Bruce Rodgers
was production designer for Madonna and her Drowned World Tour. With his Tribe, inc. he designed spaces that managed to match Madonna artistically, keeping her persona, her music and her performance in mind.

Bruce is a very private artist and usually likes to let his incredible paintings and sketches speak for him. This is just another reason that make us fell happy, lucky and proud to have had a chance to meet him and to talk about his life, his career, and the design process that is so personal to him.

This story begings quite a few months ago with a note by Bruce accompanying one of the sketches he sent us: "Madonna is a very special person". Read this interview and you'll know why Bruce is a very special person, too.


MadonnaTribe: Hi Bruce, welcome to MadonnaTribe.

We use to ask our guest about how did their adventure in the world of entertainment begin.
You once told a story about an eight-year-old wild Texas child watching a behind the scenes special on "The Planet of The Apes". Can we say that's the way it all begun for you?

Bruce Rodgers: Thanks. Glad to answer your questions although Drowned World seems so far away… but thanks anyway.

Yes… I was allowed to do just about anything I wanted when I was a kid including staying up late and watching late late movies… so movies of all types were part of my upbringing…
I think this is why my favorite film is sometimes "Cinema Paradiso"! My father, who worked in a west Texas movie theatre when he was a boy in the early 1940’s, must have been happy when I fell in love with the movies as a boy too.

MT: How do these roots and childhood life influence your concepts and creations as a professional nowadays?
I would say you incorporate some big echoes of the strong force and stark shapes of your homeland's nature in your designs.


BR: I’m lucky to be in a field of art that for the most part encourages abstract thinking.

Unlike set design for theatre or film where the product is dictated by story, music design allows artists to create imagery based strictly on emotion. I believe every artist brings the emotion of his roots, childhood, and upbringing to the table. For me it may be the oilfield environment, my religious upbringing, and the west Texas weather patterns.


But I was also influenced by knowledge of my distant relatives as I grew up. The older folks always told us stories in our family about the past and we were taught early on that life could be exciting, dangerous, and fun.

: How did you happen to start working to stage design, starting from an architectural background?

Architectural studies are big on theory.
Once I started to really understand a few theories of design in architecture school I became more aware of my real dream and that was to work as an artist in set design.
The cool thing was that my architecture professors encouraged my movements into theatre design and they even helped me to use set design as the basis for my architectural thesis.

MT: The creation of the AT&T Global Olympic Village for the Atlanta Games in 1996 is one of your biggest professional achievements but at the same time an experience tied to pain and sadness, and also a turning point in your career as after that you created Tribe, inc.
Have you been surprised by how fast things went on since then?

BR: I was unaware of the potential thrust that would come from being the production designer of this project.

The AT&T Global Olympic Village was for me an answer to many prayers. I always loved the Olympics and world’s fair type events and I was thrilled to have a chance to give AT&T an exciting design.

As the lead designer I put together an exciting support team and we did our best to create a world-class pavilion for the client.


The fact that we were the location of a terrorist attack would have been a sad ending to 2 years of hard work by alot of good people. However, those same people and millions more came together to keep the games, and Centennial Park open for the remaining days of the Olympic games.



MT: Let's talk about Ricky Martin's "Living La Vida Loca World Tour".
That was the show that impressed Madonna so much to make her ask you to be in charge of the stage design for her upcoming world tour. But it was also a chance for you to work with some familiar faces that have been working with her for years.
What is your nicest memory of that Ricky Martin tour experience?


BR: There are so many great memories of the Livin La Vida Loca design process.
This process was not a leisurely six-month design exploration. It was a fast paced race to the first show!

From the moment I first sketched to the first show only eight weeks had passed and yet this show design put a lot of people on the map in our business.

I was asked by Jamie King, who was the choreographer behind Ricky’s big Grammy performance, to come up with an idea for Ricky’s tour.

Everyone knew this production was going to be big and fun and I was excited to pitch my concepts.

When Jamie called I was in Washington D.C. working on "Brave New World" with the Nightline production team.
I worked thru the night in my hotel room sketching while listening to Ricky’s music on my headphones.

My first inspiration was a photograph of Ricky’s face in Rolling stone magazine that I bought in a local grocery store.
I thought it would be fun to use the proportions of his face as the basis for the set.

As it turned out in the pitch Ricky understood and loved the concept of the set being based on his face. He liked the idea that lighting, effects, dancers etc, would be crawling all around his head and knew it would be fun.

