Raising Titanic: Paul Gallo and his design team position the ship for its Broadway berth

Disaster, the word most commonly associated with the Titanic sinking, could not have been far from Paul Gallo's mind when he signed aboard to work on the musical version of one of the world's best-known tragedies, which opened on Broadway last April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Commencing work on such a highly publicized undertaking as Titanic was daunting enough, but for Gallo and his design team of associates David Weiner and Vivien Leone, there was the additional pressure of coming to the project late, after the original design team departed.

The first thing that struck Gallo was the "brilliance" of Stewart Laing's set design--"What a great new way of doing something." The second was the difficulties in lighting it. For most of the show the set is a cross-section view of one or more of the various Titanic decks which, to say the least, takes up a great deal of space, and presented the designers with the basic question of where to place the lights for the many scenes. Plus, much of the set had already been built before Gallo arrived.

Weiner, who has worked with Gallo since interning for him in 1992, describes the first couple of weeks of working on Titanic as being more about maneuvering around the set than actually designing. "A lot of time was spent negotiating the space with the other people who cared about it. We went back and forth and said, 'Well, we really need to get an electric in there, so we need you to change this or adjust this.' Or the masking had to go off a little further. We weren't dealing with the lighting at all; we were getting what we needed to then implement the ideas we came up with."

The solution was found in the process, notes Gallo, which "was a matter of being very clinical--every moment was taken apart like it was a movie scene." The process of lighting Titanic was to design each scene almost independently of the others. This required a different set of focuses in each scene with only occasional repetitions, and resulted in lighting looks which seamlessly transformed from scene to scene.

This way of working contributed not only to the technical process but to the emotional effect as well. Gallo continues, "The whole feel of it was to be pure, non-emotional, a very pale palette, very controlled. It freed us; we didn't need a lot of instruments for each scene. In fact, if we analyzed the number of instruments used for each scene I bet we come down to 20 units." Though Gallo emphasizes that he hasn't broken down the maximum and minimum numbers of lights used in each scene, it is interesting to note that overall there are approximately 700 conventional units, 150 striplights, and about 30 High End Studio Color(R) automated wash luminaires and 30 High End Cyberlights(R).

Weiner adds that "the Studio Colors are fabulous at providing subtlety and power. Paul also allowed the scenery to speak for itself. We never add a layer to it particularly; the purple drop, for example, gets a purple treatment."

But there were definite changes that Gallo and company needed to make, and working with technical supervisor Gene O'Donovan of Aurora Productions, one of the biggest alterations was made to the captain's bridge at the top of the set. O'Donovan recalls that "it was originally not a lighting position, but it became the major lighting position of the show. The bottom of the bridge is now filled with Studio Colors, Cyberlights, and various other focusing instruments. And the inside of the bridge is this kind of big box with a little window, which is its own little self-contained scene with lighting instruments, a lighting pipe up above, and booms on the side. The piece that I thought would weigh somewhere in the 6lb range was now almost 7lb. As they're adding lights to it, I'm adding steel to the roof of the building to support it."

O'Donovan says the extra effort was well worth it, "because I really don't know what Gallo and Weiner, who were great, would have done without that concept. For them every day was a crisis, because they were under the gun, and I had scenery already built that they really needed to change. And there was always the budget to consider."

The design team worked with Scenic Technologies New York, which built and painted the scenery, in reconfiguring the bridge. O'Donovan explains that putting the lighting under the bridge "set back its construction for a couple of weeks. We put the bottom of the bridge on hold for a while as we came up with a new concept, then went back and reengineered it."

The set presented other difficulties, especially in relation to where the electrics would be placed. The scenery takes up the first 8' (2.4m) of the stage, so there is no traditional No. 1 electric. What became the No. 1 electric was placed in the show portal, which as O'Donovan notes, "was not a great position, and the next available position was approximately 13' (4m) upstage." They also placed a Vari*Lite position in the show's portal, which O'Donovan says, "wasn't planned to be there before. We found ourselves negotiating over inches. They needed to get the best shot they could. Ihad a piece of scenery that's literally a half-inch from the place they wanted to be. We did a lot of negotiating, but Paul knows exactly what he can get away with and what he can't, so there was never an unrealistic request from him."

As for side lighting, O'Donovan laughs that "they [Gallo and Weiner] literally stuck a light wherever they could--and Weiner's a genius at that." Units were placed stage left and right on ladders, and O'Donovan explains that some sidelight "gets rolled in and out of place."

The scenes that take place in the smallest setting, the 7'x15' (2.1x5m) radio room, are essentially lit by one 2k Bambino fresnel and 15 MR-16 birdies. For Gallo and Weiner these scenes illustrate nicely the way Titanic was lit. Gallo explains: "I think where we were successful artistically was that when we came to light a scene, we kept it simple. If we could do it with one light, we'd have one light on. And I would quite often light the scene in a very strange way. Instead of building it, I'd prelight it. There were only three or four outlets per scene, and I'd turn them all on full and raise the curtain. It was a wonderful feeling because you actually get to see it, first time, with no work. Boom--there. And you have a visceral reaction, then you cut this or add this. It didn't take long to light the show. But it took hours mechanically to work it out, and hours to work it out in the theatre as well." Weiner adds that it is the Bambino fresnel the audience sees hitting the radio room wall, but that alone did not solve the problem of lighting the scene fully, which is why the 15 birdies, "focused very specifically," were required. He also notes that it is up to the actors to work with the birdies and make the scene come alive.

Despite the great number of moving lights employed, they are not used for an especially "spectacular" look. "People have come back to me and said, 'But I didn't see any moving lights,' " Gallo says. "Yes, well, we didn't use them so that we could move them around. We were very restrained about that." Indeed, Weiner cites just one instance where a Vari*Lite shifts position. "And you wouldn't know it--it's not like rock-and-roll lighting. In the very last scene, the actors are all lined up and singing the last chorus before we reveal a scene from the past behind it. An actor picks up the model of the ship at the very last moment, and one Vari*Lite gently rolls over about 2' (61cm) to cover him. It makes that 2' move in about 20 seconds."

Although restrained in their use and subtle in effect, the moving lights still required meticulous attention from the design team when it came to tracking the lights' placement and projection. This responsibility fell to Leone, followspot supervisor Paul Miller, and moving light programmer Paul Sonnleitner who assisted Gallo in quickly being able to assess where the lights were hanging and where they were focused. "Vivien's system marked which lights would do what job," Weiner says. "There was a computer monitor at the tech table that had a display on it that was split into an upper and a lower half. The upper half had a picture of where the moving lights sat on the electrics; underneath was the ground plan. As we would tech, we would set those choices that we had made in the studio into motion. Vivien would drag the icon for the lamp off the pipe on the upper half and distribute it to where it ended up being focused on the actual ground plan for that particular scene." With this system the stage manager can easily maintain the show, since the sheets can be easily referenced if any questions arise as to where the light should be hitting.

Despite some lukewarm reviews in the beginning, Titanic ultimately won the 1997 Tony award for best musical and has proven quite seaworthy at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. For Gallo the show was not only far from a disaster but "one of the best experiences I've ever had. Stewart and company really worked together and made tremendous changes for us." He says that for him "people giving and taking" is ultimately what Titanic is about. "When all is said and done, the show is not about the ship--it's about how people felt about the ship and about their stories that are told during its ill-fated voyage."

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