Rumor has it that every construction crane in Europe is currently being used in Berlin, where an extensive building and urban revitalization program has given the city lots of exciting architecture everywhere you turn. One of the most astonishing areas is around Potsdamer Platz, where it seems that an entirely new neighborhood has sprung up with boutiques, restaurants, a Hyatt Hotel, an Imax theatre, a Mercedes Benz dealership, and the Musical Theatre Berlin, home of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which made its German debut in June as Der Glockner von Notre Dame.
Directed by James Lapine, with sets by Heidi Ettinger, projections by Jerome Sirlin, costumes by Sue Blane, masks by Michael Ward, lighting design by Rick Fisher, and sound design by Tony Meola, this version of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame was produced by Stella, the German entertainment company that runs the new Berlin theatre and also produces German versions of big-scale musicals such as Cats, Starlight Express, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables.
Built by the real estate arm of the Daimler-Benz corporation and leased to Stella, the new 1,800-seat theatre was designed by architects Renzo Piano Building Workshop in Paris, France. It has a sleek contemporary facade with soaring glass walls facing an outdoor plaza. Blue-carpeted stairs lead to lobby areas on five different levels, creating a steep vertical plane.
Inside the auditorium, red walls and seats (by Audience Systems) emit warmth within the modern shell of the building. Boxes stretching along the straight side walls have reduced sightlines. Climate control vents beneath each seat supply heat or air conditioning as needed.
The lighting control booth, located at the back of the orchestra level, houses the Vari*Lite Artisan(R) consoles (one Mini Artisan(R) and one Artisan(R)Plus) and the ETC Expression 1200 console used for Hunchback. An adjacent booth is used for both 35mm film projectors (the theatre will be used as a primary venue for the Berlin Film Festival) and some of the Hardware for Xenon projectors used by the production. A large, curved screen with built-in speakers and automated masking is also meant for use by the film festival.
Dimmer rooms are located on two backstage levels, with a total of 450 digital dimmers from SE-Verintens, a Swiss company, linked via an ethernet system. Digital DMX addressing comes directly from the ETC console. Above the stage are four levels of catwalks with stations for the STC-Navigator automated scenic control system developed by Fulling & Partner of Dortmund, Germany. An orchestra pit can hold up to 25 musicians. One of the theatre's quirks is a loading dock located at stage level, one level above the street.
Designed by Ettinger and built expressly for Hunchback by Bader Maschinenbau of Geretsried, Germany, the stage is made up of a three-row grid of 11 automated cubes that raise, lower, and rake in various combinations (and require a large stage and basement area for the machinery). The downstage row (A) lowers 9' (2.8m) below the stage and rises 6' (180cm) above it, while the center row (B) rises as high as 15'4" (4.7m), and the upstage row (C) rises as high as 16' (4.9m) above stage level.
Each cube is powered by an electrical AC motor with 15kW (or 20.5hp). The maximum moving mass is 4,500lbs (2,041kg), with the maximum speed 2.3" (5.9cm) per second. The cubes are built to carry up to seven people each (when moving) and each is equipped with a tilting lid that moves to a maximum raked angle of 30 degrees. The (C) row has powered handrails for safety re asons
Movement of the (A) and (C) rows are guided via a forklift system and powered chains. The (B) row is guided up and down on a central column or welded square steel tube (16" x 16", or approximately 4.9m x 4.9m) with small glide-pads made of a special plastic material. More than 60 tons (approximately 54 metric tons) of steel were used for the mechanical construction of the cubes.
The control system for the cubes uses two PCs with every position of any given cube stored as cues. "Different cues can be executed at the same time," says Markus Bader of Bader Maschinenbau. "Each electric motor is equipped so that every position can be controlled by the PC at any time.
"In Der Glockner von Notre Dame, there are more than 1,300 different positions stored in the control system," Bader explains. "Within our system it is not possible that a crash between two or more stage parts could occur." The control for the cubes can be run by just one person.
Once the cubes were covered with translucent metal grating, they provided an interesting, textured support for Sirlin's projections. He used both front and rear projections with a combination of 7kW Hardware Xenon projectors, with both automatic slide changers (four front and two back) and double rotating scrollers (one front and one back). The rear projectors have special 77mm lenses built to deal with the short throw distance that was available. Shading and baffles on the rear screen (a lattice treatment with 2", or 5cm, flat sections a few inches apart) help cut ambient light.
