Paul Dexter

Lighting Designer  • www.masterworkslighting.com

Beginning with a rock & roll stage lighting system made of Hawaiian pineapple cans,

Paul has a rich 40+ years of lighting, and life, experience under his belt not to mention

some valuable advice for any young LD hoping for the same level of success. Enjoy!

Meet Paul.

Your first forays into lighting were at the age of 16 in Los Angeles.

Did you grow up in Southern California and do you still call it home?

I grew up about 50 miles east of Los Angeles in a group of communities that included Upland,

Claremont and Pomona. Thankfully yes, I still live in Southern California. I say thankfully because

I was in North Yorkshire England for 10 years between 1986 and 1996. I married and we had a son

and a daughter there. I love England, but with sunny SoCal roots, contending with freezing fog and

rainy winter conditions much of the year was far more than I bargained for!

 

I read on your website that at the age of 18 you were asked to tour with Elvis!

How did that come about?

From the time I was 16 - 18, I was involved with an original band, called “Central”, doing everything from official photographer to building a homemade lighting system for the band with the ideas and experience from the, then, road manager for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. We showcased several times for record companies and entered into the Hollywood Battle of the Bands. We won it and part of the prize was to open for a group called “Rare Earth” at the Riverside Raceway. The lighting system consisted of 3 front followspots and two rear followspots. I used those followspots for “Central” and attracted the attention of Marilyn Rennegal, partner in (the new) Sundance Lighting Company formed

by James Moody. It was that night that she asked me if I would like to go on tour with Elvis - I was 18.

 

You’ve been involved in lighting and stage set design since 1973 and have worked with

some of the world’s biggest “classic” rock bands. Was there a moment in your career that

you consider a turning point or big break?

We are talking about a time where rock bands ruled the radio waves and rock stars possessed

mystical fame and curiosity. Rock music brought an entire generation together with their lyrics and

stop-me-if-you-dare attitude. I wanted that! I was very young; I loved music and everything that the business represented. It was thrilling to be in LA in the early 70’s, work in the studio lots and be

exposed to the quick and constant change and progression of lighting and production that each tour brought. I started with Rick James in 1979 in small theatres and by 1981 (“Super Freak” days) we

were doing multiple nights in arenas. This happened with DIO too - small theatres at first and while

on the road, I was designing new rigs for larger venues to keep up with his popularity. The pinnacle

for rock royalty was working with Elton John. I thought that I really arrived! I remember some amazing experiences that came with Elton, one being a live broadcast from the Coliseum in Verona, Italy.

It shown all over Europe, on SKY Cable. Along with the stage lighting, I lit most of the existing

architecture which was built in the first century. You could feel the history in the walls. So the

answer to your question - there has not been one big break, but more like a lot of breaks

with career highs and lows.

 

Is there a project/design/tour you’re most proud of or that sticks out in your mind?

Good question! I enjoy what I do and have been very fortunate to be involved with (mostly) good

people who want to produce great shows. Once you finish one then you work on another and that becomes your favorite. The events/shows that are not so memorable, usually has to do with the people that are involved in them. If that is the case, you learn, take them out of your contact list and move on.

I get asked the - what is my favorite event/show question more than any. I liked working with Ronnie James Dio because he became deeply and personally involved with creating stage sets, effects and developing lighting cues. To have an artist’s perspective that really cares about what we do is a game changer. We would spend countless hours in dressing rooms all over the world and became good friends.  Another “favorite” project was as the concert LD for the movie “Rock Star”. Being on a movie

set for 2, 4 weeks runs (rehearsal and filming), was an incredible experience because it merged two entertainment mediums and their working crews for both; live band concert scenes in what is now considered a cult movie.

 

At this moment in your career what do you prefer – sitting at your desk and working

on a design or sitting behind the control console when the house lights go off?

I don’t prefer one over the other. I like them both but for different reasons. Sitting at a desk is an autonomous and comfortable position. I design with CAD programs and like to think that I can sit

there and figure it all out - not the case! You cannot tell if everything is going to work as planned

until the calculations and drawings meet the physical space. It is a good thing that I still enjoy travel

to enable me to see designs through and maximize effects. Being behind the control console is

still a rush because I love the music.

 

You’ve also worked in and studied architectural lighting. Are there any lessons from

architectural lighting that can be applied to rock ‘n’ roll lighting?

