When I was first contacted about lighting The Citizens Band, I didn't know very much about it. I assumed that it was a rock band with five to 10 people. I had heard that the show had a bit of a stylized edge and that it had leanings toward the avante garde. I was told that there was a very limited budget and timeline for the upcoming show. I planned on bringing together a PAR can rig that I would use to keep up with the music during a 45-minute set. I knew that the band generally performs in art galleries in New York City and has a long-standing relationship with the Deitch Gallery in Soho. I had recently worked in the Deitch Gallery, shooting a music video with the band Fischerspooner. I knew the space, and I knew that it had very limited production facilities. I was preparing for a “no-brainer” quick weekend gig that I'd forget about as soon as the next gig came along. Then I had my first meeting with The Citizens Band, and my whole world changed.
The Citizens Band is an artists' collective of performers, actors, acrobats, aerialists, singers, and musicians. It is highly stylized to be reminiscent of the Weimar Republic cabaret troupes of the early 20th century. Much of the music is a revival of early 20th century folk and jazz, with performances made up of some original music and some old standards. To experience an evening of The Citizens Band leaves one's mind suspended in a hazy netherworld where history becomes the present. The group uses performance art, choreographed acrobatics, and song to entertain its audience but also to comment on the political, social, and environmental ramifications of the current world order.
The Citizens Band was writing a new show called Chewing Up the Scenery, which was meant to be a metaphor and a warning. The creative team wanted to tell a story of how the world's current actions are destined to destroy the environment and transform otherwise civilized people into survivalists, fighting for their lives and the survival of their families in an environmental wasteland. While talking through the elements of the show with one of the founders, Sarah Sophie Flicker, and stage manager Sara Shives, my interest was piqued beyond what I had anticipated. I had no idea what they were talking about: they said they were concerned about getting enough light on the trapeze. Could I light the Spanish web when the performer was spinning through the wide radius of the 20' vertical rope; was there some way to use lighting to express the vibe of the four seasons and to make it transition through the show from spring to winter; could I help them create a black and white flickering movie effect onstage; could I create a thunder and lightning storm onstage that would suspend reality; could the lighting be very flexible and accommodate the somewhat liquid nature of this work-in-progress?
Chewing Up the Scenery performances would take place over three days during the opening weekend of the Deitch Gallery's new art show, The Garden Party, which showcased garden-themed pieces from over 20 international artists. Scenically, The Citizens Band wanted to use the gallery and its new art installation as the performance space. One piece from The Garden Party, Paolo Pivi's Grass Slope, was so large that it occupied half of the gallery's footprint, and it would become a major scenic element for The Citizens Band. It is a 25' wide by 40' long grass hill, made of real sod grass from South Carolina, with a slope that starts at ground level and extends uphill to be 15' tall.
During the performance, they needed the whole room to begin as a warm spring morning in the forest (innocence, nature) and then transform through the seasons, getting warmer and hotter until it became an arid desert in the summer (global warming gone to the extreme of pollution). Then, for the finale, we'd transition to the rebirth of spring as a suggestion, a possibility of life, fleeting hope. A flower would grow from the ground to the ceiling carrying an aerialist toward the light of hope.
Deitch Projects is no stranger to mounting performances. However, this particular event presented new challenges for them. The area traditionally used as a stage was unusable as such for this event because of the layout of The Garden Party sculptures. A 14'-tall Buddha statue called Under the Tree by Ravinder Revi stood at the corner of the platform. The original plan was to have this piece moved for The Citizens Band's performances, but the 800lb. Buddha proved too large and delicate to be relocated in the time that was allocated. This was discovered literally hours before the truck was scheduled to deliver the lighting package. There were more pieces and artists involved in The Garden Party than the Deitch Gallery ever had in one show before, and they were very sensitive to having staging and trussing set in front of their works.
The Citizens Band was to have its opening performance on Saturday night. Due to the opening of The Garden Party, we would not be allocated weeks of installation time to be perfectly set into the gallery space. We were not allowed to install any production (except the aerial rigging) before the party let out at 11pm on Friday. The management at the Deitch could only offer us a few hours of setup time on the day of the first show and a few hours of pre-rigging the day before to install the aerial elements: trapeze, Spanish web, vine-swing, and “spider's web.” They were going to install some 4'×8' risers to extend an already existing platform in the gallery. This would suffice as a sort of stage, but they weren't really sure in what direction or in what configuration these risers would be laid out. These would also be installed in the few hours we had before the first show.
There would be as many as 30 people onstage at any given point. The major show pieces had been blocked. However, due to the uncertainty of how the space would be configured, there were still several major holes to be filled in on show day. The show was developing as they rehearsed it, and their rehearsals were pretty fluid. I had heard a lot of the music; some of it would be new to me as of opening night.
I decided that the only way to accommodate all of the creative demands of the show, as well as logistical demands of the space, was to arm the light plot with moving lights. Conventional focus would prove too risky for several reasons. For one thing, we were restricted heavily by the labor budget. Secondly, even if we had enough people, moving a lift around the space was extremely dangerous, considering that the cost of these sculptures exceeded $1 million in some cases. We would have to install lighting on an overnight shift Friday into Saturday. We needed to slip in between the opening party and the gallery's opening at 11am the next day. The staging risers and some of the blocking would not even be set until the sound check late Saturday afternoon, and there would be no time to refocus after that. Creatively, I needed the ability to have very few lights function in many different ways. I needed to create texture, subtle color transitions, excitement, and drama. I needed to be able to wash large areas for full company numbers, while also maintaining the ability to isolate a delicate aerial ballet over the grass hill.
