Islands of light: LD Natasha Katz brings enchantment to Twelfth Night


Conventional wisdom about the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, located in New York's Lincoln Center, is that it is just too big. A strange cross between a proscenium and thrust space, it has a stage of seemingly limitless depth. For years, company after company struggled to make use effective use of it, only to see entire plays swallowed up in its lack of intimacy.

Starting in the late 1980s, the Lincoln Center Theatre broke the curse that marked the space, with hit productions like The House of Blue Leaves and Anything Goes. Since then, the Beaumont has been home to any number of acclaimed productions, including last season's well-reviewed revivals of Ivanov and Ah, Wilderness! But most of these productions solved the problem of the Beaumont with set designs that forced the action way down front, to the theatre's forestage. Much of the space went unused, as spectacle was sacrificed for intimacy. This is why Bob Crowley's set design for Lincoln Center's summer production, Twelfth Night, was all the more daring. Crowley threw caution (and cycloramas) to the wind, designing a vision of Shakespeare's Illyria that took in every inch of the Beaumont's considerable stage.

Twelfth Night was eagerly anticipated because it featured a cast of stars from film (Helen Hunt, Kyra Sedgwick, Paul Rudd) and stage (Philip Bosco, Brian Murray), and also because it reunited Crowley with director Nicholas Hytner in the venue where they previously triumphed with the Royal National Theatre/Lincoln Center revival of the musical Carousel. Twelfth Night received mixed reviews, but even the coolest critic raved over the show's stunning look.

In Crowley's conception, Shakespeare's Illyria was a wonderland of Orientalia, a melange of Middle Eastern and Indian design motifs. The stage floor looked like a vast Oriental rug, with an intensely detailed pattern of peacocks and flowers in red, blue, and gold. The home of leading character Viola (an aristocrat given to excessively mourning her late brother) was defined by finely filigreed Alhambra walls and mosque-like turrets that appeared and disappeared. The home of Orsino (who pines for Viola) was a kind of opium den, illuminated by 60 hanging globes with flicker candles.

Then there were the pools--one of which covered the entire upstage area, and two more downstage--which made Illyria seem a network of interlocking islands, a kind of Shakespearean Indonesia. "I sent them the model and said, 'Just add water,' " cracks Crowley.

A giant space, vast pools of water, a stage floor brightly colored enough to induce vertigo in the eyes of faint-hearted viewers--it's enough to make an LD run screaming into the night. Not Natasha Katz. For one thing, she's worked with the designer before, on last season's short-lived but interestingly designed musical The Capeman. Katz says she worked closely with Crowley, Hytner, and costume designer Catherine Zuber to create a unified look for Twelfth Night's floating world.

"It was a slow wade into the pool," says Katz about the design process. "We didn't just jump right in." She adds that the water was central to Hytner's conception of the play as a comedy about narcissism and misplaced romance. "We talked about how [the characters] all fall in love with the wrong people and how [Illyria] should be a place in one's own imagination--a kind of Persian, Eastern idea."

Out of these discussions came Katz's lushly colored, highly sensual lighting design, which caresses Crowley's scenery with a deeply saturated palette of blues, greens, oranges, yellows, and pinks. In scene after scene, the LD took each challenge of the play's design and turned it to her advantage. Where Crowley used rich color, she completed the picture with richer color of her own. She seized on rain and mist effects by Gregory Meeh to create moments of pure magic--shipwrecked heroine Viola appearing out of a curtain of blue-tinted mist, like a creature born of the very elements. And Katz, undaunted by the size of the stage and aided by a staggeringly large plot, used light to transform the space, carving out look after look, with cinematic ease.

In many ways, color was the key to Katz's design. "I looked at all of Bob's research," she says. "It's not the same color that we see every day; it's definitely of another time, another place." One crossroads in the design, she adds, "involved asking myself: Do I allow the set's colors to be what they are, or do I start adding exotic colors myself? Fortunately, adding them seemed like the right way to go."

Another aspect of the design where color counted involved the blue silks that surrounded the set on three sides; at certain times Katz used light to turn them alush green. "There's a cyc 5' upstage of the silks, all the way around," the LD says. "The silks were lit from the front, but the cyc was lit from the front and rear. It was an enormous amount of cyc to light--it's 40' (12m) high."

A lot of space, yes--but Katz was able to exert enormous control over it with light, directing the audience's eye to exactly the right spot, whether it was down front or somewhere deep at the rear of the stage. The lighting acted as a kind of zoom lens, refocusing the stage from scene to scene. "Even if there was a work light on, you would know where to look, based on how Nick staged it," she says, "but I did have the ability to pull the focus to where it needed to go. Often the lighting zooms, followed by a wide show, then it zooms in again." To use a metaphor drawn from the design itself, Katz created islands of light, which constantly reshaped the stage according to the needs of the play.

Of course, it's not easy to light a space this size, much less light it well, and, according to Beaumont electrician Patrick Merryman, Katz's plot ran to nearly 1,300 focusing units and 130 striplights (T3s and ministrips). Still, "to tell you the truth, I wish I had more, in a lot of cases," she says. Merryman, who had to balance Katz's needs with requirements for the rain system, hazers, pool pumps and heaters, scenery automation winches, and a 220V High End Systems Dataflash(R) AF1000 system, realized that he would need the maximum bang for his power buck.

