M. BUTTERFLY Matthew Murphy

Designing M. Butterfly: The Lighting

Tony Award-winning lighting designer Don Holder helps illuminate the complex relationships in Julie Taymor's Broadway revival of M. Butterfly.

Tony Award-winning lighting designer Don Holder has a long working relationship with director Julie Taymor—including the legendary Broadway production of The Lion King and the more controversial Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark. The two have teamed up again for the current Broadway revival of the 1988 Tony Award-winning play, M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, which has sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Constance Hoffman, and sound by Will PickensRead about the set design here.

Live Design chats with Holder on his lighting that helps illuminate the complex relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a Peking opera singer, in revolutionary China.

Live Design: Can you talk about some of the big lighting moments?

Don Holder: Opening sequence (scene 1)—Gallimard in his cell: I must say it’s the first time in my career that I’ve lit an entire scene, with over 20 light cues, using a single tungsten halogen 100W light bulb. The choice of bulb was actually quite specific, as sufficient intensity, proper color temperature, and crisp shadows all factored into the decision-making. Working on this sequence with Julie was definitely a lesson in the old adage: “Less is more.” I was genuinely surprised about the variety of images we could create using such a simple singular source.

Matthew Murphy

Peking Opera and Revolutionary Opera sequences: Revealing a stage full of tracking and rotating panels, which ultimately swiveled into formation to create the wings and backdrops of the Peking Opera, was quite a challenge. Timed focus moves along with shutter and zoom adjustments on our front-of-house automated lighting rig did much of the heavy lifting for this complex sequence of events.

The production features re-creations (or re-interpretations) of several traditional scenes from the Peking Opera: including ‘White Snake’ and ‘Butterfly Lovers.’ Given the highly colorful costumes and the Peking Opera aesthetic, these scenes were generally revealed using full spectrum white light that constantly re-shaped to sculpt and focus the complex choreographic patterns. 

Matthew Murphy

Reveal of the French Embassy: For the first five scenes of the play, the lighting palette is quite constrained (tints of cool whites), and the pivoting/tracking panels that create the walls of the set are seen only with a brushed metal finish. As we transition into scene six (the French Embassy, where we meet Madame Song performing an excerpt from Madame Butterfly), the panels pivot to reveal a golden, ornate interior. The light in the foreground transforms as well, to a richer, more colorful and layered approach, and I introduced larger brushstrokes (wide slashes of diagonal backlight) that open up the space, and cast interesting shadows as the tracking/rotating panels move through them. The brushed metal 'back wall' of the theatre is also revealed for the first time, in subtle turquoise and blue tones to contrast with the gold.   

LD: What about the use of color?

DH: Julie wanted to limit the palette to pale tints of white until we revealed the gold walls of the embassy in scene six (of course, the pinup girl fantasy in scene 4 is one big exception). The palette is intentionally restrained throughout, so that when we employ splashes of color in key moments, they have a powerful impact. One example is the excerpt from ‘White Snake’ in the Peking Opera, when the entire stage is bathed in intense red backlight, and the panels are front-lit in blood red. 

Matthew Murphy

LD: How did the lighting design work hand-in-hand with the moving panels throughout the show, sometimes moving rapidly?

DH: The many configurations of the reflective metal panels—38 different scenes, rarely oriented in straight lines or on right angles—with very little room for overhead equipment required that most of the lighting (with the exception of full-stage dance light in the opera sequences) be crafted using the automated rig. The need to continually change focus, shutter cuts, beam size, and color almost moment by moment rendered much of the fixed or conventional lighting rig pretty unusable for a good portion of the show.

LD: What was largest design or technical challenge on this show/solution?

DH: In addition to the challenge discussed above, the 18 overhead traveler tracks required to operate all the moving panels left only a few narrow slots available for overhead lighting positions. Most of these openings were not wide enough to allow sufficient clearance for the automated lighting rig to calibrate on startup. Our solution was to rig all overhead electrics as working line-sets (unusual for a hemp house like the Cort) so the lights could be flown in below all the obstructions for calibration and then flown out to a working trim for normal operation. 

Matthew Murphy

LD: This is compelling storytelling even though we all know the story in advance now, so how did Julie—with the help of the designers—achieve this?

DH: I think at its essence this is a story about a man who is unable or unwilling to accept his sexual identity, who subjugates his desires and hides behind a facade that feels he must present to the world he inhabits. It leads to sad and tragic consequences. Julie was interested in creating a visual landscape that included layers that reconfigured to create the byzantine streets of China and the many spaces that are rendered in cinematic style in David Henry Hwang’s play.  

These layers are stripped away and eliminated over the course of the evening, fully exposing the space, much like the truth that must be confronted by Gallimard. The moving panels reference Japanese shoji screens (and similar screens found in China) that are used to define and divide space both in the theatre and in the home. I think this scenic approach (despite the criticism from some) was an elegant and intelligent means of supporting and informing the narrative using Asian storytelling techniques.

Matthew Murphy

Julie was clearly interested in delivering performances that were electric yet always truthful. And my conversations with her about the light went in a similar direction. It was important that the colors, angles, and textures all had a relationship to the story and the text. Nothing was arbitrary: The spectacle grew out of the events that Gallimard witnessed in his travels, or as a vivid display of his inner imagination. But when we were confined to the prison cell, his living quarters in Peking, his spare Paris apartment, etc., the world was unadorned, revealed in various tints of white. I think it was Julie's focus on performance and design that was truthful and believable, growing out of the actual inner life of the play that gave the production its currency and impact.

Stay tuned for the lighting plots and gear list!

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