by Nancy LaMar-Rodgers / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano

Bruce Rodgers and his wife Shelley

I’s the two-minute warning…then the countdown…and out of the gate they bolt, pulling off the ultimate performance in stage design and set production. While most of the TV audience is busy replenishing their drinks and snacks between the game’s halves, the production and staging crew have seven minutes to pull off an extraordinary feat. What the television audience doesn’t realize is that the commercial break is a heart thumping, adrenaline blasting urgency akin to any Olympic event for both the production staff and the hundreds of volunteers who have roughly seven minutes to put in place the star studded celebration that is the Super Bowl halftime show.

Those in attendance at the stadium; and even luckier, those on the field, stand as witnesses to an undertaking of a team of gladiator-like stagehands that literally run dozens of carts through a mile long tunnel, place them precisely where they need to be on the field, and then begin the frenzied, feverish endeavor of fitting it all together. The arrangement of components, and the need for accuracy in just seven minutes, is truly a Herculean triumph for all those involved. It is the job of these hard core staging professionals to work through the heated and palpable excitement of the crowd, moving in uniformed fashion to bring the creative vision of the production design to realization and securing the platform for an ass-kicking performance of the superstar who graces the stage.

For over a decade, Tribe Design has been responsible for the creative genius behind the Super Bowl’s halftime show stage designs. From Prince to Lady Gaga, Tribe has conceptualized some of the most stunning, lavish, and rousing shows seen at the 50 yard line. Bruce and Shelley Rodgers are the owners and creative team behind Tribe Design, dedicating themselves to making those 12 minutes of entertainment the most spectacular, high-powered, and lusty experiences for both the live and TV screen audiences. With the biggest names in music taking the stage, Tribe understands that the production design value must exceed the expectations of the performer so that the audience is infused with an energy that carries the fans of both football and music to a whole new height.

Creative director, Bruce Rodgers is responsible for sculpting together the elements that will ultimately be a synthesis of what he knows he can pull off during a twelve minute concert and what the artist wants. Rodgers not only has to take into consideration the desires and ideas of some of music’s biggest stars, he also needs to work with the intricate technicalities of only seven minutes to make it all come together.

“We have been lucky to work with an incredible team under the supervision of Executive Producer Ricky Kirshner for 12 years running. Each year we join together to create something that not only challenges us but will also wow a very sophisticated audience. All in all, we’re part of a 1000 person production team; and we take great pride in creating a Super Bowl scale spectacle for our demanding audiences. Our set designs are made up of 30-40 carts on average, each cart filled with special FX, lighting, and audio gear. We have about 20 people assigned to a cart; and after a two minute warning, the carts begin the race down the tunnel, which in some stadiums can be a mile long.”

Rodgers points out that this enormous achievement is a collaborative effort between his team and very talented staging supervisors. “We have a war room, and we do a great deal of pre-work putting the puzzle together because you have to understand that you are not only mixing in people, the fans that surround the stage, and the stagehands, but you are mixing in pyrotechnics and various other technical aspects that have to work perfectly together in a seven minute time slot.”

Tribe’s halftime sensations have garnered them a number of accolades and nominations. The Lady Gaga production was nominated for an Emmy; and as Rodgers explains, “we have consistently for the past ten years been rated the best segment of time for that three hour football game. Yes it’s the Super Bowl, but even more people now are tuning in for the halftime show.”

The Who, stage diagram.

As we scroll through Tribe’s YouTube channel of past Super Bowls, I am amazed by not only the intricacies of the designs themselves, but also how such elaborate design and production risks are pulled off in such a short period of time. I can’t help but wonder about technical difficulties, considering the setup is like the response of an Emergency Services Task Force. Rodgers comments on Tribe’s first Super Bowl gig with Prince, and how his heart was in his throat for those seven minutes.

“Whatever could have gone wrong, went wrong. It was our first Super Bowl gig, and I was convinced it would be our last. We were in Miami, and it never stopped raining. It rained all day during rehearsal; and it continued to rain throughout, including a downpour during the show.”

