We are proud to present the Housequake questionnaire conducted with LeRoy Bennett. He was Prince’s production & lighting designer and co-creative director for the 1980 to 1994 Prince tours.
‘His work with Prince put Bennett on the map, as Prince’s popularity grew, Bennett’s reputation grew. Other artists came to see the Prince shows and they began asking him to work with them too. Other significant acts included The Cure, Rammstein, Sir Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga & Ariana Grande.’
Hi Roy, thank you for doing this questionnaire with us! Let us take the honour to kick-off with the first question! How did you start in the business, and what was your first project with Prince? Housequake
That’s a very long answer. The quick answer is I have a deep love and passion for music. I see music when I hear it. It has been that way since I was a child. I learned that I could perform musically by running lights when I was around 19 when I was working with a local band where I lived at the time. I started in the business as a technician. While I was working for one of the touring lighting companies The director of the company asked me if I wanted to be lighting designer. I of course said yes. He told me the next client that came through the company that didn’t have a lighting designer he would put my name forward. He called me shortly after. He said there was an artist named Prince that didn’t have a designer. The rest is history… My first tour designing for Prince was Dirty Mind.
How did you approach Prince with lighting ideas? Just by talking / describing or by scribbles / sketches? Nylz Mylla
Prince and I were creative partners. He had some very basic, sometimes vague, abstract ideas of the mood or creative direction he was looking for and I would then take those ideas and interpret them how I saw and felt them and make them happen. He trusted me so, most of the time I was left to my own imagination and concepts that I would in turn pass by him.
What was the best Prince tour you worked on and why? Franklin Bo Rush
That’s a hard question if I had to pick one. Creatively speaking Sign O’ The Times and LoveSexy were my faves. Parade was another of my faves only because of the music and it was a bittersweet end to The Revolution.
Which Prince tour you did had (from your point of view) the most challenging lighting and/or stage plan and why? Hoinjsz
That would be LoveSexy because of the complexity of doing a theatrical show in the round.
On your knowledge which are the concerts that were professionally filmed (multicamera, post-production etc…) that can be easily released if people in charge make the right decisions? Gabriele Mannucci
There’s Purple Rain broadcast (not my favorite), Sign O’ The Times (which unfortunately didn’t contain what we filmed live but still gave you a feel of the show. Apparently the actual footage of the live show looks amazing. Hopefully I will see that soon), and LoveSexy. Those were the only 3 while I was working with Prince.
Did you ever design or create a stage/production for a Prince concert tour that was cancelled by Prince that the public or us fans don’t readily know about? Jon Dubis
No. The closest to that was when we cancelled coming to the states with Sign O’ The Times. I felt that was a big mistake and disappointment.
Some shows were broadcasted or released on video. Do you have to make a completely different lighting design to make it visible? Did that go wrong with the SOTT tour? I heard that some parts had te be rerecorded because the picture was too dark? Raspberry Beret
The only thing that I had to change was the key lighting on Prince and the band. I had to lighten it up a bit. Prince and I loved moody shows that didn’t translate on the cameras back then. It was also hard for film DP’s to understand lighting that was not typical of movie or TV (film was easier to manipulate, TV cameras during those times were terrible). All of SOTT was done in Paisley because Prince wanted to eventuate the story a bit better than it was in the live show. There were also dark moments during the show that was during segues that didn’t translate well for film, That was the reason for filming at Paisley Park.
Please tell us about the inside story of the preparations for the LoveSexy tour, how it worked and what was your perspective in terms of balancing artistry vs profit regarding the infrastructure of that tour. What degree of freedom did you have to design the lighting of that specific tour? Cateto
The premise for the LoveSexy tour was we wanted to create a theatrical show in the round. There were two challenges that I had formed a production around. One was how to create a theatrical show/stage (which is mainly in a proscenium form), the other was creating a show where the lighting had depth, shadows, silhouettes (that was always part of our shows). Staging wise we had to develop ways to create different theatrical scenes that were bold and made the statements architecturally but also not block site lines. In most in the round shows the audience on the opposite side of the stage from where you are sitting are the backdrop. We wanted to create surfaces/objects that form the different worlds/scenes we were expressing over the show.
