Big Apple Circus: Lighting The Big Tent Atmosphere

Big Apple Circus 40th anniversary

For the 40th Anniversary season of Big Apple Circus, chairman Neil Kahanovitz brought together an incredible team of designers to infuse the circus with a new heightened design aesthetic. Directed by Mark Lonergan, the new production of the circus features production design by Rob Bissinger and Anita La Scala of ARDA Studio, with lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Check out the production design and costume design here.

Awash in deep blues and gently spinning gobos, the circus tent feels like a magical underwater wonderland. The NY skyline surrounds the live orchestra uplit by cold blue LEDs and the circus moniker in bright red.

Croiter hadn’t designed a circus before. He has been in discussion to design one previously but it hadn’t come to pass. He had, however, done a lot of research for that potential project: “In the two circuses I was researching, I saw what I would want to do,” he says. The beginning of Croiter’s involvement starts with Kahanovitz. “One day out of the blue, I got a phone call from Neil that he was buying the circus. ‘Would you be interested in working for the circus?’ he said.” Croiter was excited and was able to make the schedule work, along with Bissinger, La Scala, and Clark. It was a great new beginning for the circus for a number of reasons, in addition to the new design team. “The team from the previous year had all been laid off so they slowly started piecing a staff back together, including Jon Batz the production manager and lighting supervisor who has worked for Cirque. [Neil] convinced him and his husband Thomas Owings-Batz, the sound designer, to come back to the circus,” Croiter explains.

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Croiter himself was thrilled to be able to design the Big Apple Circus, which is inherently more theatrical than some. Lonergan wanted the new Big Apple Circus to be modern like “a walk through NYC at night.” And so Croiter wanted to create that “in our sort of circus-y way,” he says. “When you walk into the tent, it is a starlit night. It’s a vista, it’s an atmosphere.” It was important that the circus feel high-tech and exciting and not old-fashioned. Because of the single ring and the relatively static set, “the lighting pulls people through the show,” Croiter explains. “It doesn’t let the show sit. The lighting is always telling you where the action is.” It was also important to Lonergan that the audience be able to see the show. As Croiter says, “Sometimes there’s so much art going on that you can’t see the show. Don’t let art get in the way of children’s enjoyment. My response to him was we will have both. It will be artistic and also bright. It’s a brighter show than some circuses. You can see everything we want you to see, and we want you to see lots of things.” Croiter was able to use his experience with Penn & Teller to let the lighting be a tool that “prevents you from seeing things and allows you to see things. And we decide what filter we see everything through,” he explains.

Croiter worked closely with Batz to see what was possible, what had been done before, and what was necessary. “I called him to ask how lights were actually hung in the tent and he told me and showed me pictures, and he became the person I went to who would solve all my problems,” Croiter states. Batz helped to identify where the tent rigging impeded lighting positions. The single ring circus is in the round so Croiter was lighting it from all sides using three spot tours, four lighting tours, and a ring and the oculus of the tent. It was important that the acts look basically the same from every seat so Croiter was really using tricks he had learned lighting arena-style theatre.

He followed previous plans and used the Martin by Harman Mac III Performance fixture in followspot mode on each of the three spot towers. “The operators move the iris and the zoom and lamp,” explains Croiter. “The console controls color and gobo. They have a control board on the spot position. This is the second time they did the Mac III followspot.”

Croiter did make changes of course. One of the first was to replace scroller units with ETC Source Four Lustr 2 LED units. He wanted to be able to create a new look for each act. “The set had a different light for each act, with different colors, directions, textures, and different pieces that were lit. It wasn’t static,” says Croiter. “The city aspect of the set played an important role.”

Click to enlarge plot to PDF.

Croiter basically arranged the plot around systems and positions, just like he would for a play. For the cupola truss at the top of the tent, he changed the LED leko template downlight system to LED Aura units for more flexibility and more pizazz. Also from the cupola were lights for the band and six downlight Martin Mac Viper Performance moving heads for area control and deck gobo washes. Each of the masts, which function as towers, is identical in equipment but then not hung identically because of the high wire platforms. Each mast has four spot movers, six wash movers, and six LED Lekos as area light. The moving lights provide texture and tone throughout the tent. There are also mast uplights and downlights that travel inside the masts. The followspot platforms have two movers and four LED lekos each, in addition to the Mac III spots. These units also act as a kind of scenic background for other audience members, which gives life to the entire tent. There is a truss of Martin Mac Axium Hybrids, a kind of wild card system that isn’t repeated, that hangs above the cityscape to “provides the ‘flash and trash,’ aerial effects that can wash the whole ring or turn into cool pinspots,” adds Croiter. The ring curb has Elation Professional ELAR units built into it, as it has in the past.

