Coast to Coast

From the West Coast to the East Coast and back, four designers offer four different takes on why the play's the thing. In Los Angeles, Duane Schuler designed the lighting for a revival of The Royal Family at the Ahmanson Theater. In New York, Clifton Taylor was the LD for a small off-Broadway production of the new play Frozen, and surprise, it moved to Broadway. Also on Broadway is the third incarnation of Jumpers, with lighting designed by Paule Constable, a production that jumped across the pond from London. And in California, Scott Zelinski designed the lighting for the world premiere of a new play, Mr. Marmalade at South Coast Rep.


One of the distinctive design elements in The Royal Family, the 1927 classic by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber based on the theatrical Barrymore family, is a series of period posters that feature the cast of the production. Set designer Doug Schmidt took actual period posters and used Abobe® Photoshop® to get today's actors into posters of yesteryear. The posters were projected onto a scrim and controlled via Dataton's Watchout software, with the control organized by projection specialist Marc Rosenthal of the LA-based Personal Creations. A Rosco Image-Pro unit was also used to project the title of the play above the 12' × 16' poster projections.

“The projections were interstitial,” says Rosenthal. “I had to decide what to do with them other than just have them fade up and down.” As a result, he designed computer-generated green curtains with gold trim using the Watchout system and projected the posters in a faux painted proscenium projected on the scrim within the actual proscenium. This allowed him to open and close the curtains in various ways to reveal the posters and make the use of the projections more interesting. At the end of the show, a final projection is a scrolling of the show credits, like at the end of a film. The projector was a Sanyo PLC-XF35 (6500 lumens).

Schuler's job was to create different times of day via a large picture window with a view of the Central Park skyline in New York City. “All of the little windows in the buildings on the horizon line were translucent,” he explains. He was able to indicate evening as the lights in the windows went on. He also used clouds of different colors, with mesh templates in 50° ETC Source Fours, to indicate morning or afternoon. A ladder of PAR cans had variegated colors, from light tints at the top to amber for the sunset at the bottom. “Light from another ladder lit a leaded glass window upstage,” notes Schuler.


Frozen is an emotionally charged play by Byrony Lavery about a missing child. Produced off-Broadway by the MCC Theatre, it opened to rave reviews (Swoozie Kurtz's performance alone is worth raving about). With a set by Hugh Landwehr, costumes by Catherine Zuber, chilling sound by David van Tieghem, and lighting by Clifton Taylor, Frozen has moved uptown to the Circle In The Square, a bold move for a difficult play. “The play is written in many short vignettes,” notes Taylor. “The first thing we talked about is that it is really like a dance piece with an open stage and just small pieces of furniture to help tell the story.” That left Taylor a large job in that the lighting carries the play from scene to scene.

One large, painted image on filled scrim dominates the set, looming upstage. “Hugh looked at hundreds of photographs and selected a close-up image of a glacier,” says Taylor. “It has a feeling of ice, of a brain, and has a lot of resonance with what is going on in the play.” Early on in the design process, Taylor knew his solution to the lighting question was found in automated luminaires. “It was a hard sell at MCC,” he recalls. “They are a little off-Broadway company with a budget that is submitted one year in advance. They had never rented a moving lights package in their history.”

Taylor suggested using nine moving lights and designed his plot accordingly. “One week before we loaded in, there was still no money for them, and I made a second plot, replacing the moving lights with 70 conventional units. When I said nine moving lights were the minimum, it was a holistic concept. I wanted to have the light tight enough around the actors that they existed in a void, or non-realistic, space. Each scene is constructed by what the actors are doing. The moving lights define the actors. Their words are of the essence.”

Taylor eventually was able to use nine High End Systems Studio Spots (rented from Scharff Weisberg Lighting), with an ETC Expression 3 console. Shawn King was the programmer (and Taylor says he did a great job using the Expression with the moving lights) and Ashley Pinkard was the master electrician. “The lights move throughout the entire production,” Taylor adds. “It is a testament to how great the actors are. They are actually following the lights. They are blocked together.” The remainder of the rig downtown included 60 conventional fixtures and cyc lighting. “We found out late in the game we were moving uptown,” notes Taylor, whose assistant LD downtown was Steve O'Shea; uptown he used O'Shea and Eric Cornwell.

“We opened downtown and got rave reviews,” notes Taylor. “Rumors started that we would move uptown. We finally got the call the day we closed off Broadway, and we loaded in 10 days later.” Taylor expanded the rig, using twice as many conventionals, basically Source Fours and PAR64s, as well as 20 HES Studio Spots (all rented from Fourth Phase this time) along with two Martin MAC 600 NT units, and a High End Systems Whole Hog® II console. Taylor did not explore other options in terms of moving lights because he had only two days of tech and, as he puts it, “not enough time to discover how it could work differently.” The MAC 600s are used as wash lights in some high-drama moments and as the sun when the characters talk about how hot it is. “They are much brighter and cut through the light of the Studio Spots as the sun would do,” Taylor adds.

The programmer uptown was Hillary Knox, and the master electrician is Stuart Wagner. “Knox is a more-experienced programmer on the Hog, and it would have been difficult to do the show on the Expression with more instruments and focus points. The programming is much more complex, but the experience is the same” says Taylor. “I had to consider the larger distances between the audience and the actors. Yet the extra distances, and the extra lights, help keep the audience darker. They can have their own reaction without being exposed. You can cry more easily in the dark.” Taylor also had a template system downtown that he shelved in the move. “I just kept the color washes,” he says. “The templates didn't fit into the rest of the evening when I re-evaluated the show.”