I think the nicest memory though happened when I was in the first pitch meeting with Jamie and Ricky and all of Ricky’s entourage a few days later in Miami.
In that first meeting I asked him in front of everyone to name the four most important truths of his life.

I wanted to have four totems lifts come out of the floor for dancers to stand on. I wanted these towers to be icons of Ricky’s emotions and beliefs.

I asked Ricky to list 4 special meanings in his life and without hesitation he said: "life, love, music and peace". He was very happy.


I think he realized then and there that we were the design team for him. But all in all I think the set design was successful because it fit Ricky perfectly.

In this same meeting I was asked who would be the best lighting designer for Ricky and I said Peter Morse… little did I know I would be working with Peter many more times in the future.



MT: What are your memories of the first time you met Madonna? That has to be when you showed her your design for the 2001 Grammies if I'm correct..

Once again Jamie King asked me for a design, this time for Madonna at the Grammy’s. I was thrilled.
Jamie mentioned that Madonna loved my design for Ricky’s show and that it gave her great motivation to tour again and that if everything worked out we would move into the tour design. Because time was short I quickly created a huge painting that had a huge holographic limousine, red white and blue glitter and Madonna on a mechanical bull. Jamie did the entire interface with her so he showed her the sketch in a private meeting.


I do remember that when I dropped off the sketch Jamie was wearing gold pointy shoes specifically for his meeting with her. (Hmmmmm- I thought maybe I should buy some.)…

I didn’t actually meet her until the first Grammy dance rehearsal. When we met I said "hi" and she said she loved Ricky’s design and I said thanks and that was it.
Then she went and rehearsed her dance performance for hours and hours and hours.

: You were not very familiar with Madonna before the tour process started and you once said you filled your CD player with her music while working and sketching the concepts.
As a Madonna fan I admit I'm very curious and intrigued about how the experience of facing so much Madonna all at once was like, it may have been quite good, or simply overwhelming, or maybe a punch in the stomach, you tell me...

: I was familiar but not a real follower.
I always looked at her from a distance and thought she worked hard to come across as really smart and creative.

I guess I liked her but I’m not a dancer so her music didn’t connect with anything I was about.

My mind mentally blocks the words of songs for some reason and I tend to remember sounds of songs rather than any words. (Lately I have managed to slowly grasp the poetry of some songs thanks to my work with Sting who is a very special poet/musician that I was lucky to work with.)
Because the Madonna Grammy performance was so successful I was in a very positive creative zone when I started sketching for her.
I bought all the music I could find and after several hours I could tie the vibe of the songs to different areas of a design.

Then after I had my thumbnails and basic storyboards in place I started painting.

MT: Discussing your work on the "Drowned World Tour" on Entertainment Design back in 2001 you said that you sketched out concepts starting from an outline made of the four acts and one encore: Act I, "Madonna wants to arrive in a spaceship"; Act II, "Kabuki Theatre/Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - style with a tree"; Act III, "White trash with a mechanical bull"; Act IV, "Latin/Gypsy"; and the encore, "Music".

Do you have an act/scene you enjoyed the most working on?

BR: I love the conceptual phase of the design process. It’s really exciting to find the relationships of all the acts/scenes and to have them live with each other and take part and support each other in simple and strong ways.


For instance I decided that the spaceship was also the lighting rig, the main set was a temple with crazy Escher stair steps and the dance boxes for the white trash dances were incased into the temple wall steps, the temple had led walls which worked like garage doors in a sense that they could raise, they could also be danced on, etc etc.
I was happy with all the elements that worked together but most importantly I think the design is successful because it fit Madonna’s message perfectly.



MT: The Drowned World Tour was Madonna's comeback to the live show experience after a number of years, bringing a lot of excitement and anticipation.Many were surprised by how dark the show looked like in the end but we know that Madonna had changed a lot and the new show was meant to reflect her new life and state of mind.
Was it a big challenge to turn such a strong statement into an equally strong stage design?
I understand you didn't have many meetings with Madonna during the design process but what you created certainly reflected her completely.


BR: As I mention above I totally absorbed myself in her music and with the outline of the acts I managed to create something that worked and made her happy.
I was very aware of this being an important comeback for her and at the same time I saw it as a chance to do a more spiritual setting than she had used before. Even though it was dark its form was temple-like and strong, positive, useful, and deep. I think I totally channeled Madonna and gave her what she would have created herself if she were able to draw.

: The Drowned World Tour was also the first Madonna's tour to be entirely performed in arenas, what was the impact on the design, of having no curtain and no actual separation between the stage and the audience, and people sitting 270° around?

