Firm uses sets and lighting to maximize live acts ranging from Macca to Lady Gaga
He can laugh about it now, but Seven Design Works co-founder LeRoy Bennett’s career as a stage designer got off to a precarious start. It was 1980 and a very exacting Prince hired Bennett to design his tour.
“I worked very hard to make that show for him,” Bennett recalls. “Then Prince had to cancel the tour because he wasn’t selling any tickets. We were playing theaters and probably only the first 10 rows were sold out.”
In hindsight, things turned out just fine for Prince and for Bennett, but those early days still provided invaluable experience. Bennett jokes the biggest thing he learned from Prince, with whom he worked for several years, was “how to stay up for three days without sleep.” In truth, Prince provided a guiding philosophy that governs Bennett to this day: “I learned to push myself beyond what I thought I was able to do,” Bennett says. “You never grow unless you go outside your comfort zone. That’s what he taught me.”
Bennett co-founded the L.A.-based Seven Design Works in 2012 with Tobias G. Rylander and Cory Fitzgerald. Collectively, the trio has provided visually arresting set and light design for myriad acts, including Beyonce, Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney, the xx and Bruno Mars, as well as three Super Bowl half-time performances, and dozens of other special events for film and television.
Bennett and his team sit down with artists well in advance of a tour to create a set design that reflects the act and their vision. “I definitely have to feel them out: what inspires them as far as design, architecture, fashion,” Bennett says. “Then I go back and start to digest the whole thing.”
Bennett, whose mother was a trained opera singer and father an interior designer, says from an early age he melded sound and vision. “When I was 3 or 4 years old, I heard ‘Scheherazade’ and I had this vivid visual image in my head of a time and space. I didn’t just hear the music, I saw it.”
Bennett is calling from New York, where he’s finalizing the stage and lighting design with Lady Gaga for her ArtPop Ball tour, which kicks off in May. It’s the second outing Seven Design Works has done with Momma Monster and it promises to be spectacular. “There are three stages she can perform on with three Plexiglass walkways over the audience’s head,” Bennett says. “It’s pushing the way a show can be done and pushing the limits of production in terms of travel and financial.” But, he adds, “It’s not about how big it is, it’s not about the technology, it’s about how you use it. You can make huge statements with just one light if you use it the right way.”
With so many bells and whistles at his disposal and huge advancements in LED technology, Bennett says the cardinal rule is never allow technology to overshadow the artist. “There’s only one star and that’s the one on stage,” he says.
While Seven Design can execute minimalist design, most artists contract with it for more elaborate productions. Bennett says the company has worked with acts for as little as $25,000. “We’ve come up with a simple package that they can travel around with.”
While overall production costs for Seven’s extravaganzas vary, larger clients pay $250,000 and up for the design, with materials and assembly not included in the fee.
If Seven Design Works has become synonymous with some of the industry’s biggest draws, a desire to work with developing acts is the primary reason Bennett, Fitzgerald and Rylander started the firm. Plus, today’s opening act can bloom into tomorrow’s headliner, as has happened with Bruno Mars.
“Bruno was the first act we did that with” Bennett says. “Cory and I have developed his whole live branding. … There are many reasons why I do my job, but it’s a very satisfying thing knowing you’re part of that whole process.”