Another recent world premiere is the South Coast Repertory production of Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, with sets by Rachel Hauck, costumes by Angela Balogh Calin, and lighting by Scott Zielinski. The story is about games people play in the world of a precocious four-year-old girl, Lucy (played by an adult actress), and her imaginary friends, including Mr. Marmalade, who is a very busy man indeed. “The sets are very colorful,” says Zielinski, who notes that the one big overriding concept of the play is the juxtaposition between moments of reality in Lucy's life and the moments when you see her imaginary friends on stage.

“In terms of lighting, I had to decide how to make the distinction between the two,” Zielinski explains. “The delineation is clear in the beginning, yet later this distinction begins to blur.” The set represents Lucy's house, in an almost abstract way, with basic pieces of furniture on a large platform and bright yellow-orange wallpaper. “The lighting expanded and contracted the space,” notes Zielinski. “In the imaginary world, the space opens up more. There is also a boost in intensity and some extra color thrown on the scenery.” Wide flood PAR64s are used to light the back wall and legs, and there is not a lot of space available, while the back wall is also lit on the top and bottom with strip lights to augment the colors on the scenery. There are also Wybron CXI scrollers on Source Fours adding color onto the faces of the legs.

“The colors in the lighting either echo the set or cut against it to make a statement,” says Zielinski, who threw opposing colors such as green onto the yellow and orange sets to enhance the fantasy moments. “In the script, the imaginary characters start out as being good, pleasant people,” he adds. “As the play progresses, they begin to get darker.” When this happens, Zielinski's lighting turns colder, and the color begins to drain out. He also introduces MR16 footlights that project shadows on the back wall, while stark backlight and cool sidelight make the set more desolate looking. The realistic scenes are more clearly lit, with the light warmer and more comfortable and the actors sculpted in the space.

Zielinski also used two VARI*LITE® VL1000s with moving shutters (part of the theatre's inventory) as diagonal backlights in 70° zoom mode shuttered to the deck, exclusively for full-stage color washes. “One of the boldest color choices is in a fantasy moment when the light is very pink to match the costumes,” he says. “I added a very deep purple in the VL1000s.” An ETC Obsession console was used, with programming by Keith Friedlander (who Zielinski found to be very efficient in maneuvering the scrollers and tracking everything. The other programmer at SCR is Steve Vajk.)

One bare light bulb that hangs over the sofa is eventually augmented by another 35 bulbs that fly in as stars in a fantasy scene with a soft, romantic dance number. To enhance the look, Zielinski added a mirror ball, hung in the auditorium rather than on stage. This way, the light cascades over the audience, pulling them right into Lucy's world. “At the end, you see her silhouetted against very brightly lit scenery,” Zielinski notes. “It is as if another day has arrived, and the lighting is reminiscent of the happier moments at the beginning of the play.”


Tom Stoppard's Jumpers is perhaps one of the most verbally agile plays ever written. “It is a pseudo-intellectual play, really much more in the Eastern European tradition, than English,” notes UK-based LD Paule Constable, who has now lit three versions of this production: first at the Royal National Theatre, then in London's West End at the Piccadilly Theatre, and now on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson. Considering that Stoppard, one of the most eloquent writers in the English language, was born in Czechoslovakia, it is no wonder that this is not your typical drawing room comedy. It explores some rather abstract concepts as a dowdy professor (played brilliantly by Simon Russell Beale) grapples with ideas about morality and mortality in his study while his glamorous wife hides a dead body in her wardrobe and carries on an affair in the bedroom. The set design is by Vicki Mortimer, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, sound design by John Leonard, and video design by Dick Straker and Sven Ortel.

“New York is better for all of us,” Constable states. One reason is that the set has been opened up more, removing a large truss structure that divided it in the past, with the study and bedroom, as well as a corridor area, all encased in a ballroom. “The rooms are all floating more in the same universe, like celestial bodies spinning around each other,” says Constable. Her Broadway rig includes some large sources such as 12 2kW ADB Fresnels with scrollers and three 5kW Strand Bambino Fresnels with scrollers. “I like big, film size units as single source back lights,” says Constable, “but I always get a hard time using them in New York.” Moving lights include High End Systems Studio Spots and Studio Colors.

The lighting in New York is also more “showbiz,” with more saturated colors. “You have to let people know they are in for an evening of entertainment,” says Constable, who has eight channels of blue-white LEDs as stars in the walls. “Each channel can make its own picture, or you can add them all together for an infinite sky,” she notes. In New York, she also added some HMI profiles to create a very strong shaft of light to help define the corridor, with several strips of light in front of the set and an HMI Fresnel behind an upstage left window. In London, the show was run on a Strand 550 series console (programmed by Cathy Joyce), but in New York an ETC Obsession was used (programmed by Brian McGarrity). The rental shop was Fourth Phase.

The bedroom and study are basically lit with a lot of crosslight in Lee 202 and 203, to keep things cool, and Lee 201 and 202 downlights to help define the spaces. “The bedroom is bluer and seems to be floating more in the big blue ballroom,” says Constable, who also called for three followspots, but the budget only allowed for two operators. The solution was to use the three instruments but have one of the operators switch positions at intermission. In one act, the followspots are used on each side of the show while in the other act one of them is used front and center. “It's a compromise but it works fine,” Constable says. “The sets are spinning on a turntable all the time. It was hard work to plot this show.”