: Great question! For me the experience in an arena, in 270 or 360-degree sightlines, is the most intimate.
Feeling the raked audience almost wrap around a 270 set is really exciting to the audience because you can see people such as yourself having the experience of their lives. That feeling is contagious and religious!

Although I used a wrap around show curtain on Ricky’s 270 design I didn’t need one for "Drowned World". I suggested the audience walk in with the arena dark and with the ‘space ship/ lighting rig’ down on the stage deck ready to lift off and up during the opening number.

MT: The video imagery in the "Drowned World Tour" were created by Dago Gonzàlez, one of the talents you had already worked with on the Ricky Martin tour. How would you describe the role of the LED screens in the "Drowned World Tour" and how is it working with Dago?

Working with Dago on Ricky was a great experience and I knew he would be involved in the Madonna show.
That is a big reason I designed led tiles and led walls into every aspect of the set.
He told me he was worried about how he would make it work but he did a great job. At the time no one had used led tiles separately as just tiles and no one had used different shapes and aspect ratios of led walls, also- no one had led walls that were flown or moved into position for effect… but I looked at led video tiles as architectural/sculptural pieces rather than movie screens… and I thought it was future thinking to have temple walls and space ship facades emit video imagery.
This all created a sort of "organic led" architecture.
I also created the idea of the small led wall that is downstage center being sort of an all seeing eye of Madonna, a shakra of sorts that could lower to mask and reveal dancers and/or Madonna.

It’s funny. I just read an interview with one of my favorite lighting designers who does all of U2’s work and he is very proud of the video walls in his shows ("Pop Mart" and "Zoo") as if he invented the concept of visuals and large scale moving imagery but I can remember experiencing the same scale of moving image at drive-in movie theatres in west Texas watching KING KONG kick GODZILLA’S ass in the middle of an actual Texas rainstorm and I think now WOW THAT LOOKED REAL! ...hmmmmmm U2’s shows are great and top of their game and congrats but please - were they the first, were we with Madonna’s shows first to fly dancing kabuki fighters to music… No!... we are all just artistic continuations of the life and design cycle we all live in.

MT: Light designer Peter Morse was a sort of veteran of the Madonna tours. How was working with Peter?
Did he give you any advice taken from his years of work with Madonna?

BR: Peter is a gentleman and a brave lighting designer. Having worked with him on Ricky for the first time, it was great to see someone with that much knowledge goes to work.


He gave so much to the production without direction and where there was direction he made magic and made the director look like a genius. Lighting designs are really like another character in the performance and it helps that Peter is an accomplished musician.
I can’t say enough good things about Peter.


MT: Peter described you as a genius and your set designs as "very much into the 21st century very futuristic and aggressive".
"Futuristic and aggressive" are terms that are used quite often in reviews, articles and interviews about your work and Tribe, inc. But I noticed that your design is also strongly inspired by ancient architecture and the masters of modern and organic architecture...

: I love ancient dirty architecture and I love clean modern design.
At it’s best my field of design is inherently ancient/modern for a few reasons.


Our industry’s audience and performers demand the most modern and cutting edge technology…and there is a massive amount of competition to bring the best show to the people for the biggest payoff.

That’s the modern part.

The ancient part is the fact that real people actually build these shows...
which creates a real essence of manmade old world ancient presentation in a modern setting. It’s the most exciting form of design on the planet!

I think people lose site that men make architectural, engineering, technological, and medical wonders. But live performance always delivers that ancient manmade feeling directly to the audience every time.

MT: You use a lot of curved lines and shapes in your designs. This gives a strong sense of space and depth to the stage.
Is this an heritage coming from your architectural o scenography masters?

BR: I think more from the scenography masters. I think my designs have used all forms that are derived from the music and the type of venues we play.

But I actually learned some simple basics of perception from my first scenic design professor, Dr. Forrest Newlin… he showed me tricks that the old master artists used to create depth and movement in human form and architecture in paintings and sculpture.

For instance layering dark forms in front of light forms in front of dark forms, the use of contrapuntal formations and analysis, the use of off kilter
perspectives, the use of contrapposto when sketching people, striking lower depth points of views in renderings, using exploded scale, creating resistance between the solid and transparent, creating tension and compression between far and near horizon lines, using people to effect scale, etc.

Continue to Part Two

Copyright 2005 MadonnaTribe
Pictures and sketches courtesy of Tribe, inc

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