We Made It: Ric Lipson, Stufish Entertainment Architects

While most set designers come from an art or theatre background, Ric Lipson has parlayed his architectural training into an unusual skillset: designing not just what goes on inside entertainment venues, but the buildings themselves. At his studio Stufish Entertainment Architects, founded by the late Mark Fisher in the mid 1990s, the team provides anything from a mic stand up to creating new and complex edifices. They’ve worked on tours for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Queen, a Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas show, West End hits like We Will Rock You, and one-off events such as the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert. Their current challenge involves holograms and Martian invasion, as they take on a retooled musical incarnation of The War of the Worlds, now playing at the Dominion Theatre in London.

How did you first discover a love of set design?

From a very young age, I loved any form of entertainment. I did marionette shows and magic tricks, and I DJ-ed at children’s discos and bar mitzvahs in Manchester where I grew up. I loved the idea of going into a space and transforming it. At school, I got involved with stage crew and started designing sets, lights, posters, anything I could do to serve the production. Then when I was studying architecture at UCL, that was right over the road from Bloomsbury Theatre, so I kept doing set design too. In 2006 I met my mentor, Mark Fisher – a great architect who did rock 'n' roll stage design – and joined his studio.

How does your architectural background change your approach to design?

We’re used to thinking about how to actually build something out of bricks and concrete that stands up, plus meeting a budget, sticking to a timescale – it’s a more pragmatic approach. We won’t propose things we can’t deliver. That’s both good and bad – clients don’t want to waste time looking at beautiful sketches of something that can’t be built, but sometimes we let ideas go because we know it’s not practical. If we’re doing something with a script, that’s our brief, and the solution to it is what we create. We don’t have a set house style – it’s about finding out what works for that specific project and tailoring everything to it. For example, if we’re doing a nationwide touring gig for U2, we’re balancing the creative ideas for that show with the knowledge that we have to be able to pack it up into 20 trucks, send it across the country, unload and put it up again in a day, and fit it in different spaces. Modular sets give us flexibility.

We also try to cover the whole rainbow of ideas. Last year, we created work for the Dai Show Theatre and the Dai Show in China – designing the building and the set together. We also designed the Han Show Theatre. It’s one of the most complex theatres in the world, with the seats opening up for a pool where divers jump 60 feet in the air as part of an acrobatic water show. Both of these theatres were a really amazing opportunity to apply our holistic practice to major projects.

How does your design process work?

We have about 20 employees, covering both production and architecture. We’ll take an initial client meeting, and then either sketch or produce basic schematic drawings or 3D modelling so they can visualise it. That’s our version of the theatre set cardboard box. With computer modelling, you can see what the stage looks like from each seat in the house to make sure all your sightlines work. If we do a Madonna show, we might get a set list of 24 songs, beginning with the theme of religion and ending with celebration – so it’s not a specific design brief, but you get a sense of the themes, the ideas, the dancing, the breadth of props and so on. Then you create the technology to allow that to take place.

How much creative input did you get with War of the Worlds?

The aesthetic was set by previous versions of the show – that steampunk Victoriana, filtered through the Seventies illustrations. We’re honouring that, as well as referencing the Victorian era of space obsession, so there are nods to weather-measuring devices, astronomical worlds, gold rings, cogs. It’s already been a successful concert arena show, but we wanted to make it more of a fusion of music, dance, theatre and technical extravaganza, so we sat down with Bob Tomson to figure out how best to present it to a theatre audience. Rather than confining the action to a big screen, we’ve kept the stage quite loose, with infrastructure that allows us to immerse the audience via technology.

We map out every beat – we’ve got 210 storyboards guiding us through every kinetic change in the show. The first step is using 3D modelling to build the roll drops, on which the video is projected, in digital space and key-framing different elements to make them move at a certain speed, so they can match the time code of the show. For example, if we know we’ve got a four-minute battlefield scene, how do we use our nine roll drops in an interesting formation to support the action? How can we best employ the holograms and animation? We’ll sit down with the director, video company, lightning designer and choreographer, and together we’ll figure out the best flow for the show. It’s constant collaboration.

How much difference have recent technological innovations made?

We work all the time at pushing boundaries, inventing a new piece of automation or rigging. We were the first company to build an LED screen for U2, in 1992, and last year we had Bono and the band actually ending up inside the video screen. Puppets used to have negative connotations, before productions like War Horse changed things. In this show, both our Martian creatures are puppets, but we’re a long way from Punch and Judy. One is based on the marionette, but it’s a huge metal sculpture with kinetic joints controlled by high-powered, very fast motors – so you’re not aware of someone pulling the strings.

Is there a danger of technology overtaking the live theatre experience?

Video in theatre is both great and terrible. Everyone’s so used to see amazing things in cinema now – stuff you could never do on stage. So you have to be careful. Video projection mustn’t overtake the set in a sub-cinema way – it’s a layer to help tell the story of the show. We’ve actually got a fairly low-tech solution for our second Martian creature: a large frame with foam rubber sculpture head and tentacles, and people pulling on rotating levers to make them twist. It really looks like it’s writhing.

We’re using a lot of AR-Media’s original footage from the arena tours, which is fantastic. But people’s understanding of live events has been changed so much by them watching pop stars on concert screens via image magnification, or through telly or smartphones. We’ve tried to use the footage in a way that’s like we’re shooting the action live on stage. So you really feel the production is happening now, rather than the actors playing along to it.

Are there any other designers who inspire you?

My personal hero, Mark Fisher, became my boss. But we’re inspired by everyone – architects, artists, photographers, choreographers, everything we see around us. Ideas come from a series of references, not just one.

Would you recommend aspiring designers follow your architectural route? 

Whatever you choose, just make sure you have an edge. Architecture has been great for me, as it encourages you to think outside the box and adapt to your environment, plus I currently have the luxury of working on about 20 incredibly diverse projects. But what constitutes theatre is changing too, with Punchdrunk’s immersive work, circus crossovers, site-specific shows, You Me Bum Bum Train. It’s all about finding different ways to express your ideas – while also making sure the set stays up.

Find out more about Stufish Entertainment Architects

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