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‘Rent: Live’ Production Designer Jason Sherwood Aims To Bring Deeper Sense Of Immersion To Live TV Musical Format

Matt Grobar

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A 30-year-old production designer hailing from the world of New York theater, Jason Sherwood entered the world of television just last year, and has already racked up his first Emmy nomination, for his contributions to Rent: Live.

Interning for Derek McLane—the production designer behind The Sound of Music Live!—at a time when the live TV musical format was just beginning to making a resurgence, Sherwood was “obsessed with the idea that a musical was going to be given a mainstream platform in that way,” he told Deadline recently. Following the way in which the form was approached with each new take, Sherwood was impressed, though he couldn’t shake the idea that there was something missing from those efforts. “I thought those first couple were beautiful,” he says, “but didn’t necessarily embrace the idea of their own live-ness.”

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“I know that my experience of watching a concert, or watching a live theater production, is that the audience is an energy factor in the room. They contribute to the vibe. You hear them laugh, you hear people react, you see them in silhouette against the stage, and I think that what it comes down to is, your favorite concert, or your favorite live experience, is ephemeral,” the production designer adds. “It can never be created that way again, and we wanted to create that sense of a once-in-a-lifetime happening with Rent.”

Leaning into “a sense of 360” with this latest adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tony Award-winning musical, Sherwood did just that.

You earned your first Emmy nomination for Rent: Live, which was only your second project ever in television. Could you talk a bit about the path you’ve taken in your career, and how you came to this point?

I began working in New York strictly as a theater artist. I was assisting on Broadway shows and then broke out on my own, and did a ton of theater—new musicals, new properties—and really was interested in pushing the limits of what you could do inside of a theater. And what attracted me about something live was that it had to happen in front of you. There was no post-production; it had to happen in the very moment.

At some point along the way, maybe two, two and a half, years ago, an incredible producer and creative director named Raj Kapoor spotted my work on Instagram and asked if I wanted to collaborate on a performance for The Chainsmokers on Saturday Night Live. From there, I was connected into the world of music with Sam Smith via Lee Lodge, another wonderful producer. I did Sam’s tour and all of his television appearances, and then my first proper production design gig on TV was last year, [with] The People’s Choice Awards. Then, Rent was really the first huge design gig on television, so it’s been a very quick entry process.

I think generally what’s been exciting is that I’ve been invited to work on things that are at an intersection between a theatrical experience, a live TV moment, and a music moment, [mashing] all of those interests together into one particular opportunity.

What excited you about taking on Rent specifically within the live TV musical format? How did you conceive of your design pitch for the project?

Even outside of my affection for the show itself, I had been paying particular attention to this medium for a while, and when I got an opportunity to get my hands on a live TV musical, I wanted to do something that felt like we weren’t hiding at all. We were entirely 360. The audience, at home and in the room, saw every nook and cranny of the space that we were in. There was no cheating at all. We were essentially making a show that is about a community of people, and making a community of spaces. So, instead of putting the set in one corner of the room and the audience in the other, we mashed them all together.

There’s a two-minute sequence in the show where we literally take a walk with the camera on Steadicam through the entire space. There’s nowhere to hide, and I thought it was more akin to where I come from—where, in the theater, you have to watch everything take place. There’s no commercial break, there’s no post-production, there’s no opportunity to let the audience at home miss out on something. I thought that the most live thing we could create would be something that didn’t hide, didn’t mask, didn’t cheat, and let everyone in on the magic of what it would feel like to be inside of a room where a story was being told, between a performer and an audience. That felt [in] the spirit of what Rent is anyway, as a story and as a musical, and it felt at the height of my interest for what makes live entertainment so special.

Was the decision to stage the Rent set as a theatre in the round informed by that desire to blur the line between the show and the audience experiencing it?

That was something that I was interested in when I went in to interview for the job, and I found out that Michael Grief and [executive producer] Marc Platt and the rest of our team were revolving around a similar sense. That idea primarily was about creating a dynamic on camera where there would be an energy exchange, where Rent-heads and people who love the show, or just people who meet the show for the first time, participate. You see them banging their heads along; you see them putting their hands in the air in particular rock moments, and we wanted to capitalize on that energy.

Then, even further, just on a baseline, having come from doing Sam Smith and The Spice Girls concerts back to back, I wanted there to be the sense of a mosh pit—people standing, and able to move around and participate. There was this craving for a tactile experience for the audience that we could capture on camera.

What were the first steps you took on Rent in pre-production?

We were on the Fox lot in Studio 16, so before we even started designing, I went out and saw the room. Typically, they shoot anything from American Horror Story to all kinds of movies on these [stages]; they just use these big warehouses and cover them up, and build sets inside of them. But I walked in and was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a character in the show. We have to use this. We can’t like about the space that we’re in.” So, we used it, as is, in the background.

