Walk Like an Egyptian

“We knew there was going to be a tour as soon as we opened on Broadway,” says Bob Crowley, the London-based designer who won a 2000 Tony Award for best scenic design (he also did the costumes) for Disney's Broadway musical Aida. Natasha Katz also won a Tony for her lighting designs for the show, which also garnered awards for best score, with music by Sir Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice; and best actress in a musical for Heather Headly. The current national tour of Aida opened in Minneapolis last March, one year after the Broadway opening in March 2000.

“The idea for the tour was to preserve as much of the Broadway look as possible, and some of the scenes may actually work better on the tour,” says Crowley. “I had a chance to come back and see it again. I was able to stand back and be more relaxed. There is always room for improvement. But I would defy anyone on the road to say it is not the same show, scene by scene, moment by moment.”

As the Broadway production took shape, a large golden staircase was cut as it was deemed too difficult to tour. “We didn't want any complicated scenic pieces like “Pride Rock” in The Lion King,” explains Ted LeFevre, associate scenic designer. “This is the smallest tour Disney has ever done.”

With the goal of making the touring scenery lighter, the designers went through the show scene by scene and created new storyboards. “Disney had reworked Beauty and the Beast to tour and had learned a lot,” adds Crowley. “For Aida, they wanted to be able to do short runs with quick turnaround times.” To do this, some of the scenery that was hard (solid plywood) went to drops and soft goods. For example, in the museum scenes that open and close the show, the back wall of the set was made of wood and carved polystyrene, with a sculpted Coptic eye symbol.

“In New York, there are counterweighted eyelids that open,” notes LeFevre. “On the tour, this is painted on a drop, with scrim in-fill and special lighting when the eye opens. So we traded a hard physical piece for a soft piece with a lighting effect.” Crowley refers to the soft version as “a large graphic for an exhibit.”

The side walls of the museum set were also redesigned for the tour. On Broadway, they were legs that pivoted 90° and were rigged from overhead. They were also double-sided, with one side white for the museum and the other side red for the main body of the show. “On the road, there are two sets of legs,” notes LeFevre, who indicates that the red legs remain in place throughout, with the second set of white ones flying in at the beginning and end of the show. The number of museum showcases was also cut from seven to five.

Crowley's fabulous bird's-eye-view swimming pool still looks the same, but was reconstructed for the tour as well. In New York, this was a completely hard unit, while the road version has a hard edge with painted fabric stretched on it. Hard backing at the bottom prevents actors from kicking holes in the fabric. “The unit has better weight for the tour,” explains LeFevre.

The set for Amneris' closet number, a hilarious display of her lavish dresses and excessive accessories, has a different approach as well. It has been redesigned, moving from a series of shadow boxes with vacuform fashion accessories to the touring version, which has flat light boxes with objects painted on translucent muslin and backlit. The door mechanism that opens the closet for the fashion show was also revised. In New York, it is like a “chopper,” with three vertical sections that move straight up and down. In order to have less rigging on the tour, this has been changed to saloon-style doors hinged right and left to swing open.

A scene with ships whose sails fly up to indicate a scene below deck has also been altered so that on tour the sails move alone; in New York, there are actors that fly up with them. When the action shifts to Egypt, a tower with hieroglyphics makes a short appearance. To simplify things, the tour version of this scene has three gold screens instead of two screens and the tower, which proved to be a large, awkward piece that took up too much space offstage.

An upstage star drop in New York is accented with layers of stars on drops, yet on tour just the upstage drop is used. “You might lose a little of the three — dimensionality of the scene,” admits LeFevre. “But the additional drops are too difficult to tour and hang.”

Three pipes of lights for a banquet scene have been reduced to two on tour, with the far upstage pipe cut. Likewise for the far upstage dock unit in a scene where two docks now suffice instead of three. “These are all minor changes, and unless you were looking for them, you really wouldn't notice,” says LeFevre.