"Artistically I was trying to create an ephemeral world in which the story could be told visually," says Sirlin, whose projections serve as transitions from scene to scene in a cinematic style. "I tried to build each scene to be fairly unique, yet related to the ones that precede it or come after," he says. "I wanted the imagery to flow as it tells the story."
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set in medieval Paris with the cathedral of Notre Dame as a central location. "I try to draw from elements of the period," says Sirlin, who spent a few days in Paris taking photographs of the Seine and of Notre Dame and the breathtaking views from the cathedral. "The pictures served as source material," he explains, noting that he used versions of the cathedral's gargoyles and other architectural elements to capture the essence of Notre Dame. "You can create a lot of movement with the projections. The audience believes what you tell them if you do it right."
There are projections used in every scene of the show. "Sometimes they are more for scenery or an effect, a texture or an image," continues Sirlin. "There are a variety of ways of working with the large-format projectors and defining your gobos a little differently." An incredibly beautiful use of the projections is a scene that takes place on a bridge above, and then in, the Seine. "The rear set of cubes is raised to create a projection wall 14' (4.3m) high," explains Sirlin. "The other rows of cubes are on a rake, from a 10' (3m) height right down to the floor to create a surface for the scrolling water to flow beneath the projection of an arched bridge with the sky as a backdrop."
One of the only solid scenic pieces used is a series of arches with false perspective. As the arches fly in to create the interior of Notre Dame, Sirlin's scrolling projections add texturing and dimension, as well as a mysterious element. "This gives them a different quality than just lighting them," he points out. "Projections that work architecturally add a dimensionality that replaces hard scenery." Sirlin projects not only on the cubes that break up the stage in various ways, but also on a series of black boxes or "egg crates" that echo the shape of the cubes and serve as multilevel entryways on both sides of the stage.
Rick Fisher's lighting design was based around the heavy projections in the show. "I was challenged by working with a variable floor and the front and back projection," he says. "I had to keep the light constrained and off of the surfaces with projections. I needed a flexible rig to deal with all the moving elements and their infinite set of configurations."
Using what has been called the largest moving light rig specified for a Broadway-style musical, Fisher had 106 automated fixtures at his disposal, including 12 Vari*Lite VL7B(TM)s with shutters, 42 Vari*Lite VL7(TM)s, 28 Amptown arc washlights with shutters, and 24 Amptown tungsten washlights with shutters. The rig, supplied by Lightpower of Paderhorn, Germany, and installed by Despar Licht und Buhnentechnik of Mainz-Hechtsheim, Germany, also includes 170 ETC Source Four 575W ellipsoidals, two DeSisti 2,000W fresnels, 28 Studio Due Citycolor 1,800W HQIs (outdoor version) with dichroic color changers, 153 Rainbow color scrollers, two DHA digital beamlights, two Reich and Vogel 1,000W beamlight followspots, and three 2,500W tungsten Robert Juliat Margot followspots.
The Studio Due fixtures were used to internally light the cubes with an even interior color wash, with one per cube in rows A and C, and two per cube in row B. An additional six fixtures are used to light the rear-projection screen and give it a variable full-color background for the projected images.
The zoom possibility on the VL7 is one of the reasons Fisher selected these units; the other was the flexibility of the stage floor. "I never knew where the floor might be and the VL7 allowed me to cover a great amount of space. I also fell in love with the animated effects, and used the rotating gobo and a fixed one to morph fire and water effects."
Manufactured in Germany, the Amptown fixtures provide a washlight with a PC (plano-convex or pebble-convex) lens instead of a fresnel lens, and they also have a built-in shuttering system with remote control via DMX. "I didn't want spill," says Fisher about his choice of the Amptowns. "I wanted to be able to shave light off of the cubes." Overhead he used the arc version of the Amptown fixture for an intense blue-white light. "With these fixtures, you can shape the light in infinite ways," Fisher notes. "The fresnel lens didn't work as well. The PC lens allowed good clean edges."
With just four electrics pipes over the stage, Fisher hung a mix of VL7s, Amptown arc washlights, and Source Fours with color scrollers, mostly to light the "egg crates" along the sides of the stage and the actors standing on the edges of them. "Most of the lighting of the people comes from the side, to avoid lighting the projections," explains Fisher, who used each egg crate to shelter a lighting tree with three or four instruments.
