Comedy isn't pretty--even when it's placed in as beautiful a setting as snow-capped, affluent Aspen, CO. Billed as "the four coolest days of winter," February 26 to March 1 marked HBO's third annual US Comedy Festival, which featured 60 performers in over 70 different shows. This year was the festival's most ambitious to date, with acts appearing in nine different venues throughout the town. Aspen being no metropolis, there was something funny going on everywhere you turned--hotel ballrooms, lobbies, the town's youth center, the usually quiet streets, and even on the ski slopes (for one contest). Making that many acts in that many places look good--and, also, in some cases, look good on television--required a lot of organization, a skilled production crew, and the added flexibility of automated lighting.
Only one venue, the Wheeler Opera House, actually handles a wide range of performers on a regular basis. This is where audiences piled in to see the festival's bigger-name shows: Rodney Dangerfield's 75th Birthday Roast, George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy, a taping of Dennis Miller Live, the tribute to Saturday Night Live, and the American Film Institute retrospective honoring director Rob Reiner. The local high school's District Theater housed John Fisher's Medea the Musical, but the rest of the performance spaces were created from available area hotels.
LD Allen Branton has probably designed hundreds of lighting systems for live televised specials that have benefited from automated lighting. Ever since their inception, Vari*Lite(R) automated luminaires have gotten a lot of press for their presence on high-profile concert tours such as Pink Floyd or Genesis, where they are often programmed to create flashy and spectacular effects. Looks such as those are much less frequently seen when Vari*Lites are used on TV; Branton feels that this event specifically show-cases the luminaires' assets for which they were originally created. Namely, to save time used up by focusing and regelling.
"Automated lighting was really essential to how this project was put together, and I find that fascinating," Branton says. "The entire event poses several frightful constraints, the worst of which is lack of time--the venues are all jammed with events going on one right after another, and they all have different lighting needs. There is also a limited amount of power in many of these spaces, and a small labor pool in the Aspen Valley.
"So, using old-fashioned, cheaper gear and having stagehands change it over for each act is not feasible, because you don't have enough stagehands to do the whole festival as it is. Even if you could pretend it didn't cost more, or that it gave you as good a result, you couldn't pull it off anyway. I was really pleased that we could take this technology and apply it to this down-and-dirty workhorse role and have it do so well," Branton continues. "It's exactly what it was designed for, and we never could have pulled off what we did here without it."
Line producer Keiren Fisher was also completely impressed with this year's lighting package, and how much it improved the widespread event. "With my job description, anything that saves time and money and still works is what we like," Fisher says. "Once they've got this gear up they've got total coverage, so next morning they have time to refocus, but it's not like recreating the wheel--there doesn't need to be any additional hanging, which is a real positive. Of course, there are always surprises that come up, but Allen covered his bases extremely well by having those systems there. And the crew--those guys were just amazingly quick in fixing any problems we had."
The Wheeler had the largest automated system, but just a few blocks down the street at the historic Jerome Hotel, in a back room reconfigured to accommodate a series of one-person plays, LD John Osborne, Vari*Lite operator Ken Hudson, and Lou Viola oversaw a smaller but perhaps more appreciated automated lighting system. This venue hosted two to three performances as well as assorted rehearsals per day for shows such as Tony Award-winner Hinton Battle's one-man show, Shine (derived from a shoe-shine man, not an Australian pianist), Andrea Bendewald's Above and Beyond, which is about the first few weeks on the job for a rookie female cop in New York City, and various other performances from the Ensemble Studio Theatre: The L.A. Project.
"We have a generic rep plot, and we may not get everything done perfectly, but we get very close for most of the acts. Most of them are used to having one spotlight, so this is great for them," Hudson says. "The VL6s(TM) act as our lighting specials and we have the VL5s(TM) to light the proscenium, so it works out very well."
Viola, who is in charge of scouting theatre pieces for the festival and then supervising their move to Aspen, has been thrilled with the improvement automated lighting has brought to this venue, which was outfitted with strictly conventional gear the first year. "We learned that first year that we could not have done any more shows than we did--and we had fewer artists then. So the nine separate one-act plays we have to light here can be done with conventional lighting by using specials, but there is no flexibility that way," Viola says. "In rep or on a short schedule, you don't have time to refocus and regel. The variation and flexibility of the Vari*Lite systems allow us to create completely brand-new productions in ridiculously short amounts of time. These shows have never been produced or they've been underproduced--and they've never been teched. Some acts have even taken cues and looks from here and integrated them into their shows after the festival is over."