The founders of The Citizens Band, living and rehearsing in lower Manhattan, had a long-standing relationship with their neighbors, Big Apple Lights. I contacted Big Apple's president, Patrick O'Rourke, to see if he could help out. Although he was very welcoming, at the time, they did not have what I needed in the shop. Considering my very limited budget, I couldn't push for a sub-rental, and I had to look for another kind heart. I called Susan Tesh at PRG. She and Chris Daly took the project under their wings. PRG provided 10 Vari-Lite VL1000s™, four Martin Professional Atomic Strobes, and 15 ETC Source Fours® (mostly for house light). I provided my own Flying Pig Systems Hog PC kit (with programming and playback wings), and we had a rig! I loaded the VLs with leaf templates and set about making a flexible plot. In order to keep the lighting profile as unobtrusive as possible, I forewent using flown trusses and opted for a different rigging method. The ceiling of the gallery had exposed trestle beams on 7' centers; 10' pipes would be spanned between the beams and rested on top of the flanges. This would keep the front of the lights from protruding into the visual terrain of the artwork.
As of 4pm Friday, the day of the load-in, the exact location of the staging risers was still undetermined. We were down to two options, so I made two light plots. At 10pm, when I arrived at the gallery, I was informed that the Buddha statue would not be relocating. Plan B became the plot we'd use. I won't list all the difficulties that were encountered on the overnight install, but let's just say that the not-so-funny-at-the-time comedy of errors included a crew shortage, missing boom lift keys, dead scissor lift batteries, small tie-in lugs, etc. But somehow — maybe because we left the Buddha unharmed — we had the rig singing by 6am the next morning. With the skylights in the room, I was left with about two hours of focus/programming time before it was too bright to work. We left for a few hours of sleep and came back around 4pm.
On Saturday, during the group's sound check/rehearsal/blocking session/props setup/costume/makeup call (about two hours before doors), I programmed as quickly as possible. I had a set list, and I'd spent some time laying out pages and cue lists ahead of time. I used the time during sound check to get a look-per-song structure and to take some quick notes about internal cues to be added later. I touched up focus as well as I could and learned where the various actions would take place. After the sound check, I took the opportunity to mix colors quickly before the doors opened. I continued on after doors, programming blind and getting my marks in place. I knew that this was going to be a rough first show, but the last thing I wanted was the audience to know it.
The hipster crowd of downtown art patrons filed in and headed for the cocktail counters. The room was full of haze — the good kind. It was the kind of haze that every LD wishes for: no swirling, no clouds, just a good layer that permeates every corner of the space, like a primordial, ethereal soup. The gallery lights were off, and the room was aglow with a light green template wash. There were slowly moving streaks of light lingering on the hazy canvas, and the Buddha statue was awash in golden light, undulating with a soft focused, slowly spinning pattern. The band got into place, and the harp player began a descending array of notes, like the fairy tale beginning of a childlike dream. I began to fade the lights as slowly as my hands could control until the music settled down. As the overture began, the company entered the space from all sides and in all directions, almost trancelike, chanting melodically. The band transitioned into the first few notes of the old classic, made famous by Nina Simone, Feelin' Good. The followspot (Source Four with spot kit) slowly faded up on a singer way up at the top of the grass hill. As she started to sing the first few lines, my awareness of myself faded away. I'm not really sure what happened after that.
I had one of those nights, those experiences as designers that we wish for and hope for and strive for, where we get to be completely immersed in the moment, painting and sculpting and shading and mixing and living in the moment with the work. A little splash of color here, a broad stroke of grit over there, a highlight across a singers cheek, a performer basking in a warm pool of downlight while being haloed in congo blue. I mixed almost all of the internal cues live and had to keep reminding myself to record the new cues so I'd have a place to go the next night. The space became ours, and we became one with the audience. At the end of the 90 minutes, when I cross-faded to the walk-out look, I was completely spent.
The process continued over the next three shows (two on Sunday and one on Monday), and the work got better and more cohesive as it went on. During Sunday's sound check, performers were coming to me and talking me through their changes and choreographing their movements with the movement of the lighting. I continued to mix live and bask in the beauty of this thing that we were creating. After the last show, we laughed together that we were ready to open now, since we had spent the last three days teching the show.
I remember having this feeling, after the work lights were on and all the lamps were doused and power cut to the rig, with the lights left in whatever position that gravity had dictated. It was the feeling that we had somehow created a brief and fleeting window into a reality that can only exist in the dreamlike state of art that we call theatre. I will work all the days of my life just for the chance of reliving that feeling of transcendence that comes when the houselights go out and the magic begins.
Marc Janowitz is a lighting designer and programmer whose work includes over 15 years of design and production with artists including Cirque de Soleil, Blue Man Group, Boston Ballet, The Metropolitan Opera, Forbidden Broadway, and Theatre by the Blind. Visit his website at www.marcjanowitz.com.
Marc Janowitz's personally thanks…“The Citizens Band (www.thecitizensband.net) and the wonderful and creative talent pool that they encompass; David Marcucci and Richard Adams, my trusted and determined crew who wouldn't quit even after both lifts did; Patrick O'Rourke from Big Apple Lights (www.balny.com); Susan Tesh and Chris Daly from PRG (www.prg.com); Sara Shives, the stage manager whose efforts go so far beyond that of the traditional role; Jeffrey Deitch and Suzanne Geiss from Deitch Projects and their dedicated team. (www.deitch.com).”