The cityscape itself has built-in LED tape. Behind it and the band are LED wash fixtures and Mac Vipers to provide texture from upstage for the band, the ring, and the air. Christie Lites provided the bulk of the equipment; they have a long relationship with the Big Apple Circus.

Additionally, the Big Apple Circus sign was another lighting “playground,” and it was a big surprise to Croiter. “It did many things, none of which we knew of when it arrived,” he says. “We spec’d a sign that lit up, and it was the last thing designed and built, and it showed up and just didn’t work.” When the sign first arrived, it wasn’t controllable by a lighting console. That’s when PRG stepped in to create something that could be used in the circus. When it arrived, “The sign itself was a collection of addresses that we couldn’t change so though I had control over aspects of what the sign did, I couldn’t make the letters chase but I could make these squiggly things. I had no expectations. We knew it would be LED. But what we ended up with accidentally was more interesting.”

One of the challenges of the circus is that there isn’t a lot of room for changes. “Once it’s up, it’s not changing,” says Croiter. “In our schedule and the way the rig is built, it’s very difficult to change.” One of the big changes that Croiter did make mid-process was in the house lights. “I changed the entire concept of the house lights. I did what they had done in the past for house lights, but they ended up being kind of invasive. We ended up moving them to the ring in the move to Lincoln Center. I did not use a lot of conventionals, so they got repurposed as house lights.”

The team teched the show in New Jersey while the New York tent was being loaded into Lincoln Center. Croiter worked overnights with programmer Sean Beach to create the look and feel of the show. They began programming on an ETC Eos console but had to switch to an Eos Ti due to the dirt, wet, and weather. The circus tent is really “unforgiving to equipment,” adds Croiter. “It’s just disgusting. The equipment takes a beating.”

Click to enlarge plot to PDF.

As with the other design elements, circus performances require a lot of communication between the performers and the lighting designer, especially in matters of safety and tricks.

The Flying Wallenda high wire act “posed a giant problem because their platforms took up so much space on the masts,” Croiter states. “They hadn’t done high wire acts diagonally across before.” When they did tech the act, Croiter started with one look. The performers tried it and asked for more light, and then Croiter asked if he could do even more: “So we were able to put nuance into it also. For something that’s so aggressively lit, there’s a lot of nuance in it.”

The flying act was of course also very dangerous. “If there’s light in the catcher’s eyes, then it’s dangerous,” says Croiter. Even during tech, “You are on the edge of your seat at the lighting table at every moment. If I say the wrong thing or the wrong button gets pressed, it could plunge the tent into darkness. There is a safety factor that kind of trumps everything else.” But Croiter also benefitted from collaboration with the performers: “The performers were so into lighting as a part of the art,” he adds. “Every act really cared so much about how they looked and that I was a contributor.”

The tech schedule was such that it meant they teched the acts out of order. Sometimes that meant that it was later in the process that Croiter and his team could really see the full scope. One day, deep into previews, Lonergan said to Croiter, “I think you should rethink how the dog act is lit.” Croiter agreed, explaining, “It felt like the only one without a real point of view. We skipped it in tech. The dogs weren’t there for tech. The rest of the show was fairly complicated, and the dog act just looked like ‘you turned the lights on.’ I never went back to it until it was pointed out to me.”

Croiter, Bissinger, La Scala, and Clark worked together closely to create a sophisticated and clean new look to the classic circus. New York City is lucky to have its circus back home and to be able to share it with the rest of the country.

Natalie Robin is a NY and Philly-based lighting designer. Natalie is currently the Head of Theater Design & Technology in the Ira Brind School of Theater Arts at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Natalie is also the Associate Producer and a founding company member of Polybe + Seats, an Associate Artist of Target Margin Theater and a proud member of USA 829.

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