Live Design

50 Powerful People

by David Johnson and Ellen Lampert-Gréaux on July 1, 2004

Who are the movers and shakers of entertainment technology? Who are the people in this industry — be they designers, inventors, manufacturers, technicians or dealers — who can get things done? And what does it mean in this industry to have power, anyway? We were sitting around the office one day trying to figure that out, and it started turning into kind of a fun game. Then it started to get a bit obsessive. And then, we started wondering, what does the rest of the industry think?

So, earlier this spring, we sent out a query on our website and newsletter, asking people to tell us their top three picks for the industry’s most powerful people. We then polled several people individually, compared them all to our list, added, subtracted, debated, argued, mixed, matched, and eventually came up with a list of 50 individuals in live entertainment technology who, in the eyes of their peers, have the ability to get things done — who, in other words, possess some amount of power in the industry.

The tricky part was adhering to the notion of “power.” Does it mean getting exactly the kinds of gigs you want and the ability to get all the really big, really cool projects? Does it mean influencing the kind of gear that gets built or the designs that get realized? Does it mean having the ability to mold future generations of designers and technicians? Does it mean championing industry issues or spearheading industry initiatives? Does it just mean hanging around long enough? In the end, between your selections and ours, we realized that many of those ideas apply, but that, most importantly, the notion of power meant creative influence as much as, if not more than, commercial.

For the final selection, we tried to adhere to several parameters. We limited the selection to those involved in live events, primarily theatre and concerts, etc.; no film (that’s another list entirely), and no television, unless it was in conjunction with live broadcasts. We made the decision to leave out all producers. Even though they obviously possess much of the power on any given project, their involvement in the design process is, hopefully, minimal (and if we did include them, they might take up half the list, and then that wouldn’t be much fun now, would it?). Likewise, we didn’t include performers (a force in the concert world, perhaps, but rarely influential in other disciplines). We also tried to limit the inclusion of directors, unless they had a design background. Lastly, we eliminated all media selections, from Ben Brantley to yours truly (we were flattered by those who voted for us, but if you saw us at home with the kids, you’d realize how little power we really wield.)

In the end, we broke it down thusly: we created a top ten list, in alphabetical order, of those who received the most votes from the industry, those who scored high in individual queries, and those whom we ourselves rated highly. The remaining 40, also in alphabetical order, filled out the list. They include designers, manufacturers, inventors, teachers, and facilitators, with a few curveballs thrown in for good measure.

So what follows, then, is a highly unscientific, probably incomplete (we can think of at least four who should be on this list), and quite possibly maddening list of 50 people of influence in entertainment technology. We’re sure yours will be different; if you didn’t vote the first time around, send your top three picks to [email protected], and we’ll run them in a future issue. If you’re not on the list, don’t be offended; power is always a fluid concept, and the list could change radically in a year. And if you are on the list, please don’t let it go to your heads!

