Spotlight Series: Inside the Design Process. A Conversation with Michael Lentz

Onyx Winter Guard prepares for their 2018 performance of “A Year from Monday.” DSI Excalibur sabre shown.

We all have the same ingredients, so we have to use those ingredients to create something unique and new.”

Michael Lentz

Director, Onyx

For a few decades now, Onyx has captivated audiences with productions that push them to think, feel, and experience outside their comfort zones. Their provoking exploration of new ideas, and their re-invigoration of old concepts newly portrayed have earned them, in their 31 years, 3 WGI gold medals and a myriad other medals, honors, and opportunities. The artist behind the magic of Onyx is Michael Lentz. Not originating from color guard roots, this horn player expressed

that “we just don’t think like everyone else. We’ve never been inside the box.” When it comes to their design process, Onyx goes for an organic approach, trying new ideas, supporting different cast member talents, and always toying with the ‘what ifs’. Michael took some time with us to talk about the design process in the infantile stages of any winter production, sharing mindful advice from the perspective of a designer, teacher, and judge.

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How do I begin going about selecting a new, unexplored concept? How do I effectively put a new twist on a previously explored idea?

Find your inspiration. Inspiration comes from the world around us and is motivated by our individual perceptions of the world. An abstract and ambiguous concept, yes, but the artist’s job is to deliver a message using the simultaneously limitless and limited ideas of the world around them. Whether designing for a world guard or a scholastic regional group, you are inspired by something you see as important in the world. Don’t undervalue that. In regards to Onyx, Lentz expressed that each year is different for them. They brainstorm by tearing out pictures from magazines, writing down words and phrases, and observing the world. But also take inspiration from the talent around you. Decide what you’re looking for in performers and productions. Lentz expressed that you can either let the energy in the room dictate your decision or you can enter the auditions with a decision in mind and set the energy accordingly. No matter what path you take though, it is vital to believe in your decision.

Push boundaries. In 2017, Onyx explored the rulebook and challenged conventional color guard thought in BizarreBAZZAR. Lentz explained that the show concept had come up in conversation many times and 2017 seemed like the year to pursue it. BizarreBAZZAR was provocative, avant garde, and utterly unlike anything WGI had seen before. In opposition however, 2018’s production “A Year from Monday” flaunted elegant, sophisticated minimalism. What relates the two productions (and really any Onyx production), is how each show takes audiences on a journey they’ve never seen before. To take a leap so far beyond our conservative, safe design is to take a risk in the success of a production. But that is exactly the filter designers should avoid when creating a show. “Ignore what the judges will think,” Lentz warns. “It’s an immediate failure to any program.” Of course we want our programs to win circuit, progress to WGI, earn audience admiration. But when you sacrifice who you are for the sake of what others want, the show seems somehow fake. The questions we should be asking instead are “are we setting up students to be successful?” “Is this design going to challenge them as performers?” “Is this the kind of production I will have fun teaching for the next 5 months?” In the end, if we are conservative in our design decisions, we make the same choices. “If you don’t try it, you’ll never know what could be,” Lentz argues. And that’s not as fulfilling.

Learn from past experiences. Use your past successes and feedback to shape how you plan to grow as an ensemble this year. Improvement doesn’t just stem from member growth, but the growth of the program’s identity. For instance, Onyx’s 2010 production “Sleeping Giant” was inspired by the Onyx of 2009 and was inspired by the 2009 WGI Percussion groups. They wanted to harness the energy seen at the percussion event, and this led them to create a production that was more “raw and powerful” than 2009’s “At Arms’ Length” had been. They were willing to lose in order to win, and this risk was initiated by a need to evolve. Your programs are in a constant state of evolution. Talent comes and goes, the activity changes, and design must reflect who you are, who you were, and who you want to become.

How do I know when a production is “finished” or ready to present?

It’s not. There is always something more we wanted to try. A new toss we wanted to add; more texture in the ensemble feature; a few more “and” counts we wanted to spot clean. What truly matters isn’t the product, rather the process that the students take. When are they ready? At what point does their training dictate they can take the production out of your hands and own it as their own? And how are we as designers, instructors, mentors going to get them there?

The bottom line with any subjective activity is that we are constantly engaged in the art of competition. That competitive energy isn’t merely limited to those in our class either. The most important competition any group faces each year is with the group they want to be by the end. It’s equally extrinsic and intrinsic. Lentz’s advice to any designer is to be smart with the process.  Don’t spend your time experimenting, but use experimentation early on to find that great idea. “We took on the challenge of taking on competition,” Lentz states. “So we have to think like competitors. We have to train to our class.” In A class, emulation is great to find your voice. And once you find it, hone it! Open class challenges groups to spreading their wings. World class is about creating new things and interpreting ideas differently in unconventional ways.

However, remain student-centric as you venture on this yearly journey. Lentz stresses that designers should experiment and challenge the kids, but shouldn’t ever make risky decisions at the detriment of the students. It’s a fine line between making decisions for the sake of being different and making them to fulfill a purpose in your students. Make good decisions on costuming and choreo and training. Step it up as your group advances. Use a judges voice to refine you, but don’t use it to change you. Lentz advocates for any instructor or designer to utilize the WGI tools available. The WGI educational tools are a great means to self-assess yourself and your program.

“We all have the same ingredients,” Lentz adds, “so we have to use those ingredients to create something unique and new.” But most importantly, refine and own your style always, as your personality is the most unique ingredient a group owns.

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