The Set Design of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener/thank u, next World Tour

On Monday, March 18, 2019, Ariana Grande began her fourth concert tour, the Sweetener World Tour, after the release of her fourth and fifth studio albums entitled “Sweetener” and “thank u, next” respectively. Ariana wanted her whole tour, starting with her set design, to reflect her very personal and public journey she went through this past year. With the help of LeRoy Bennett, who also worked on Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl set design and Paul McCartney’s One on One World Tour, Ariana and her team set out to manifest her vision. 

Ariana performing opening night in Albany, New York

A prevalent lyrical and design motif for Ariana’s latest album is that of outer space. Throughout her Instagram, Twitter, her special edition clothing line at Coachella in collaboration with NASA, and especially in her song NASA, the presence of the celestial is all-encompassing. Given the prevalence of the motif, it was imperative that it be perfectly captured in the design of the tour. 

To establish the celestial theme in the tour, the stage was designed so that it felt inescapable, both pervasive and invasive- much like the personal experiences Ariana had last year. The structure of the stage is of a towering, open cyc wall that has half of a sphere sticking out from it. The floor of the stage extends to an outline of a semicircle with a hollow middle, save for a small circular platform for Ariana to be surrounded by there fans in the pit. Additionally, coming from the sky is a 28-foot-diameter hemisphere the, when used with lighting, becomes any kind of celestial body. At the beginning of each performance, large IMAG screens on either side of the stage show moving images of the sun and the moon that move to the center of the stage to the protruding half-sphere, where the sun covers the moon, creating a solar eclipse. With this once-in-a-lifetime event as the backdrop, the concert begins and Ariana takes us to outer space. This design not only showcases the vast infinity of outer space and the relative unimportance of human life, but also allows Ariana’s fans to partake in her journey of self-discovery.

Unlike most pop tours, Ariana wanted to have a softer, more feminine feel to her tour. To do this, Bennett and the design crew swapped LED walls and harsh white lights for curved and inflatable hard surfaces and lights in pink, purple, yellow, and dark blue hues. All the inflatable surfaces are covered in a stretchy gray fabric, while the stage deck is covered in a light concrete gray, both of which are conducive to catching light well. Ariana wanted to stand apart from every  other pop artist; she wanted to be lit dramatically and enchantingly in bold colors. Rather than use color-correcting lights to make Ariana stand out on stage, she wanted to be part of the environment of her stage, so lighting her in the same color as her set allows her to be immersed in her performance. For the people farthest from the stage at any given concert, Bennett and his teamed used IMAGs, screens that show close-ups of artist on stage. Because Ariana was lit with the same colors as her set, she became one with her set rather than distinct from it, even for those in the back who couldn’t necessarily see her. Even in her set design, Ariana uses the cosmic motif to show that we’re all part of a single universe that is bigger than all of us combined. She becomes a star in the sky like any other. 

Photo by Kevin Mazur

Grande’s voice combined with the lighting and set design allows her to reach previously unimaginable aural and aesthetic heights. One of the most visually stimulating sets with gray light projections that look like reflective mylar ice all over the stage and on the 28-foot-diameter hemisphere, Ariana fills the room with vocals from Dangerous Woman, creating an arena that feels simultaneously dark and light, yet inescapable. In her performance of NASA, the 28’ sphere descends from the sky again, complimented by light projections of different celestial bodies, becoming the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets. While the set reminds her audience of the scale of the universe versus the relatively small scale of human existence, Ariana lullabies her fans through this cosmic journey. It’s as if Ariana is guiding her audience through space, showing them all the visual objects and spiritual revelations she’s discovered. 

Photo by Kevin Mazur

Bennett and his team also took into consideration social media posts when lighting the stage since Ariana has a large online presence. Instead of lighting Ariana from up above, the lighting team lit her at a lower level so she wouldn’t be washed out when fans took pictures and videos. Bennett says, “we embraced this challenge and worked out a system using a small network of iPhones and an app-based ‘tv studio’ that allowed us to balance lighting and video to the camera that the majority of the audience would be capturing her performance with while also keeping a close eye on how it looked in the room and to the cameras shooting for the side screens.” The lightning not only serves to light up the stage and Ariana, but also to put the audience in the performance as well. To do this, Bennett and his team lit up the whole stage including the stage floor, in addition to having cascading lights over the audience. The set design and production are truly a cosmic, all-encompassing experience that allows Ariana to fill the emptiness of outer space with her transcendent voice. 

Ariana performing NASA at the Staples Center in LA

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