He turned to a multiplexing system developed by Electronic Theatre Controls, which uses a smart twofer named a Dimmer Doubler, which creates two lighting circuits that function as if they were connected to separate dimmers. The system can only be used with ETC 77V lamps but each rack can have a mixture of multiplexed and non-multiplexed dimmers. Fortunately, Katz had already chosen to use ETC Source Fours, and Merryman, who used a similar system on Ah, Wilderness! wanted to use ETC Sensor dimmers. "If I hadn't multiplexed this show," he says, "it would have required between twelve and thirteen 96x2.4k dimmer racks. I didn't have the power to do it in a normal system configuration. By multiplexing, I got it down to eight and half racks. In addition to saving rack space, the producer saves a lot of money. Multiplexing cuts dimming requirements by 1/3 to 1/2, depending on how many fixtures can be switched to 77V lamps. The same applies to the number of cable circuits required."

The challenges didn't stop there, however; the onstage water raised a host of issues, not the least of which was the fact that it blocked access to the theatre's grid. "When I got the drawings from Bob," says Katz, "the first thing Lincoln Center wanted to know was, how do we get to the lights?" Bash Lighting Services, the PRG company that supplied the show, suggested Morpheus Flip Box truss. "It's really fantastic," says Katz. "The stagehands can get up there without any fear, because they're walking on wooden decking and there are handrails. Anybody can get to any light at any time."

Proximity to the water, whether from the pools or the rain system, necessitated certain precautions as well. "There were a lot of things we did to come into compliance with this amount of water and power," says Merryman. "I had several people working on grounding all the metal pieces that would go in the pools. I had a separate contractor come in to wire the pumps and heaters, which required additional permits. Every house circuit in the building within 12' of the water was switched over to GFCI [ground fault circuit interrupter] outlets--the sound gear as well. Steve Terry [of Production Arts, another PRG company] helped us quite a bit with what we needed to do to be in compliance. He had just done a large install at the Bellagio [the new hotel/casino/theatre in Las Vegas, which also has a large water element] and he had helped to develop dimmable GFCIs. There are [scenery] towers with electrics in them that actually land in the water, and I have these in-line dimmable GFCI circuits protecting them."

Putting all these pieces together in one space required both cunning and teamwork. "For instance," says Katz, "there are trusses that go up and down stage. When we met with Greg Meeh, I thought, he'll want the rain system to extend all the way to the rear wall. Well, he didn't, actually, because the silks would have been filled with water--he wanted to be 6' away from them. That decision allowed the truss to fit in there, and I could frontlight the silks. I knew where he wanted his rain and where those lanterns had to go. It really worked out very well."

Other elements for the design included water patterns on the silks and scenery, created by Rosco gobo rotators, MDG hazers, lightning effects created by the Dataflashes, and Howard Eaton Lighting Ltd. flicker candles. Along with the Source Fours, Katz also used some Ianiro fresnels, striplights from Lighting & Electronics, and Wybron Coloram IV scrollers. The show was controlled by the ETC Obsession 3000. In addition, Merryman says, "The rain system has its own controller, an ETC Express 125, and another 36 dimmers, which work as really fast, DMX-controllable, on-off switches; the high-pressure mist system is also on that board."

Katz points out that a number of factors resulted in a relatively smooth production. The choice of the Morpheus truss, she says, "was a turning point in the technical design of the show. I can't imagine it taking any other turn. We'd still be putting the show in." Also, she notes the importance of preparation. "From a planning point of view, everybody deserves a huge pat on the back." Merryman adds, "It was a weird load-in in general; a lot of logistics." Still, the end result seemed effortless--and provided an exciting new perspective on a stage once defamed as hopelessly unworkable.

Lighting designer Natasha Katz

Assistant lighting designer Jeffrey Whitsett

Lighting supplier Bash Lighting Services

Lighting equipment (31) ETC Source Fours 10-degree (480) ETC Source Fours 19-degree (220) ETC Source Fours 26-degree (140) ETC Source Four PARs NSP (430) ETC Source Four PARs MFL (30) Ianiro 2kW 6" fresnels (11) birdies (3) PAR 64 ACLs (2) 1kW 10" scoops (23) 6' three-way EYC ministrip 750W (87) 6' three-way EYF ministrip 750W (31) Lighting & Electronics 5' three-way six-cell T3 FHM 2kW Cyc Strips (30) barndoors for Ianiro fresnels (25) iris kits for Source Fours (31) Rosco Gobo Rotators for Source Fours (4) strobe caps for Source Fours (86) Wybron Coloram IV color scrollers for Source Fours (16) Event Systems EFX 2 Plus Cloud Machines (22) High End Systems Dataflash AF1000s (2) MDG hazers (1) ETC Obsession 3000 (7) ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW dimmer racks (3) ETC Sensor 48x2.4kW dimmer racks (2) Strand 6x6kW dimmer packs (1) uninterruptible power supply for console Morpheus Flip Box Truss system composed of: (26) 10' sections (12) 3'4" sections (8) 2'8" five-way corner blocks