Dancing At Fela’s Shrine

Political activist and musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (1938-1997) is the central figure in Fela!, the Broadway musical based on Kuti’s Afrobeat music and directed/choreographed by Bill T. Jones, who won a 2007 Tony for his choreography of Spring Awakening. Jones turned to designers he worked with in the past, with sets/costumes by Marina Draghici, lighting by Robert Wierzel, and projections by Peter Nigrini. Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz completed the team.

Fela! takes the audience into the underworld of Nigerian politics and pulsating music at Fela’s famous club in Lagos, The Shrine, which was eventually burned down by the police. The musical was developed in workshops for a successful run Off Broadway at 37 Arts, before settling in at the 1925 Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where the sets extend past the proscenium to envelop the audience in an immersive surround of color, projections, and music.

Setting The Stage
Fela! tells a story through movement,” says Draghici, who began working on the project during the low-budget workshops. “It’s been quite a journey. I knew Fela’s music but not his story. I did research by looking at documentaries and reading books, and was amazed to find a person so much larger than life.” The question Draghici and Jones confronted, according to Draghici, was “how much of Africa do we put on stage yet not create a museum.” Another requirement was an open stage to accommodate the almost non-stop movement.

At 37 Arts, the architecture required the walls to be covered with treatment to improve the sound, which led to the scenic environment stretching out into the house, a design element retained when the show moved. “The challenge on Broadway is a beautiful turn-of-the-century theatre that is very present,” says Draghici. “How far could we go in transforming it, as every hole you drill needs to be restored?”

Draghici says that, from the beginning, the creative team didn’t want to reproduce anything, but rather absorb the visual information from the films and album covers, “yet create a visual language that is vibrant and contemporary, rather than too 1970s.” As a result, the set includes symbols, masks, newspaper clippings, and portraits of people that Fela admired or based on items from The Shrine or Nigerian religion and art. These objects and images are mounted on a variety of supports that do double-duty as projection surfaces.

“The goal was to create a set with some areas that are less busy yet not use traditional projection screens,” says Draghici. “The back wall has what could be Cy Twombly or Klee line drawings with the flavor of graffiti that can be projected on. We wanted people to walk into the theatre and think, ‘This is different and unusual, and will be enjoyable.’” On stage, Afrobeat musicians from Brooklyn-based collective Antibalas play as the audience enters the theatre, promoting the club environment and adding a sense of anticipation prior to the show.

For the sidewalls, Draghici and Nigrini worked together to select sizes and shapes, with no real delineation between the art and projection surfaces. One example is a portrait of Fela’s mother—a very important figure in his life—whose head moves via projection. “We took a photograph of the actress and printed it on a scrim, and then painted around the edges to make it blend with the set,” Draghici says. “When her face is rear-projected in different positions on the less opaque portion of the scrim, it looks as if it is moving.”

Going Gritty
For lighting designer Wierzel, Fela! represents the culmination of 25 years of collaboration with the choreographer. “He is such an intellectual—well-read and of the world,” says Wierzel of Jones, adding that each piece Jones creates happens over time and often has projected text or written information, making the work more rich and interesting.
In 2007, Jones asked Wierzel to see a workshop for Fela!, at which time the script was being developed around the music and the movement vocabulary. “The music is so sensual, with a political and social sense, and you can’t help moving to it,” says Wierzel, who added the lighting for the final workshops and Off Broadway production and then translated his designs for the Broadway version.

“The job of the designers was to transfer the club feeling from Off Broadway,” says Wierzel. “The challenge with the lighting rig was how to keep it down and dirty, with the sensuality of a gritty 1970s club, in a classical Broadway theatre. We wanted to do it as Fela would have done it, but refined and reinterpreted for Broadway, as well as amped up and extended to what we expect today. We also wanted to pull the energy from the stage out into the house. I think we were successful in keeping the energy and intent in a larger volume. There is still the same grit as well as finesse and flash.”

The lighting gives a brief nod to the kind of look Fela’s club would have had in the 1970s. “We start there and then quickly move on,” says Wierzel, whose design uses pools of light, moving lights, and festoons of colored light bulbs to add to the ambiance. He also had to overcome the challenge that the theatre’s box boom positions are covered with scenery. To add positions for lighting, as well as for sound and projection, a large rectangular truss was added over the house. “You sense it, and it creates a concert feel, but it is not present in your experience of the event,” says Wierzel. There is also a pipe under the balcony, as well as trussing and lights, in keeping with the scenery on the sides of the auditorium, bringing as much lighting into the house as there is on stage.