The tour scenery was built by ShowMotion Inc. in Norwalk, CT, where the original Broadway scenery for Aida was also constructed. “Aida is going out like a rock-and-roll tour,” says Bill Mensching, president of ShowMotion. “It has its own automated grid and truss system.”

The touring fly system was designed “to limit the spotting of chain motors during an advance or show-to-show move, as well as to package flying automation pieces in the smallest and simplest package possible. The support trusses are engineered to support the full load of all of the secondary trusses, including electrics and automation, as well as the scenery,” explains Mensching. [For more details about the installation of the touring system, see sidebar, page 21.]

Disney Theatrical Productions, under the technical supervision of “Smitty” (Chris Smith, technical director for the Aida tour) of Theatersmith Inc., gave ShowMotion specific parameters for a system, including two main lifting trusses that house all of the chain motors for the fly house system; six support trusses to lift and support the main lifting trusses; seven automated trusses for show scenery; four electrics trusses; and two service trusses to house the automation and electrical racks. All of the overhead scenic trusses and lifting rig were built by Tomcat USA of Midland, TX, and the side service trusses were built by Tait Towers in Lititz, PA. The chain motors are by CM Lodestar.

LD Natasha Katz also reworked her award-winning designs for Aida, with the lighting more integrated into the touring set than it was on Broadway. “The lighting remains within the truss and doesn't need to be refocused, except for some front-of-house specials,” says Katz, who reports that on the tour, the dimmers, console operator, and sound racks are all flown with the service truss. She has also trimmed the rig using extra pipe on the C clamps so that the lenses on the automated fixtures and the conventionals are all at the same height.

The conventional lighting was provided by the New Jersey office of Fourth Phase. The package includes over 250 ETC Source Fours and Source Four zooms, almost all of which have Wybron Coloram II scrollers, plus L&E 6' Ministrips and single-cell Baby Broad cycs, and Rosco double-gobo rotators, all run by ETC Sensor dimmers and an ETC Obsession 1500 console. Four MDG Max 3000 Atmosphere generators, four MDG Atmosphere machines, and four Bowen Jet Stream wind machines are also part of the tour rig, along with one Pani BP 2.5 compact 2,500W HMI projector and three Lycian 1290 XLT 2.5kW xenon long-throw followspots.

Through a special arrangement with Vari-Lite in Dallas, Disney purchased 17 VL2C, 15 VL4, 22 VL6B, and seven VL6C automated luminaires for the tour; these are run by a Vari·Lite Virtuoso Tech console, a board designed to run a show after the programming is completed on a full Virtuoso console. “Aland Henderson was able to refocus offline using a Virtuoso before we even got into the theatre. You can see a 3D version of your rig in the monitor,” says Katz, referring to Vari•Lite's Visionary 3D software program.

On May 7, 2001, Crowley and Katz were featured in a special program, “Aida: The Making of a Musical,” at the Metropolitan Museum. The evening began with a discussion in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, moderated by Thomas Schumacher, producer for Disney Theatrical Productions, with panelists David Henry Hwang (Aida book), Egyptologist Dorothea Arnold, and Crowley, who reinforced his intention to “avoid cliches in the design of Aida. I love the idea of upending people's expectations for a period show,” he said during the panel.

Following the panel, the overflow audience moved to the Temple of Dendur, a handsome monument from Nubia dating from circa 15 BC. In this mystical setting, cast members of Aida sang numbers from the show. To light this informal performance, Katz used 32 ETC Source Fours (eight on each of four light trees) in white on the singers and Roscolux 02 (bastard amber) on the temple. She added four Vari•Lite 2416 automated luminaires for extra colors, such as dark blue and orange. The lighting equipment for this event was provided by Frost Lighting in New York.

Aida will open in Amsterdam in October, with the sets for this production being built by Kimpton Walker in London. “The sets are pretty much the same as Broadway,” says Crowley, “with some of the tour improvements incorporated, as well as some new bits. This is on a huge stage.”

