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Prop Idol: Back To The Days Of The Cluttered Stage Written by on May 10, 2018 | 1 Comment

Lisbon 2018’s Eurovision staging made the artistic choice to remove the LED wall. Elaine O’Neill looks at the history of physical props and virtual scenery, the impact of RTPs choice, and the positive impact on the Song Contest. 

One of the big decisions that RTP made with their hosting this year was to remove the increasingly-large LED walls that had become a staple of the modern Eurovision contests. This decision proved divisive within the Eurovision community. On the one hand, it was felt that without LEDs the stage would seem empty and that such a move was regressive, a kind of performance Luddism.

On the other hand, RTP were applauded for removing an easy staging option that was falling into increasingly similar patterns, and which made the contest feel like a regular pop/rock concert rather than the performance festival that it has been ever since Paul Oscar glowered from a sofa in Dublin in 1997. Classic Eurovision rarely used props as the focus was on the song rather than the performance, and even then it was limited to platforms, instruments, or outfit extensions (Austria’s Schmetterlinge with the masks on the back of their heads, for example). Even by the turn of the century, using staging often meant using the stage: Guido Horn’s scampering up the side of the stage being the most obvious display of literal staging.

However as the ’00s rolled on, the stage area widened and the show became more important, driven by the focus on scoring the televote rather than impressing juries musically, and the lack of on-stage instruments actually needing to be playable. Already in 2003 Romania had a DJ with large vinyl records in the colours of the Romanian flag. 2005 had Lupita’s industrial drums, Wig Wam’s flag microphone, and of course Zdob si Zdub’s grandmother in a rocking chair. By 2006 this had become established with fake cacti, people pianos, classroom furniture, Sylvia’s ‘golden showers’, and, of course, Lordi’s arockalpytic wings and pyrotechnics.

The golden era of Eurovision props lasted almost a decade, bringing us a huge variety of both interactive and decorative paraphenalia — many of which ended up memoralised in ‘Love Love Peace Peace’, like Dima’s tiny ice rink and Mariya’s man in a hamster wheel. The aim of the game was to stand out, and thus we found ourselves enraptured by sand painting, unfurling banners, double pianos, puppet DJs, washing lines, fire wheels, turntables, and the industrial-sized climbing frame that Svetlana Loboda brought. Yet by the time the Makemakes’ piano caught fire in Vienna, prop usage was dwindling. Moscow 2009 had introduced huge LED screens that ran around the top and ends of the stage, and delegations opted to tell their stories through them instead – most notably Russia themselves, with the heartbreaking backdrop to Mamo with Anastasia Prikhodko appearing to age to a breakdown while she sang.

LEDs were an obvious boon. You didn’t need to make a field of flowers if you could display one in the background, and you can show visual effects that would be impossible to replicate in reality. Måns’ victory in 2015 was a triumph of using LEDs interactively, and by 2016 there were few props visible — Francesca’s flowers, Minus One’s cages, Laura’s dancefloor — but nothing of the scale that had became so identified with Eurovision over the previous 10 years. Even Sergey’s wall was just another LED he could climb on.

Which is how we reach ‘Peak LED’ in Kiev when the problem started to become apparent. It seemed almost everyone felt they needed to use the LEDs – the other acts would, after all – but didn’t know what to put on them. Hence a plethora of close-ups of the artists faces, making the show feel a bit like a Facebook gallery. Even countries that utilised the LEDs well still fell into the same pattern – SunStroke Project and Jacques Houdek both had their LED likenesses enhance their performances rather than being the focus of them. Even most prop usage came in combination with the LED wall – which varied from the cute ‘dream trip’ effect of Naviband’s cloudship to the ‘what was the point of this’ of Brendan’s hot air balloon. In the end, ‘music is feeling not fireworks’ won out, and RTP honoured this with their promise to take away the LED wall.

A hint towards their attitude came in the ESClopedia skit shown during the first Semi Final of Eurovision 2018: “Props, it seems, are every bit as important as instruments” and “Many of the props tonight are becoming history as we speak”. The whole segment – with circular pianos, drum walls, and an explosive accordion – seemed almost designed to celebrate the clever and engaging use of props at Eurovision, and hence justify the lack of LEDs. Did it pay off? Early indications seemed grim. The lack of LEDs made the stage seem smaller, the coloured lighting for the backdrop seeming no substitue for patterns and visual narratives behind the artists, and the acts felt they didn’t stand out as much. These fears were echoed in the fan community, with some even renouncing their previous scepticism towards LED usage. “It’s boring”.