Lighting wise was another challenge. In the round, the center of the stage is what would be your upstage area in a normal end of the arena/proscenium stage environment. So the lighting was created in a concentric form. One thing that you can’t get around is creating silhouettes and backlighting. One person’s view of a silhouette/backlight is another persons front light. I would continually be using all sides to give a balance of those effects to all the audience over the course of the show. It’s 3D lighting in the round. I created the cloud pods to feel part of the stage. I used 28 follow spots to light Prince and the band. Besides the scenic elements, there was also the 3/4 scale replica of Prince’s Thunderbird complete with power windows and fully operational head and tail lights. The car sat on a telescoping mast system that had a turntable attached to the masts and car to allow for rotation. Technically (even to this day) it supersedes any in the round show that’s been done since then (although I have come close). When it comes to doing in the round shows, financially they are more profitable. You increase your front row and prime seating by at least 2 times.
Since the band and staff were rehearsing filming and doing one-off shows pretty much year-round, would you see a tour concept starting to take shape over time? Or would Prince walk in with sketches stage design, concept and tour dates. Also, would you start planning a lighting rig when you see the design sketch for the stage or after it’s been built? Chopin Gard
I was the stage set designer/production designer so I would design the lighting in tandem with the stages at the same time. Both elements work as one versus two separate things.
When he is doing a tour and you got to set up this stage? How many stages did you have to set up? When did you tear down and when did you have to be at the next city to set up or next place? André Cyr
I never had to physically set up anything. We had a crew that would do that. We always had the top crew you could get. Depending on the tour we could set up and sit in a city for a few days to a week or two. Or it was one night shows. Sometimes, the shows would have to be set up in a few hours and torn down and loaded into the trucks in a few hours to get to the next city early in the morning. It varied on the size of the production. Sometimes there was a load in the day prior to the show. Load outs always had to be done in a few hours.
What is the story behind this face as seen in the background on the Sign O’ The Times album cover and once on the vault door? It makes a brief appearance in the concert movie as well. Vincent Vega
I’m assuming you’re talking about the paper mâché mask. It was just one of many bohemian style set dressings that we developed over the years. There was no particular story behind it other than Prince and I liked it.
We all know the stories where Prince challenged the professional to take it a step further. One example is that you can play music and dance at the same time (like Jimmy Jam said about rehearsing for The Time shows). Did Prince challenge you to look outside of the box and come up with something that didn’t seem to be possible? Did they actually work and help build a better show? Do you have an example where it was just not possible? Thekid87
Prince always challenged everyone to think outside the box. He knew I always would challenge myself. He would ask me to create shows around abstract ideas he would give me. Many of the stage set designs were purely based off of a simple concept he had that I would take it further. He basically left it mostly to me. We were creative partners. He had an idea, I made it happen.
Was designing the lighting for the movie performances (SOTT, Purple Rain) different than designing lighting for the tours? Ufoclub1977
When it came to lighting for film the key light was the only thing that needs to be addressed. The rest was the same.
Just how tightly choreographed were the shows from your point of view? Did you need to stay alert to changes from Prince as he felt fit, or was the ‘spontaneity’ which P managed to give the impression of during his performances always scripted beforehand? Letsgocrazy199
Much of the show was always rehearsed but there were moments of improv during a performance. Everything was manually run so everything was live verses running SMPTE code which is done quite a bit now. I had to always keep an eye on Prince, because he had hand signals that he would give the band and myself for certain musical fills, changes, hits etc… I was always considered part of the band.
The staging for the Purple Rain tour was the result of months of careful planning and rehearsals – were you disappointed with the way that the [currently only official] live video came out of the Syracuse concert in that it didn’t truly represent or capture the show accurately due to blown-out visuals which were the result of how it was filmed? Xibalba (1)
I have to admit the live broadcast for Purple Rain Tour was my least favorite of anything we did. We were playing a venue which was much bigger than what the production was designed for, so it felt a bit lost. The TV cameras at the time weren’t very sensitive as they are now, so the nuances of colors and light levels never read they way they were live. TV lighting in those days was always bland because of this issues.
