Tucked away amidst the warm waters and tropical foliage of the Caribbean lies what some consider to be the crown jewel of the West Indies: the University of the Virgin Islands' Reichhold Center for the Arts. Nestled into the lush mountainside that runs through the USVI territory of St. Thomas, this 1,200-seat outdoor amphitheatre is renowned for presenting artists such as Bill Cosby, Ray Charles, Count Basie, the Vienna Boys Choir, the National Dance Company of Senegal, Natalie Cole, and Anna Deavere Smith in the same season as popular resident acts like Caribbean Chorale, the Rising Stars Steel Pan Orchestra, and the annual STARfest talent show.
Designed by Auerbach + Associates in 1978, the Reichhold Center's original stage technology was considered state-of-the-art at the time, and atypical of the area, where most stages were confined to school gyms and field platforms. The lighting instruments, control, and dimmers were all manufactured by Kliegl and sustained the facility through hurricanes and years of abuse. But as with all technology, the continuing decay from climate and neglect reduced the original 120 dimmers to 62, and the lighting fixtures from 150 to 84. The old Strong followspot had long ago rusted to inoperability and the lighting board had already been replaced several times.
Finally, in 1998, at the urging of the facility's director, David Edgecombe, the governing board of the Reichhold Center approved a capital campaign fund for the renovation of the entire lighting system. Through a series of coincidences, I was brought in from San Francisco to not only head up the project, but also to take over as the University's technical director. Since there was a completion deadline to be met, I had begun working on it even prior to my arrival in July 1998. Within one month, the bids were in and Vanco had been selected as the vendor.
While we were waiting for the equipment to arrive, I started to lay out the network and control wiring, with the invaluable help of Bill Ellis (now with his own company, Candela Controls) and Michael Lalumondier. Due to the limited pool of experienced technicians here, however, I had to bring in associates from the States (thanks again, Michael Sharon, Shelli Bohrer, and Mary Williams) to install the conduit and wiring. There were the usual problems with shipping--and a hurricane or two. These delays caused us to postpone the opening night of our season by two weeks. Once the system was operational, assistant technical director Doug Salisbury took over and led the small team of local stagehands that work for the Center in the not-so-small job of adding all the extra circuiting and fixtures.
The system was configured with the idea that, as a touring and presentation house, a wide variety of options was needed. This meant that not only did the physical number of circuits and dimmers need to be increased, but so did their control. In addition, all components were specified to not only be flexible in the short term, but also adaptable to the future demands of the ever-changing lighting industry.
Starting with the dimmers, I chose three ETC Sensor racks (96 modules each with both 20A and 50A cards) that are permanently installed. An ETC Unison rack was also installed to interface with the dimmers for expanded house lighting controls.
Based on an examination of the layout of the existing distribution, it was concluded that only more circuits were needed in the old positions. The layout of the circuiting is very flexible, with two FOH raceways, two tormentor positions, four onstage electrics, proscenium and upstage wall boxes, and left and right floor pockets. The new raceways, floor pockets, and distribution boxes were ordered from SSRC Inc., and when the final configuration was complete, the overall circuiting and dimmer assignments had been increased to 288.
The console was also an easy decision. ETC's Obsession II (750 channels with dual monitors and laser printer) was chosen for several reasons. Not only is it a standard in the industry (important when touring companies are traveling with only a light plot and a disk), but due to the variety of styles presented onstage, it was deemed the most flexible.
The control network was also installed with flexibility in mind. Originally, I had designed a nine-drop DMX network along with RFU (remote focus unit) inserts. Bill Ellis and I talked extensively about the details of this distribution network and I finally went with his proposal of a Gray Interfaces Pathfinder and interface. This ethernet-based system now allows us to control not only all of our widely dispersed DMX drops, but also to run RFU and additional ethernet connections at various places throughout the theatre without components like optical splitters or routers. With this system in place we can literally plug in DMX-driven devices or other controllers anywhere there's a drop, and we now have four ethernet, nine DMX, and two RFU insert points at our disposal.
The conventional lighting fixtures were pretty straightforward. To reduce lamp inventory as much as possible, I chose both ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (230 in all, with 5, 10, 19, 26, 36, and 50-degree lenses) and 80 ETC Source Four PARs with four lens kits. I also wanted a few fresnels in the inventory for the more classic theatre work that is presented. Luckily Altman's units are as good as they are, so I added 25 Altman 6" and 20 Altman 8" fresnels to balance out the remainder of the package, along with 12 Altman 3-cell sky cyclights.
The moving lights issue was a bit more involved, only because of the difficulty in choosing between the Clay Paky Golden Scan HPE and the High End Systems Cyberlight(R). Each has worthwhile components. Because I only had enough in my budget for four units, they had to give me as big a look as possible when I fired them up. After much investigation I chose the Golden Scans.
Unfortunately, in hindsight, I think we would have been better off with the Cyberlights. There have been a number of equipment defects with the Golden Scans that have forced us to send the units back several times for repair--a pretty poor average when you only have four to start with. On the other hand, they have a great light, and the 360-degree mirror rotation makes it easier to point your pan swings where you want them.
Lastly, we brought our ailing followspot situation up to operational capacity with two Strong 2k long-throw Super Troupers. Our projection booth is about 185' (56m) from the stage and, while that's the close limit for the long-throw, the mediums were not available at the time of the order. Luckily, once we turned them on, we realized that the extra candlepower was needed.
At this point, we often use the Super Troupers with the dousers wide open. In general, high levels of intensity are often required because of the dark complexions of many of the performers, plus I think it's the flavor of the Caribbean--the angle of sun, the way the sand and water reflect it, and the vivid colors of the local flora. Life here is bright! And the shows we produce need to have that quality so as not to pale by comparison.
The way we approach lighting in the Caribbean is a twofold process. First we work on the color. Whether it's a relatively simple concert rental or a full-blown theatrical performance, we always ask, "What do the costumes look like?" People here love to dress up, and there's nothing more dazzling than some of the traditional island outfits. Across the spectrum, the range of hues they exhibit demand we be careful with the color choices in the plot.
One of the most effective looks I've found is to use large breakup patterns in conjunction with whatever gels support the costumes. By combining tertiary washes with gobo-treated primaries, you accent not only the colors but also the myriad of prints that the fabrics are usually patterned with. Of course, this applies equally to the sets and their paint schemes. Typically, however, since this is a roadhouse of sorts, there's more emphasis put on an individual's presentation than on the staging.
The second important aspect of the way we apply lighting to our shows is where we place our instruments. As I was laying out the circuit configuration of this system, I found that the original design had previously addressed all the necessary positions. What I hadn't realized was how critical these positions were. Because we do use so much color, we have to be careful not to wipe out the performers' facial features. Front key light is the answer: By combining FOH instruments on the first and second catwalks with our tormentor circuits, we are able to achieve a balance between color and open white that contributes even further to the bright, hot look these shows demand. Furthermore, since we also produce multicamera videos of many events, this frontlight is crucial.
Here again, it's a matter of balance. Key light must maintain a constant, adequate level for both the audience members who are sitting in the last row of the house and the cameras. Once that is done, the intensities must be set for each color so that the blues, reds, ambers, greens, and so on all match in lumen values on tape. In the end, what you should see from the seats is a dynamic design that seamlessly translates to a good video.
From my perspective, this has been an incredible learning experience. As the dust has settled and we look back on the tremendous effort put in by everyone involved, I think we can truly say that this is not only one of the best-equipped facilities in the Caribbean, but maybe in the US. Now, we can look forward to not only presenting great performances, but to dazzling audiences with light as well.
For more information on the subject of this story, see www.reichholdcenter.com.