  1. RICHARD BELLIVEAUChief technology officer, High End Systems: The architect/ visionary behind many of High End’s automated luminaires, he was out of the picture for a while but has returned to the fold big time following a major shakeup within the company. Belliveau has seen the future, and it appears to be to have a digital landscape. If he’s right, he could help bring High End back to its former glory.
  2. ANDREW BRUCESound designer/president, Autograph Sound: One of the most influential designers in the UK, regardless of discipline. Designed the original Paris production of Les Misérables and all subsequent productions around the world, not to mention Miss Saigon and Mamma Mia! Oversees the hugely successful Autograph Sound Recording and Autograph Sales, which provides not only gear to a variety of theatres and events, but a highly talented stable of sound designers as well, from Simon Baker to Nick Lidster. Also designed the highly anticipated DiGiCo D5T.
  3. DAVE CUNNINGHAMInventor: Every industry needs a colorful eccentric, and Cunningham certainly fits the bill. The brains behind a host of innovative lighting products, from the Light Palette to Sensor and Colortran dimmers to the Source Four, his genius is matched only by his flamboyance. His work continues to influence the way products are built and shows are designed. Oh, by the way, he’s probably also the richest cat in the industry, too.
  4. GARY FAILSPresident, City Theatrical: An accomplished businessman and one of the very few in this industry to actually possess an MBA, he has turned the manufacturing of accessories — from the AutoYoke® to Top Hats for LEDs — into an art. He’s also a union stagehand and licensed laser operator. Kind of a backstage renaissance man. When all else fails, call Gary. He’ll sort you out in no time.
  5. FRED FOSTERPresident, ETC: A maverick who revolutionized the lighting industry without even taking off his Birkenstocks. With a fabulous new factory now open and ready to make the next million Source Fours and rumors of a hot new console on the drawing board, his company seems to know no bounds. And who said they only make cheese in Wisconsin?
  6. JULES FISHERLighting designer; president, Third Eye and Fisher Dachs Consulting: Come on, it’s Jules, fer crying out loud. With design partner Peggy Eisenhauer, Fisher has created some of the most compelling lighting on Broadway, from Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, to the current one-two punch of Caroline, or Change and Assassins. Plus, his consulting arm plays a major role in deciding what upcoming generations will be using in theatres large and small. Has also dabbled in the world of producing. Forever immortalized in Bob Fosse’s film All That Jazz; how many LDs can say that?
  7. MARK FISHERPrincipal, The Mark Fisher Studio: Big, did anybody say big? This architect turned set designer has produced some of the biggest and most complicated scenery anybody has ever seen, from the post-industrial environment of the Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour to Tina Turner rising above the audience on an arm of a motorized truss. When the curtain finally goes up on Cirque du Soleil’s new show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, we’re bound to see his biggest, most complicated work yet.
  8. JERE HARRISCEO, PRG: Say what you will about the concept of one-stop shopping. Harris’ plan to provide lighting, sound, and staging solutions under one roof, via Fourth Phase, ProMix, and Scenic Technologies, forever helped change the landscape of the industry. The company’s gone through some challenging times, but if the Mbox media server flies, Harris just might help change the landscape of the industry once again.
  9. JOHN MEYERPresident, Meyer Sound: Everyone marvels at Meyer’s intellectual curiosity and softly laughs at his absent minded professor persona, but what’s often overlooked is savvy business sense; great products + astute marketing = a hugely successful high-end audio company, though it must be said that his wife, Helen, must also be given much of the credit for the company’s success.
  10. PETER SCHARFF & JOSH WEISBERGFounders, Scharff Weisberg: At last, someone who really seems to have gotten the concept of one-stop shopping right. Their still-young lighting division seems healthy; their video division may be the most influential (perhaps even the most cutting edge) in the world of projection. Says one voter: “Hey, you’re giving them an EDDY. Those guys enabled a lot of ground breakers this last year.”
  11. LEROY BENNETTProduction/lighting designer: From the subdued tones of his Emmy nominated work on the TV special A Tribute to Heroes to the wild meandering stage/video floor for the Dixie Chicks, Bennett is able to consistently maintain an impressive degree of creativity, no matter the size of the project. Most recently, left the Prince tour to work for Madonna. Just think what it means to have the luxury of making such a choice.
