First, a little backstory. In June 2001, Tropical Storm Allison caused major flooding in Houston, TX. Water backed up into the extensive underground walkways and parking tunnels of the city center; the basements of several arts organizations, including the Alley Theatre, suffered extensive damage.
During reconstruction, the theatre took the opportunity to reorganize the downstairs Neuhaus Arena Stage. Among other changes, the lighting tension grid was removed and replaced with a catwalk system which added 9' of height, allowing for larger sets and more versatile lighting positions. Also, a wall behind one of the four seating banks was removed, so the space can now convert from an arena configuration to a thrust stage.
Garden utilized the new thrust configuration of the Neuhaus Stage.
Chris Parry has created compelling lighting designs on the Alley's mainstage in the past, including Not About Nightingales and A Midsummer Night's Dream. This was the first time he had also worked in the smaller space.
ALS: What are the differences in tone/style between the two plays and how did this affect your lighting choices/approaches?
CP: I feel that Garden has more variation in tone and humour than House and also gave the ability to show the wider variety of lighting for the day--from early morning to sunshine to gray and cloudy to rainstorm to sunny afternoon again. I was able to utilize a four-point diagonal approach with "sun" and gobo textures to the Garden set which helped tell the time of day.
Garden was staged in the Alley's smaller downstairs Neuhaus theatre.
ALS: Are there any special lighting considerations for this type of play?
CP: I think it's a balancing act between creating the atmosphere--often a typical British gray overcast rainy day (which I've great experience of!) that Ayckbourn asks for, making that believable for the audience--and the brightness, energy, visibility, and clarity necessary for the humour to "land" properly.
ALS: Was there any collaboration between you and the other designers, Linda Buchanan [sets] and Mara Blumenfeld [costumes]?
CP: Yes, but not face-to-face--all done via e-mail!
ALS: Had you worked with either of them before?
CP: No, I hadn't.
House's more elaborate English country manor required the Alley's larger mainstage.
ALS: What was it like to work in the new Neuhaus Stage?
CP: Well, I've never lit anything in the Neuhaus Stage before, so I actually have no prior comparison to make. It's a very efficient space now, with plenty of dimmers and hanging options, although some of the catwalk structures are quite wide and force you to make choices between two widely differing angles. Also, two of the north-south catwalks are just over the playing space, which I found tricky for a "frontlight" system.
ALS: What kinds of equipment did you use? Did you supplement house equipment with rental units?
CP: I used all their house inventory and only supplemented with 16 GAM Film/FX units [with rain pattern loop] in ETC Source Fours and a High End Systems Dataflash unit. As usual, as a Brit designer, I'm always disappointed that large-scale regional theatres like the Alley have so few good fresnels!
ALS: Were the equipment choices different for the two theatres?
CP: Not really. Their inventory is basically Source Fours and PARs, but I really found myself going "back to McCandless basics" for techniques of lighting the very traditional box-set on the mainstage for House. I used rows of MR-16 wide Mini-Strips overhead as a soft color-toning wash, as I would have used R40 X-Ray striplights years ago--it still works. The permanent support pillars on the Alley mainstage were a real pain in the butt for the terrace area outside the windows in House: Linda had to design a whole archway colonnade to incorporate them, unrealistically close to the windows, which made for really difficult lighting outside and through the windows.
ALS: Any concluding comments about the shows, the process?
CP: In spite of a big lighting rig for each (450-plus units each), focused in around six hours, we teched both shows quite quickly, about two days for each, which meant we had lots of time to run both shows together and find the timing bugs for the actors working between the two theatre spaces. Linda Buchanan was very pleasant and supportive. I've worked with the director, Stephen Rayne, several times before, so I was free to give some British accent notes to the actors too! It all felt very collaborative and fun. As usual, a great Alley Theatre lighting crew. (Personally, I preferred the play Garden.)
Photos: T. Charles Erickson.