Rodgers essentially believed his Super Bowl career was over as Mother Nature had the potential to make the show-stopping effects impossible. He wasn’t even sure Prince would agree to go on, given the danger of a stage powered up, with water pounding down, but Prince being Prince said, “let it rain.” The iconic image emblazoned in the media’s archives is a statuesque Prince, shadowed and backlit behind a graceful, flowing, and flying white silk. Looking back, Rodgers recalls that for a moment some considered scrapping the silk, for fear the industrial strength fans would not have enough power to raise the soaked material. Fortunately this was not the case; and perhaps through some divine intervention, the ethereal threads rose to the occasion, and the Prince performance was perhaps one of the most poignant and magical in Super Bowl history.

The history of Tribe’s foray into Super Bowl stardom dates back to the days when the small LA based company was hired to do production design for bands that were up and coming, as well as TV award shows and other smaller productions. The group’s unique vision and “no fear” attitude of pushing design into unknown territory has gained the company a reputation of inspired ingenuity. While Tribe’s resume reads as a who’s who from the past twenty years of all genres of music from Dave Matthews to Bruce Springsteen, to Madonna, Dierks Bentley, and Beyonce, they have never rested on their laurels…it is the Super Bowl half time shows that illustrate this most powerfully.

“Afterwards we always reflect on the show; and for the most part we know we’ve done a good job, but I always ask myself, could we have done better? I measure it by the energy of the crew. These are aggressive, ambitious, and competitive stagehands and producers who want to walk away from the halftime show thinking ‘we just kicked everybody’s ass, and no one can touch what we do.’ I can tell we nailed it by the energy of the crew when it’s over,” Rodgers explains. And nailing it they do, but the couple is quick to point out that they are working with the best in the business when it comes to pulling off this theatrical sensation, including executive producer Ricky Kirshner and director Hamish Hamilton, two of the biggest names in the industry, distinguished in their respective fields.

Despite working with the best, there are unique challenges of having a performance at the Super Bowl since for the most part, people are there for the ultimate football game; so a performer has the tough job of putting on a show that will pump up the audience, no matter what their musical taste might be, and this is why Tribe’s designs have earned so many honors. While they have no control over the performance, they seek to afford the fans a theatrical whirlwind that they might not experience anywhere else.

As we scroll through footage, it’s easy to understand why Lady Gaga’s 2017 design was nominated for an Emmy. As the petite songstress leaped from the top of the stadium, there were roughly 600 drones lighting her flight. Not only did the element of the drones provide her a starlit sky to gaze upon as she opened the show with a nod to a unified America, but they added an intensely dramatic element to her acrobatic performance. Like an agile boxer, the lights bob and weave in cadence with each bounce and step of the performer’s swagger and swerve. For Rodgers, the design is really about who the performer is, each show having its own feel or energy. The Tribe team understands that each performer is obviously different, and some need to have more input than others. But essentially it is their job to take an artist’s desires and turn them into something that is not only feasible in seven minutes, but something that is going to be a unique moment in the performer’s musical history.

While every design may not be as elaborate as Lady Gaga’s, it is Tribe’s job to understand not only the artist’s music, but also the persona of the performer. For example, Rodgers points out that both The Who and Springsteen are more old school rockers who are all about the music itself.

“For Springsteen it’s more raw because this guy doesn’t want or need all the bells and whistles. But it’s the halftime show, so there has to be something going on for the TV audience; so for Springsteen I was able to add the element of a video wall. Springsteen told me he didn’t do video walls, but at the same time he trusted us enough to know that we would keep the rawness and let him get down and dirty in close proximity to the audience, while still allowing those tuning in to get just as pumped as if they had been on the field.”

As with any master of his or her craft, both Bruce and Shelley are humbled by their success and attribute much of it to the incredible team of artists and staff with whom they have been able to collaborate. With the Super Bowl just days away, the Rodgers team is immersed in the elements that will come to fruition on February 4th when the stage will once again be set, the audience fiercely pumped, and the nation will be watching another exhilarating, electrifying, and explosive twelve minute performance of a lifetime.