ETC On Broadway With 110 in the Shade

The lighting design for the Broadway musical 110 in the Shade (Studio 54, Roundabout Theatre Company) centers around a massive visual focal point—a glowing disk that evokes a 24-hour progression of atmospheric changes—dawn, high noon, moonlight, storms, and shade. The disk—a lightbox filled with automated wash fixtures—represents the play’s controlling motif of light and heat. For Tony-nominated lighting designer Chris Akerlind, creating the complex effects of this unconventional lighting rig meant employing a comprehensive control console, ETC’s new Eos™. “The entire lightplot on 110 consists of some 200 fixed units and between 40 or 50 moving lights (VL 2000 wash units), 20 of which are committed to the lightbox,” says Akerlind. There were very limited hanging positions for the rest of the lighting rig. Next to no overhead existed--just one first-electric, and wing positions were largely obstructed by scenic trees.

The lighting of 110 is critical to the plot development, since changes in light progress the action from scene to scene, denoting the passage of time. “The Eos console was key in driving the development of all the lighting looks,” says Akerlind. As spectators enter at the top of the show, a preset plays a predawn-sky look. At the downbeat of the music, the chorus sings about the sunrise and their plight during the unrelenting heat wave. As the show begins, the lightbox morphs and moves on a hinge just upstage of the plaster line. The disk then morphs again, cyc-like, into a red orb of a sun coming up just above the horizon. Over the course of the number it passes through reds to orange to amber to a final hot burning yellow that becomes a constant until the end of the first act when things quickly dive into sunset. A very different red closes in behind the protagonist Lizzie [Audra McDonald] as she sings a gut-wrenching number about her fear of being an old maid. In the second act, the disk operates as a moon, until dawn when it takes on a pearlescent sky-like quality. The disk then morphs again when the rain comes, creating a convincing storm-like effect. Beyond the disk, the design includes subtle rotations of light to create the languor of a warm shade undulating in the tree branches.

Says Akerlind, “From a creative standpoint, one of the things that was terrific on the Eos console was the color tracking. For example, we had to find the most effective way to get a beautiful chromatic transition between red and aqua. Instead of just starting at red and crossfading to aqua, we were actually able to plot the chromatic points of the journey that the lightbox made. There is this beautiful chromatic wheel display on Eos, which we could plot the points of the color fades on. It allowed a very specific line of chromatic transition. With Eos, you can smooth out the red, the blue, the green so that they can move at their own intensity—you have the ability to really massage and detail these things.”

For Akerlind the advantage in using Eos was both creative and process related: “From a process-oriented perspective, the ease of operation is better than on any of the other moving-light consoles I’ve used. Some moving-light consoles are very Byzantine in the way they think. Eos allowed me to get into the programming mix more then I had been able to before. It let me do things in a way that seemed very natural, as opposed to mechanical. It’s easier for me to be able to just turn off a cue, or in Blind even, because I’m just speaking ETC’s Obsession console language. I already know how to talk to it.”

Akerlind finished and "froze" his design in early May. The show opened on May 9th and was subsequently nominated for a Tony for lighting design. Akerlind credits part of the success to the lighting expertise of the 110 in the Shade crew—associate lighting designer Ben Krall and assistant lighting designer Caroline Chao, production electrician Josh Weitzman and assistant production electrician John Wooding, as well as moving-light programmer Victor Seastone. “It’s one of the best groups I’ve encountered,” says Akerlind.

Akerlind appreciates a system like Eos to help achieve what may be his signature lighting style: in-your-face artifice. “I consider realistic theater to be an anomaly of the 20th century. I call it kitchen-sink theatre. When the curtain opens, I like to see things that are unique, unashamedly theatrical—not what you can see in your everyday life. Why go to theater to see real life? I like the poetic, the expressive. I also tend to like to employ a specific ratio of intensity between backlight and frontlight—though there’s no set formula to that,” says Akerlind. “I like a real edge—an edge around performers that forces them to us, articulating them and outlining them in space. Sculptural lights. I like transcending expectations, and the way that you get there is by expanding your design horizons and being able to experiment through a control console like Eos, as well as with the skill of a great programmer [Akerlind praises Victor Seastone who worked with him on the run-up to 110]. Eos demonstrates that the more you simplify the mechanical process and operation of the console, the deeper the creative process.”

Suggested Articles:

Meet David Stewart, a production manager with an important mission.

Happy 4th of July y'all ... see what's on the online menu this weekend.

Scenic designer Christine Jones shares how she is coping with COVID-19 closings.