It’s hip, it’s hot, it’s happening. It’s Freestyle Love Supreme, Broadway’s hip-hop musical brought to you by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail of Hamilton fame, along with Anthony Veneziale. It’s an evening of improvised rap, partly based on words tossed by the audience to the cast, which includes guest stars such as Miranda himself. Lighting designer Jeff Croiter chats with Live Design about his experience lighting this unconventional musical that took 15 years to find its way to Broadway.
Live Design: What is the design concept for the show overall, and lighting in specific?
Jeff Croiter: The Broadway production of Freestyle Love Supreme is my fourth iteration designing the show; none of the others had the same design. The current one resembles last year’s off-Broadway run but is still different in many ways. Off-Broadway, The Greenwich House Theatre has large, arched, blacked out windows that surround the audience; the idea for the set design was to bring that architectural element to the stage, so that the audience and performers felt like they were in the same room. Instead of several, we created one large window that functioned as the background of the show: in essence, a giant light box. We extended that background by adding lighting goal posts with several rungs of lights hung diagonally between the window and the proscenium. Using the light box and the lights on the goal posts, we had the flexibility to drastically change the look at any point, for example, switching from traditional theatre cueing to dynamic rock show lighting.
We also sought to light the entire theatre in the same stylized way as the stage—that way the audience could feel, from the beginning, like they were in the same space as the performers: an informal club/party atmosphere.
As we began to discuss the Broadway set, it was clear that the onstage window concept would not translate since it was specifically designed for a different space. Once we knew we had the Booth Theatre, we all met there to discuss the design. In sticking with the idea of "everyone being in the same room," set designer Beowulf Boritt began looking at what aspect of the theatre architecture could be reproduced this time. Of course, the first thing that I noticed was that this theatre has no giant windows. I still felt that a light-up background was important, however. Beowulf had a few ideas about how the wood paneling of the Booth could be extended to the stage, and also be a dynamic lighting background. After he presented a couple of versions, all of which were exciting, I woke up one morning to an email from him that he'd sent in the middle of the night, asking what I thought about the back wall of the set looking like a solid architectural wall but actually being translucent. Brilliant idea. He then set out to determine how we could achieve that effect, and we met to look at materials, then again at the shop to make sure it would actually work.
It was also important to me to keep the atmosphere of the walk-in that we'd achieved downtown— a more difficult task in a large theatre. Most of the lights we hung on the box booms and balcony rail are focused as house lighting. We created a new lighting position at the back of the orchestra section in order to light the seating from behind.
LD: How do you design for a show that has no set script or cast?
JC: The first time I worked with FLS, many years ago, the lighting was 20% set and 80% busked. Years after that first production, I designed another improv musical and developed a better vocabulary for improv lighting. We began tech for FLS with the goal of setting a little more but still keeping things fluid, but as we started lighting, director Tommy Kail and I realized that we could set even more than we'd anticipated. The final version is now closer to 80% set and 20% busked. Even though there is no set script or cast, there are sections or songs that have their own rules and lighting approach. Three out of the five songs have structure. What the performers say is different every night but there are parameters; lighting uses those parameters. Be it counts of music before a lighting shift, where a performer stands in a pool of light, or when the atmosphere is heightened…those and similar aspects are preprogrammed and set.
LD: What's in your rig, and what are the lighting positions?
JC: The lighting rig consists of Claypaky Mythos, Martin by Harman MAC Auras, Martin MAC Encores, Altman Spectra pars, ETC Lustrs, and a variety of LED pars and Source Four pars for audience lighting. The background is lit using layers of Chroma-Q ColorForce I and ColorForce II.
Part of the set design is a ceiling of lights above the stage. I chose Altman Spectra Pars to fill mix with the moving lights because they could change color and still look like a conventional fixture, as opposed to having LED diodes, which I find hard to look at over the course of an evening. Probably nobody notices, but they are laid out in the same forced perspective as the walls of the set.
There are tail downs and booms onstage that recreate something similar to the goal posts of off-Broadway but also look like they belong in the room. In front of house, we have a booth pipe, truss, box booms, balcony rail, and the added pipe at the back of house.
LD: What are your workhorse lighting fixtures, and how are you using them?
JC: Each section purposely uses equipment differently. "Pet Peeves" is heavily Mythos; "True" is more Aura. "Second Chance" (the first busked section) uses the Auras to locate and the Mythos for fast forward and rewind motion. "A Day in the Life" (second busk section) uses Mythos to make gobos that change based on the story being told (leaves for a park, etc.). The opening number uses everything. The lighting on the cyc/wall changes color and shape throughout.
LD: How does the color in the light carry the emotions of the rap and hip-hop mood?
JC: Color is important to me, no matter what the show. For this in particular, color plays an important role in creating contrast, setting atmosphere, adding excitement, telling a story, abstracting a moment, and heightening the space.
LD: Who is the board op, what is the console, and is this a hard show to run given the variables?
JC: The console is ETC Eos with several customized magic sheets. The sections of the show with improved lighting are run using touchscreens and submasters; not the way a Broadway show is customarily operated. Sean Beach built the original magic sheet/touchscreen layout and programmed off-Broadway. Zak Al-Alami programmed for Broadway. Andrew Garvis is a young lighting designer with some programming experience, and has assisted me on prior projects. He also knows equipment and is good with technology. He joined the FLS team off-Broadway, did the Kennedy Center run, and is with us for Broadway.
As previously noted, a large part of the lighting is not improvised and is specifically cued and called by a stage manager as any normal show would be. The three sections that are set run the same cues every night. "Second Chance" is partly lighting improvised using lighting changes that are more about geography and color, with markers that have to be met throughout. What happens in between can vary, but does not have to. "A Day in the Life" has different lighting every night. Yet, even though the story changes, the arc is similar enough for the lighting to have a beginning, middle, and end. Andrew builds the looks from one base cue, follows the performers and changes the lighting as they tell the story. It is based on an audience interview right before so he knows the possibilities and parameters, but not what will actually happen. The performers are in the same boat. They work off each other, and Andrew off them.
There are around a hundred prebuilt cues that he can use, or build as he goes, adding effects as needed. There is a combination of all on any given night.
There is also a follow spot, operated by Michael Taylor, who has free rein in the improved sections to highlight certain actions.
Get an in-depth look into the lighting design for Freestyle Love Supreme, during this webcast with Croiter, on Tuesday, December 17. Register for free now!
- Lighting Designer: Jeff Croiter
- Associate Lighting Designer: Jon Goldman
- Assistant Lighting Designer: Margaret Peebles
- Programmer Zak Al-Alami
- Lighting Busker: Andrew Garvis
- Additional programming: Sean Beach
- Production Electrician: Jimmy Maloney
- Head Electrician: Carlos Martinez,
- Assistant Electrician/Followspot Operator Michael Taylor. Lighting Package by PRG