pool (no water) is Mark Ravenhill’s sharply written play about a group of artists/friends who are facing the realities of their lives—from disappointment in their own careers to envy at the one from the group who has made it big and how to grieve for those who have died—in a sharply acted, seamlessly directed (by Ianthe Demos), and well designed production by a company called One Year Lease, performing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at 9th Space (in the PS122 building).
The design team includes James Hunting (sets), Scott J. Fetterman (video and sound), Kristen Kopp (costumes), and Mike Riggs (lighting). “Interaction with the video was the X-factor until we got to tech,” says Riggs. “One Year Lease uses a very open, experimental rehearsal process and we were fortunate to have Scott Fetterman in attendance for the last few weeks of that process.”
The set design is a bare stage with five white benches that serve as everything from video screens to beds: “Although we had the five benches in the rehearsal room, we didn't have the black walls, nor a blackout condition, nor anything resembling the actual projection angle or throw distance,” Riggs notes. “Therefore Scott arrived in tech with a lot of great ideas and a strong sense of Ianthe's process, but still with more questions than answers.”
Anticipating this situation, Riggs came armed with a number of ideas that seemed like promising components for the video sequences. “Some very robust full-spectrum LED gear from dynamic angles, flat front light that would throw shadows for the video to fill in, white-spectrum LED front light that allows me to get wonderfully specific with color temperature while creating hardly any shadows all,” he explains. “There were stand-alone lighting ideas behind each of these equipment choices, but I made each choice with some thought toward how it might contribute to a video moment that nobody had thought of yet.”
In designing the show, the creative team had to decide early on which way to go, running with the pool as a metaphor and letting it show up in all design elements or embracing the script's free-verse nature with a very supple version of neutrality that could be manipulated, subtly or harshly, as the emotional tone of the piece ebbs and flows. “pool is written in the style that gave rise to the familiar "black box theater and a few black cubes" aesthetic, so my hat is off to James Hunting, who was dead right when he presented his simple design with the five benches,” says Riggs, pointing out that the second option was certainly the right choice.
“So the question became, ‘what's our neutral space?’ James suggested that it should feel like a gallery, that being the "natural habitat" of the characters,” says Riggs, whose idea for using nine custom fixtures made of one four-ft. standard lighting track and three 90W PAR 38 track heads came from the gallery concept. “That's also why each section of track lights was mounted to a white ceiling fragment," he explains. “We didn't want any ambiguity about the track lights being a scenic choice; we've all done plenty of downtown shows where track lights ARE the house inventory.”
The white benches also echo the gallery idea and are used as surfaces for light or projection but could also be 2D or 3D objects of art. “They also gave Ianthe and Natalie the super-flexible palette they needed for the fluid staging that Ianthe already knew she wanted,” Riggs points out, noting that he, Hunting, and Demos had worked together in the past: “Ianthe, James, and I benefit from a long history which has given rise to a very useful shorthand vocabulary,” he says. “There's no substitute for knowing, trusting, and liking your collaborators.”
Riggs’ lighting design is all about "no color" except when it isn't, as he explains: “I used four Chroma-Q Studio Force Compact V photographic LED fixtures as the primary front light.” His first experience with these fixtures, as it happens, and they provided what he hoped for, including a camera flash effect. “Shifting those to a cooler color, and boosting the cool white cross-light while dimming the warm white track fixtures, takes us to our more clinical spaces: the hospital, Sally's hospice,” Riggs adds. “I wanted color to have a big impact when it's used, which happens with decreasing subtly as the play goes on and the characters succumb to their less-virtuous instincts more readily.”
Color in the lighting and video is how the play moves in and out of reality. “The whole play, with the exception of the first and last moments, is a flashback,” explains Riggs. “So my rhythm isn't really about "now" vs. "then." Instead, the lighting departs from that "normal" state—somewhere along the white-light spectrum—when the characters get more introspective and less guarded.This happens early on to reinforce the almost magical allure of the pool. Later (and less subtly) it happens to punch up the characters’ descent into unconcealed envy, and to help us follow their path through their drug trips.”
One exception to that color rhythm is the skinny-dipping sequence that leads to an accident in the pool (which has no water). Riggs lit this scene almost exclusively with a single-source (tungsten) diagonal backlight in L165 Daylight Blue, which indicates moonlight, but it's also the show's romantic climax. “ The characters are at their most carefree, closest to the tight-knit group that they were all those years ago,” Riggs explains. “And it's the boldest shadow play in the show—very directional, throwing shadows of the people and the upright benches, leaving faces barely lit. This sets us up for the horror that's revealed after the accident, which is all about contrast with the previous moment. All the romance drains away and our only light is a dim, cold, front wash from the Studio Force LED's. Except when an actor is right up against a white panel, it's totally shadowless.”
Riggs used a combination of house gear, as well as some rental equipment from 4 Wall (noting that Jim Schoenfelder there really sweated to make this happen on the allotted budget), and items from his own or One Year Lease’s own gear. The result may have been low on budget but highly effective in terms of helping tell an extremely tight emotionally charged story where any light spill would have been jarring.