The Red Shoes: Q&A With LD Malcolm Rippeth

UK-based lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, currently represented on Broadway with Kneehigh’s production of Brief Encounter at Studio 54, also designed the lighting for Kneehigh’s innovative version of The Red Shoes, seen at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Rippeth talks about the lighting for this unusual project in this Q&A with Live Design:

1) Please discuss the lighting in terms of the scenic design: how did the set influence the lighting and did the lighting help with locale changes in the story.

This was an unusual project for me, in that the set design originated with the original production of the show in 2000, which I didn't work on. I usually aim to have a close relationship with the set designer, through their design process and then through rehearsal and previews. In this case I was working without that relationship, but of course knew that the set design worked brilliantly, and as such forms something of a playground for the performers, which is good fun to be part of. The stage is essentially populated by a group of storytellers, who do quite a lot of the work in terms of defining locations etc, though beyond the hinged doors forming different shaped areas the set is basically static throughout the piece, so the lighting does have quite a bit of work to do. This is only partially to do with locations, though, much more to do with atmosphere and with backing up the big points of the storytellers' experience. Examples might be when the revue act (Justine) performs, which are very full up states within the narrative, and also when the story turns into horror toward the close and the MC has to ask for the lights to be brought up to dispel the terror of the dark.

2) Did you use a standard house rig at St Anne's or redesign, add specials, bring in your own plot….

St. Ann's doesn't have a standard rig, partly because it such a flexible space, and the stage could end up anywhere. As with the UK tour of the show we used our own light plot everywhere we went, using mainly local equipment supplemented with two moving lights (VL3500Q), two strobes (Martin Atomic 3000), and our various specials including a dimmable fluorescent cross indicating the church location, a constellation of bare lamps hung in the depth US of the set, and a really bright torch which is used kind of like a followspot on the shoes themselves at various points. St. Ann's provided the rest of the equipment and we hired in a Philips Strand Lighting 520 console to run the existing show file.

3) What is your process for a show like this: is it designed to tour? do you carry any of the rig with you? How much changes from venue to venue?

I tend to spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room and design a rig that is just right for the piece. The Red Shoes was somewhat different in that we opened in Kneehigh's new nomadic touring space —The Asylum— which is basically a pretty amazing tent, and we ran three shows in rep for our first season. So the rig there was designed to cover all those shows, utilizing many more moving lights, and also allow for the shows being performed from daylight through into night, a different prospect design wise, and also different each night depending on the vagaries of the British weather.

From there we then toured around conventional theatres in the UK, with the touring rig as described backed up by another 80 conventional units from each venue, a mix of PAR64s, profiles and Fresnels or PCs, depending on what was available. The biggest challenge for Ben Nichols, our touring re-lighter, was that half the venues were to some extent thrust stages, so we had to have a plot which allowed for both proscenium and thrust staging with minimal changes. He, I think, enjoyed the challenge, and it was great to see the show and the rig perform equally well in both configurations.

For me it is essential that every audience see the same great show, so the touring venues and schedule were uppermost in my mind when putting together the plot. It had to be right for the show, but also readily tourable on a tight schedule, and able to adapt as venues and the piece itself changed. One thing I have learned from my years working with Kneehigh is that the shows are never considered finished, so it's important to keep flexibility in the design and also time in the day to make changes possible.

4) Use of color? Gobos? Automated fixtures?

The rig is primarily colored in O/W and L201, with crosslight scrollers filling in colder blues and a very occasional glance of red (R26). Our VL3500Qs, which are in use pretty constantly, used Small Dapple gobos on our countryside frolics, and a Paul Pyant special Stoney Ground (incredibly detailed fine breakup) gobo in the later nightmare sequences. Otherwise they are used as tight specials on various characters and suitcases, and are wide enough for a full stage downlight wash when the need arises. There is also a mirrorball moment, which these units light very intensely.

5) Please discuss "special" moments: red glow from the shoes suitcase? Red lights on the shoes at the end?

Most of the red we see in the show light wise is from LED sources on batteries, controlled by the performers on stage. The Red Shoes are initially revealed form a suitcase which, when opened, pours out red light—red LED strip on a local switch. The lights at that point stay in the case, but the shoes come out and we know there's something special to them. When, much later, the Girl's feet are chopped off, we see the shoes with red ribbons pouring from them. Then the shoes develop a life of their own and we have a sequence with shoes flying from fishing lines around her. This pair of shoes is festooned with dangling red LEDs and red EL wire, mimicking the ribbon we have already seen, but building to a nightmare crescendo in the darkened space.

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