Concert

Where the Light Is: A Spotlight on Lighting Designer Guy Rhodes

Last summer, I had the pleasure of interviewing and photographing my good friend Guy Rhodes while he was in town working a show, Fantasia and Anthony Hamilton's 2016 summer tour.

Guy Rhodes poses for a photo at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 17, 2016.

Guy Rhodes poses for a photo at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 17, 2016.

Stationed discreetly behind the last row in Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, a man named Guy hovers over a Hog III console. His long hair is pulled into his signature low ponytail, and a walkie-talkie hangs from his hip, sputtering chatter from the crew backstage. Unfazed, he reviews the set list once more, intently confirming all is in order. The tour is three stops from over, and by this point—both in the tour and his career—Chicago native Guy Rhodes has the art of lighting design down to a science.

Hundreds of light sequences and a stunning finale later, Rhodes brings the faders down, disconnects cables, and gingerly puts the console back in its case before returning the other tools of his trade to a backpack. On this particular night, those tools included a small flashlight and gaff tape, which played the role of a missing console light.

There are just some things you learn to carry after, literally, hundreds of lighting gigs.

LiGHT SEEN 'ROUND THE WORLD

2016 marked Guy's third in working with Anthony Hamilton. A seasoned lighting designer, or LD, Guy approaches each tour as an opportunity to do something innovative, both with songs he’s lit before and with new additions to the set list. Hamilton's tours visit cities all over the country, with 2016 alone racking up 47 shows in three months. That means every year presents a bevy of opportunities to leverage experience and technology to bring something new to the stage, and the summer of 2016 was no exception.

“There were two songs I really enjoyed operating, and those were Souls On Fire and Still,” Rhodes says.

“Souls On Fire is a high-energy number that has a rock show feel to it. We used six Chauvet Vesuvio fogger units on this number to send powerful jets of lit smoke into the air to simulate flames—I got to have a lot of fun with those! It’s always fun when I can bring some of my theatrical lighting tricks into the concert world.”

In between tour stints, Rhodes can be found designing shows at West Side Theatre Guild in Gary, Indiana, or Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana. His command over theatrical storytelling through light is unmistakably present in his approach to concert lighting for Hamilton.

“On the theatrical front, the song Still is a powerful ballad about God. We actually gave the background singers spike marks on the stage that they hit at a certain point of the song when they begin singing, revealing them in tight down-pool specials. Coupled with a big mover fly-in cue through the hazy air at the bridge, the looks in that song sent tingles down my spine night after night. In fact, there were a couple of shows where I got a little glassy-eyed as Anthony become emotional with a vamp that he’d usually do at the end. It’s always rewarding when what you’re doing with the visuals on the show can elicit an emotional response from the audience, or even yourself!”

Not long after the faders dimmed for the final time on the Hamilton-Fantasia 2016 summer tour, the sought-after LD boarded planes for gigs in London and New Orleans to reprise his role for this other, reasonably well-known musician: Kendrick Lamar. Among the largest events Rhodes has worked, the Lamar shows were also the some of the most challenging—rain diminished already-minimal prep time at an outdoor festival in England, and unrelenting jet lag was a constant companion that threatened productivity. 

Fortunately for Rhodes, he’s naturally innovative, and something of a night owl. The shows went off without a hitch, bearing the trademark lighting for which Guy has become known: thoughtful, powerful composition designed to complement the visual elements of the venue as much as the aural elements from the artists.

By the end of the summer of 2016, Guy was checking off several goals from a staggering list of accomplishments—but he’s been at this a lot longer than his youthful countenance lets on.

The Light Bulb Moment

“I sometimes feel like the more goals I accomplish, the more goals emerge that I wish to pursue,” says Rhodes. 

Surveying his professional life thus far, there is plenty of evidence to support that feeling. Naturally, the first chapter is set at the greatest show on earth—the circus.

Guy lights a living room production at age five.

Guy lights a living room production at age five.

“I can remember paying more attention to the followspot operators than anything going on in the rings,” he says.

Guy was five.

That Christmas, young Guy’s list to Santa included spotlights and dry ice, “to create fog effects, of course.” 

Proving it was more than a passing, first-grade fancy, the passion for lighting persisted as he grew older.

“At my sixth grade graduation rehearsal, I got my hands on the old, monstrous dimmer board backstage in my school’s auditorium to help the adults set up some looks for the event,” he says, “and I haven’t looked back.”

Many lighting gigs later, it’s March 2014. The boy who fixated on the fixtures at the circus is now doing the same as a bona fide LD, standing at the helm of the console for a show by Anthony Hamilton in Albany, Georgia. A couple years prior, he had begun to internalize Hamilton’s music as a lighting crew chief, working alongside the talented LD, Calvin Johnson. Having been sent down with Live International, a lighting and sound company he freelances for in the Chicago area, Guy wowed the stage manager with his recall of the songs and the resulting spot-on design.

Three songs into the set, he was hired.

Light on His Feet

An artist at heart, Guy doesn't just adapt, but rather he thrives on the near-constant creative challenges presented by his line of work.

“I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve done over the years where the first time I knew what I was working with in the light rig was when I walked in the door at the start of the day. Thankfully, I’m so used to that scenario that it has become my comfort zone. I’ve learned to embrace the curve-balls that production throws at you, because sometimes they result in very interesting looks as a result of having to be creative with less.”

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"Making people feel something through my art is something that never grows old."

Even with curve balls, Rhodes manages to hit it out of the park on a regular basis. He’s not immune to the emotional impact of his designs, either; he often finds himself swept up in the emotion of a powerful, well-lit moment.

“I enjoy the fact that I get to contribute to an audience’s emotional response to the material that they’re experiencing,” he says. “At a concert, I get to give people that tingly feeling—that I get myself sometimes—when a beautiful light cue sweeps through the air above them and lands on the headlining artist downstage center. Or, at a play, I can accentuate a sad or uncomfortable moment with a muted color palette and jarring angles.”

“Making people feel something through my art is something that never grows old,” he says.

A Bright Future

Pursuant of the same goal he’s had since he was five, Guy plans to continue lighting increasingly bigger stages. In the last three years, however, he’s also covered two Olympics (Sochi and Rio) for USA TODAY Sports Images while cementing his status as a Renaissance Man by refining the art of wet plate photography and occasionally chasing down planes intersecting with the sun. Simply put, Guy is relentless in his pursuit of light, whether creating it onstage or capturing it in-camera.

“I feel that lighting, as with photography, is one of those crafts where you never stop learning—you never really arrive at some mythical place of being ‘done.’”

He won't be done anytime soon. Despite an earlier start than most, his career is just getting started and things are looking bright. Between national tours, one-off shows overseas, and Olympian photo gigs, if you want to find Guy Rhodes, just look for where the (really good) light is.

Guy Rhodes at his console during the show at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 17, 2016.

Guy Rhodes at his console during the show at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 17, 2016.

 

Tour Photographer for a Day

Yesterday, lighting designer extraordinaire and dear friend, Guy Rhodes, invited me to come up to Atlanta's famed Fox Theatre to check out his current gig as LD on the Anthony Hamilton and Fantasia tour. I was told I could bring my Nikon friends, and boy, did I. In hindsight, perhaps the ThinkTank was overkill.

Digressing.

When I arrived, I was presented with stickers to let folks know not to kick me out. I wore them happily, like Honor Student bumper stickers on a minivan.

Concert images are forthcoming, but until then, here's me geeking out in the mirror next to the stage door. I couldn't help but wonder what big names had stood in this very spot, taking once last look before taking the stage.