How large did your sets for the show end up being? How much space did they take up?

Well, it was like a 30,000 square foot soundstage; there were about 1500 audience members. I would say there were six different islands of sets that were connected by four different sidewalks. We named them by street—Avenue A, East 4th Street—so that we could find our way around. There were over 500 linear feet of scaffolding stacked on top of each other, and all in different places. There was just a ton of that stuff…

How did you figure out how you were going to compress so many different sets within the scaffolding framework?

Basically, our director, Michael Greif, our television director, Alex Rudzinski, and I sat with the script and mapped out every single movement of the show, and when we would hit a roadblock, we would rewind and start over, and move things around. We knew that the loft for the central characters, Mark and Roger, wanted to be in the center, and then we built out from there.

We basically staged the show in 3D models, [both] on the computer and in my studio for several weeks on end, figuring out and solving how we would shoot those moments, visualizing them in the computer, so that we would see what the camera would see to a certain extent, and then understanding how far people had to travel.

Mimi sings the song “Out Tonight,” and her apartment is lofted up in a scaffold on one end of the room, and we knew that she had two minutes and 30 seconds to sing and travel before she had to be in Mark and Roger’s apartment. So, we took out a tape measure and we walked, and we got a sense of how far you could go in that amount of time while singing, while doing choreography. So, it was a really, really intricate and complicated process, particularly when it took to involving camera, when it took to involving lighting. Because when you light a show that is on a typical soundstage, the stage is there and the audience is on the other side, and you just light in one direction. But we had to light the whole thing 360; you had to be able to see faces.

Could you explain the show biz magic of putting on a show like Rent: Live? As much as your intention was visual transparency, a production like this requires locations for quick changes, paths for camera operators and more.

Some things were hiding in plain sight. There were pockets of scaffolding where there were lighting desks, where there was a stage manager station—and camera moves right by those things, they’re “in view” behind Christmas lights and suspended tarps and things. But the one thing that we did that was really beneficial was, there are mosh pits. Where those audience are standing is the floor of the studio, and every other playing space, except for one, is elevated about six feet in the air. So, what we created was like a subterranean area, where the fire aisles on the extreme ends of the rooms and the underneath became an area for quick changes, an area for fire exit, access to restrooms for audience members. That’s how the audience got into the space; they actually climbed up onto the set.

So, the floor, as it was perceived on television, was actually six feet higher. The [real] floor was where the standing folks in the mosh pits were, so we were able to create that kind of opportunity.

Then, we had to create little hidden entrances for guys on Steadicam. We would have a Steadicam operator moving down East 4th Street, and then we wanted to pick up with a different camera operator, so one would duck behind a column with three trash cans, and the other would come out from behind there, and then he would go around the side of a “Post No Bills” sign.

We created small, carefully choreographed pockets of space where we could just duck a person out for a second. But really, people were dancing and dodging and tangoing with each other the whole time. It was pretty elaborate. When you look at a ground plan of the space, there’s no actual masked-off corner of the room at all. It’s all just hidden nooks and crannies, where people were able to dive in and hide.

One of your production’s leads, Brennin Hunt, broke his foot in rehearsal. But as they say, the show must go on. Subsequently, the majority of the broadcast hinged on footage from a dress rehearsal, with only the final moments of the show recorded live. What was it like to go through this moment with the show, and come out the other end so well?

Well, it was an interesting experience because when a television show that is live airs, it airs at 8:00 on the East Coast, and then it airs on a delay on the West Coast, right? We did our dress rehearsal on Saturday night and it was taped. We did that show as a live show [with] a live audience, and that’s the majority of what people saw on television. So, I always tell people that we basically just showed you an 18-hour delayed live show, because we made no stops. We allotted for the regular amount of commercial breaks. We had the audience, we moved them around; they cheered and clapped. So, it was interesting.

When that dress rehearsal went down, I turned to Sonya Tayeh, our choregrapher, who’s an incredible talent and a dear friend, and said, “Gosh. If that were the show, I’d be happy as a clam.” Because it just went so well, and we were so proud of it. So, when Brennin hurt himself, and our producing team was put in the position of having to make those decisions, I was really proud of it. I was proud of the way that they honored his performance, and I was proud of the way that we, as a team, supported the thing that we’d made. And I was proud that millions of people were going to watch this musical about a group of queer people and non-white people, who were artists and living in a community and living in a world fraught with the crisis of AIDS.

I don’t know…I think people maybe thought it was more of a damper than it really was. What we put on TV was something I was really, really proud of.

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