Editor's Note: As new lighting technology makes its way into academic venues, the way students learn about lighting design is changing. What follows are two case histories in which students made use of new lighting technology to achieve their designs.

The All-Automated Rig

by Cindy Limauro

Since moving into a brand-new facility, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama's lighting program has integrated moving-light technology into the curriculum. A Martin package and a Vari-Lite package are distributed among three performance spaces for use in productions. One venue, the Wells Video Studio, is primarily set up to be a moving-light lab for classroom projects, including the new year-long course in automated lighting technology.

With a large and talented musical theatre class, the faculty felt it was necessary to add another musical to the season. Design and production resources were already heavily committed to the mainstage and studio theatre productions, so Kiss of the Spider Woman was conceived to be a small chamber production in the Wells, with minimal support. I assigned a student lighting designer and a master electrician to the project (we had not yet solved the issue of a crew). Given the small size of the venue, the budget, and labor limitations, LD Bryan Miller made a proposal to design the entire production using moving lights only. Aside from the initial hang of the units, his proposal solved the issue of limited crew resources. Students from the automated lighting class would serve as programmers as part of their class experience and would also run the console during performances. Recognizing the educational value to the students, director Geoffrey Hitch bravely agreed to take this journey into unknown territory. While we have successfully implemented the use of moving lights in productions, we have never used moving lights alone without the support of a conventional fixture plot. This would affect how lighting changes could be made during the tech process and would present a whole new set of challenges for the director, actors, and lighting designer.

Kiss of the Spider Woman is a musical set in multiple physical locations; there are also many scenes that take place inside the characters' minds. In his director's notes, Geoffrey Hitch calls Spider Woman “an adult musical drama rooted in human suffering. Set in a Latin-American prison in the recent past, the play mixes brutality with fantasy, oppression with the beauty and safety of escape. Betrayal becomes loyalty. Loathing becomes respect. Love becomes death.” In the absence of scenery with only minimal elements and props, Bryan Miller's major challenge in lighting the show was to convey to an audience the various physical locations and to distinguish reality from fantasy. Miller explains, “The director's concept was to focus on the situation in which the characters found themselves and then demonstrate how they coped with surviving their ordeal. The fantasy world that the characters create slowly permeates the space, starting out only in the corners of the theatre, with these figments of the prisoners' imaginations appearing to sing their songs, and then fading back into nothing. Slowly, they become more invasive, eventually overwhelming the harsh reality of the jail cell and taking over the stage. This growing need for escapism is emphasized in the lighting as well, starting off by utilizing only tight specials for the fantasy characters early on, eventually incorporating the entire theatre, including projections above and around the audience.”

Given that Kiss of the Spider Woman would not have any additional tech time and, in some ways, would have less time because of double-casting, the LD and the director needed to work out a strategy for success. The lighting would be required to transform the space seamlessly from one location to another. Without the use of conventional fixtures this would involve meticulous timing for all blocking — not just in the transitions.

One advantage to not having scenery was that preparation for the lighting could begin immediately. Hitch sketched out a ground plan of acting areas and pre-blocked each scene, giving detailed storyboards to the lighting designer. Miller was then able to create focus points and rough-in the cueing structure of the show, literally blocking the lighting in the theatre as the actors were learning the same blocking in the rehearsal room. Periodically, the acting rehearsal would move into the theatre for a day to check on the accuracy of the blocking, as well as address concerns about the noise of the lighting fixtures and the ability of the singers to be heard over the orchestra without amplification.

A New Approach Yields New Problems

The final lighting rig consisted of 19 moving lights: one Martin Professional MAC 2000, two MAC 500s, six MAC 600s, three Vari*Lite® VL2202s, seven VL2414s, and one Vari*Lite Virtuoso console. The fixtures were hung, circuited, and addressed in a single four-hour call. Programming the cues began 10 days before tech rehearsals started and involved 18 hours broken into six three-hour sessions. The lighting team consisted of Miller, the master electrician, an assistant lighting designer, a different programmer for each session from the automated moving light class, a faculty design advisor, and staff master electrician advisor. The assistant lighting designer's job was to make sure that each programmer knew the programming syntax being used, to ensure continuity. The tech schedule included three four-hour tech rehearsals and three four-hour dress rehearsals. Three hours of additional cueing time was set aside each day for notes.

