When Madonna descended from the heavens in an illuminated cage at the start of her Rebel Heart show at London’s O2 arena last week, it was the start of a dazzling spectacle. She performed for two hours, changed her costume every ten minutes, and sashayed over every inch of the stage and a 100ft-long catwalk, thrust like an arrow into the audience in the shape of a cross tipped with a heart. There were warriors in kimonos, nuns on stripper poles, mechanics in a body shop and a “Last Supper” scene played out on a long carved table that, true to the star’s proclivities, was more orgy than re-enactment. And all that was in the first half hour.
“A Madonna show is very complex; one of the most complex,” explains Ric Lipson of Stufish Entertainment Architects, the London-based practice that designed the sets and staging for this show. And he would know. Stufish has designed tours for the likes of the Rolling Stones, U2, Lady Gaga and Pink Floyd as well as the closing ceremony for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “Not only is Madonna one of the biggest acts, if not the biggest act, in the world,” he continues, “she also has a band, 20 dancers, a 130-strong crew and an attention to detail that is meticulous.” It’s big business, too. Lipson says constructing the Rebel Heart sets and staging cost at least $10m.
The design process started at the beginning of January. Over two to three months, while talking with Madonna’s artistic director daily and sending out 3D models almost weekly, dozens of ideas and stage formations were produced, explored and abandoned. Ideas ranged from having a bridge linking two stages, to video panels attached to robot arms that doubled up as pieces of stage. Some didn’t fit the artistic vision, others were too expensive or simply impossible to build and rehearse in time. However, elements of many of them came to fruition and Tait Towers in Pennsylvania began fabricating the set and staging. The catwalk was based on a sketch produced by Madonna of an infinity symbol and a heart – or the “head of the penis”, as she referred to it lasciviously during the show.
There is a staggering amount of stuff to contend with: lighting and sound equipment, giant video screens, cables and cumbersome props, costumes, staging and even lifts to carry people on and off stage. “This show takes 24 trucks to move around. That’s a bit more than three 747s when we have to fly it,” explains Lipson. Everything has to be designed so that it can be disassembled into smaller chunks – no bigger than a 2.4m cube – and reassembled again. “Everything looks very solid but it is all designed to clip, hook or lock into place,” he says, pulling up a piece of the band’s stage to make his point.
That can be a challenge when you are designing things like a 5m-tall steel spiral staircase (on which Madonna performs “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”) or the gigantic kinetic contraption that Stufish call “the machine” – a video screen deck that weighs 25 tonnes and is as big as an old-fashioned double-decker bus. It’s an impressive beast. It has four big “lifting arms” and several stage formations: it can lie flush with the stage floor, rise up and down by 8ft, ramp 90 degrees to vertical in 30 seconds and when raised the top portion can angle flat so that performers can dance across it. Has Stufish ever done anything as complex as this before? Lipson nods. “But everything in our world is a prototype, so some aspects are always new or experimental.” He also says the machine had to be fitted with a “non-slip, non-reflective and non-static lino floor” after Madonna suffered painful electric shocks on her previous tour. And there can’t be any “tolerances” (gaps between stage elements) as those are unsafe for performers when wearing stilettos or writhing around on the floor. As any architect will tell you, in a set that is dismantled daily, “no gaps” is a major ask.
The Rebel Heart show opened on September 9th in Montreal. But the hard work was far from over. When the crew arrives at a venue they pick up about 150 local stagehands. “That’s the only way you can build that much stuff that quickly,” explains Lipson. “Each person will head up their own small crew of locals who know the venue really well.” Things like if the roof has snow on it, or how high the ceilings are, can dramatically change how much you can hang from the roof beams. The process of rigging the sound and lighting systems starts the night before, or at 4am if there’s a show on. No wonder there are hammocks hanging from the stage for the crew to snatch a few hours’ sleep during the day. “Doing these shows is exhausting,” says Lipson. “Each time it’s like moving a city.”
Rebel Heart world tour continues until March 20th