Finally, in connection with this, many find it hard to believe Prince was truly happy with it considering the rave reviews the lighting and stage show overall was getting in the press – did he ever express his thoughts on the video recording that was released? Do you think there are better documents of the tour than what we have seen so far? (Also, your work with NiN and HTDA was astounding!) Xibalba (2)
P and I were both disappointed but there was no way to replicate the feel of the live show in the broadcast considering the limitations. Even now live shows still can’t capture what it is like to be in the audience of a live show. It’s only a rectangular view that is at the mercy of what a director feels is important. That’s always a problem. That was the only professional recording/documentation of that show.
I recently saw a 1993 video on YouTube of Prince singing Insatiable leading into Scandalous on what I believe is the Act 1 tour? (Correct me if I’m wrong) The dark blue light for Insatiable to blackout and then fade up to dark red for Scandalous looks simple enough, but was it actually a pretty long and complex job to get all those lights correct for the mood of the song? Especially the sudden bright spotlight when Prince sings “Scandalous” (my favourite part!) was Prince quite a lighting perfectionist for numbers like that? Willyrew
With those moments Prince and I would discuss the mood that he was looking for. I just followed the timing between the two songs. He was always aware of what I was doing but always trusted me and my opinion.
I can remember watching the SOTT and LoveSexy tours and being just in awe of the lighting. They both had very distinct colour schemes. How did you arrive at the choice of colour for a given track and what would happen when Prince when “off-piste” with a jam or a song, would you need to improvise along with him? Peterfflll
Thank you so much. Hearing that always means a lot to me. Unless Prince had a certain color theme (which was rare) it was up to me. I would always have to be completely in-sync with what he was doing at all times. Kept me on my toes Lol!!!
We know you’ve worked for Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl Half Time show in 2017. So in regards to Prince’s Half Time show in 2007, can you remember how you experienced this? Because you’ve seen Prince come a long way to reach that point. Also looked at from in a technical point of view, would you have done the stage/lighting perhaps differently? Shockadelica
I wasn’t involved with Princes Half time, unfortunately. I stopped working with him quite a while prior. I left not because we fell out. I was tired of dealing with a revolving door of people with their own agenda.
During the D&P tour 1992, Prince had a very heavy spotlight behind him during the Willing & Able song, that he sang on top of the blue piano. Ideas like those, did they come from you? When the video screens started taking more place on the stage, how much did that influence your lightning design? When the shows were filmed did u have to compromise a lot of your light design? Stijn
Yes, they were my ideas. Prince and I were creative partners so we would work on ideas together at times. When video screens were introduced it did change lighting significantly. Because prince likes moody lighting we would have to adjust things on occasion for filming but not to the point of losing the mood.
Is the reason why there is no videos of the Sign O’ The Times European Tour circulating and most footage was reshot at Paisley for the film, because the lighting was so minimal by design? Billhartung
There is a full live film in the vault. I haven’t seen it yet but it’s supposed to look amazing. We reshot because Prince didn’t feel the story he was trying to tell was captured properly. Hopefully the real live show will be released.
How would you recommend one going about becoming a lighting designer for stage shows now in 2020? Lvalwayz_marie
I would recommend working as a lighting tech at first. That way you learn all the basics which are very important down the road to success. Learning to program the lighting consoles is also a very helpful tool. The rest is passion, patience, intuition, being appreciative and always humble.
Finally, what about that lemon cake, Roy? We didn’t know you had such great baking skills, it ended up as a ‘contractual obligation’! Housequake
I made a lemon cake for Prince at first purely as a friend. I would go to his house from time to time to cook for him. The lemon cake was something he loved to eat while he was up all night recording. This was long before Sheila was around if this is what you are ultimately asking. ?