Miller's plan was to rough-in a cue structure that blocked out lighting areas for each scene before tech rehearsals started and then to use the tech rehearsals to refine the timings of each transition. Progress was slow for a variety of reasons. First, cueing from storyboard blocking notations to live actors in the space resulted in mistakes in the translation. In retrospect, videotaping a run-through rehearsal would have been invaluable to the designer for accuracy of movement and timings. In a typical four-hour tech rehearsal period only four scenes would be covered and, since the principal characters were double-cast, each scene had to be run twice. While this initially seemed helpful for cueing, subtle differences in the two casts' blocking became amplified with the addition of a precision cueing structure that not only relied on the same placement of the characters but also on the same timing. To help solve this problem, each cast watched the other perform. The director would then discuss with the actors which movement worked best and where compromises were needed.

The lighting designer's toughest challenge was “maximizing the flexibility of the lighting rig not only to get the most out of the design, but also to make it happen seamlessly, so that the production did not end up looking like a rock concert,” Miller explains. “With relatively few units in the air, most lights were needed in consecutive sequences, going from jail cell scenes to musical numbers instantly. To accomplish this, certain lights would have to be sneaked out early in order to get set for the upcoming song.”

Magical Results and Lessons Learned

Watching the first cue-to-cue tech, I was struck by the uniqueness of this process: It reduced each moment to its absolute minimum but at the same time allowed for complete flexibility of movement, color, and focus. No conventional rig would have allowed the designer to follow the action around the stage in such a precise manner. The lighting truly became a part of each character.

In fact, in the post-show critique, the actors talked about how the lighting had influenced their process. While teching the show had been a long, tedious process for them, the results were worth the time spent. The lighting transformed the space into the world of the play and they would respond to the light physically as it shifted between fantasy and reality.

If we were to attempt this process again we would make the following changes:

  • Build spare moving light units into the plot. With so few fixtures, every instrument was critical and if something went wrong with a unit before a performance there often wasn't enough time to solve the problem.
  • Double-hang certain key positions to allow for subtle transitions in consecutive sequences.
  • Videotape a run-through rehearsal to more accurately set up the cueing structure within a very limited time frame.
  • Try to avoid a double-cast situation.

The use of advanced lighting technologies in an academic environment continues to challenge the way we teach and the way we tell stories. Both provide excitement for the future.

Cindy Limauro is head of the lighting design program at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama. She designs professionally in theatre, opera, and dance and also has an architectural lighting design practice. She can be contacted at limauro@andrew.cmu.edu.

A Clockwork Catalyst

by Kelly Gordon

High End Systems' revolutionary Catalyst system combines highly developed graphic projection with moving-light technology. The system allows for both moving or still images to be projected, and these images can also be manipulated according to the needs of the designer. While Catalyst has primarily been used in rock concerts and televised awards shows, the system is beginning to make its way into the theatre, where it can serve not only as a moving light instrument but can also supplement a set.

Frank Gordon, CEO of High End Systems, describes what he sees as the primary difference between the use of Catalyst in rock and roll versus a theatrical environment: “In a nutshell, rock-and-roll and concert touring may be looking for a lot more adventure in order to amuse an audience that is always looking for more. Theatre may be looking for substitutions of some sets, some enhancements. The audience is accustomed to the make-believe quality of using sets that are less real and designers have a poetic license that permits them to do more with less. In all cases, Catalyst can be what you want it to be. Innovative people have already done things we did not imagine, which comes as no surprise. The product was meant to enhance creativity and put more choices in the hands of professionals.”

