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Spotlight on Tess Falcone BA’10: Running the lights for some of the biggest names in music

by Jennifer Johnson,

Tess Falcone

Among a crowd of nearly 90,000 fans, under a sea of glowing cellphone lights and near the end of an extraordinary, six-hour tribute by some of the world’s greatest rock stars, Tess Falcone BA’10 reached a career-defining moment. 

Tess Falcone
Tess Falcone BA’10

She was running the lighting production for her dream gig, Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen, at a tribute to late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins. The lineup included Paul McCartney, Liam Gallagher, members of Rush, Mark Ronson, Nile Rodgers and many, many others at London’s iconic Wembley Stadium. 

Night after night, she’d pulled 20-hour shifts with Dan Hadley, her partner and Foo Fighters lighting designer, who asked her to help cover the lighting for Queen and other bands for one-third of a performance seen not only by thousands at Wembley, but live streamed around the world. No pressure. 

“It was an insanely emotional show. I think I was in tears for 90 percent of it, just out of sleep deprivation and being emotionally overwhelmed,” she said. “It was the coolest thing I’ll probably ever do.” 

Falcone’s path from Willamette to Wembley began in the theater department. The biology major found a mentor in Professor of Theatre Rachel Kinsmen Steck, who taught her not only the relationship between lights and objects, but the skills of an electrician and the traditional, hand-drawn method for lighting plots (the blueprint of a show’s lights), giving Falcone an edge over her peers. 

The breadth of experience she gained was a testament to Willamette’s small size and the philosophy of the department. “You can get your hands dirty and try a lot of different things before you find something that interests you,” she said. And after she graduated, she was able to immediately apply what she learned to venues she worked at in Denver.

Persistence and a willingness to learn helped her break into the industry. After several months volunteering at one venue to help unload gear in exchange for lighting lessons, she got a job with a then up-and-coming band called The Lumineers, who liked her work enough to take her on tour. 

Opportunity started knocking. Her first big job was really big: the opening band for Jennifer Lopez at a Brazil festival in 2012. 

The crowd was at least 30,000. The largest crowd she’d designed lights for? Around 600. 

Large-scale concerts require advanced preparation, programming — and she had none of that. “I basically just smiled pretty and made friends and did a bad job,” she said.  

It was a humbling moment. But she learned a lot, picked up new skills, more mentors and, as she got bigger jobs, the rhythms of touring. Bands are constantly on the road, so lighting designers can determine how long they want to join them (Falcone prefers eight to nine months per year.) They are among the first to arrive and always the last to leave, and overnight work is common. 

“It’s not all partying and the whole sex, drugs and rock and roll thing,” she said. “It is one of the cooler things you can do — tour the world and get paid to do it — but it’s also some of the longest hours you will ever work.”

Respecting different personalities and touring preferences is also important. She’s toured several times with St. Vincent (“Super personable yet keeps to herself”), Weezer (“They’ve been a band for so long, they don’t really hang out”), Jimmy Eat World (“We share the same bus and go to dinner together”), Ben Folds (“Very quiet but very funny. He is a very kind human and cares about his people”), and of course Dave Grohl, who is exactly who you’d expect him to be (“He’s a very nice person and the band and crew is amazing. I felt very honored to work with them.”)  

“We joke that 95 percent of the job is just being a good hang,” she said. “You have to be around these people 24/7, and it can be challenging.” 

One of her personal career highlights happened in 2019, when she traveled with Weezer to Portland’s Moda Center. It was the first time she’d designed an arena show, and she invited Professor of Biology David Craig, Professor of Theatre Chris Harris (now retired) and Kinsman Steck.

“It was so dang fun,” she said. “Craig just loves music, and he was just enjoying a live show, and Chris Harris said, ‘I haven’t gone to a concert in 20 to 30 years, but I will come to any of yours.’ Then Rachel was just nerding out on the lighting.” 

Now the Los Angeles-based designer is splitting her time between tours with St. Vincent and Jimmy Eat World, and recently designed lighting for Maggie Rogers’ new tour. It’s a great career that developed from a simple love of music. 

“For a long time, I knew I wanted to do something in the music industry, but didn’t know how I’d fit — I was good at the clarinet and piano, but not great,” she said. “But I have a pretty good sense of rhythm, and one of my favorite parts of programming lights is hitting those buttons on time. It feels sort of like you’re playing lights with the band.” 

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