The two disciplines are quite different. Architectural lighting has a formal approach to problem solving with consideration for the guidelines set by the IESNA (Illuminating Engineering Society of North America). The clients are usually more formal, situations require diplomacy, political awareness and attention to infinite details that justify approach. By comparison, rock & roll has unwritten guidelines, governed by history and experience, tours are less formal, but there is stress to complete on time and some of the same architectural discipline is needed to organize paperwork for multiple fixtures into console patch or coordinating drawings and effectively communicating your ideas with others.

 

You’ve been quite entrepreneurial in your life (businessman, radio jockey, film producer,

show producer, designer, author) – is that enterprising spirit something you’re born with

or something you learn along the way?

It is a combination of both. You can be born with an entrepreneurial spirit but to realize it you have to take action and financial risk to back up your ideas. You can take a perceived safe route, but I have never been happy when I settled for “safe”, because it means that you are working toward someone else’s dream. It is bittersweet. I have made mistakes in my career and personal life, but mistakes are

the valuable lessons that make you who you are. Diversifying my career has been a matter of survival since designers and touring pros depend on entertainers and it’s precarious. He is drunk or on drugs

and the show cancels or, the singer lost their voice and the show cancels, illness - the list is endless.

It is also a matter of control. I walked into a production rehearsal once and nobody told me that there was a gaudy stage set. I thought - I can do better than this!

 

You’ve used Elation lighting recently on the “Raiding the Rock Vault” and “Raiding the

Country Vault” shows in Las Vegas and Branson respectively. Have you used Elation much

in the past or is it relatively new to you?

Admittedly, I have not used Elation until recent years, but I have noticed that vendors across the

U.S. have added more Elation product to their inventory and it has been made available to me on

the REO tour where we use local production. Toucan Lighting in Oklahoma City introduced me to

the 5R series Profile and Beam, which was the best way to augment an in-house hotel theatre

lighting system for the Rock Vault and Country Vault shows. And yes, Elation has come a long

way with providing products that compete in the touring market.

 

What are you currently working on?

REO Speedwagon has been my number one project, as production designer and LD, with perpetual touring since joining with them in February 2005. We are currently on tour, since early May and continuing through mid-October with Def Leppard and Tesla. The REO schedule has enough gaps

in the year to take on other projects. In early August, I designed a stage set, custom video content

and adapted festival lighting for “Eyellusion’s”  Ronnie James Dio hologram reveal at the Wacken (Germany) 2016 Festival. This was a first, where an image appeared onstage with a live band, Dio Disciples. In October, you can expect a new book release from James Moody and myself with the

4th Edition of the Concert Lighting series, covering concert lighting and its rock & roll history, entertainment lighting and architectural environments.

 

What do you like to do in your off time?

I wish that I could say something exciting like rock climbing or racing cars, but I’m not ambitious in

that way and I like to keep my feet on solid ground! My hobby has merged into production design projects or writing and keeping track of the changes in the industry. Of course, not being home that much, I like to spend quality time with my lovely wife and friends, catch up on home projects,

read and with season about to start, we love to watch football!

 

You meet a 16-year old who wants to be a lighting designer and travel the world.

What advice do you give them to help make their dream a reality?

First and foremost, know that you have to start somewhere. Learn the craft through other people’s experiences, independent research and work jobs (sometimes menial) that will eventually lead you

to your goal. Take initiative for your own destiny! Don’t take no for an answer - you really have to want this. A young person starting out should get a copy of Concert Lighting 4th Edition. Reading it can be

a reality check because it touches upon every aspect of the art and business of entertainment lighting and has first-hand accounts from some of our most renowned working designers. If you are not

detoured after reading it, and it is really a dream of yours, be prepared for a challenging career choice.

In addition to understanding what makes a lighting design, there are other facets to the job that include practicing people skills and showing sensitivity for overall production needs. Don’t forget that lighting is

a business. There will be a lot of long hours, rejection and disappointments, but persevere - it will be painful sometimes but will make you a better designer. There will be plenty of victories too, and the

best part? Working alongside like-minded people in our business will forge life-long friendships.

That network will keep you working for years to come. Good luck!

Vol. 10 Issue 4 • Summer 2016

Elation Professional

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