  12. JAKE BERRYProduction manager: Nicknamed Mr. Showbiz, Berry’s firm hand has turned the mega-rock tour — a logistical nightmare waiting to happen — into a well-oiled machine time and time again. The man in charge of every Stones tour since Voodoo Lounge, Berry’s handling of the band’s Licks tour — three different shows for three different-sized venues — was a marvel of technical coordination.
  13. ALLEN BRANTONLighting designer: Once a long-haired redhead working at Showco in Dallas and a leading concert LD, he turned his attention to televised music specials with a Diana Ross HBO special in 1979. He has since won six CableACE nominations for lighting HBO productions including Sting in Tokyo and Madonna Live! (for which he won the 1990 award), The MTV Movie Awards, and Disney’s Gloria Estefan: Coming Home.
  14. MARC BRICKMANLighting designer: Not many designers would feel comfortable going from calling the shots on huge tours to working as an employee for three men in blue face paint, but Brickman has always liked a challenge. Though his seminal work on Pink Floyd’s tours will long be remembered, his work with Blue Man Group, both on their recent concert tour and on their new show in Berlin, may be his most cutting-edge.
  15. JIM BORNHORSTInventor, electrical engineering manager, VLPS: Architect behind the world’s first moving light, the Vari*Lite VL-1. Even hit the road for that first Genesis tour. The famed Bornhorst patent? Yep, that’s his. Not bad for a guy who started out on the sound side of things.
  16. MITCH CLARKPresident, Tomcat: Truss tends to get short shrift, but without it where would all the lights go? Same with Clark; without him, trussing in the US might not have a leg to stand on.
  17. TOM CLARK, MARK MENARD, NEVIN STEINBERGPartners, Acme Sound Partners: The three amigos of sound, Clark, Menard, and Steinberg have used their strength in numbers approach to become the go-to guys for New York theatre sound; this year alone, they did Avenue Q, The Boy From Oz, Never Gonna Dance, Fiddler on the Roof, and Twentieth Century.
  18. MICHAEL CURRYPuppet designer: Think puppeteering is dead? Then you haven’t seen this man’s stuff. Actually, between his work on The Lion King and myriad other Disney theme park projects, it’s kind of hard to miss his work. Has managed to build a hugely successful shop in Oregon, with a staff of artisans as skilled as he.
  19. JONATHAN DEANSSound designer: Call him Mr. Digital, Mr. Level Control Systems, or just the most charming British import in the business. He has designed over 140 productions on Broadway (Taboo, Follies, Parade, The Music Man, to name a few) and off, as well as for Cirque du Soleil, including permanent shows in Las Vegas and Orlando, rewriting the rules of sound design along the way.
  20. BOB DICKINSONLighting designer: When it comes to televised awards shows, this is your man. The Academy Awards. The Grammys. The Emmys. He not only commands some of the largest automated lighting rigs ever assembled, he also wins the ratings race hands down for the LD with the most viewers worldwide.
  21. FRANCO DRAGONEStage director: Perhaps the fact that he was born in Italy explains the Fellini-like fantasy seen in his work. As artistic director for Cirque du Soleil, he has directed seven shows, including the aqua-spectacular O at Bellagio. He also staged the over-the-top Celine Dion show at Caesar’s Palace. As artistic director of Groupe Dragone in Belgium, he is now hard at work on a mega-production for Steve Wynn’s new resort in Vegas. This one is also guaranteed to make waves.
  22. PETER AND RICHARD FITZGERALDSound designers, partners, Sound Associates: Brothers in arms…make that ears. Founded by their father Thomas back in 1946, the Fitzgerald fils have fashioned a rental house that doubles as a part-time manufacturer that triples as a design firm. The two have designed such current Broadway offerings as Movin’ Out, Raisin in the Sun, and Little Shop of Horrors.
  23. BOB GORDONPresident/CEO, ACT Lighting: He probably hates that he’s on here, but Gordon is becoming the guy you need if you want to bring your product to the States. Witness the rise of the MA Lighting grandMA console. The consummate salesman in the best, old-school sense of the term.
  24. JON GOTTLIEBSound designer, acting dean, CalArts: Not only one of the West Coast’s top theatre sound designers, but as the acting dean for California Institute of the Arts School of Theatre, is one of the highest ranking sound people in the halls of academia. Could wield enormous influence, not only on future generations of sound designers, but also on the perception of theatre sound in general.
