Talking Show Control With Jonathan Deans

Recently, for Lighting And Sound America, I interviewed my old friend Jonathan Deans, who is, according to Cirque du Soleil, "one of the most sought-after sound designers in the musical theatre world."  He's designed something like a dozen Cirque productions, including almost all their permanent productions, and numerous Broadway and other shows. I first heard his work on Time in London in 1986 (man, do I feel old writing that sentence!), when I was there working on the Little Shop of Horrors movie (coincidentally, I just uploaded some photos of me on the Little Shop set).

I was talking to Jonathan about his work on Criss Angel Believe (previous blog entries on Believe here), and that article, featuring interviews with the design and illusion team, should be in print within a couple months. But during our talk, we drifted onto one of our favorite topics: show control. Jonathan has long been an innovator and has also been on the front lines for probably 25 years now, so he offers a unique perspective. Since our exchange didn't really fit into the article, I got permission to post it here. 

Jonathan starts out talking about Damon Wooten, who, along with my mentor George Kindler and friend Jeff Berryman, did ground breaking work in the early 1990's on show control systems for shows like Feld Productions' George Lucas Super Live Adventure, and EFX (sadly, both Damon and George have since passed away).

Jonathan : Damon Wooten always taught me that show control should be like a running relay: it’s all about who’s got the baton, and just because one person has it now doesn’t mean to say that, in the next cue, somebody else shouldn’t have it. To actually do show control most effectively, everyone should be able to follow show control, or create show control--all the departments should be able to do that. Damon said that to me on EFX, that was 12-13 years ago, and now when I do a Cirque show, that’s how it is.

Me: That's good to hear, and it's funny,I spent all this time promoting and teaching SMPTE time code and MIDI and MIDI Show Control, and in the last few years, with the rise of Ethernet, I've been saying let’s get rid of all that and put everything on the network [more explanation in a two-part blog series I wrote here] and do real interactivity. Now we can easily synchronize things or pass control off 100 times a second.

Jonathan: We can do it, but now we need people who know how to do it.

Me: It seems to me that that’s going to be a generational thing, especially on the directors’ side?

Jonathan: The interesting thing is that the directors go and see all these different kinds of shows--performance art to Broadway to Vegas to films.  So their expectations are way way bigger than they were 10 years ago.  And they know what they want and they don’t expect the limitations. The technical part of it is saying the forbidden word "no"--because that should be the forbidden word--and so that’s where the problems exist. So I don’t think it’s a directors issue, it’s more of the creative process being short-circuited...


As I've gotten older, I've realized that actually implementing change and innovation can take a long time.  When I wrote the first edition of my book back in 1994, I thought the industry was on the verge of doing a lot of really cool stuff. Little did I realize that it would take another 15 years before we could get to the point where there's cheap enough technology, and--even more importantly--enough knowledge and experience that we can now implement show control on a routine basis in a peer-peer way without a dedicated show controller (I wrote about this in detail in my book). It's especially heartening now to hear that at least the "big boys" like Cirque, who work hard to attract really talented people, are taking advantage of this situation.