Victorian Secrets: The Woman In White

London is abuzz with heated debate about the extensive use of projected scenery in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical, The Woman In White. The debate focuses on the scenic concept for the show: Has production designer William Dudley created a new paradigm for theatrical staging, or has this production gone too far in replacing traditional scenic elements with digital imagery? Based on Wilkie Collins' extremely popular Victorian novel, The Woman In White tells a mysterious tale of love and deception, greed and villainy, set in stately country homes, gothic mansions, madhouses, casinos, pubs, train tracks, and the streets of London — all of which are projected as computer generated images onto a moving, curved set at the Palace Theatre, where the musical opened last September.

The hero of this tale is a young artist, Walter Hartwright, who meets a strange woman dressed in white, late one night as he is on his way to the house of Mr. Fairlie, where he has been engaged as a drawing instructor for Farlie's niece Laura, (who strongly resembles the mysterious woman in white), and her sister Marian. Walter and Laura fall in love, but she is already betrothed to Sir Percival Glyde, a villainous baronet who harbors some very nasty secrets. The script for the musical is a condensed version of a very complex novel, but the multiple locations and rapid scene changes called for something other than traditional scenery.

Directed by Trevor Nunn, The Woman In White was designed by the London-based Dudley, who was responsible for the sets, costumes, and 3D animations, with lighting by Paul Pyant [see Pyant's discussion of lighting below], sound by Mick Potter, and projection realization by Dick Straker and Sven Ortel of the London based video production company, Mesmer. Dudley and Nunn had collaborated in 2002 on Tom Stoppard's nine-hour epic trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, at the National Theatre in London, for which a large portion of the scenery was also projected onto curved screens. “Trevor Nunn called me and read some of the stage directions for The Woman In White,” explains Dudley who recalls Nunn saying “this is a cinch for your 3D animation technique.”

It also turns out that Andrew Lloyd Webber had seen The Coast of Utopia at the National, and said that he wanted the same kind of projection for his new musical. He had also seen Hitchcock Blonde, another show that Dudley had designed in London, this time using a mix of video and 3D animations projected on flat screens set on angles. So the stage had been set and Dudley was not at all daunted by the extensive projections required for The Woman In White.

Dudley served as the designer and 3D modeler, using a Cinema 4D software package to create his animations, with a creative team that included two assistant modelers, Matthew O'Neil and Jannis Labelle, as well as animator and compositor Richard Kenyon, and editor Ian Galloway. In addition, a CAD draftsman, Matt Kinley, drew set plans and tied them into the optical plots created by Straker and Ortel and the team from Mesmer, who worked with two additional companies, Digital Antics (who wrote the software code) and XL Video (who provided the equipment, technical support, and trouble shooting), to provide a custom software and playback system for The Woman In White. The challenges included working out the positioning of the projectors and bending the images to follow the movement of the set.

This custom PC-based system with 12 hard drives, or media servers, is called The Mesmerist, and it was developed to solve the problems inherent in the geometry and curves of the set. Damian Ridge and Patrick Achegani were trained as Mesmerist operators, handling playback for the show. As Straker points out, “some of the software was created as we went along, with some customized solutions never used before. The hard part was knowing that it would all work as expected. And it did.”

Dudley and his team ended up designing the show on 18 computers, half of which belong to Dudley with the others belonging to Kenyon. The machines were set up as a rendering farm in an air-conditioned apartment in a building owned by The Really Useful Group, Lloyd Webber's production company. “We would render all the frames, edit the frames to the music, and select a section of each image for each of the projectors,” notes Dudley, who worked on the show from May 2003 through opening night in mid-September 2004.

“The 3D animations are not video, but very high-resolution data, or information files that we transferred to the theatre on a hard drive,” explains Straker. “Bill (Dudley) produced a very wide letter box image that was split up into four sections and divided among the projectors. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that was broken up and put back together again into one seamless image. Richard Kenyon did the composition and the Mesmerist did the geometry.” In addition, Ortel programmed the projections cue-by-cue, with the Digital Antics folks adding functionality to the software as needed for special cross fades and other effects.

