Transformative Experiences and the Spectacle of Sphere: A Conversation with Phish Show Director Abigail Rosen Holmes

Dean Budnick on June 24, 2024
Transformative Experiences and the Spectacle of Sphere: A Conversation with Phish Show Director Abigail Rosen Holmes

photo: René Huemer

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“We were always trying to think about it in the context of the audience space, but at the same time, the hope was that we were hitting emotion and not just spectacle. The goal from the very start was to deliver both,” reveals Abigail Rosen Holmes, who served as show director and co-creative director of Phish’s four-night run at the Sphere in Las Vegas from April 18-22. Rosen and a village of like-minded colleagues, including fellow co-creative director Jean-Baptiste Hardoin of Moment Factory and the four members of Phish themselves, succeeded marvelously on these terms, delivering performances that resonated far beyond the pageantry of it all.

Rosen approached her role with the artistry and finesse that she has applied to diverse settings over the years. She has worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, taught lighting and video design as a professor at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, and contributed to numerous TV and theater projects, as well as the High Roller Observation Wheel in Vegas. Her concert credits include: Talking Heads, The Cure, David Byrne, Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel and Janet Jackson.

In 2016 and 2017, she collaborated with Phish’s Chris Kuroda on the creation of two light rigs. Three years later, she was on the road with Trey Anastasio as the production designer for his Ghosts of the Forest tour.

As for her initial path into the concert setting, Rosen explains, “My background was in art, but I am not painting a full picture if I don’t say that my mother was a contemporary dancer. So I grew up seeing a lot of theater, experimental theater and dance, and both of my parents were very into music. So some of that grounding was already there. I went to see live music all the time growing up, but I didn’t think about the fact that someone was doing visuals for it. I’m not a musician, so when I realized that was a thing, I saw it as a way to bring some smaller voice to a live musical performance, which was something that I always loved.”

Now that you’ve completed the Sphere run, I’d love to hear your general thoughts on the relationship between technology, innovation and creative expression.

It’s interesting to talk about that on the heels of doing a project at the Sphere. I feel that with technology in general, there comes a wave where you get something quite new. That’s certainly true of stage technology. Theatrical lighting looked the same for a hundred years and then we got moving lights. More recently, there has been an explosion of computer technology that has dramatically expanded a lot of what you can do with video in the entertainment performance arena.

However, I think that the technology can’t be a means to itself. Coming out of the Sphere, I continue to believe this. You can see something that’s super impressive and enjoyable, but I always hope there’s an idea behind it, so that you’re not just using it for its own sake. I hope that it is still a means to an end of what you’re trying to do.

When you’re operating on that scale, are there certain emotions or ideas that are difficult to execute and possibly unavailable?

I think it’s challenging. One thing that I was certainly cognizant of—and I think others will be going into the Sphere—is the relative scale of a human performer to the technology, and trying to be cognizant of ways to remember that the show is still driven by a human performance. The technology puts an impetus on the design team to be aware of certain things and to try and honor them in the context of what you’re doing.

I think we were able to achieve that at moments during the shows, which was something that I hoped we’d be able to do. We were able to have these quieter moments and some more ballad-like songs that did feel intimate, and the audience felt connected to the performers. That is one of the things I most hoped we’d be able to achieve.

My most memorable sequence at Sphere was during “Mike’s Song”> “Lifeboy” when I was trying to interpret the world that appeared behind the band. I was filling in the narrative and creating my own, which was an active, satisfying experience.

You’ve said something that I hoped for in the images, which is that, on some level, we were cognizant not to narrate the stories too literally. One thing I love about the live experience of viewing a performance is that the viewer has to engage enough to bring something to complete the experience. So the idea that you are filling in something that we haven’t spelled out so much for you and there’s room for you to interpret it is something I like to achieve. That’s something I want us to do because I think it’s a richer, shared and immediate experience and less of a mediated one.

When I saw Ghosts of the Forest, I thought it offered a similar role for the audience.

I loved working on Ghosts of the Forest and on that project, we tried to do the same thing. It obviously was a more intimate experience, but the idea that the pieces were evocative but not literally narrative was even more of a goal. We gave you a sense of a place, but it was mystical, magical, undefined and open to interpretation. Those are places we don’t get to access very much in our spelled-out, information-heavy world. Hopefully, that makes for a little bit of a transformative experience in being together to see a show.

In the giant dome, people probably wanted some measure of spectacle, pure and simple. To what extent was that in your calculus when you were building the show?