"I like to light the people with tungsten sources as much as possible for three reasons," says Fisher. "First, there is more contrast with the projections; second, there is more of a sense of the period; and third, the tungsten looks more natural on skin tones and costumes." The DHA digital beam lights were used "almost like extra followspots, or various hot, bright soft-edged specials on people," Fisher says. These were hidden behind the proscenium arch, along with some of the show's loudspeakers and other lighting instruments to help keep the modern look of the theatre as uncluttered as possible.
In this version of Hunchback, Quasimodo's gargoyle friends come alive, leaving their faux plaster casts atop Notre Dame. As they frolic about, they are lit with the Robert Juliat Margot followspots, one for each gargoyle in the musical numbers. "The use of followspots was controversial," Fisher admits. "The tungsten ones are not as bright as the HMIs, but they blend in better."
The color palette Fisher used to light the actors includes a lot of open white and cooler tones to help with contrast against the projections. He used what he calls "flesh-friendly" colors such as Lee 200, 201, and 202, as well as more intense dichroic reds and blues for the more emotional moments.
He also used color to make the projections come alive, or "add another flavor," as he puts it. "I was trying to light the people without disturbing the projections. They are so strong an element, providing atmosphere and color to set the scene," Fisher says, adding, "So the lighting's job is different, more to light the people in a sympathetic tone within the atmosphere of the projections." Smoke and fog add another layer to this atmosphere, with nine Smoke Factory Data DMX-controlled smoke generators, four MDG Atmosphere hazemakers, four Bowens Jetstream machines, and three NMS liquid nitrogen fog generators.
The sound design for the show is very straightforward, with nothing prerecorded and very few special effects. "Everything you hear is live," says Tony Meola, who reports that the new theatre is "really quite good acoustically for a large musical. It's not too reverberant, yet reverberant enough to make the orchestra sound good and you can hear the words of the songs." Meola equalized the room using the Meyer SIM CAD II system.
Notre Dame wouldn't be Notre Dame without its famous bells, an effect that is produced live in the pit on electric keyboards and routed through the console, a Cadac J-Type with motorized faders. Michel Weber is the head sound operator who runs the sound for the show.
With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Hunchback benefits from Meola's personal approach to sound design. "I am a simple sound designer," he says. "I like as few things as possible between the human voice and the loudspeaker; I like straight signals."
Meola used a mix of self-powered speakers from Meyer with 13 Meyer CQ1s, four Meyer CQ2s, and six Meyer 650Ps for the overhead cluster and along the sides of the proscenium arch, plus six Meyer UPA 1 C/Ps for orchestra fill and four Meyer UM 1 C/Ps for stage monitors. Additional speakers include eight Apogee SAT3s for front-fill and an additional eight for balcony delay, plus 10 Apogee SSM speakers for mezzanine delay. Amplifiers include nine Apogee SA-700s and four Apogee DA-800s. Two Meyer 650P speakers are used in the rear orchestra as surrounds for the really loud bells.
"The Meyer CQ speakers are really terrific and just what I needed for the scope of this show and the size of the theatre," says Meola. In a departure from his habit of using large speakers in the balcony of a theatre, here Meola used the smaller Apogee units, since this balcony is very shallow. "This is a new thing for me," he says, noting that the sound in the balcony seems like it's coming directly from the stage.
Meola faced a few unusual challenges with this production, including the fact that the actors insist on having humidifiers onstage. "These are loud things, pumping moisture into the air," he explains. "It's like a steam bath backstage." Additional moisture comes from the heavy costumes that make the actors sweat into the microphones (Sennheiser's new M2E2 Golds) which are mostly placed in the hair.
His other major challenge is the large number of automated fixtures in the lighting rig. "The fans make the ambient noise level go up so many decibels that you cannot stand on the stage and be heard without screaming," he says.
"There is never a sound 'blackout' until the dimmer racks are shut down. The moving lights are terrific, and I understand why the designers use them, but they make my job really difficult. I wish the lighting manufacturers would be more responsible. You can baffle the fans; we do it with the amplifiers."
Will this Hunchback be seen outside of Germany? "We had a chance to experiment with things, as we were creating something special for Berlin," says Fisher. "This is a show for a modern German theatre, not any existing West End or Broadway venue. Hopefully the production will have another life with a different approach."