  25. WENDALL HARRINGTONProjection designer: The godmother of modern projection design. Her work on The Who’s Tommyushered in a new era in the genre; a vast majority of the top new projection artisans (Michael Clark, Sage Carter) were once her assistants. Keeps hinting she wants out of the business, but her work is so good, they keep pulling her back in.
  26. DAVID HERSEYLighting designer; president, DHA. An American ex-pat in London, he is one of the longest-running acts in town. But when you design such blockbusters as Evita, Nicholas Nickleby, Les Miz, Cats, Starlight Express, Miss Saigon, and Oklahoma!, what else can be expected? He’s also the power behind DHA, and his mantra is: if the equipment you need doesn’t exist, invent it.
  27. DON HOLDERLighting designer: He’s much too modest to admit it, but this Tony winner is one of the hottest things on Broadway at the moment. Who else had at least six shows running at the same time this season (The Violet Hour, The Boy From Oz, Little Shop of Horrors, Movin’ Out, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Lion King) and still has time to design off Broadway and in regional theatre? How does he do it?
  28. SUSAN HILFERTYCostume designer; chair, New York University Tisch School of the Arts: Talk about practicing what you preach: not only has Hilferty maintained a steady course since taking over the reins of Tisch from Lloyd Burlingame several years ago, but she also works steadily as a designer, both regionally and off-Broadway. Plus, her costumes for Wicked were, um, wickedly divine.
  29. WILLIAM IVEY LONGCostume designer: The go-to guy for over-the-top, outlandish, or just plain wacky (think Hairspray or The Producers), people tend to forget Long’s more subdued work and his sense of detail, both of which are of note. Seems to know everyone and is second only to Tony Walton as the person you want to have sing your praises in front of a large audience.
  30. STEVE JOBSPresident, Apple: Huh? What’s he doing here? In this world, there are PC users and Mac users. Guess which is the favorite of most designers? At least, that’s why we think readers picked him; maybe it was for the iPod?
  31. STEVE KENNEDYSound designer: The reclusive Kennedy hasn’t worked on Broadway as much in recent years; when The Producers and Hairspray are among your shows, and you’re handling all the tours, you probably don’t need to (or have the time to).
  32. KRISTIAN KOLDINGPresident/CEO, The Martin Group: Kolding took over the reins of this lighting company after a scandal involving its founder, Peter Johanson, and managed to make it a worldwide leader in the market, thanks to expansion into the architectural and theatrical worlds. Though even the mighty Martin has not been immune to economic realities this year, Kolding and his team will soon be entering the media server field with Maxedia; if that flies, expect the company to remain strong.
  33. LUC LAFORTUNELighting designer: His French Canadian accent has been disappearing over the years, while his lighting acumen has been getting stronger and stronger. Breathtakingly beautiful visual environments for Cirque du Soleil (Mystere, O, La Nouba, Zumanity, and the new MGM Grand show, among others) have been shaped by his fearless use of color, movement, and imagination, even underwater.
  34. GUY LALIBERTÉFounder and chief executive officer, Cirque du Soleil: This is a man who once said, “I have a dream.” Without a doubt, his dream came true. From a street performer in Canada to head of one of the largest producing companies in the world: six shows on tour, four permanent productions, several more in the incubator, a few films, and a television series, this is a man who should just keep on dreaming.
  35. EUGENE LEESet designer: It’s easy to forget Eugene’s influence over the years, from his work on Saturday Night Live(where, unbelievably, he still works after all these years), to his formidable work on such near misses as Parade and Ragtime. But his sets for Wicked reminded everyone one of his ability to work so effectively on a large canvas.
  36. MING CHO LEESet designer: This gentleman migrated from Shanghai to Hong Kong to the United States, where he has influenced generations of designers at Yale University’s School of Drama Design Department, where he has taught since 1969. A prolific designer, as well, he won a Tony Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and a Maharam Award for K2. His annual “clambake” is a great get-together for students and professionals.
  37. IHOR LYSChief technology officer, Color Kinetics: Regardless of where you stand on the current LED wars, there’s no denying that his patents are having an impact on where the lighting industry is headed. Should remain a force regardless of how it all plays out.