Provided by XL Video, there are eight video projectors used for The Woman In White: four Barco G10 ELMs that are hung over the stage and housed in special acoustic enclosures designed by XL Video and Mesmer; two Barco G10 ELMs on a front-of-house truss; and two Barco G8 SLMs, also on the FOH truss, each of which is equipped with a moving mirror system to help the images track the screen movements. The computer generated images are fed into the computer data input on the projector, not the video input. XL Video worked with Unusual Rigging to make sure that the projectors were hung in a way they could easily drop down for maintenance.

Malcolm Mellows of XL Video notes, “The Woman In White needed equipment with the ability to project high-resolution, high-quality images, and project them as the set moved without any distortion. There also needed to be soft edges, with no apparent joints.” Another concern was proper keystone correction, providing straight pictures from the high angles of the overhead projectors. “The Woman In White is one of the most complicated shows we have ever done,” adds Mellows.

“From day one, Trevor was very clear,” says Dudley. “He wanted big sweeping panoramas and a very sculptural set.” As a result, the set is circular, with a curved wall that sits just off of a stage turntable, or revolve. “The wall breaks and becomes two partial walls that move downstage, on or off the revolve. “You can project on both sides as the set moves,” Dudley explains. “And if you project a square image on a curved wall, you can re-distort it to look flat.” The wall sections are made of plywood and scenic canvas painted gray to serve as a neutral, cylindrical projection surface that measures 30m (98.5') wide by 5m (16.5') high.

A Stage Technologies' Acrobat console is used to control the five pieces of moving scenery, and the revolving stage is driven using two Revolution revolve drives running synchronously. Running from upstage onto the revolve is a tracking wall which is moved onto the revolve using two servo motors upstage and another servomotor on the revolve, all running in synchronization. Further upstage the “plug wall” fills the gap left by the tracking wall. On either side of stage a large curved screen travels along curved tracks in the floor. “The automation system provides actual position data which is passed to the projection team over Ethernet allowing the projected images to be choreographed with the screens,” explains John Hastie of Stage Technologies Limited.

The Plot Thickens

“This is a plot-driven show, which I love,” says Dudley, who had not yet read the book when the project came along. “First I read the script, then I got an audio tape of the book and discovered a mass of extra characters we couldn't include.” It was also decided to nudge the period of the play to 1869-70, slightly later than the book.

Dudley admits that this decision was somewhat costume-driven. “We wanted to avoid the vast 1850-60 skirts with crinolines,” notes Dudley, alluding to the big bustles of the period only for the women in a casino scene. “The girls were artists and a little avant-garde for their time. They wore a rational dress style, with a natural bosom line. They were not laced into corsets and there were no great hoops. They were trying to be modern women but were locked into a world of gothic men.” Dudley also allowed the girls to have natural hairstyles. “At home, the women wore their hair down, not in a tight bun or bonnet,” he points out. “I wanted the audience to see them as young women, not as fashion plates.”

In contrast, the men have a much more tailored look. “This was a period marked by the rise of modern tailoring,” says Dudley. “It started with Beau Brummel. An arrogance of line with power shoulders replaced florid silk and too much patterning. This puts the men in sober suits that represent gravitas and dignity.” The suits used here, especially for Percival Glyde, are very up to date, allowing this character to cut a good figure in spite of his evil nature.

When asked about costume sketches, Dudley replied that he doesn't do traditional drawings. “I like to find fabrics and invent right on the dress form, working with my costume assistants,” he explains. The one sketch Dudley did create was not done with pen and ink, but rather used a cordless Wacom pen that allows the designer to draw directly on a computer screen. This method was used to create the heavily padded costume for Michael Crawford as the Italian Count Fosco, the evil friend of Percival Glyde.

To transform Crawford into the very fat Count, Dudley made a full laser map of Crawford's body (a technique he says he borrowed from the movies), as well as a face mask used to create the prosthetics needed for the character. “Count Fosco is of an age when it was not a sin to be fat,” notes Dudley. “In that age heavy men were seen as imposing of stature, they were more robust and had a fear of being too skinny. They wouldn't survive the winter. The women were bigger then too in terms of bosoms and bottoms. So Fosco could be fat, but he was still nimble, and he took himself seriously as a seducer of women.”