As rehearsals continued, camera angles became apparent, and staging was revealed, the worry died down in many quarters. Props were back in a big way. Cesar descending on a huge lit platform resembling a UFO, Netta bringing a shopping district’s worth of Lucky Cats, Ryan recreating Narnia with a a snowy lamppost, and Alekseev taking us on perhaps the most melodramatic 3 minutes in Eurovision history as he died of rose-related injuries. Semi 2 only escalated matters – from San Marino’s robot army to The Human’s fake humans to Melovin’s piano-coffin (a new entry in the ESClopedia novelty piano segment). And then Moldova being gloriously Moldova with a few wardrobes. There was glee in circles who fondly remembered the contests of the late 00s. “Eurovision is back!”.

I am writing this piece between Semi-Final One and Semi-Final Two so I don’t yet know how the latter propular semi turned out, but it is worth noting that many of the Semi One qualifiers were the ones who brought props and used them effectively: from wiggled backpacks to lightshow platforms to Saara’s spinning wheel. Simple stagings tended to lose out, as did those where props seemed an afterthought, like Aisel’s geometric blocks and Sevak’s stone circle. This wasn’t a hard and fast rule – Eugent and Ieva had mostly simple stagings, and Alekseev’s floral archery didn’t save him – but it was notable that the audience rewarded those countries who brought the most appropriate and engaging staging. Zibbz’s flares and drumkit acrobatics are an exception here, but many currently regard them as a missed qualifier – it remains to be seen if this was the case.

Not everyone is playing by the spirit of new rules.

Sweden, Germany, Italy, and Malta have brought their own LEDs, but this is now a staging decision in itself, and the LEDs become themselves the props – this can also be said for Elina’s famous projection dress. Other effects are available. Cyprus simmers with lasers and flames, Bulgaria melds Equinox into one through camera effects, and Hungary have brought enough pyro to be visible on the horizon from Budapest. The fall of the LED wall still has its detractors – particularly among those younger fans for whom the years of video effects were the contest they fell in love with – and admittedly it does take some getting used to after so long with the Eurovision stage feeling like a cinema. There are some genuinely clever LEDs performances of the past that would be difficult to recreate without that familiar setup, and it’s not as immediately visually arresting seeing objects on stage as opposed to bright flashy movement from the backdrop. But ‘Love Love Peace Peace’ never praised the slideshows, and Eurovision is and never has been MTV Live Europe.

Eurovision’s heart is in its performances, and the resurgence of interactive staging and thoughtful shows this year is to its credit. LEDs should never be banned outright — but, like with pyro, camera effects, and whatever unholy thing is next done to a piano, they remain one of many options to delegations, and part of the challenge and corresponding reward comes from utilising those options in the way most befitting the song. An LED wall is an easy fallback and, while it makes some performances, too many delegations would use it just because it is there.

The Eurovision Song Contest should never reject new technology but should embrace it without relying on it. Or to put it another way after Kiev’s facial gallery – it should celebrate diversity. It remains to be seen if next year’s winner continues this trend, or whether this will turn out to be a brief experiment. Even if the latter, it has helped remind us, and the delegations, that there’s worth in thinking carefully about staging and tailoring it effectively instead of taking the easiest path. And perhaps in the next incarnation of ‘Love Love Peace Peace’, we’ll enjoy a few new verses.

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One response to “Prop Idol: Back To The Days Of The Cluttered Stage”

  1. Jamess says:

    For the most part, LED walls in past contests were never used in any other way but being a dynamic backdrop to create an atmosphere and whatnot. Only last year in Kyiv did LED use highlighted why it should not be a necessity but a mere option in any future edition if delegations cannott come up with ways to properly utilize them in enhancing a song.

    As shown with the just-concluded first semi, I think a lot of the performances could have been staged better. The narrative that Belarus was trying to tell in their performance did come across well other than looking quite campy. Belgium dropped the ball with theirs when the only good parts of the live performance was the beginning and the end but not much else during the middle when much of it was spent showing panning shots of her walking around the runway walk instead of tightening up the shots to keep my eyes glued to her singing. Croatia should have given Franka some dancers or have her backing singers support her on stage with some knarly staging and allow the focus of the performance be centered on her and her team (what we got was a person standing alone in front of a mic in an otherwise empty stage)

    As for the qualifiers, the only constructive I need to give is with Albania. The camera direction needs to be cleaner for the final because there was an instance when we got two cameras zooming in to Eugent in more or less the same position in succession.

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