In the Sphere, you have to deliver some of that; although, I wouldn’t say that we ever put a specific number on it. I think one of the things that you know, having experienced it in the room, is that the screen is a lot. So figuring out ways to have the show not only continue to be engaging but also to have some kind of pacing is imperative in that space.

I think it can get overwhelming on so many levels. One is just that the pieces start to lose impact. If you have these huge spectacle pieces, one after another, after a while, you don’t respond to them anymore. That’s also not an enjoyable three-and-a-half-hour experience. It would feel aggressive after a while.

I also think Phish have a much more dynamic range than that. So they help guide us where to land. If we’re following them musically, we will have the range because they have the range.

What was your takeaway after seeing U2 at the Sphere and how did you apply that to the Phish shows, if at all?

Due to happenstance, I had done some adjacent work on elements of the Sphere when it was in development. I lit some press events during the very early announcements of the building— what they called the science fair, which was a kind of demo of the technologies that were going to be in the building.

Then they brought in some creatives to do blue sky meetings about how you might use the space. So it was an advantage that I’d had my head in the building a little bit before we started this project without any expectation of necessarily doing a show in the room. Some ideas had a little time to percolate.

I loved seeing U2 in the room. I’ve loved what Willie Williams, their creator director, has done for them for years. I love how their shows look. They have a kind of grand minimalism.

I thought their show was gorgeous. I thought it was a perfect U2 show and that they’re a great act for that room. They have the presence to be really strong human performers against a grand scale background. That is where they live in so many of their shows. There were wonderful things.

I also want to say that we went in and did some site surveys with their team before the building opened and before the U2 performances started. Willie Williams, the creative director, and Jake Berry, their production manager, were unbelievably generous and supportive in sharing what they were learning. That was incredibly helpful to us.

So we definitely learned a lot from speaking to them and seeing the show, but a core piece of how I like to work when I’m thinking about any show is that I’m thinking about it from the true origin of that performer. Who are these musicians? What is the story they tell? What is important about them? What is unique to them? In that way, it’s a different situation to think about what works in there for Phish. They’re very different artists.

I don’t know if it was lucky or unlucky that we were second, but there weren’t a lot of things to compare this to. You’ll have a conversation where someone will say, “I liked this thing at the U2 show,” but you have to be careful about where it’s relevant or not to the artist you’re working with.

Earlier, you mentioned the relative scale of the human performer to the technology. I’ve seen U2 in large settings and they’re comfortable projecting oversized images of themselves, which is part of their live aesthetic. That’s not something Phish typically does, so how did you approach it?

There is always the problem of a very large room when you’re trying to make sure people can feel a connection to the artist that they’re seeing live. Camera has become an invaluable way to do that. It’s also very tricky because you’re watching a mediated, captured image. It’s inherently not live.

There are some studies that show that if you show someone a camera image and a live image, they all look at the camera image. We’re really raised on that now, but I think it’s also somewhat human nature and so you’re trying to find this balance where you can do that, but it’s still the live performance. I thought they did that beautifully with U2 but you have to be cognizant or it becomes a screen experience entirely instead of a mixed experience.

This is something we really talked about. With Ghosts of the Forest, we did one very deconstructed camera effect for the song “About to Run.” We did it with the tools that were available at that time. It was an infrared capture of Trey playing guitar, which we then treated with what might seem like very rudimentary effects today. It was so simple—you saw his face and it was clearly live, but it wasn’t a conventional camera image of him. So that effect became sort of our benchmark for how we would think about putting some imagery that was live of the band up on the wall, which was something everybody wanted to do.

We were very cognizant of the variety of the viewing positions in the Sphere. There are people on the floor who are probably having something somewhat close to a Phish viewing experience that they would recognize. Then it’s very different when you get up in the three and four hundreds. So we wanted to find ways to make sure that the experience was great no matter where you were.

Then with this idea of getting some sense of the band moving live, we really wanted to have a version of that for the seats that were far away. So we looked at the example of the effects from “Run”—Trey called it deconstructed images— where you know that you are seeing the band play live but not in such a literal or revealed way. Those were a little bit different every night.

Given the band’s penchant for improvisation, when you were calling the show, could you turn on a dime, as needed?

When we started to talk about how to construct the video playback for the shows, the ultimate goal was to create the visuals in a way that didn’t restrict the band from improvising. That seemed incredibly important in order for these to be great Phish shows.

We worked hard to make all the content real-time controllable. Some pieces had quicker reactivity than others, and if that was the case in one element, we usually tried to program or access another element that did have quick responsiveness so that there was always something available. The goal was to be able to turn on a dime.