Dudley describes Count Fosco as a melange of Peter Ustinov, Oliver Hardy, and Enrico Caruso, the Italian opera singer. “He was like a big man, brimming with confidence and cunning,” says Dudley, who notes that Crawford loved the initial drawing of the Count and wanted to go for the fat character described in the book. His clothes, in contrast to the sober suits of his English counterparts, are slightly foppish in terms of color, fabric, and trim, and his hat is a fedora with a wide brim. His face is also different, with very pale skin for a light Italianate look, with coloring and shadows around the eyes, to make him mysterious, and different from the northern European men. “We enlarged his eyes through make-up so he could roll them and get movement in his eyebrows that the audience can see.”

Crawford also has the funniest moment in the show when he performs a duet with a white mouse that runs up and down his arms and around his face. “The suits have mouse-proof pockets, and channels for the mouse to run through in case it gets down into the suit,” notes Dudley, who adds that this suit was one of the most unexpected things he has ever had to design. “You are expected to know about these things,” he muses.

The piece-de-resistance in Dudley's arsenal is the final scene of a train rushing toward the audience. “When I read the script I thought the ending needed a train,” he recalls. “Trevor Nunn wasn't sure there was a train scene, but I thought why start the show on train tracks if there is never a train? It's like a loaded gun in act I of a play. It has to go off before the end of act III.” Dudley had modeled up a period steam engine and several carriages, as well as a long virtual track, and lots of smoke and light effects. “Like you'd see in the movies,” he says. “But we did at least three previews before we added the train. You can't get by with just the sound of a train.”

This effect is so fantastic and realistic that the audience ducks as the cast jumps out of the way of the oncoming train. “Then they recover from the shock of the train,” says Dudley, who admits that even with all the cutting-edge technology used in the show, there were budget restraints. “We had many good ideas we couldn't afford, and we were staggered by the number of costumes needed in the end, with all the understudies you have to double, or even triple, the costumes.” Dudley would also like to have brighter projectors, and hopefully when the show moves to Broadway as planned next year, he will be able to do so.

The Debate Continues

The jury is still out on the subject of extensive projected scenery as used in The Woman In White. Some people feel it looks too much like a movie, while others applaud its flexibility. “You can do all the scene changes quickly, silently, and without a large crew,” says Dudley, in defense of this design style. Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, attended an early performance of The Woman In White. “He came backstage and told me I had showed him the future of musical staging,” Dudley notes. It remains to be seen if this prophecy will come true, but The Woman In White is certainly an important benchmark in the current era of projected scenery.

Paul Pyant on Lighting The Woman In White

"Even at my great age it's a scary thing getting a project like The Woman in White. On accepting the challenge of lighting the production, my first priority was to build a team that I could feel totally supported by and at ease with, and for me this was one of the greatest triumphs of the whole experience.

I was incredibly lucky to have David Howe as my associate designer. I have known and worked with him for many years and he was a fantastic sounding board for ideas, both conceptually and practically, with his extensive knowledge of available equipment. He is also able to kick, prod, and cajole me into action when the thinking process took too long — ultimately acting as the go-between me and everything else, so I could just literally think about lighting the production without worrying about anything else.

James Farncombe was the assistant designer with responsibility for the four followspots, no mean feat as the show depends on the followspots to a large extent. He worked on a separate headset channel — again a boon — has anyone ever listened in to a followspot channel? There are so many things one didn't know or ever wanted to know about all sorts of things!

It was certainly safer to stay on my own channel, working with my programmer Victoria Smerdon. When I started, lighting control was a simple matter. Now, of course, it's an essential independent skill in its own right if you are to utilize the capabilities of the lighting board to its full extent, and the relationship you have with your programmer becomes very important indeed. You are not always able to explain fully what you require or, indeed, not fully understand and keep up with what is possible with some boards and fixtures these days. To have a programmer that is in many ways one step ahead of you, thinking of the process of how one gets to one lighting state from another, is incredible. I dealt with the “Art” department and Vic dealt with the practical side, effortlessly (and what she cannot do with a Strand 550 is not worth knowing) — her particular useful specialty being “part” cues. This eventually meant that the stage manager only has about 75 lighting cue points in each act, while in fact there are many, many more especially in sections when projection and scenery are on the move, all programmed as part of one “Partastic” sequence. A great deal of the success of the lighting design comes down to Vic's programming.

