is the only product of its kind in West Michigan."

While audio specialization has its place in the entertainment industry, he says, it doesn't get nearly as much visibility, quite literally, as a wall of video. And quality sound is also ubiquitous. There's not a lot of allure packed in a big black box, but people know when something is off.

"Have you ever left a show and thought to yourself, 'Wow, that sounded amazing?'" Ernst asks. "Probably not, but if it sounded bad, you always say, ‘Wow, that didn't sound very good.'"

Which is why the big black boxes hung alongside the LiveSpace LED wall aren't cheap.

Ernst has spent most of his professional life in arts and entertainment. He started a small business as a DJ to pay for college, and as more work came his way, his role expanded. Nearly a decade ago, he was involved with the earliest incarnation of SiTE:LAB, ACTIVESITE, with his college roommate, Paul Amenta. Ernst drove a lot of the technology of the project, which Amenta concentrated on curating the art and sculpture, he says.

Since then, Ernst joined LiveSpace and has taken on the business development role, while continuing to expand his knowledge and skills, even obtaining a real estate license. Yet, he attributes each of success to a firm foundation in West Michigan.

"I'm not the genius when it comes to the specs, but I'm the guy who connects people within our respective community and gets people in front of each other like DGRI," says Ernst. "That to me is a business development stance. There's going to be opportunities when we are doing Movies in the Park, too. Is it unthinkable that a vice president from Huntington Bank will come up and we have the same conversation?"

Showing Off

Ernst says his first "Holy s---! What is that?" moment with the LED video wall came while showing the World Cup Soccer Tournament in Ah-Nab-Awen Park a few years ago.

"They came across the bridge, smoke and flags, hooting and hollering, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up," he says. "They were just completely fanatical during that match."

Lindsey Dubey. Photograph by Anthony Norkus.Back at 20 Monroe Live, those moments happen each weekend, where Dubey oversees the deployment of some of the most promoted shows in the area, each bringing along new and innovative equipment and ways to use it.

STS9 puts on a visually stunning show which their fans come to expect,” says Dubey. “Their LD (lighting designer) uses lights in new ways that other LDs may not have done yet. It’s always fun to watch how different lighting designers are running their shows and what new fixtures they are bringing in.”

At one show in early June, two separate video walls were used to blend images together. An 8mm wall at the back of the stage, and a semi-transparent “blow-through” wall at the front created a 3D visual effect for the crowd, with the help of a talented video team.

Hip-hop artist Travis Scott has been 20 Monroe’s biggest production set up to date.

“We had to completely strike our lighting trusses and our PA. They hung their own PA and over 14 points on the stage to accomodate their massive set up which include set pieces, a giant bird, risers, staircases, backline, props, large plant set ups, cryo jets, and more,” says Dubey. “The bird was mechanical and it’s wings and head moving throughout the show. It was quite the spectacle.”

Travis Scott on stage at 20 Monroe Live. Photograph by Anthony Norkus.Rapper Tech N9NE brought an innovative use of video to the stage as well, performing between two LED walls showing content that moved in sync with the music.

“This was all pre-recorded in a studio and he did every single part,” Dubey says. “It was really awesome to see everything in action and it must have taken tons of time to perfect that the way he did.”

Coming back to her native Michigan after living in Boulder, Colo., Dubey says it’s exciting to work with a group of people who may have lived in the same city their whole lives but never crossed paths. She looks forward to going to work each day, meeting new people, and working on new ways to improve 20 Monroe and set it apart from other venues.

Dubey, too, has been in the entertainment business for most of her career. In college, she served on the Michigan State University Activities Board as the Special Events Director. Dubey was responsible for putting on large concerts and festivals each school year, in addition to a weekly open mic nights, a lunchtime concert series and other events. She booked, promoted and managed every show, learning more about the business with every performance. After college, the Fox and Boulder Theaters called Dubey west, where she started as an unpaid production intern out of college, and worked on the cleaning crew to make money.

“I would intern for 18 hours loading bands in and out, setting up the green rooms, running audio, helping on lights, etc.,” she says. “Hours later I would come back to the venue and clean before the next load in.”

Eventually moving up to stage manager, hospitality coordinator, artist relations manager, box office staff member, house manager on duty, and finally assistant production manager, Dubey spent most of her waking hours coordinating concerts and festivals. Her last few gigs before returning to Michigan saw Dubey on the road with Yonder Mountain String Band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Big Gigantic, who she spent the most time with as tour and production manager.

“I have toured and I know what it’s like to go to a venue where the production manager couldn’t care less and the entire day is a battle to get even a roll of toilet paper in the dressing room bathroom,” she says. “I chose to get off the road because I wanted to get back to a place where I could provide the best service possible to visiting crews and artists. Road life is hard and we want to make every artist and crew member feel welcome and to know they are in good hands.”

Not only in good hands, but hands that are technologically equipped to handle the liveliest, most innovative, most connected, most wicked, and most vibrant shows possible.

If your life hasn’t been changed yet, you just haven’t picked up your tickets.

This article is part of Rapid Growth's series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies(OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.

Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Photography by Adam Bird.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.