The difficulties the crew faced the first year at the Jerome venue originally prompted Branton to add automated lighting. "I thought if we could just put some automated lights in there it would solve everybody's problems," Branton says. "The new wide-angle lens had just come out on the VL6, so I knew that we could set those up as a short-throw ellipsoidal substitute. This year, the different lensing kits that we used on the VL5s and VL6s for short throws, medium throws, and long throws is really what made it feasible to do these jobs in these tiny little places that have such low ceilings. Because most similar fixtures--even the ones Vari-Lite offered a couple of years ago--wouldn't have suited this situation."
Over at the Ritz, in one of the downstairs ballrooms, stand-up comedians came and went at a breakneck pace that lasted well into the late hours. From mandolin-playing Englishman John Hegler's Love Cuts to Seth Isler acting out all of the parts in The Godfather films by himself, to the improvisations of the Chicago-based group Bitter Noah and the guitar-wielding antics of Tenacious D, LD Tom Beck and lighting director/ Vari*Lite operator Matt Ford hammered out the best look for each act. "I just wish we had more time to set up the looks," Beck says.
Besides the time constraints, this particular room had chandeliers hanging from very low ceilings. "We had a lot of obstacles to contend with, so the flexibility of the automated system was incredible," Ford says. "Last year, they just had the conventional rig and what was required in terms of man-hours for refocusing took forever, whereas we had VL6s and VL5s and it was great. Some of these acts wanted us to spit out their entire show, down to a red wash over here, a single spotlight here, and if we had had a conventional setup there is no way we could have done that. The system really allowed us to accommodate what every group wanted, and we were able to produce that with only about 30-40 minutes of programming time available for each act."
The crew still put in very long hours, because groups would arrive to rehearse just as another one finished. "But that gave us time to fine tune everything, and it worked out really well, as far as the communication between each stage manager and Tommy and myself--it was a really wonderful atmosphere. Tom Beck is incredible to work with--he's a great designer and he has a good political sense with other people. When they'd ask for something that just wouldn't quite work on camera, he was great at reaching a compromise with everybody. It's always a great feeling to be able to give people what they want. I can't think of anything that we weren't able to deliver."
The person responsible for delivering the production elements to Aspen is Michael Goodwin, the event's overall staging supervisor. "I grew into this job by running the lighting department, so I do all the preproduction of everything and then pass on the lighting end of it to Spike, and he executes it with his people." Lighting crew chief Doug Brandt (aka Spike), who has worked on all three of these comedy festivals, had the special responsibility of setting up all of the smaller venues--and overseeing those and everything else.
"Basically, if there was a problem somewhere I had to run over and sort it out," Brandt says. "If everything was fine, I didn't have to do anything. I just made sure they got up and running. Everything went really well this year; it's fun. It's a lot of work--obviously for any gig that has so much going on, you're just constantly running to keep it all moving. But I liked it. Even though, no matter how much gear you bring, you still run out. It's amazing."
Brandt also worked as DP Larry Boothby's gaffer on the exterior lighting of both the Ritz and the Wheeler. "We lit two- and four-block areas, and I used Musco lights at the Wheeler and Lee 180 Deep Lavender for that 'moonlight' wash," Boothby explains. "We had two pickup trucks, in which we put Genie lifts and made lighting bars out of them. We mounted Vari*Lite automated luminaires on them and lit the buildings. Other than that, it was just tungsten 5k bounces or through frames for areas to light people's faces." Boothby also used the Musco lights to light up the entire mountain behind the Ritz, with the Vari*Lites again on the pickup trucks to light the hotel itself, and 12k HMIs on scaffolding for washes.
