British imports are all the rage in New York this season, with no less than a dozen different productions to be seen on and off Broadway. In the first wave of plays from London, Electra and The Blue Room have come via the Donmar Warehouse, Phedre and Britannicus by way of the Almeida, and Blue Heart from The Royal Court. Amy's View, Closer, Not About Nightingales, Marlene, The Iceman Cometh, The Weir, and Via Dolorosa, all seen in London last season, are scheduled for New York engagements later this spring.
One of the hottest tickets in both London and New York was The Blue Room, David Hare's updated version of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, directed by Sam Mendes, of the current Broadway revival of Cabaret, which also originated at the Donmar Warehouse. The play itself was not the cause for all the excitement, but rather a rare stage performance by film star Nicole Kidman, who played five different female characters in 10 scenes of sexual partnering with Iain Glen in the male roles. Mark Thompson designed a clever set with side walls that moved up and down to allow furniture to roll on and off, and define a series of different locations. Hugh Vanstone's lighting followed the mood of each scene.
"The lighting is quite deliberately not naturalistic," says Vanstone. "The visual aesthetic of the show is not very realistic." For flexibility, he used a variety of Vari*Lite(R) automated luminaires, including four VL6(TM), four VL5B(TM), and six VL5Arc(TM) fixtures. He also used two of the new VL7s(TM), noting that "their zoom is remarkable and the color-mixing is great as well," but had to add noise baffles to use them successfully in this production. He put the VL7s to different uses, from washing the full set to zooming in on a bunch of flowers using a beam diameter of less than 1'. "We made the decision to use high color temperature discharge sources for shafts of light and intense dichroic blue with a zingy look," he says.
Conventional fixtures included nearly 100 assorted ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, with very little color except Lee 201 color correction. The first scene takes place near a river, and a water ripple effect was created with a City Theatrical EFX Plus2 unit in a Source Four ellipsoidal with one DHA 903 reflected water template and one glass breakup pattern. The VL7s added a deeper blue to the scene. "The overall look is vaguely naturalistic," says Vanstone, "but as the scene progresses toward sex, the VL7s take over for a brighter, more heightened effect."
In other scenes, the Vari*Lites were used to create squares or circles of downlight, and a template in a VL7 created the look of a rotating fan. Birdie footlights with Lee 203 created the feel of candlelight, while Lighting & Electronics MiniStrips with Lee 120 were used to wash down the walls, which were outlined with dimmable blue neon. "The neon was in the design from the beginning," Vanstone points out. "The blue defined the room."
Red neon was also used to outline a gauze scrim, and white neon in the floor uplighted a wall during one scene. A neon sign with the words The Blue Room was seen at the top of the one-act show, and reappeared reversed at the end, as the theatre was flooded with blue light from the VL7s and ETC Source Four PARs, as if the audience itself was now in the blue room. In keeping with the blue set, all the lighting instruments and the truss hanging over the stage were painted blue, including the Vari*Lites and Source Fours. The conventional lighting equipment was provided by Four Star, with the Vari*Lite package provided by Vari-Lite's New York office. Vivien Leone served as assistant lighting designer in New York; David Holmes filled that post in London.
Vanstone is no stranger to New York, having had three of his productions transfer from London last year, including the award-winning Art. In assessing any differences in US vs. UK aesthetics, he finds that American lighting is more equipment-obsessed and that the light plots are more symmetrical: "The European approach is less formulated, more mix-and-match." Vanstone also finds that there is usually more paperwork in the US than in the UK, where things tend to be less computerized. "Generally the way we work is to leave some decisions to the last minute or change things later, it's no big deal. In the American style, you're expected to be right on from the very first step."
In contrast to Vanstone's automated rig for The Blue Room stands Paul Pyant's minimal equipment requirements for Electra, Frank McGuinness' adaptation of the Greek classic, directed by David Leveaux and with a tour-de-force performance by British actress Zoe Wanamaker in the title role. The rig for Electra (provided in New York by Bash/PRG) has just over 100 conventional fixtures, including 74 ETC Source Fours, 36 1kW PAR-64s, and three Arri 4kW HMI fresnels (used without dimming shutters).One MDG Atmosphere haze generator is also used, as well as a custom-built water/ blood drip effect, the current version made by the McCarter Theatre technical department in Princeton, NJ, where this production of Electra made its US debut.
"The story is timeless and as true today as it was then. The design could be anytime in the last millennium," says Pyant, in a telephone interview from his studio in Sussex, England. In fact, the program notes compare the realities in Electra to the situation in war-torn Bosnia. "The text is cruel and uncompromising. That is why we chose the cold white light of the HMI fresnels," he explains. The choice to use them without dimming shutters allows the audience to see them heating up. "They add an enormous sense of space and a timeless quality," says Pyant, who adds that the HMIs are fired up mechanically, with a stagehand turning them on and off. There is no color in any of the lights, except Lee 201 to match color temperatures.
