Last fall, when Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) offered me its touring children's show, I was a bit hesitant to sign on. For a young designer who relishes the freelance life to sit on a single show for six weeks seemed to be a dismal fate at a time of year when there are plentiful shows being offered. Most years, BLO pulls the old production out of the warehouse, dusts it off, and sends it on the road. This year, however, with Humperdinck's classic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel on the slate, the company sweetened the deal by promising a redesign of the production.
I had no illusions about the challenge this show would present. Rather than view it as a restriction, though, I saw it as an opportunity to work on an idea I had to restructure the method of lighting the tour. Given the dynamic nature of the scenes in Hansel and Gretel that play throughout a full day cycle in many different interior and exterior locations, I knew that this daunting show would require all the tricks in my bag. As a production team, we set about achieving the primary goal of contrasting the cold and difficult lives of Hansel and Gretel with the wonder, amazement, and magic in the world they encounter when they walk into the forest.
This tour was a typical children's show, except that BLO has kept it small, and it was only on the road for four or five weeks. As in any touring children's show, a large part of the challenge is creating a design that can be fulfilled successfully in a vast number of incredibly different spaces. Some days were spent at local colleges with excellent spaces and solid rep plots. Other performances, however, happened at high schools with equipment that predated me. The result was that, at load in, I designed a kind of plot that could be put in the air with minimal legwork but still fulfill all the design requirements.
Daniel Black, my electrician, usually works off my magic sheet rather than a plot, so that he focuses on achieving design ideas rather than any specific instrumentation. For the sanity of the crew, we attempted to keep the setup time to less than four hours. We do travel with a small lighting package but only enough to lightly augment rep plots we encounter or to be used as a basic standalone system.
Knowing the constraints of the tour and the significance of the challenge, I decided it was time to bring our small production into the 21st century by bringing new gear on board. In the past, the tour traveled with a modest package of predominantly ETC Source Four PARs and ellipsoidals powered from Electrol Engineering Anaconda or Leprecon dimmer packs. Although a fairly typical setup for such a tour, it is by no means ideal, considering the time and power limitations we continually faced. Finding power, especially in the smaller spaces, has always been an issue, and we have always found ourselves laden with large amounts of cable to make those crazy power runs to the classroom down the hall.
It was obvious that moving to a package utilizing LED technology was the most effective solution for our lighting rig. Less cable, much lower power usage, and color-changing all promised to satisfy my design and logistical desires. To achieve the ideal rig, I would need few units, a tiny amount of cable, and have all the versatility I wanted.
So I set out to create a kind of dream rig for just such small tours. I pitched the idea to BLO production manager Michael Patterson, who, as a former lighting designer, instantly saw the advantages. With his blessing, I went to the rental manager at our shop, High Output, to see what exactly we could do. The one major flaw in my plan was that this technology is still fairly new, and the serious LED PARs made for theatrical functions are just starting to find their way into Boston. Unfortunately, despite the shop having ordered a large quantity for its rental fleet, the manufacturer backlog dictated that we were not likely to see them before the tour got underway. After exhausting nearly all options, we found ourselves about to go into production without a way to make my dream rig a reality.
In the end, as with many such dreams, you go with what you have and make it work. In the architectural and production world, Philips Solid-State Lighting Solutions ColorBlasts have been around long enough and in enough quantity that I knew I could get these from the shop but resisted doing so for this theatrical application because of their limited color mixing and narrow beam angle. I decided to find a way to work with them because I knew that color changers of any kind would be an asset to the show. So I went for it.
In the end, I mostly got my way with what turned out to be a slick and tight rig that could be run on as few as six 20A circuits. The rig contained 20 ColorBlasts, some lighting the backdrop and a portal, and others fulfilling the roll of providing a crosslight system from both sides. To solve the problem of the beam angles, I doubled these up to get the necessary coverage. The conventionals in the plot were few and came from theatre rep plots as often as possible. Frontlight and backlight were the main staples, which also would have been LEDs had they been available. A two-color PAR back wash and an ellipsoidal front wash were perfectly adequate.
In addition, several units with templates from both sides provided the texture and keylight for many of the scenes, allowing me to use the color changers as fill light, highlights, and special effects. Aside from backlight and frontlight, nearly every conventional had a template to create everything from the dirty house to the witch's lair to the spooky woods at sunset, sunrise, in moonlight, and much more. The fill from the ColorBlasts allowed for seamless color fades, such as changes in time of day and shifts in music and mood during arias. The ColorBlasts were also indispensable for small effects, such as quick flashes of light during instances of the witch conjuring magic and filling the space with the light of the fire when the witch gets thrown into the oven.
Other tools used included footlights for the witch's big number when she plots her destruction of the children. The witch also used two “magic” thumbs that fit over her thumbs and had built-in red LEDs for creating an effect. The night scene where the angels visit the sleeping children employed two Wildfire blacklights that popped out UV blacklight paint in the angels' highlights and whites of their eyes. A battery-powered single LED on a stick provided a shooting star streaking across the sky. The character of the Dew Fairy was presented as a Japanese-style Bunraku puppet that was also lined with battery-powered LEDs giving it a magical and ephemeral glow.
Considering they were not intended for theatrical use, the ColorBlasts provided an excellent element to the show. At times, they simply added some color highlights or fill here and there. They did lack the punch I really wanted, and especially in a scene where the LED crosslight played a major role, I never quite got the sharp, highlighting sidelight I would have liked, but because I keyed off the template units so much, this was only a minor issue.
On the cyc and portal, the ColorBlasts were essential, and the color saturation was spectacular at punching the painted pieces. Overall intensity was an issue, but because of how I was using the units, the limited number of achievable colors was not a real problem. If I had used these as frontlight and backlight as I originally wanted, I fear I would have been hindered.
Overall, the responsiveness of the lamps was another benefit of the LED fixtures, and they ended up being invaluable for the many bumps and color changes in the show. Lacking any kind of zoom was a killer for the variety of throws we needed, but again, they weren't intended for this purpose, and really, despite any shortcomings, all the tools in my bag made for a beautiful, engaging, and magical show.
The range of color alone added a level of variety that would be unobtainable with traditional fixtures. Take, for example, the colors used on the backdrop that would not be obtainable with traditional cyc fixtures, considering typical power limitations. This conservation of power allowed for much less cable, fewer lighting cases, less tech time, and more lights for specials. The resulting rig is simple, tight, clean, and easy to put up and take down. The design is also far more dynamic and magical than any design achievable with an equivalent number of conventionals.
A tour like this is just more proof of the shift the lighting industry is taking toward efficiency. The effectiveness of the resulting design is simply not obtainable by the old ways of doing things. With any luck, it won't be long before every designer will have his or her dream plot for these projects that challenge both our creativity and technical ingenuity.