You’re affecting what happens onstage at the same time that you’re situated within the crowd. Did you find that your dual role as an observer/participant and your proximity to the audience influenced your approach in any way?

I’ll speak somewhat from a long history of running shows from front of house. With the Sphere, we were slightly more removed because of the physical nature of our position. I didn’t have the audience super close to me, but you 100% feel the audience.

When you’re running a show at front of house, you’re absolutely aware of the audience experience all the time. There are so many levels that exist. There’s the level where you can hit a button that does something that will make the audience have a reaction in the moment. You want to use those judiciously, because in my belief, if you’re doing this right, you’re supporting the music and those can be a little bit of a cheat. But the other side of that is that you feel the audience’s emotions build and flow during the night. I toured for a while with The Cure—another band that plays a long show and has a really wide emotional range in their music. You could feel that ebb and flow in the audience. It’s really powerful.

Periodically, and this ties back to our early conversation about whether technology becomes the driver in and of itself, I have heard, “Oh, everyone can watch stuff on YouTube, so people are going to stop going to things live.”

But I would always differ on that because there’s something about the shared emotion of watching a show with a bunch of other people. You feel it in the house and it’s incredibly powerful. It’s one of the fantastic things about live performance.

So when we’re operating, my first concentration for a band as improvisational as Phish, is the band. You’re concentrating so hard on sensing what they’re playing, where they’re going next—whether they’re ebbing or flowing—so that you can truly be with them.

But the second level is feeling what’s happening around you in the house. When you feel like you have successfully helped deliver that experience for the audience, there’s nothing better. It’s amazing.

Can you describe the process of developing the visuals? What was the level of specificity or abstraction that was provided to Moment Factory to execute on those ideas?

Trey would say, “Strength is in teams.” One of the things that’s interesting about this project is the scale. At a point where you have that much scale, I think you are going to benefit from having a bunch of people’s ideas come to the table. I think that is a place where we were strong. What you see up there are great ideas from a bunch of people with the variety, depth and expansiveness of the artists.

Jean-Baptiste Hardoin from Moment Factory was the co-creative director and Manuel Galarneau was the screens designer. You’re talking about 68 songs and 13 or 14 hours of music. Part of the strength of this show is so many strong designers were bringing their best. It takes a very big village to make a show for four nights.

Our starting points were the conversations that Trey and I had about how we were going to frame the four nights and this idea of giving ourselves a very non-literal theme. Part of the reason for that is to have some initial direction because there’s a bottomless opportunity to do things on that surface. Even in the context of trying to have a show that was open to interpretation and being able to go in any direction, it helps to have some cohesiveness or a through-line.

So for us, it was these themes. The idea of four of the states of matter [solid, liquid, gas, plasma] gave everybody a jumping-off point. That became the origin of these brainstorming sessions we started to have.

We didn’t necessarily want to reveal what those were or put a name on them too early. So I don’t know at what point it became apparent that there was any through-line. Maybe it never was for some people.

I think the liquid theme became apparent on the second night, although it might have been received as water or the like.

It was going to be so much harder to have it be obvious out of the gate what solid night was just by its very nature. We figured that it would be much more apparent once we got into liquid.

I think the beauty of starting with solid is that it’s not immediately accessible and requires additional thought or context.

Yes, part of it was to have it be something that wasn’t that clear, in the same vein that you wanted to leave an opportunity for the audience to complete the story.

Now that the run is complete, as you look back, is there a definitive image that comes to mind for one reason or another?

Yes, but it’s not based on the visual. I will also say that when you’re operating the show, it’s very consuming. So you’re not sitting back and looking. You are fully in the moment.

There were some super fun moments in there, some powerful moments and some really great spectacle. For me, the 30-minute “Down with Disease” was a sign that we had achieved one of the things that we really wanted, which was for the band to be able to play. This was true throughout the nights, so I’m using this as an example, but for me, it’s every time they were able to play really freely.

When we first started to talk about it, I never doubted we could come in and do something visually amazing. But what I’d hoped we’d achieve was that the Phish audience would walk away saying, “These were great Phish shows musically and great versions of these songs.”

So I named “Down with Disease” because it was able to go fully out there. But there were many songs during those four nights that showed me we had been able to deliver what we aimed for, in terms of setting up the band to be comfortable playing in there.

I knew that fans would come away and say, “I liked this visual” or “I didn’t like this one.” You’re never going to land every piece with everybody. But if they came away and said, “The band had great shows,” that would be the success.