In any case, Crowley now has the experience of revising a big show such as Aida to meet the demands of touring. “It's an art,” he admits. “It's very different from putting a show into a theatre for a long time.”

The Load-in, Step by Step

by Bill Mensching, ShowMotion Inc.

Here's a play-by-play description of the installation of Aida's touring system:

“There is a single-truck, single-day advance call to pre-rig for the show to show. The main lifting trusses are oriented perpendicular to centerline, either 14'-6"-17'-6" from center, depending on the theatre. They each contain 10 chain motors, either one- or two-ton, depending on the load. The main lifting trusses are floated off the deck on two motors each. Then, the house battens that are used for the show are pulled upstage and downstage of the ends of the truss. The truss is lifted up above the battens, and the battens are allowed to float back to their positions. The lifting truss now occupies the space between wells, above the house pipes.

“Three support trusses are strapped below each lifting truss, parallel to plaster. This allows for the difference in grid well centers between theatres. The lifting trusses and their six support trusses are flown to an out trim of 60' from the house floor to the top of the lifting truss. The trusses are leveled, and then dead-hung from the grid steel using stacking chain. The load is then taken off of the assembly chain motors, eliminating a major load capacity problem.

“The second advance truss is the drops pack. It is a 42" wide × 48" high box truss with eight automated linesets onboard. There are four standard linesets for drops, powered by 5hp AC lineshaft winches. There are three 5hp AC point winches for the sun, moon, and tree, and one 10hp AC winch for the shore palms. Each winch is dead-hauling its load, so there is a secondary brake on every fly unit. It is flown upstage of the main lifting truss, also trimming at 60' from the house deck.

“A lineshaft winch consists of two or four drums on an 1½" shaft, spaced equally over the length of the batten. A 7" × 19" aircraft cable is wound on each drum and connected to the batten. By turning the lineshaft, each drum turns simultaneously, paying out or taking up cable. This allowed us to fit a winch into a 14"-wide × 24"-high box truss and still have 60' of travel. The lineshafts are split center to accommodate truss breaks, and are joined by couplers and Quick-Pins.

“During the advance call, the chains for the service truss motors are spotted. They are located just offstage of the lifting trusses, and form the borders of the set. All ShowMotion, Inc. automation racks are on the SL truss, and all electrical racks are on the SR truss.

“The beginning of the second day of the install is the first show-to-show day. The first things in are the six remaining automation trusses and the four electrics. They are hung off of the chain motors in the lifting trusses. Because the motors are prehung in the lifting trusses, once they are in, the entire show is spotted, making the second day easy. The trusses are split in half to accommodate the various load-in limitations from city to city, to a max length of 19'-9". Each half is on a separate dolly, which are rolled together to join in the center with locating pins. The automation lineshafts are then joined with five Quick-Pins in the coupler, and the automation cables are uncoiled from the truss.

“The truss is then floated off the dolly and brought to a working height of 5', and the batten is connected to the aircraft cable using webbing slings and rated steel caribiners. Each winch is then tested to insure that everything is functioning properly. The truss is then flown on its motors to 57', just below the bottom of the lifting truss.

“Truss #1 has two 5hp AC lineshaft winches for the show scrim and the irising header; truss #2 has two 5hp AC lineshaft winches for banquet lights; truss #3 has one 5hp winch for the spa hanger; truss #4 has three 5hp AC lineshaft winches for the legs, throne backing, and the US banquet lights; truss #5 has one 10hp AC winch for the closet, and truss #6 has one 1hp AC winch for the irising traveler.

“Once the trusses are hung, the winch is used to bring the batten in, the scenery or drops are loaded, and the winch takes batten out. An advance ShowMotion, Inc. automation drive rack is used during the installation until the service trusses are installed.

“All of the automation cables are dressed along the trusses to stage left, and then run down to the service truss, where they are plugged into the corresponding drives. The AC2 Show Control System by ShowMotion, Inc. runs the entire show automation system.”

Photo: © Joan Marcus; rendering courtesy Disney Theatricals