The final but, by far, no less important member of our team was the production electrician, Gerry Amies. I go back many years with Gerry…and could have had no better support than he and his team of production electricians give on any project they do. You just, simply, cannot do better!

Of course, there are others who make up the total picture: the production manager Richard Bullimore, the stage management team headed by Jo Miles and the brilliant deputy stage manager, David Marsland, the Palace Theatre resident electricians headed by Kriss Buddle, and the total backup provided by the lighting rental company White Light, all had essential parts to play. But their support all stemmed from the way in which my team interacted so well together with all areas.

As far as lighting the production was concerned, I was at first worried about lighting an otherwise empty stage space interestingly while playing against highly detailed projections, some of which used film techniques of moving panning shots and crane shots to get the action from one location to another.

I initially obsessed with the idea that there were going to be problems at the point where projection stopped and stage lighting took over, so I first went down all sorts of blind alleyways to try and develop a suitably “filmic” response using the Catalyst, DL1s, etc. — all of which eventually were discarded for one reason or another (I have to say, budget played a big part here). There was also the idea that we were presenting a “play” (albeit with music) rather than a traditional “musical,” giving us the opportunity to create some very atmospheric lighting in response to the projections; the visibility of actors being mainly in use of subtle followspot work.

It was determined from an early stage that the rig should complement the set design in as much as it would consist of two circular ladder beam trusses following the contours of the walls. These would have to be set very high (almost 32') over the stage to allow for the projection angles required and audience sightlines from the highest point in the theatre. With this basic limitation, it followed that we should employ equipment that could be as flexible as possible, and by modern standards we achieved a great deal of flexibility with very little equipment — just over 110 generic units and 50 or so moving heads. With mainly ETC Source Four® generics providing basic coverage and mainly gobo/template work, we thought it best to try and keep as much of the moving equipment in terms of light source and color within the tungsten range rather than use discharge sources. We also used color scrolls, rather than dichroic mixing, as the scrollers would be easier to maintain during the shows' run. Also ambient noise was an issue with many very quiet sections in the production where noise from equipment would be distracting. Into this category neatly fell the ETC Source Four Revolution.

As this was the first time for me (using the Revolutions), and indeed for most here in the UK, by and large they fit the ticket well — there is a “but” coming — but maybe we were unfortunate that there were so many issues in terms of their control and reliability in terms of holding their correct colors, focus positions, correct gobo/template, etc. This meant that precious time was spent trying to maintain them on a daily basis. In fairness, these issues are being dealt with by ETC and all 14 of our Revolutions will shortly receive reliable software updates and new shorter scrolls that should address all these problems, at which point ETC will have a very good unit that I would have no hesitation to use again, but I guess we did suffer from being one of the first shows to use production line models that were bound to have teething problems.

The remaining moving equipment remained in the tried-and-tested range of Strand Pirouettes, City Theatrical Auto Yokes, and Vari-Lite VL5Bs. The only exception from the tungsten ranges was six Vari-Lite VL3000Q 1.2kw fixtures and one Martin Professional Mac2000 Performance unit. The VL3000s were not without their problems of reliability, especially malfunctions with the actual light source, which would cut out at usually unfortunate moments, but again a software update on these seems to have solved this problem.

The VL3000s were a useful addition, as we were able to take intricate and dense textures generated by Bill Dudley for his projections and adapt them to glass gobos to complement otherwise standard DHA and GAM gobo templates. The dense nature of the textures was offset by the extra output of the light source and proved hugely useful throughout the production.

A lot of experimentation went on laying layers of gobo/template coverage over each other and slowly rotating each level against one another in either complementary or opposing colors, especially in scenes set while characters were moving about outdoors in moonlit graveyards, etc. This was particularly effective when both the projector and revolve were moving. Similar effects were achieved by having one scene — with its key lighting — revolve off, while the next scene's basic key light panned around with the revolve, creating a seamless continuity. All the template work was very effective through the haze machines, three of which were set in the revolve: two above the stage and two in the downstage left and downright corners. Someone desperately needs to invent obedient haze/smoke: some days a scene would look magical and the next day the same cue would completely blot out the stage. Colors kept to my usual signature “hints of” color: L200, L201, L202, L232, LR09, L236, L238, with a little L120 for good measure. I was persuaded to use a pink at one point — a special creation by Vic Smerdon for one of the Count Fosco scenes — but the less said about that the better.

