I can't say how long I've been lighting The Peking Acrobats, but when I arrived, our plot consisted of about 30 PARs, a few fresnels, and three specials. We could hang it anywhere. Playing mostly in gymnasiums and state fairs, we often had to.
The Peking Acrobats play stages around the world. Four months a year, they schedule short stops around the United States, and I go with them. Back in the beginning, the tech package was secondary to the mesmerizing performers. But year after year, the show would grow into bigger and better venues, and I would beg for new equipment or effects. And the word would always come back to hang tight and wait, our day would be coming.
This month, with three weeks booked at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street and Broadway in Times Square, I guess our day has arrived. In honor of the occasion, our producer and agent toasted me and my hard work with two new moving lights. This brings our total to eight. And while that is far less equipment than most other shows in that neighborhood, I'm proud to be technical director of a very hot show.
Of course, it's not at all like I dreamed it would be.
I thought when we made our big Broadway debut, I would be like Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street, cruising through LDI with a big shopping cart. Instead, I'm Scotty from Star Trek, always needing more power, and never enough dilithium crystals to go around. I'm not complaining: I have the greatest lighting job in the world. But I have matured, and learned that the success of a show is not about buying the newest gear. It's about getting as many of the best effects as you can within your budget (see “Creativity at cost,” page 56).
This production has been on the road for over 20 years, and has never taken help from arts foundations or government agencies. It has survived on the road by staying competitive, and consistently making money. High End Studio Spots® are great little lights, but for the cost of one, I can fill the stage with 7,000W of intelligent light via Martin Professional 1220s and get five times the punch. I know when I open my boxes in a nice hall right after Lord of the Dance, the union guys are going to look at me like I have coke-bottle glasses and a pocket protector. What they don't understand is I'm just happy to be here in the same venue as the Lord, and not loading in at the high school gym.
I also know that Lord of the Dance just put on a great show. I need to pull something out of those boxes just to compete.
ILLUMINATION IN MOTION
At The Peking Acrobats, we travel with four Martin 1220 CMYRs, a pair of Martin PALs, and two 218s. The 1220s hang on the downstage truss, and are used for specials, hitting people and props in rich colors. The 218s stay upstage for beam effects, while the PALs are on the floor in the downstage corners where they can hit circus-type acts 25' (8m) high. The 1220 is a light you can buy anywhere for a grand or less, used (I recently found one in an audio store, still in the box, for under $400). It's been discontinued by Martin, and I guess that makes it undesirable to most people. But it comes with full color-mixing, rotating gobos, and a host of other effects. The 1,200W lamp has just enough punch to fill our needs.
Our plot is a nice three-color wash of rich primary colors. The whole thing is cross-washed from the sides to accentuate the movement. Focus is a snap. When it's done, we spend an hour or so programming presets for the moving lights which cover every special in the show.
Each power source is checked before we plug them in. I don't mind if the local LD wants to park a dimmer, or even tape a fader up. The problem is when they tape that fader up, and then they use the blackout button, or run the grandmaster down. Nothing will fry circuit boards on a moving light faster than half power — except maybe losing power altogether when the bulb is hot. So we plug in a light bulb, and ask them to push the blackout button, take down the master, or even turn the board off. If we lose power, we ask them to find out why.
At least once a season we tear everything apart: We clean lenses, check wires, and grind off carbon deposits. We pay special attention to key electrical connections like lamp sockets. This prevents the catastrophic breakdowns caused by broken wires, or arcing due to poor contacts.
Some people believe setting a unit down softly means getting it within a couple inches of the deck before they drop it. Some technical directors still think they'll run on dimmed power. And they all believe it's just rented gear. We wouldn't save a dime buying used equipment if we didn't take care of it. Our core set of Roboscans has been the same for over five years. That's great for a permanent installation, but for a road show it's fabulous. We make sure one of our guys has a hand on each instrument every time it's moved. If the union forbids it, we shadow them every step of the way with each fixture.
Moving lights without smoke equals dots on the stage. I take a lot of abuse for not having a hazer, and in my experience, haze makes great, consistent beams through the whole show. But it never makes the really great beams that I can get by filling the stage with a burst of green Rosco fog fluid. The trick is, we have a person whose sole purpose is to finesse the High End F-100™ smoke machine (used, $350-$500) and constantly redirect the fan exactly where the smoke is needed, without simply flooding the auditorium. Then when it's time to lose the smoke (45 seconds to a minute later), the air is crisp and clean, and its clarity almost seems like a new effect. You just can't get that from a hazer.
As for low, cold smoke, we use a large box and the radiator of a ’72 Buick. The radiator is at the bottom, covered with ice. The smoke is ducted directly into the radiator. Finally, an 8" tube and a duct fan brings it out of the case, and onto the stage. Total cost, under $100. Do I wish I had a fog chiller? Yes. But the smoke travels across the floor, and holds the effect nicely for 30 seconds or so — and that's all I'm after.
Our rig is controlled separately from the conventional lighting via the Martin 3032 PC-based controller. Once again, this is a slick little controller that is discontinued. The ISA card fits into any old Pentium computer; you can pick one up for just a few hundred dollars. But it's packed full of features, like full libraries of Martin instruments and a great graphics interface, plus the ability to link your cues to the timecode on any CD. Just drop the audio source in the CD-ROM and the show is locked and running on autopilot; as long as the performer works to the music, so will the lighting.
