In the Eye of the Hurricane: Lighting Key Largo

(Photo by Jeff Lorch)

Geffen Playhouse’s production of Key Largo brought the audience into the eye of the storm, generating a massive, flashing, thunderous hurricane on stage. Dubbed a “rip-roaring noir ride” by Entertainment Weekly, Key Largo featured a talented creative team, including scenic designer John Lee Beatty, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, sound designer Alex Hawthorn, and costume designer Linda Cho. Beatty and Kaczorowski received Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards for their designs.

“We decided we would be as real as we could,” explains Kaczorowski, “which for me meant a Florida Keys sunset, a hurricane, and long stretches of dialogue during a power outage.”

The creative team conferred quite early in the design process to determine the show’s timeline. “We agreed on day into night into a hint of dawn at the final curtain, and we also collated all the places that natural events had to happen, including rain, lightning, and forceful gusts of wind, as well as tricks and effects,” adds Kaczorowski.

Key Largo Lighting Design 3
Photo by Jeff Lorch

“We discussed the quality of the light in the room and how we needed to embrace light and shadow. The idea was ‘noir with color.’ This meant light and the absence of light, but light vivified by color from the natural world,” says Kaczorowski. This resulted in a highly textured lighting design. Light constantly passed through either slats, blinds, or palm fronds, on its way to the actor.  

To create the sunset, the lighting designer keyed off the many warm incandescent practical lighting fixtures that Beatty had strewn about the set. “The sunset did a kind of gradient from clear L162 to L147 to R23 and perhaps a few in between. There was also a lot of L162 inside the room to key off the practical fixtures. It was useful in the power outages, too, because the light keyed off hurricane lanterns. There was also a fair amount of R83, and the bluest blue that Vipers can make to fill in the inky dark shadows,” he adds. “The tricky and very delicate stuff at the top of Act Two, all lit supposedly by lanterns because the power is out, was some of my favorite work in the show.”

Representing nature on stage is not easy to do, much less a ripping hurricane, but the team created a roaring storm. “That was a tall order,” notes the lighting designer. “With a combination some high tech and some very low tech, we all pulled off a pretty convincing storm.”

Key Largo Lighting Design 2
Photo by Jeff Lorch

Six GLP JDC1 Strobes were integral to creating the hurricane. Two shone through the overhead skylight, while another two lit through the stage left doors and windows. One rode the special effects wagon, which made a portion of the stage left set wall crash into the room. Kaczorowski positioned the last strobe downstage of the set ceiling to carry lightning out into the auditorium at the storm’s climax, which heralded the Act One curtain. Twelve Martin Mac Auras also participated in lightning flashes at the peak of the storm.  

Kaczorowski asked lighting programmer Brandon Paul to use the ETC Ion lighting console to create an inventory of lightning flash types before tech rehearsals. “I think there must have been 50 LX cues that triggered lightning flashes in the show,” says the lighting designer. “I wanted a menu to be able to quickly and easily pick an appropriate generic effect for starters to slot in, and then customize its duration and intensity and tempo more specifically depending on whatever else was going on in the action. We did a similar thing with the conventionals to represent power interruptions. We made a few types of effects, like subtle flicker, brown-out, extended flickers, and again, I would pick something close for starters and then refine.”

The lighting rig came mostly from the Geffen Playhouse inventory, including nearly 150 ETC Source Four Lekos, while PRG West Coast supplied all the rented equipment, including the Martin MAC Viper Performance and Martin Mac Aura units. “There was a skylight over the main acting area, so there was a cache of gear up there that was simply devoted to coming through the glass. The Geffen has a permanent FOH grid that started right where the skylight stopped, so I was able to replicate steep angles as if through the glass,” explains Kaczorowski. “There was also probably 40 channels worth of practical fixtures, overhead fans, FX fans, RF control, etc.

“The Geffen is a lovely place to work,” concludes the lighting designer. “I hope we’ll all be back out there after this strange and awful COVID-19 pandemic has passed.”

Key Largo lighting plot

Check out Kaczorowski's lighting plots here.

Lighting Gear List

  • 6 GLP JDC1 Strobe
  • 28 Altman 8" Fresnel  
  • 40 ETC Source Four 19°
  • 71 ETC Source Four 26°
  • 72 ETC Source Four 36°
  • 14 ETC Source Four 50°
  • 6 ETC Source Four PAR NSP
  • 7 ETC Source Four Fresnel
  • 16 ETC CE Source Four PAR MCM (WFL)
  • 12 Martin MAC Viper Performance
  • 1 Martin Mac Aura
  • 1 Hazer
  • 6 Mini 10
  • 6 Strand Bambino fresnel

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