The four followspots were two Strand 1kW beam lights onstage and two Reciche and Vogel 1kW beam lights FOH. The level for these was controlled from the light board as was their color scrolls. The operators have Robert Juliat dimmer shutters for personal control of ins and outs, and we were lucky that we had four excellent, albeit chatty, operators. Accurate follow spotting on this show is crucial.

Load-in commenced on July 12, and “dry tech” sans cast started on August 2, during which time the show was basically lit. The cast joined us onstage August 16 for the start of Trevor Nunn's unique “Double Tech” period, during which he works through the show twice refining all aspects as we went, before the orchestra joined us on August 25. Previews started on time on August 28 and press night was September 15.

During this period there were obviously highs and lows of one sort or another, but basically lighting-wise we held an even keel throughout with no major rethinking or re-rigging being required. A great deal of rethinking went into the projection, which sometimes threw up issues like extra windows appearing in odd places, and to this day the trained eye will notice that some window light sources portrayed by gobos do not match the projected image as they were a last moment change, and the biggest design change was the addition of VSFX moving cloud effects that we already had, but for other moments in the piece.

With the prospect that the production will now be presented elsewhere, I am sure that both Trevor Nunn and Bill Dudley have ideas for improvements to the production. (The brief for the production had some future practicalities in mind: the stage surface was not to be punctured at all to enable to the show to tour easily when the time comes for it to do so.) For me, I hope any future productions will build on the good experiences we had with the original!"

Natural Sound Design

Sound designer Mick Potter worked with London sound company, Orbital, who supplied the system for The Woman in White. Following other collaborations, including Bombay Dreams and Tell Me On A Sunday, Orbital worked with Potter from the outset to realize a system that met the designer's exacting specifications. In this case, the system is discrete, offering a very natural sound.

For the main vocals, a combination of d&b Q7 and Q10 loudspeakers driven from d&b D12 amplifiers were deployed for the stalls, specified for their natural sound. Three Q7s were positioned on the advance truss, cantilevered back quite dramatically to evenly disperse the sound as a central vocal cluster; with horns rotated to give a 70° vertical coverage.

The orchestral system comprised Meyer CQ1 and CQ2 loudspeakers along with four Meyer UPJs. To cover the four levels of the theatre a further 112 d&b E0 speakers are deployed.

Orbital supplied 30 × SK 5012 Sennheiser miniature radio wireless transmitters and 1,046 receivers. These, together with the sound effects from Akai S6000 samplers and a TC Electronics M6000, are marshaled at the FOH position by a Yamaha PM1D digital mixing console.

Having deployed the PM1D on both Bombay Dreams and Tell Me On a Sunday, it was a natural choice for Potter, particularly as it now boasts Yamaha's new LMY2-MLAB 28 bit pre-amp and A-D card input card, which is a huge improvement sonically. A Yamaha DM2000 is also used as an additional input mixer.

“The system realized our expectations,” says Potter. “The PM1D at FOH position afforded us so much extra control unachievable with an analogue console. We can switch fold back for each scene, or have different delay times for each performer, or change the orchestra mix, all moment by moment.”

Potter's configuration at the FOH position involves one PM1D cascaded to a Yamaha DM2000 giving 160 mix channels. A second PM1D, running in mirror mode, allows Potter to make complex adjustments to the mix without interfering with sound operator, Tim Clark, who is mixing the show. During technical rehearsals, for example, while Clark mixed the show on one surface Potter and his production team could adjust settings and levels in the background on the second surface. “And you can control everything from your laptop,” Potter adds.” That was very useful, particularly here where you're trying to tune the system and listen across four levels.”

A full communications system, also supplied by Orbital, includes a Telex BTR700 duplex radio headset network, allowing real-time two-way communications. Orbital also provided all technical support for the sound system installation.