"There are only 14 cues in the show, and two are blackouts," he continues. "There is no need for more." His cues are basically subtle, with one light picking out an actor for emphasis. "The action doesn't need any distractions; the focus of the show comes from the actors and the direction," says Pyant. "This is not a normal Broadway rig or normal Broadway fare. The producers took a terrific gamble, but one that has paid off."
There is a slow build in the intensity of the lighting for the entrance of Claire Bloom as the murderous Clytemnestra. "She represents someone with another point of view and stands out from the agony around her," says Pyant. She is also dressed in red, the only real color in the set and contemporary costumes designed by Johan Engels. "The set is simply eloquent," the LD says, noting that Engels is primarily an opera designer who is very good at grand gestures.
When the back wall of the set opens to reveal a large white staircase, redesigned for the Broadway production due to space constraints, Pyant used even more white light, reflected in multiple mirrors to give a sense of infinity. The lighting rig itself is exposed, although less so on Broadway than it was at the McCarter where much of it hung on a truss over the forestage. "The amount of equipment has changed according to the venue, but the shape of the show never changed," says Pyant, who explains that this production started at England's Chichester Festival in the summer of 1997, toured around the UK until it hit the Donmar Warehouse, and made its transatlantic transfer to the McCarter before moving to New York.
Water that drips continuously throughout Electra turns to blood at the end of the play, as another murder has taken place in the cyclical nature of the action. Pyant lit the drip with one single downlight. "What's important is the visual contrast of Electra with most other Broadway shows. We have enough to make simple, strong statements and don't need a lot of cues."
The British invasion took in Brooklyn as well, as a trio of high-profile London productions played limited engagements at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theatre. First off was a pair of works by 17th-century French tragedian Jean Racine, Phedre and Brittanicus, produced by the Almeida Theatre, which served as a showcase for actors Diana Rigg and Toby Stephens. Next came The Royal Court production of Caryl Churchill's Blue Heart, a pair of experimental one-acts.
Although written within a few years of each other, Phedre and Brittanicus were given radically different settings by designer Maria Bjornson. Phedre, a dark tale of sexual obsession taken from Greek antiquity, had a modified 17th-century look in both scenery and costumes, while Britannicus, a brutal, blackly comic tale of political infighting in ancient Rome, was set in the corridors of a modern fascist state.
Both settings featured the same challenging ground plan, in which a towering, sharply angled pair of walls formed a V at center stage, virtually bisecting the playing area into two deeply recessed hallways. In Phedre, the walls were dominated by tall leaded windows, a reproduction of the painting Allegory of Passion by the Renaissance artist Bronzino, and a statue of Venus that appeared to be leaping to its death. For Brittanicus, the same setting was transformed into an august Roman government building, the ancient interior contrasted with modern furnishings such as black-and-chrome chairs and a pair of fish tanks. The predominantly blue set was decorated with red wall hangings and red carpet, a premonition of the bloody tragedy to come.
LD Mark Henderson found Bjornson's stunning set designs "challenging, to say the least." For Phedre, he says, "I put a lot of trust in being able to use banks of PARs lighting through the shutters and windows as the key light source," while units placed behind the stage left proscenium were added to provide fill. "I was able to get good positions just inside the proscenium and downstage of the proscenium, so I was able to use sidelight reasonably easily." There were other challenges, too: "The sightline through the tall windows meant that the cyc scrim had to be very high. This dictated the height of the banks of PARs placed behind--they were a little too high to achieve good facial light. We got around this problem by using a low-level boom to get crosslight through the windows."
Fortunately, Henderson says, "I had done a production of The Rules of the Game with Jonathan [Kent, director of Phedre and Brittanicus], where we used a similar theory, so I knew that he would accommodate staging and blocking to achieve the effect we wanted." Indeed, Kent used lighting to create one of the production's most striking moments. As Phedre, Rigg entered and played her first scene with her face averted from the audience. Then, as she admitted for passionate feelings for Hippolytus, her stepson, she stepped forward into the sidelight, her face fully revealed as a mask of shame and fury.
For the transitions between the play's five acts, a shimmering watery light was seen through the windows. It was, Henderson says, "a video sea effect by Tony Palmer, supplemented by a ripple tank effect. This was achieved with PAR units at low level, lighting into water tanks, with fans to ripple the water, and then reflecting back up onto the cyc scrim." This effect was used at the play's climax, to supplement a strange film effect of stormy skies, when the servant Theramene recounts the death of Hippolytus. As the action concluded with Phedre's suicide, a warmer light (created with R317 Apricot) came through the windows, followed by the final image of the now-dead heroine sitting straight up in a chair revealed in a single shaft of light.
