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Making Its London Debut: Spotrack at Donmar King's Cross

Spotrack, the innovative system that turns moving lights into followspots under the control of a human operator, is now appearing nightly as a key element of the lighting design for the acclaimed Shakespeare Trilogy, produced by the renowned Donmar Warehouse at a new temporary theatre in London's King's Cross.

Four Spotrack systems are in use on the show, allowing four performers to be individually followed by four operators. While the Spotrack system allows each operator to control up to twenty lights, for the Donmar show each operator is running just four, to give the lighting from four sides essential to these productions which are performed in-the-round with an audience on four sides.

The production opted to use Spotrack to solve the practical problems caused by their new venue, in effect a tent sandwiched onto a narrow site between King's Cross and St Pancras railway stations. "Of this trilogy of shows, two - Henry V and Julius Caesar - have been done before, with the third, The Tempest, new for this season. In previous productions at the Donmar and then at St Ann's Warehouse in New York, follow-spots became a key part of the design, in particular because they gave the performers the freedom to move as they wished, rather than necessarily following precise blocking," explains George Dives, the Donmar's Chief Electrician.

"That aesthetic ended up being quite strong," adds James Farncombe, the show's Lighting Designer, "so for London we were looking for a solution that allowed us to retain that feel - but as soon as we saw the venue, where the roof is quite low, we knew that we wouldn't be able to have four spot ops hanging from the truss, both visually and in terms of the practicalities of getting people up and down. George had seen Spotrack and suggested it, we arranged a demo, it seemed to tick all of the boxes, so we went with it."

The system then created for the Donmar season was a complex one: four operators each controlling four Martin TW1 moving lights, one in each corner of the stage, to allow each performer to be lit from four sides. For practical and space reasons, two of the operators are located at the rear of the seating in one corner, two are located hidden beneath the opposite seating bank. All are fed images from video cameras, fitted with a wide angle lens to obtain a full-stage view despite being rigged very close to the stage, on the screens of their Spotrack laptops. They then use a mouse to target the lights to a performer, following them around the stage with a cursor just as they would have followed them around the stage with a light. Only now they are each directing four lights. Control of other elements of each light - color, size and intensity - is handled by the ETC Ion console programmed by Andi Davis, allowing the followspots to be precisely integrated into the show lighting, and even taken back from follow-spotting duties to be used for other things at any moment if necessary.

"I think we were making some quite serious demands on the system," comments George Dives, "in particular because of our in-the-round staging, the low rig, and the very close positioning of the cameras - but Spotrack has done pretty much everything we asked of it. Our four operators, Amauri Crepaldi, Charles Hickey, David Manson and Kat Tester, all experienced operators of real followspots, have picked it up very quickly, and the Spotrack team have been very responsive to the little issues we've had and to our suggestions for extra functions that would be useful in the future."

Programmer Andi Davis comments, "though our set-up was, I think, quite unlike anything Spotrack has done before, it's clear that Spotrack opens up all kinds of new lighting possibilities; I've already been suggesting to other lighting designers that they should take a close look at it."

James Farncombe adds, "what Spotrack has enabled us to do is be quite specific about the lighting despite the very fluid blocking of the show, in a way that we would just not have been able to do with a series of specials or really in any other way at all."

"We've supplied Spotrack systems to many productions since its launch," comments Spotrack's Liam Feeney, "including TV shows and smaller musical productions. Compared to those shows, the challenges of this one were very interesting - but we were delighted to be able to solve them with the fantastic support of James, George, Andi and all involved with the Donmar and at White Light, who supplied the rig and the Spotrack system; it was a delight to work with them all. As in all of the best collaborations, we've learnt a bunch of new things, all of which will help us make Spotrack an even better tool for lighting designers."

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd - perhaps now best known for her work directing the stage and film versions of the musical Mamma Mia, designed by Bunny Christie, Ellen Nabarro and Chloe Lamford, and lit by James Farncombe, the Donmar's Shakespeare Trilogy plays at King's Cross until December 17th 2016; further information can be found at https://www.donmaratkingscross.com. An open day offering the chance to see Spotrack in action at the venue is being planned - anyone interested in attending should email openday@spotrack.com to receive more information as a date is finalised. 

Spotrack will also be on show at LDI in Las Vegas from October 21-23rd - come and try it for yourself on booth 549.

Further information can be found online at www.spotrack.com.