Designing for the Great Outdoors

The Big Dipper looms overhead. We gaze up at the sky, and there it is: a shooting star. It's a good omen. We are going to have a fabulous summer. Ten minutes later, back to work. The crew picks up crescent wrenches, tightens harnesses, and climbs back up — just another night of focusing lights at the Utah Shakespearean Festival (USF).

Ten years ago, I was asked to design the lighting for the productions in the outdoor Adams Shakespearean Theatre, one of the most authentic Elizabethan- style theatres in the world. For anyone who has had the pleasure — and pain — of working in an outdoor theatrical environment, it is especially exciting, challenging, and fun, particularly for the lighting designer. We spend so much of our lives inside. What a joy it is to work outside, breathe in the fresh air, feel the wind on your face, the snow on your outstretched hand…Wait, snow in June? Well, yes, life in the outdoors is unpredictable.

Obviously, a lighting designer can't do too much designing during the day with the bright sun shining. So much of the design work is done after rehearsals are finished. And in the case of the USF, this means you get the stage around 11pm. Of course, the workday doesn't just start then. Three days a week start with mid-morning production meetings. Watching rehearsals to figure out light cues and plot changes usually follows lunch. Each play rehearses four times a week in an alternating schedule, including an afternoon rehearsal and an evening rehearsal, and then a day off.

The location is part of the reason the USF was founded by Fred C. Adams in 1961. When Adams moved from New York to Cedar City, UT in 1959, he noted the thousands of tourists, an audience just waiting to be entertained. So in 1962, a small group of college students and townspeople performed The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Hamlet, set in the grass on the campus of the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University). Through the years, the company has grown to a Tony Award-winning regional theatre with summer and fall seasons. Each summer, the indoor Randall L. Jones Theatre presents three plays — classics of world drama and musicals — and the outdoor, Globe-inspired Adams Theatre features another three, usually Shakespearean, all performed in repertory. Both theatres are complemented each night by pre-show entertainment on the green.

I usually arrive in Utah in mid-May, two weeks after the company starts rehearsals. I watch to see how the directors are using the stage. This helps me determine how effective my plot is going to be and if I need to make changes. The light plot is due at the beginning of May, when the summer company arrives. Luckily, USF is fabulous about giving designers the information and time needed to design. The process starts nine months prior to the summer season, and final design meetings are held in Cedar City in March.

Designing repertory is always challenging, and it is especially tricky to design for the Adams Theatre. Like many theatres, it has a mix of lighting equipment, some new and some very old. One thousand-watt incandescent Fresnels, affectionately dubbed “trashcans,” and 10“ Lekos, not so affectionately called “pigs,” hang next to brand new ETC Source Fours. The festival frequently replaces old instruments with new, and we have some newer “toys.” However, the design philosophy for lighting the Adams is that equipment must be unobtrusive and complement the intended original style of each play. Therefore, intelligent lights are not utilized. In the last several years, we have added color changers (really helpful), but they must be used subtly — no disco light shows in this space.

Once the plot gets to the company, it is in the capable hands of Scott Palfreyman, the lighting/sound director, and Angie Wilt, master electrician for both the Randall and Adams Theatres. The crew gets two weeks for maintenance and to hang the light plot. My crew head, William Rios, and electricians Lauren Hill and Joel Thompson, help make my summer a real joy.

Three days into my six-week residency, the crew and I start our late night/early morning schedule. I am not a late-night person, and around 2am, I really lose steam. Luckily, this crew is fast, so it takes only three nights to focus the 450+ instruments. The front-of-house walkways are easy to reach, but the sidelights and other under-the-balcony positions are more difficult, and the crew makes great use of climbing skills. And the same thing that makes the Adams theatre so historically correct also makes it very awkward to focus: one must maneuver around the crossbeams that hold up the gabled roof, attaching, detaching, and reattaching the harness while climbing on the beams and light pipes, trying not to de-circuit cables or kick instruments out of focus. Then there are the first and second lighting pipes that cannot be reached without a lift. The stage is not as wide as the light pipes. The occasional spider crawling up the electrician's arm (the one who, of course, is afraid of spiders) and bats swooping by faces, plus our stargazing breaks, add to the time and the charm.

This year, we finished the focus in two sessions because the audio and the Randall lighting crew joined us for the second night. My amazing assistant Craig Ogg nimbly did double duty sending the crew to positions, telling me where and what I was focusing next, and bringing the channels up and down. To help keep us going, Scott and Angie held an early morning barbecue for everyone, which gave us all the energy to work until 4am.

After the focus sessions, we have three nights of photo calls with the acting company. I get to direct the lighting, so in addition to the theatrical lights, I have the crew move two booms on wheels with about four instruments on each. This helps to get the right angles, color changes, and intensity. Several years ago, we innocently started a tradition of wearing baseball caps to a photo call. It has grown (and migrated to the Randall Theatre across the street) into lighting crew costume nights. Roman togas, pimped-out clothes, cowboy hats, and beachwear help make what could be a tedious evening a creative and fun time (at least we get a kick out of it).

In late May and early June, the temperature tends to be on the chilly side because of the elevation. Some designers might consider working outdoors in the “elements” a nuisance, but I was born and live in Southern California, and prior to working in Utah, the most exciting weather I had ever witnessed was during family vacations at my grandfather's lake cabin in Minnesota. The distant rumble of thunder fills me with a joyous anticipation, but this year was actually mild. We had one early morning thunder and lightning storm, and an afternoon rehearsal of King Lear was delayed due to snow and hail. The wind, however, was the real challenge. An afternoon of watching rehearsals in gusts of wind that rained pollen down on us from the surrounding trees triggered allergies and runny eyes.

That evening, we were setting cues for Twelfth Night, and the gusts turned into sustained 40mph winds. Was that another gel flying by? It was exciting, but the banging sound over the stage had us wondering what was going to fall on our heads. The noise and the wind-chill factor got the better of us all, and we stopped. After completing the cue-to-cues, we finished our early morning adventures and changed to a normal schedule.

During the preview week, we also incorporated afternoon rain stage rehearsals. Since the chance of rain is rather likely in late-July and August, the plays are restaged in the auditorium. Whatever lights are left in inventory are used for a light plot one-quarter the size of the outdoor plot. During the four hours of the rain stage rehearsals, the directors re-block the actors, and using the Adams light board disk, we adjust the cues.

This takes us to opening week. Opening two green-shows and six plays in one week is exciting. It takes incredible organization and planning. After the openings, the designers and directors depart, leaving the plays in the competent hands of the company to continue the season into the summer, closing around the beginning of September.

I am already looking forward to next summer. I get to design Othello, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cyrano de Bergerac. I also get to sit on the stage with my crew in the early morning and peacefully watch the sky for shooting stars, that is, unless it rains…or snows.

Based in Southern California, Donna Ruzika's professional associations also include South Coast Repertory, Laguna Playhouse, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the Fundación Gente de Teatro in Bogotá, Colombia.

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