The innovative use of the Catalyst system in A Clockwork Orange, co-produced in fall 2002 by the University of Texas at Dallas and the Collin County Community College, blurred the lines between lighting and set design. The play, adapted by Brad Baker from the novel by Anthony Burgess, takes place in over 50 locations, which was one of the initial challenges for the set designer, Craig Erikson, and the lighting designer, Jeff Stover. Stover comments, “Fifty-plus locales [is] really hard to do with just lighting and an abstract set. So the Catalyst system really bailed me out a lot of times by projecting the moon or trees on the cyc, giving us a park feel. For me, as a lighting designer, it opens up a whole new area of texture. You can put real trees as texture onstage if you want. Or clouds, moving clouds, things like that. I think it added a dynamic to the show, without getting in people's faces.”

Early on, Erikson had planned to solve the problem of the multiple locations in A Clockwork Orange with the use of projections. He says, “We had planned to use as many as 10 separate video projectors and input sources for those projectors. When we heard about the Catalyst, we jumped on it as soon as we could, trying to find out if they were available for rental. Luckily, we found a great connection through the University of Texas at Dallas that helped us out and, obviously, got to High End directly. We ended up using three of their units to basically take the place of the 10 that we had anticipated. Probably what we were going to have to use was a PowerPoint-driven slide show for each of these projectors. The Catalyst took the place of that and eventually wound up being much more user-friendly than PowerPoint, once we got the images in and got them up and projected. It really ended up being a lifesaver for us, not only in terms of saving the cost of having to buy and/or rent the 10 individual projectors; we would have had to find 10 operators for those projectors from an individual computer source. We were able to operate our three Catalysts from one position, so it saved money all the way around.”

With the use of the Catalyst system, Erikson chose to project images on three surfaces, one on either side of the proscenium and a third which traversed the upstage area. In one of the most interesting scenes in the production, Alex, the protagonist, is forced to watch graphically disturbing images as part of a programming scheme to correct his violent brain. Erikson placed graphic images on the screens to help the audience see what Alex was seeing. In other scenes, images were used to indicate specific locations. (For example, images of pavement were used to portray a street scene.) As characters moved quickly from location to location, the images could keep up in a way that physical set changes could not, which led to smooth transitions between scenes. The use of the screens also lent a high-tech, sleek quality to the production which fit the script well.

There are, of course, pros and cons to using the Catalyst in a college environment. Using this type of state-of-the-art equipment allows colleges and universities to develop productions that are on the cutting edge. Furthermore, from a training standpoint, being able to work with the Catalyst puts students at a definite advantage. Stover says, “I'm a firm believer that college students should learn on state-of-the-art equipment as well as old and junky equipment, because you're going to run into that in the professional world. You'll run into some places that have state-of-the-art equipment and some places that have two lights, and you'll have to be able to do something with that. But I do believe that exposing university students to new technology only prepares them and makes them better candidates for working once they leave the university environment. The more exposure they have to technology, the more marketable they'll be once they get out there.”

One of the limitations of the Catalyst in an educational environment is that either the technical director or the designer needs to have a solid understanding of automated instruments. As Stover points out, “That puts a lot of people at a serious disadvantage because a lot of theatre professors out there don't keep up with technology. It's easy to get the system set up if you know about automated lighting, but it can be very daunting to someone who doesn't understand the way automated lighting works.” While companies like High End Systems offer training seminars, not all technical theatre professors are able to take advantage of them, due to rigorous teaching schedules and limited budgets.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to using the Catalyst in an academic setting is the expense of renting the equipment. Because High End Systems wanted to expand the use of the Catalyst in theatre, the University of Texas at Dallas and Collin County Community College were able to get the equipment for free for the run of the show. Were this not the case, it is doubtful that the Catalyst could have been used for the schools' co-production of A Clockwork Orange.

High End Systems is aware that the current price of the product may very well keep it from being a viable option for most colleges and universities. CEO Gordon comments, “We are working on more features and lower price points for the future. We recognize that the current product is expensive and not easy to grasp at first but we wanted to pioneer the product development with something most innovative and the Catalyst is it.”

Kelly Carolyn Gordon holds a PhD in drama from the University of Georgia and a master's degree in directing from Emerson College. She currently teaches theatre at the University of Texas at Dallas. She can be contacted at skyfalling@aol.com.