In contrast to the severe grandeur of Phedre, Henderson used a number of architectural touches to give Brittanicus an alluring noir quality. Unlike Phedre, the Brittanicus set had no windows, so the LD created a setting defined by the use of interior light. Bjornson designed an architectural grid over the main playing area, to suggest an old building adapted for modern use. Henderson placed 12V PAR-36 pinspots with very narrow lamps on the grid; these created pools of downlight which isolated a number of points onstage. "The fish tanks were underlit by floods mounted inside the base under them," says Henderson, adding, "the color was Lee 116 [Medium Blue-Green]." This created an especially sinister moment, when Nero spied on Julia, whom he has kidnapped, with Brittanicus, whom she loves. As the lovers played out their scene, Nero was glimpsed through the eerie green light of the tanks, his body casting a large and threatening shadow on the opposite wall.
Another particularly eerie touch was a series of small heads, individually uplighted, which represented Nero's predecessors. "They were underlit by fiber-optic ends threaded through the wall and picture-framed to each head," says Henderson, who used a 12V 75W lamp as the light source. Altogether, these touches gave a sinister, late-night feeling that was ideal for a play in which even the most intimate relationships are used as blunt instruments of political power.
For both productions, Henderson says, "We used pretty much all the BAM in-house stock, plus 40 extra PARs." The shows were controlled by an Obsession console from ETC. Commenting on both productions, the designer credits "Jonathan Kent and the acting company, who were very aware, cooperative, and enthusiastic about achieving the effects we wanted. It was very difficult for them at times, as they had to hit precise points throughout the evenings."
Technical challenges of another sort were found in Caryl Churchill's Blue Heart directed by Max Stafford-Clark for the Out of Joint touring company. A co-production with the Royal Court, Blue Heart is actually two one-act plays performed on one set designed by Julian McGowan with lighting by Johanna Town. The first play, Heart's Desire, takes place in a contemporary kitchen where a family is waiting for the daughter to come home.
Written as a theatrical experiment, the scenes continually repeat themselves as the characters go back in time, pick up the action, and go off on different tangents. "This is meant to challenge the audience's view of what theatre is, and what we expect from the stage," says Town. "You have to stop and think about what you are seeing and hearing."
As the action repeats, the lighting keeps repeating as well. "There are 100 cues in a half-hour play," says Town. "They are all based on the four basic cues we felt were needed for the final scenario. They keep jumping back in time, so the lighting jumps back as well." Her challenge was to be able to jump back to exactly the right cue for any given moment in the play. "I broke my script into colors, and had a green cue and a blue cue, for example."
The second one-act may be even more challenging. Called Blue Kettle, the words of the title pop up continually, replacing other words in the text. The story of a young man searching for his lost mother takes place in various locations, so the lighting needed to indicate the locales as quickly as possible on a rather generic set with white frosted Plexiglas walls, gray carpet, and a single bench center stage.
To meet the challenge of both one acts, Town used a small rig with four Vari*Lite VL6 automated luminaires and approximately 60 conventional fixtures. In Blue Kettle, the VL6s were used to project images of railroad stations, windows, gardens, parks, and an apartment as the action switched from location to location, yet the fixtures do not move at all. "We found it was too distracting to move the images; we wanted the young man to be the focus." Yet she found that the Vari*Lites were extremely useful as the production went on an 18-country tour last year, sometimes playing in venues in such places as Moscow and Estonia, with very limited lighting equipment available.
"We also went to the Edinburgh Festival where there is very little time to change over and no time to hang and refocus conventional fixtures. We'd just wheel in the Vari*Lites and they'd be ready to go." A Strand 520 console is used to run the Vari*Lites (a board from the UK was brought over for BAM). Production electrician Matthew O'Connor tours with the show.
Some of the UK instrumentation, such as PC spots and zoom profiles, became various-size ellipsoidals from the house rig at BAM. "We needed to work out the angles to make sure we covered the stage," says Town. "We're lazy as lighting designers in England. You have to do your homework with the American equipment. We're used to variable zoom lanterns so it's easier to make changes. You have a little bit of leeway on either side."
Town's color palette moves from the gray-blue of Rosco 63 Pale Blue used as daylight in the first one-act to the warmer lavender of Rosco 52 Light Lavender in the second. "We wanted it to look more domestic and friendly and not as cold as the kitchen," she says. "The goal is for the set and lighting to not be over-possessive of the play. We are presenting the audience with an experiment in theatre." New York awaits further experimentation this season.