All Hands on Stage
The 111,000,000 people watching January’s Super Bowl half-time show witnessed a parade of centurions, heavy-metal seraphim, men walking on men, bleacher-bouncing gymnasts, tightrope dancing by a man in a toga, and Madonna’s own cheerleaders on a tiered stage pulsing with light like a giant pinball machine. Behind it all – the show’s art director, Anthony Bishop, a 1994 Keene State alumnus. Miniature versions of the Indianapolis extravaganza, television shows like The Voice and Family Feud, supply Bishop’s bread and butter, but in shows of any size, he refers to himself as “one of many cogs in the wheel.” When Bishop describes his education in theatre, he speaks in terms of nurturing, how students were “nurtured by those who had experience. At Keene, it was our professors.” Even though he’s been designing sets since he was in eighth grade, he says he learns something from every production designer and art director with whom he works.
Bishop’s bachelor’s degree set him up for graduate school in theatre arts, and he had his pick, finally settling on Ohio University. Making the shift from theatre – helping out on Broadway – to television taught him to put timetables on turbo-charge. Once a project is approved, he says, “you have to be picking those apples as fast as you can and putting them in the right basket.”
A quick list of skills a television art director possesses includes drawing, design, lighting, carpentry, audio, budgeting, project management, and a deep understanding of theatre arts. But those tools are useless without being part of a team of co-creators.
“As a theatre person at Keene State, what I learned first was: collaboration is everything. The second was: we all sit at the same table; we take a script, break it down, and cast it around the table,” Bishop says. When he’s working with someone else’s vision, he’s figuring out how to make it work, bringing experience and all the skills and talents of the people he knows.
At the core of his collaborations lie key relationships – the kind that drive the entertainment business. Bishop hesitates at immodesty but knows himself well enough to say, “In this business, you have to have presence, whether you have the skills or not; you must have personality. Without a good personality, you won’t get in the door and you won’t survive the conversation.”
But a strong sense of self is only a prerequisite; skills and talent create the bond. “My relationships begin with drawings,” Bishop says, “whether they’re on coasters or napkins, whether I’ve done them or someone else has. We share them and form opinions without even meeting each other.” Before long, designers, art directors, creative directors – a whole cadre of artists and technicians are working to realize a single, yet evolving vision.
Knowing television production schedules to be tight, Bishop admits to thinking about logistics from the start. On The Voice, for example, a complex reality set, creative teams come up with concepts that must be built within two days, demanding intense logistics, communication, and cooperation among vendors. When describing the results, though, his own voice rises to reflect the satisfaction he derives from the process. “It’s quite a feat, every time, an awesome experience.”
The serial awesomeness of Bishop’s work comes from working with the talent around him. “The design, depth, and creativity can be fantastic,” he says, “but the first thing everyone talks about afterwards is how great it was to work with each other.”
Projects call for Bishop to assemble teams that range in number from a tight trio to 200. He shoots Family Feud, for instance, in Atlanta, where a three-person team works with local riggers and technicians to take the set out of storage and reconstruct it for three months of filming, then pack it up for another year. But Hollywood award shows and big events call for hundreds of hands.
For Bishop, keeping teammates working together means listening. “Simple skills are all it takes – even when someone’s unhappy – like including them in the conversation, having everyone come together in a huddle. Yes, I start the conversation as art director, but I don’t want to be on a pedestal, talking down to anyone, because it’s not how this works.” He goes out of his way to support the team and show confidence, passing along the faith executives have placed in him to get the job done in situations where mistakes are expensive and failure is not an option.
These days, projects rarely rattle Bishop. “You know what scared me, though?” he asks. “The Super Bowl – because I hadn’t done it before. And I saw it as the ultimate challenge.” He describes arriving in Indiana two weeks before the event, meeting a convoy of tractor-trailers and an army that would be assembling the set and rehearsing at a covered stadium near the actual location.
“I knew what we had to do at halftime: roll in an entire set and 500 people from outside, and we’ve got five, six minutes to get it on the field and assembled, a quick line check [electrical, audio, etc.], the performance, and then get the whole thing the hell out of there.” Three months earlier, the team had arranged to have a mock stage constructed in New Jersey, where Madonna rehearsed every day.
When the time came, Bishop relied on his skills and the talents of professionals with whom he had worked on many other projects. Regardless of preparation, thousands of trigger-points could misfire. “That’s when you see how people really work together,” he says. “When it goes off-plan, that’s when ultimate collaboration takes over.” But that night of Super Sunday, “It was a massive movement of people and equipment, like parade floats, and we were a well-oiled machine,” says one very critical cog. At Keene State’s theatre department “I was taught how to do everything…there was no ‘this is my little corner, come talk to me,’ ” Bishop says. “It taught me to embrace everything. To go after it. Not be afraid. There’s nothing outside my comfort zone anymore. And the depth of a liberal arts degree allows me to take crazy situations and know I can handle them. It allows me to be me, to work with others, and make my own decisions.”