Hudson Scenic provided scenery, and PRG supplied lighting, including the PRG V676™ console making its Broadway debut. “The undulating rhythms of Fela’s music required complex multipart cues with multiple effects running at the same time,” says Wierzel. “The show is effects-heavy, and throughout tech, we certainly put the V676 effects package through its paces; the console reliably and easily allowed us to work with agility throughout a short tech period.” Timothy Rogers served as automated lighting programmer.

“As I think about the lighting color sense in Fela!, words like gritty, dirty, sensual, sultry, hot, and bold come to mind,” says Wierzel. “I tried to respond to the movement and the music, to find a beauty in the light that was not classically informed. I wanted to be free of any preconceptions and tried to speak from my messy, emotional self, and not always from my thinking, rational self.”

In spite of the 1970s setting, Wierzel uses modern lighting fixtures that have the capacity to change color, refocus to different positions, change intensity, and flash on and off. “This gives me the potential to quickly transform the space and décor,” he says. “In addition, I added color-changing architectural LED fixtures to the orchestra and anteroom walls, thus wrapping the entire room in color. I have supplemented the house lighting with strings of small, clear bulbs reminiscent of a space in transition. Hopefully, it all feels effortless.”

As the audience walks into the theatre, it is entering Fela’s club. “It is smoky, dark, and rich with color and energy,” adds Wierzel. “The senses are gently assaulted with lush imagery. Pools of light slowly pan across the space. You notice interesting banners, hangings, and posters throughout the environment. There is an expectation of something about to happen. The room seems to breathe. What was just a theatre now has transformed into something wonderful and hopefully will be a new, enriching, vivid, and exciting experience for all.”

For Wierzel, the challenge was creating an environment beyond the stage and embracing the entire theatre as a down-and-dirty club. “I hope to create a mood with light that transports us out of present time and space,” he says. “In most clubs or concert halls, there is little separation between the stage and the audience; it all feels like one space. Fela’s club should be a space that is handmade, rough-and-ready in its appearance and feel. However, it should also feel of the moment, of today. To accomplish this, we’re employing a contemporary concert performance-styled lighting vocabulary as a basis for the visual language. This idea will be processed with a nod to the late 1970s, without being subservient to the period, using colorful, kinetic, and dynamic lighting to enhance the music and staging. For me, this means using what our current technology provides and using it, hopefully, with intelligence and purpose.”

The mix of fixtures in the rig allowed Wierzel to try to find the right light for the idea. “Having the ability to morph color was an important consideration,” he says. “Also finding a fixture that could move quickly was important.” Most of the rig is Philips Vari-Lite equipment—VL3500 Spot and Wash units, VL2500 Wash units, VL2000 Spot units, and VL5s.

Wierzel’s lighting assists in bringing Fela! out into the theatre. “In most shows, the experience one has is directed and focused toward the stage,” he says. “The event does not begin until the house lights go out, and the curtain goes up. In Fela!, the artistic collaborators wanted to go further. We wanted to transform the theatre space into something else—taking this theatre and making it into Fela’s club. We asked ourselves the question, “What would Fela and his people do if they found themselves with this theatre space as the only place for their club?’ I think they would make it their own, with a vengeance, in whatever way they could.”

Next Page: Projecting Fela’s World

Projecting Fela’s World
Nigrini, who collaborated with Jones and Wierzel on Blind Date in 2005, notes that, like the other creative elements, the projections developed throughout the workshop process, morphing from a single projector at the back of the house to a 12-projector setup and finally to the sophisticated 14-projector rig now on Broadway.

To create the cascade of images, Nigrini used Fela’s album covers as a rich aesthetic resource, but notes, “We evolved past those actual images, but they led to our use of newspaper headlines and color—every color—as there is a riot of color on the albums. I put images up as they were rehearsing. The process was not as deliberate or structured as building a more traditional Broadway show but more organic and improvisational.”

By the time the show got to Broadway, the 12 projectors had increased to 14 brighter ones, ranging from 1,500 to 21,000 lumens. “Some of the projectors serve a 3'x5' patch of the set while others cover an entire wall, as well as the two-story LED and incandescent light box upstage,” says Nigrini. “The entire upstage wall is white, corrugated fiberglass, painted and treated—dry-brushed with fire retardant—for a white chalky finish. It is translucent yet accepts projections nicely. This is the primary projection surface—one of 14—and by far the largest, served by two Digital Projection Lightning 40isx+ 21,000-lumen projectors. The mix of lighting and projections is what’s exciting; it adds depth. The best compliment we’ve received is that some of our colleagues couldn’t tell the boundary between the two.”