  38. TONY MEOLASound designer: Passionate, outspoken, and hugely talented, with a tremendous ear, Meola makes every singer, musician, and sound effect sound good. Even managed to tame the merciless Gershwin Theatre for Wicked. Vocal advocate of the sound designer’s role in the theatre and vocal critic of the noise generated by moving lights and scrollers.
  39. RICHARD PILBROWLighting designer/founder & chairman, Theatre Projects Consultants: A British ex-pat, this esteemed designer and theatre consultant is one of the industry’s senior statesmen. He designs for theatre and opera, is the author of two books on lighting design, has collaborated on some of the most compelling performance venues in the world, and even tried his hand at producing. I wonder what he can’t do?
  40. DAVID ROCKWELLPrincipal, Rockwell Group: He’s an architect. He’s a set designer. He’s a restaurant designer. Actually, he refuses to be pigeon-holed and designs whatever he feels like, from the revival of The Rocky Horror Show and the smash hit, Hairspray on Broadway, to the new Academy Awards theatre, the Cirque du Soleil theatre in Orlando, and a raft of restaurants. Maybe his childhood years in Mexico gave him his great sense of color and panache. But where does he get all that energy?
  41. MICKEY ROLFEOne of the top agents of designers in the business: Clients include Brian Macdevitt, Scott Pask, Elaine McCarthy, Robert Brill, Catherine Zuber. Says one voter, “Who doesn’t this man represent?”
  42. LORI RUBINSTEINExecutive director, ESTA: This woman is at the helm of it all. Heading up the largest US trade association for our industry with an extensive technical standards program, she is also the driving force for a new industry certification program that will create a safer workplace for everyone. What will we do if she ever retires?
  43. BILL SAPSISPresident, Sapsis Rigging: Affectionately known as Uncle Bill to legions and a force to be reckoned with in rigging safety. His Long Beach Long Riders — a cross-country motorcycle trip from the East Coast to the West in time for this year’s USITT to benefit Equity Fights AIDS — was a reminder of what’s good about this industry.
  44. THOMAS SHORTInternational president, IATSE: No self-respecting power list in any industry would be caught dead without a union bigwig; this one’s no exception. Always a force in entertainment technology, IATSE became even more important to the industry as a whole since United Scenic Artists ceded from IBPAT and hooked up with Short’s group a few years ago.
  45. MICHAEL TAITPresident, Tait Towers: If he builds it, they will come. Top concert designers come to Tait with the most incoherent, crudely drawn sketches for a tour’s set; he and his crew turn it into art. Proof that you can live far from the madding crowd — they’re based in Lititz, PA — and still have a major impact on the industry.
  46. SUSAN TESHGeneral manager, VLPS Los Angeles: When it comes to lighting up tinsel town, this is the woman to call. She wrangles the biggest rigs anywhere, such as the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of Vari-Lites used for the Academy Awards and the Grammys. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
  47. JULIE TAYMORDirector/ designer: Though now firmly ensconced as a film director, many people forget that the creative force behind Disney’s Broadway production of The Lion King is actually an accomplished puppet designer. But, of course, it was her vision of Pride Rock and its inhabitants that redefined the kind of artistry that could be brought to a commercial enterprise.
  48. TONY WALTONSet and costume designer for stage and screen: A triple Tony winner for Best Scenic Design (Guys and Dolls, House of Blue Leaves, Pippin) with countless other Tony nominations, he was honored this year by USITT with an award for Distinguished Achievement in Scene Design and at the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards as the first recipient of the new Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatrical Design. Shall we just call it The Year of Tony Walton?
  49. WILLIE WILLIAMSLighting designer/show director: As the designer for such 90s arena kings as U2 and REM, he is the man more responsible than anyone for bringing concert touring design kicking and screaming into the 21st century. His role on the U2 Elevation tour, as that of show designer, was among the first to help bridge the gap between the lighting and video content of a show. Followed that up as the video designer for the Rolling Stones last tour. See a trend here?
  50. MIKE WOODPrincipal, Mike Wood Consulting LLC: If you have a gavel, it will be put to good use by this industry veteran who is the current president of ESTA and a past chairman of PLASA. His new consulting firm allows him the freedom to pursue his interests in new technology, R&D, and intellectual property. In fact, he has launched a database of industry patents. A lot of people will second the motion on that.