“Footloose is a fast, up-tempo musical, with fluid, cinematic movement flowing from scene to scene,” says freelance lighting designer Matthew McCarthy, who is based in New York City but flies back to his hometown of Saint Louis, MO, every summer to light the shows at STAGES St. Louis, where three American musicals are produced each year. The cinematic movement is as natural in the musical version of Footloose, which premiered on Broadway in 1998 and is based on the 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon.
Size limitations of the theatre in Saint Louis forced McCarthy to come up with a rather innovative solution for Footloose. “I created a self-illuminating back wall,” he explains. This feat of self-illumination was based on simple 25W light bulbs. McCarthy placed 120 of these bulbs in each of seven horizontal rows along the upstage wall of the theatre: with 30 red, 30 blue, 30 green, and 30 yellow bulbs in each row for a grand total of 840 bulbs.
Collaborating with set designer Mark Halpin, McCarthy integrated the rows of bulbs into a saw tooth-shaped “cyc” installation along the back wall of the stage that measured 30' wide, 18' tall, and 6” deep and was made of translucent white styrene that created a series of V-shaped reflectors. The colored bulbs were placed in the middle of the valleys of the Vs which were set at 2' intervals. Rows of individually circuited white bulbs sat behind the center of the peaks, with dividers creating 76 squares of white light. A masking piece covered the entire installation (see illustration, p.60).
“It's meant to be an illusion or a visual trick,” says McCarthy. “The styrene glows like milk glass when lit from behind with the white bulbs, or it takes on the color of the colored bulbs.” The placement of the bulbs gave the designer a range of visual options, from rows of colored stripes to a checkerboard pattern, or more complicated configurations, such as a wash of white light with fields of blue to suggest hallway windows, or a patriotic combination of red, white, and blue. “I used white stripes to suggest a gymnasium and white squares for church windows,” he adds.
The lighting rig included four Martin Professional RoboScan Pro 918 scanners with a 575W discharge lamp, a combination of ETC Source Four® and Altman ellipsoidals, Wybron Coloram and CXI scrollers plus six Goboram II units to add motion to the patterns. The Martin fixtures were rented from Concert Support Services in Saint Louis, a shop run by Mark Schilling, who is also the master electrician for STAGES St. Louis. The in-house console is an ETC Expression 2.
“STAGES St. Louis uses a computerized, virtual orchestra,” explains McCarthy, who took advantage of this, by adding a MIDI link to the lighting console that allowed crisp cues in time to the music. “I was able to get the software from the orchestral design and study the scenes down to the last beat at home,” he says. “I put the data into the Expression and could be very precise with the lighting cues. You got the feeling that the wall was dancing in perfect sync with the music. It was like a perfect sine wave chasing across the back wall. I was fascinated with the MIDI link. I get a Go command from the sound board, and the cues are instantaneous and dead-on precise.”
On the side stages, McCarthy added large, yet very shallow, light boxes with Plexiglas® fronts (he found that the result was a bit splotchy with the bulbs so close to the front). These were used to expand the stage picture and for the in-one scenes. High End Systems DataFlash® AF1000 xenon strobes were also used, especially to accent musical beats such as cymbal crashes.
“We had a very tight production schedule for Footloose,” says McCarthy. “There was one week for load-in and a one-week tech period with the first preview the Friday of that week. The press opening was the following Wednesday.” Any touch-ups to the lighting have to happen during the previews (prior to a five-week run).
Although McCarthy designs all three musicals at STAGES St. Louis each year, he does not create a rep plot per se. “Each summer is different,” he points out. “Some summers, the shows are alike enough to almost do a rep plot, but this past year, they were very different. Man of La Mancha has a unit set, for example.”
At 37, McCarthy manages to sustain a freelance career with two rather steady gigs, one at STAGES St. Louis where he has lit every show since 1991, except one season. “I love to do musical theatre, and going back to Saint Louis gets me out of New York in the summer,” he says. “I enjoy seeing family and friends in my hometown.” He also works regularly at Juilliard Opera Company, where he has lit all the productions for the past three years, as well as two productions, Oreste and The Kaiser of Atlantis, that Juilliard took to the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 2004. In Oreste, McCarthy once again turned to an effective low-tech solution: “I needed to create many elements of Mother Nature — fire, water, stars, clouds, the moon, and a sunrise,” he says. “I hung an ellipsoidal on lineset all the way upstage. During the final scene, we very, very slowly flew the lineset out creating the rising sun.”
Starting out as an actor in high school, McCarthy admits, “I got shy and went backstage. One summer, I saw a show at Kenyon College lit by Paul Gallo and was blown away. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I like the way light can affect emotions and atmosphere. You can't shape light with your hands, but it's malleable.” After obtaining his BFA in theatre technology at Ithaca College and his MFA at NYU in 1993, he has been a freelance designer with the exception of a few years when he also maintained a day job in the R&D department at Altman Lighting, where he worked on the development of the Shakespeare luminaire.
“As a freelance designer, I do a lot of very small shows, but I always say that work generates work,” McCarthy points out. “Even doing little shows you meet directors you work with later, such as Chris Barreca.” In fact, McCarthy and Barreca are collaborating on a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Eve Shapiro at Juilliard this fall. Barreca's set is a challenge in terms of lighting. “The floor and walls are all mirrors tinted like one-way mirrors and with vertical slats so the actors can pass through them,” says McCarthy, who was working on the lighting design in early September for Hello, Dolly!, the final show in the STAGES St. Louis 2005 season, and another busy fall in New York City was about to begin.