This is the first year exterior lighting was done and although the results were beautiful, executive producer John Moffitt is not yet sure if the festival will do it next year. He is certain that HBO will scale back in some areas. "It was too ambitious this year--we increased the amount of programming too much and everyone was just pushed to the limit," Moffitt says. "Also, Aspen is only so big and only has so many venues--the only place we didn't use this year was the Harris Concert Hall, which is a beautiful venue that Aspen uses mainly for its music festival. We'll have to put our own lighting system in there next year because it doesn't have one. It's a big place, so automated lighting will depend on how much we have scheduled there. Anything that we need to serve as a multipurpose, quick-change type of venue will have automated lighting because it makes life so much easier. Vari*Lites are like the lighting designer's best friend and in terms of our flexibility, we were very pleased with how well everything turned out."
Naturally, that is exactly what the LDs were hoping to hear when they proposed increasing this year's automated lighting. "Actually, our equipment costs essentially stayed the same as last year, and then we brought in a lot of people to use in supervisory positions and as lighting directors," Goodwin explains. "The way the schedules were put together for all of these venues, there was no way you'd be able to turn anything around with only conventional fixtures. It would be nice to be able to automate some of the other venues, but you really can't because of their size. So that was the philosophy: Take a little bit less conventional gear and add some Vari*Lites, keep the money about the same, and bring in more qualified people."
For the entire event, Vari*Lite equipment included: 12 VL4(TM) wash luminaires, 24 VL5 automated wash luminaires, and 24 VL6 automated spot luminaires at the Wheeler Opera House; 24 VL5 automated wash luminaires and 24 VL6 automated spot luminaires for the Jerome Hotel; and 24 VL5 automated wash luminaires and 24 VL6 automated spot luminaires for the Ritz Salon. Exterior automated lighting included VL2C(TM) spot luminaires and 24 VL4 wash luminaires.
While automated lighting certainly provides more possibilities, it's ultimately the people running them that Branton counts on most. "This is a huge organizational feat by Michael Goodwin, and from him on down, the crew did a phenomenal job," Branton says. "Throughout the week, no matter where I was in town monitoring the lighting channel on the walkie-talkie, there was never a lull in the positive, never-say-die attitude that they all portrayed. It was extraordinary. They're great people and I was lucky to have them with me."
Goodwin admits that while organizing so many performances that happen simultaneously and bringing in all the necessary equipment and personnel to work in a high-altitude environment is no ordinary challenge, it's very satisfying. "The festival is different among the number of other festivals in that it actually produces a finished product--TV shows--instead of showcasing a finished product, or in this case, talent," Goodwin says. "That part is unique."
Executive Producers Pat Tourk Lee, John Moffitt, Brian Murphy, Stu Smiley
Supervising Producer Nancy Kurshner
Producer Kimber Rickabaugh
Line Producer Keiren Fisher
Event Staging Supervisor/Lighting Production Coordinator Michael Goodwin
Lighting Designer Allen Branton
Preproduction Lighting Coordinator Bob Peterson
Production Designer Bruce Ryan
Theatre Producer/Jerome Hotel Lou Viola
LD for The Jerome Hotel and Medea John Osborne
LD for The Ritz Ballroom Tom Beck
LD/DP for exterior lighting Larry Boothby
Lighting crew chief Doug "Spike" Brandt
Wheeler Opera House lighting director/Vari*Lite operator Harry Sangmeister
Lighting director/Ritz Ballroom VARI*LITE operator Matt Ford
VARI*LITE operator/lighting director Jerome Hotel Ken Hudson
District Theatre/Medea Lighting director Monica Rose
Aspen Youth Center LD Patti Lecht
Aspen Club Lodge LD Carol Weisner
Mill Street LD Kevin Collie
Wheeler lighting crew J.R. Eddington, Zack Guthimiller
Wheeler VARI*LITE lighting technicians Brian Ingram, Chris Wileims
Wheeler production/lighting Dan Stevenson
Wheeler opera house LD Lauren Brame
Wheeler operations manager Wayne Pleasants
LSD/Jerome Hotel Ken Delvo
VARI*LITE/Jerome Hotel Greg Kocurek
VARI*LITE/Ritz Patrick Duncan
LSD/District and exteriors Ian Tucker
LSD/Ritz Chris Lolten
At-large grip/Aspen Youth Center Michael Moliner
Outdoor VARI*LITE crew Greg Brooks, Dave Evans, Neil Montavon
Grips Genny Guy, Mike Long, Steve Nancarro, Billy Smith (Musco)
Lighting Production Assistant Heather Buswell