The projection surfaces range from corrugated plastic and steel to banners, fabric, and one RP screen (for Fela’s mother’s portrait). Other than that one screen, the show has all front-projection. “You see where the projection comes from, like light falling on a surface. I like the honesty of it,” Nigrini adds.

UnitedVisualArtists d3 Show Production Suite serves as Nigrini’s visualization and playback system, marking the product’s first large-scale Broadway show. “The challenge was how to make it work with 14 channels of high-resolution video, and UVA worked on updating the software throughout the process,” says Nigrini, noting that there are four channels of video on stage and 10 in the house. “There was no place in the theatre where I could see the entire system, with projections under the balcony, in the balcony, on the stage, and in the side boxes,” he adds. Sound Associates provided the video package along with the show’s sound gear.

“We can also swap out content, depending on which actor is in the show. The media needs to rotate along with the cast, since there are two Felas and numerous chorus swings that appear in a documentary interview and other parts of the show,” says Nigrini, who uses a mix of video, animation, and still images including text and lyrics from some of the songs. “Perhaps my favorite moment is at the end of the show, when Fela’s mother is finally on stage, and the halo around her slowly grows to envelop the entire theatre, spreading from channel to channel and using all the projectors in a simple, beautiful effect.”

Afrobeat Sound
“Fela used music as a means to try to change his world and his country,” says Kaplowitz, who realized that his sound design had to walk a fine line between the gritty sound of a club and theatrical storytelling in a particular kind of English. While creating surround sound to encircle the audience in the event, Kaplowitz also wanted to enhance the storytelling by making sure the sound appears to come from the actors. “Psychologically, if the sound from each loudspeaker reaches the audience two to four milliseconds beyond normal time delay, your brain thinks the sound is coming from the actor and not the loudspeaker,” he says, referring to the theory of the Haas effect espoused by Helmut Haas in the 1940s.

Setting the time delay by placing a speaker on a stand on stage and aligning it to every speaker in the house, using a matrix with 15 inputs by 80 outputs, Kaplowitz reports, “I found that what science tells us is not what the psychoacoustics told me. What was unusual in Fela! was aligning the system to 15 places in the room to allow the sound in the surround to sound like it is always coming from a specific source. The idea is to create a full-embracing surround sound to sweep the audience into the music yet still localize the source on stage.”

Kaplowitz opted for a Yamaha PM1D console for both its price and number of outputs for his needs, with Yamaha DMEs as the “brain” providing the digital sound processing to create the delay matrix. “The speakers were dictated by the quality of the sound we wanted,” he notes, adding that, for the big club sound for the band, he chose tri-amplified EAW KS695s for both power and clarity. “These are some of EAW’s older speakers, and I like their warmth,” Kaplowitz explains. “They have a little less of a high-tech sound, which is good for this kind of music.”

For the vocal system, d&b audiotechnik Q-Series speakers provide what the sound designer refers to as “an ideal combination of control, coverage, and truth to the human voice in their sound quality. The goal, when creating an intimate relationship between the actor and the audience, is to have the speaker disappear and become simply the voice.” A challenge in Fela! is the vocal and rhythmic difference for each of the two actors who play the title character, each requiring his own EQ and compression settings.

“We want the audience to take away a sense of having been transported to another place and share in the ecstatic joy that Fela took in his music and the danger he flirted with in making it,” says Kaplowitz. “Fela changed his middle name to ‘he who carries death in his pouch,’ as if he were saying, ‘You can kill my body, but you can’t kill my music. My music is my weapon for survival. Every time someone plays my music, I am alive.’ Working with Bill T. Jones and this incredible Afrobeat band from Brooklyn, this has been one of the most exciting collaborations of my life.”

In mid-March, it was announced that Fela! will open next November at the National Theatre in London (one assumes as a precursor to a run in the West End). As Draghici sees it, “This is quite a success story for a little workshop with no budget that has developed into an international success.”

Attendees of the Broadway Lighting Master Classes will see a performance of Fela! on May 25 and attend a panel discussion with the designers at Sardi’s on May 27. For more information, visit www.livedesignonline.com/masterclasses.

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