This has been another key to our success. We arrive at the theatre, and spend 45 minutes or so just unpacking the truck. If the union permits it, all 30 performers will be carrying things across the stage. It takes the Chinese about two hours to do their rigging, and that's all the time we need to hang our lights, run the data lines, and do a quick sound check. Then they spike all the props and wait for us to call for focus.
The show is built around 50 or so presets that take about an hour to program into the PC. The computer is set stage right, and with just a couple of mouse clicks, each position is set and saved. At showtime, the performers are great about hitting their spike marks. We can actually show up six hours before curtain and have plenty of time to set up. That could never happen if we were running around on a Genie trying to focus a truckload of ETC Source Fours. For this reason alone, we're a big hit with the promoters: They get a big high-tech show without a two-day union call.
The performers themselves have been the other real challenge. They come here after spending their entire performing career in bright white light. Then we set them up in this Cirque du Soleil-style lighting, and it's hard for them to adjust. The same conversations come up every year when we get new performers: “If you do your entire act on a table at center, give me one good reason why you need light in the upstage right corner.”
There are a lot of compromises. Sometimes we turn a PAR can upside down, and light the grid as a focal point. Other times we just shine a Maglite on the wall so the performer will have a point of reference. Mostly they just need time to practice in their light. And that works out really well, because everyone is hanging around at focus time just to get a glimpse of what tonight might be like. The 10-year-old girl will actually climb 25' in the air and wait in a handstand while we make sure she's lit. We even hold for a minute while she tries a trick or two before we move on.
I light a lot of different shows during the year — magicians, dance, even other circuses. But if someone asks me what I do for a living, I tell them I'm technical director for The Peking Acrobats. I'm inspired every day to give them whatever I can without spending all their money. And that challenge alone keeps me at the top of my game. Maybe Cirque will always have more lights in their right cove position than we have in our whole show, but I think this production has the one thing that Cirque lost over the years: true heart.
Rusty Strauss can be reached at Cirqmaster@aol.com.
CREATIVITY AT COST
I know exactly where I would hang eight new Martin MAC 600s. I also know we won't be getting any. Lighting often suffers from a lack of funds and/or knowledge, but it doesn't have to. A high-tech light show is available to everyone, it's just a matter of being frugal. Here's a few tips for the thousands of small shows out there to get a million-dollar light show on 10 grand or less.
Your most frugal resource: your LD. If he or she came from Disney, and has been spending Disney money, they'll never be happy with your lighting budget. Your tech should be like a kid at Christmas every time you invest in a new instrument. The industry is full of negative people who will make excuses about why the effects look bad, or treat your investment like scrap, which it will soon become.
Fact: A good LD costs no more than a bad one. But it might cost you a little more time to find someone with a winning attitude. You might even consider someone with less experience, and invest by sending them to a seminar or two at LDI.
The plot: Most smaller productions fall into the great plot trap. They know that some theatres won't have a lot of equipment. So they build a plot based on the least possible number of instruments. Wrong! Build your plot based on your best theatre. Build a plot that makes you look your best. Use the colors you want, not what you think they have on file. Get the full, rich washes you need. Don't be afraid to designate gobo specials, even for just a few scenes. Then put a whole page in your tech rider about how flexible you can be to less-equipped venues. You won't lose dates based on being too big, and you may even fool a few into believing you're a bigger, better show than you really are.
Moving lights: Buying your own intelligent lighting rig is the only way to go if you're on a budget. Over a 30-week rental you will pay more than it costs to buy everything used. Fact: Most rental gear is priced to be paid for after just 24 weeks of rental! A great deal of the rental industry is based on people who are just bad at math. If you buy your rig this year, you will still own it next year. And for a growing show, it's all about next year. The trick is to get the most bang for your buck. As for where to buy used lighting gear, there are numerous sites on the web; some even have auctions. But when I need a new luminaire, I take the time to e-mail all the rental houses until I find a really motivated seller.
Because the 3032 PC-based controller only works with Martin gear, I'm kind of married to Martin equipment. If I had it to do again today, I would buy one of the newer programs that sends out standard DMX protocol. This gives you the flexibility to buy those High End I-beams® you found cheap on eBay. But I have yet to see an effect that can't be duplicated with some 1220s and a PC-based controller.
More complicated effects just require a little more thought and timing. Fact: Your show can look as good as any show running on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II. Is it as fast to program? No. But will it set you back $25,000? No. There are lots of good programs available for under $1,500, and they'll run from any laptop computer.
Is blacklight on your list, but you don't have the jack to wash the stage with six Wildfires at $2,850 each? Go the low-tech route. The standard double-tube fluorescent shop light at Wal-Mart will cost a cool 10-spot each. A can of high-temperature black spray paint will get them ready for the stage. Eight blacklight tubes may run as high as $140, and several spares is always a good idea. Tape them to the front of the stage, and link them via extension cords to a single power strip at the stage manager's desk. They go on and off with the flip of a switch.
The difference between Lord of the Dance and a thousand other Irish dance troupes is attitude and a good tech package. Once you have all your new toys, remember: Less is more, and sweeps and strobes do not constitute good lighting.