SDM: How did you get inspiration for this set and how did the concept come about?
RR: This set design was inspired by the band’s creative direction. In our initial meetings, the band let me know that they wanted the stage to evolve, they wanted it to be constructed and deconstructed during the set. I loved their initial ideas and ran with it from there. I had to create something that was both functional and aesthetically pleasing. I had to make it functional because this project was more like a play than a standard concert. There were a ton of moving parts, choreography, props coming on and off, a children’s choir, background vocals, guest musicians and skits. I needed to design a creative space in which all of these elements could come and go freely, while being able to tell a compelling story visually. I began by working on the riser placement first. Once that made sense, the rest of the production design began to take shape. I wanted to expand upon the idea of the modular set. This led me to add a mid-stage video wall that would open and close in two individual sections. We could achieve many different looks, both symmetrical and asymmetrical. I was able to use these video elements as living set pieces. I used them to reveal different set pieces, band members coming on and off stage, and to hide wardrobe changes. The production design really evolves throughout the set, allowing us to give each different element involved their own moment.
SDM: What does it feel like when, moments before the show, the lights are still off and you can finally start the show in front of thousands of people? For a stage designer, is the beginning or the end of the performance more important?
RR: It is a rush unlike any other I have ever felt. I am heavily invested in every project that I am a part of, emotionally and creatively. All the hard work, long nights and moments you shared with everyone involved—they all come rushing through you right before the show begins. It is a very vulnerable moment, but it is so satisfying to see the fans experience it for the first time and love it. It makes it all worthwhile. I consider both the beginning and the end of a performance equally important. For me, it is a delicate balance between engaging the audience from the beginning of the performance, but also finding a way not to give it all away at once. I like to deliberately roll out different visual and lighting elements throughout the set – creating tension and always having a new wrinkle to sprinkle in while the performance is happening. I like to build towards a climax and end very strongly. I want the audience to feel like they just experienced a performance, rather than just watched a movie.
SDM: As you mentioned, a large-scale show consists of many elements that need to seamlessly come together. How important was teamwork for a successful outcome?
RR: Teamwork is essential to any project of this scale. Jonathan Nelson, our Production Manager, was a great collaborator on this project. He really let me go wild with some of my ideas and helped me make them a reality. Having a PM who doesn’t shut down ideas right away just because they may be harder to execute really allows me to take risks as a designer which leads to a more rewarding and visually interesting design. The MGMT camp is the best, everyone on the crew is professional and excellent at their job. They treat everyone with respect and dignity and empower everyone to play their role.
SDM: You had previously worked with MGMT as a lighting director and programmer. How crucial is the trust relationship between those creating the music itself and those surrounding and enhancing it?
RR: I think it is absolutely crucial. Ben and Andrew (MGMT) really empowered me to do my best work by trusting me. I got to know them on a personal level as we toured the world on their last world tour. I think this made me even more emotionally invested, because I know the humans behind the music. I am so grateful to have that creative trust from the band and their management. It really empowered me to come to the table with my own ideas and interpretations of their music, which I firmly believe led to a better result in the end.
SDM: Given the nature of your work, which is closely tied to music, how much influence does an artist have on the development of a set design? How do you balance their artistic needs with technical requirements?
RR: It depends on the artist. Some artists are more hands on than others. I felt like this project struck the right balance, although every project is different. They had a creative direction for the set in mind, but they trusted me to take it from there. It felt like a true partnership and creative collaboration. My role as a designer is to find this balance between artistic needs and technical requirements. That is where my imagination and creativity has to guide us towards a completed idea.
SDM: Is there an event you have designed that you would love to participate in again as a stage designer?
RR: I have worked with many different artists at Coachella Music Festival. I would love to design a headliner’s set on the main stage.
SDM: And is there an event you would like to attend as a spectator to enjoy the show?
RR: I love going to concerts as a spectator. Although I cannot turn the designer part of my brain off, but it is good to remind myself what the audience’s perspective is. At the end of the day, I am a music lover and I enjoy getting lost in the music. I feel like live music is one of the only places where I can be truly present.
SDM: Do you have any particular events you aspire to work on?
RR: I have been very lucky enough to have worked with many different artists that resulted in meaningful creative collaborations. Ultimately, I enjoy coming into the creative world of different musicians and helping them elevate and achieve their dreams on stage. If I had to pick some artists from my wish list, I would say (in no particular order) Daft Punk, Solange, Dev Hynes, and Turnstile. Beyond that, I look forward to working on many interesting and fulfilling projects in the near future. My company, Ricardo Rojas Designs, Inc., is growing and is ready to offer 360 creative design services. We offer show design, creative direction, production design, lighting design, video content, programming, and live execution. I am always looking to make new friends and collaborate with others!
SDM: What advice would you give to those who want to pursue a career in this field?
RR: Be relentless in your enthusiasm and work ethic.
Creative Direction: Ben Goldwasser, Andrew VanWyngarden + Tom Scharpling
Management: David Gottlieb + Mark Kates
Production Manager: Jonathan Nelson
Show Direction, Production Design, + Lighting Design: Ricardo Rojas
Lighting Programming: Danni Cabaruvias
Lighting Technicians: James Eyers
Lighting Vendor: Volt Lites
Content Design and Content Direction: 2n Studio
FOH: Fabian Quiroga
Monitors: David DiGiacomo
Backline + Audio Technician: Aaron Havill
Backline + Guitar Technician: Falcon Valdez
Playback: Steve Nalepa
Stage Manager: Savannah Kurtz
Tour Manager: Craig McQuiston
Background Vocals: Lou Rebecca + Christoph Hochheim
Additional Musicians: Josh DaCosta + John Kirby
Fenway Recordings Team: Sophie Wilde
Staging Vendor: All Access Staging
Dancers: Max Goldblatt and team
Photos: Shaun Llewellyn