Designing Couples: Lucy Mackinnon and Ben Stanton

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(Joan Marcus) The Rose Tattoo

A married couple with two young children, projection designer Lucy Mackinnon and lighting designer Ben Stanton frequently design shows in tandem. With several Broadway shows under their collective belt, this designing duo first collaborated in Washington, D.C. and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, as well as at regional theatres and off-Broadway. Their credits include Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, starring Marisa Tomei. Live Design chats with Mackinnon and Stanton on their work on this recent revival, which premiered at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 2016 and was seen at Roundabout Theatre Company in the fall of 2019.

Live Design: How do you design a revival? What kind of research do you do?

Lucy Mackinnon: I researched the show and read the play and its backstory. Obviously Tennessee Williams did not imagine his play would be staged with video in it, so when I began thinking about how I could contribute, I felt free to respond to the text and the set, and not pay much attention to past productions. The play is about a woman who is inactive after the death of her husband, who stays in her house, locks her child inside, and builds a life centered around an urn and a Madonna figure. I knew that the video design had to underscored stasis. It couldn’t be busy, couldn't change much, but had to be moving and beautiful. 

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LD: How do you evoke the period feel of the play in the projections?

LM: I am not sure that the video design evokes a period-feel. Through color and scale, the projections help stylize an intensely romantic play in a somewhat surreal way, but they are not meant to be "period." The footage I shot and bought was heavily edited with color filters and many, many adjustment layers, but my intention was to make a video design that looked untreated. 

LD: Technology for content creation and playback?

LM: I shot all the video for the show on a RED Camera and edited the footage in DaVinci Resolve and After Effects. We programmed the show on Dataton Watchout. The LED walls we installed on Broadway were made up of Unilumin 3.9mm tiles. We had three screens measuring roughly 18' x 10', 55' x 10', and 18' x 10' for a total of 336 500mm tiles. We hung the screens without mounting bars, tying them directly to aircraft cables so that they had a clean, minimalistic look to them.

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LD: Overall content creation from an artistic angle?

LM: The projected imagery is pretty consistent throughout The Rose Tattoo. I project panoramic views of the ocean, which stretch around the stage on three sides. The ocean is constantly in motion, as are the skies. Along with lighting, video tracks the time of day and subtly tracks through color and speed the emotional tone of each scene.

LD: Changes/challenges from Williamstown to Broadway?

LM: I made two big changes between Williamstown and Broadway. First, I revised practically all the content and changed all the skies so that everything was constantly in motion. Second, I switched the show over to LED. We had been working with rear projection in Williamstown, and we decided because of the space constrains and a desire to be brighter that we would switch to LED.

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LD: Can you discuss the emotional arc of the lighting for The Rose Tattoo?

Ben Stanton: At the top of Rose Tattoo, our protagonist Serafina, played by the incomparable Marisa Tomei, is a happily married mother who just found out she’s going to have a second baby, and is madly in love with her husband. Though they are immigrants in America, and don’t have a lot of resources, the feeling at the top of the play is one of contentment, passion, simple pleasures, and hope for the future. The lighting and video work together to support this feeling with beautiful skies and warm sunlight, allowing for a profound contrast when Serafina’s world comes crashing apart in the second and third scenes of the play. These scenes are late in the evening, ominous and foreboding. From there, we watch Serafina come to terms with the new realities of her life and make some empowering decisions, and again we use the elements as inspiration to support this emotional journey, ending with a beautiful sunrise scene as Serafina is finally able to let herself fall in love again. 

LD: What is the architecture of your rig? The workhorse fixtures, where they are placed, and what they are doing?

BS: The workhorses of my rig are the [Martin] Mac Encore and the ETC Lustr 2 LED fixtures. In our production, the interior and exterior worlds exist simultaneously on stage so time of day and the direction of natural light is a major factor in the design in every scene. Upstage I’ve clustered groups of eight to 12 Encores together that allow me to deliver sun or moonlight from various "single sources" behind the scenes, and I use the Lustr 2 fixtures to paint all the telephone poles and power lines that crisscross above the stage enhancing the directionality of the key lighting. Many of the Lustr 2s are on side light booms hung between 25' and 30' in the air—lighting the space and air above the screens and the stage. 

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LD: Use of LEDs? Use of color?

BS: The color flexibility of the LED fixtures was extremely helpful as I worked to fine-tune my colors on stage to match what Lucy was doing in the video. It was really important to us to be rigorous about color and direction. I wanted to try to make it feel as though the light was coming right out of her screens. Total cohesion. 

LD: How do you establish the period feel in the lighting?

BS: I think of it less as ''period feel'' and more about responding to the inner emotional world of the play and its protagonist Serafina. Passion and longing, fear and superstition, repression and self-realization are all psychological impulses I’m trying to support at different times in the play. This is done through color or lack of color, and through manipulating the lighting to feel flat at times and more dimensional at other times.

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LD: Largest challenge for this production? Changes from Williamstown to Broadway?

BS: Believe it or not, we had to downsize a bit when we moved to Broadway. The Airlines has a smaller stage house than the main stage at Williamstown so everything had to be condensed for the Broadway run. There was less playing space for the scenes that took place "outside" Serafina’s house, and I would say there was less air around the piece as a whole because the screens were closer to the interior space downstage. I found in this version that I had fewer opportunities for low sidelight because the side video screens blocked a lot of access, but on the positive side video content was now being delivered via hi-res LED surfaces as opposed to rear projection, so I didn’t have to worry as much about hitting the screens or being too bright. The video was gorgeous and luminous, and I really enjoyed being able to riff off of all the footage and content Lucy developed. I think visually the piece took a big step forward. I also benefited from having many more lights with infinite color options, so I could really dial in colors in a way I couldn’t at Williamstown. Having six days of tech instead of two days at WTF was helpful as well.  

LD: What is it like designing with your partner, especially if there is a decision to be made?

BS: I think when Lucy and I work together the work ends up being really strong because we aren’t afraid to be honest and critical about the other’s choices. I think we are also more willing to step back at times to let the other person’s work stand out. Lighting and video can often exist in competition on stage, and there’s always a negotiation as work. Lucy and I, as a married couple, are very good at expressing ourselves and engaging in that dialogue without the fear of offending the other. It’s actually really helpful. We both love making visually compelling theater, and it’s necessary when you’re striving to make really good, rigorous work, that you have to take risks and be wrong sometimes. I can’t stress enough how much easier it is to do that when you know you have a supportive collaborator in the room.

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