In Movin' Out, Don Holder Crossbreeds Concert and Dance Lighting Techniques

The choreography is Twyla Tharp at her most inventive. The music and lyrics are the very best of Billy Joel. Together they make up Movin' Out, a high-energy musical now playing at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre.

As directed and choreographed by Tharp, Movin' Out is a rule-breaking hybrid. Told entirely through song and dance — there is no dialogue — Movin' Out follows six lifelong friends through the turbulent years of 1967-87, from senior proms to the agony of the Vietnam war. The principals are the best dancers on Broadway — many of them are classically trained — and their movement takes center stage as Michael Cavanaugh provides the vocals that weave the story together.

Throughout the production, Suzy Benzinger's costumes accurately keep track of the years, while Santo Loquasto's industrial setting leaves plenty of room for dancing; his design includes an upstage brick wall and the occasional set piece, such as a 60s hot rod, to provide scene-setting information. His most stunning effect is a band platform that begins on the floor in an upstage position, tracks downstage, then rises to hover above the dancers. However, it is Donald Holder's lighting that provides Movin' Out with its visual through-line.

“Twyla was not interested in standard ballet or dance lighting,” says Holder. “She wanted me to take a brash, bold approach, and talked about lighting it out-of-the-box.” The designer looked at videos of early workshops for Movin' Out. “I was a little daunted by the scope of it,” he admits. “The piece needed to be carved out and shaped by the lighting, as the scenery creates the frame but not the specifics.” Just to make things interesting, he adds, “I also had to come up with the shop order while the set was still being designed.”

Finding the Right Style

Holder watched rehearsals in New York, and began to see how the lighting would be required to facilitate Tharp's storytelling. “I realized it was action, rather than just dance,” he explains. “It became an exercise in restraint. I had to lay back in a sense and help tell the story, rather than respond to the rock-and-roll music.”

In fact, Holder's lighting supports the story in exposition-heavy Act I, then in Act II, as the characters struggle to pull their lives together post-Vietnam, becomes more abstract and emotional, “on a Shakespearean level,” says the LD (who has in fact designed several Shakespeare productions for the Off Broadway company Theatre for a New Audience).

Some of Holder's most stunning effects are achieved with sweeping beams of light that wipe the stage in cinematic fashion, providing crucial scenic transitions. However, “Twyla was hesitant to use moving lights at first,” Holder notes. “She was afraid they might pull the focus from the dancers and make the show look too much like a rock concert. Both Santo Loquasto and I felt strongly that moving lights would prove to be an important part of the visual vocabulary, given the nature and style of the piece. Santo was instrumental in convincing Twyla about their benefits, and I reassured her that despite her concerns, they could be well integrated into the overall design and not become a distraction or pull focus from the dance. Ultimately, Twyla trusted my judgment on this subject, and was quickly excited by the possibilities that moving lights offered once we started to use them in the tech process.” Thus the lighting uses techniques from both concert and dance, with traditional shin busters and head-highs blended together with moving light effects.

As a result, he says, “The premise was to create a dance lighting plot with as many rock-and-roll components as possible.” Therefore, there are two sets of sidelights, composed of six ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and six Martin Professional MAC 2000s, on each side of the stage. “You can adjust the shutter cuts on the MAC 2000s as the scenery changes or as the bandstand moves downstage,” says Holder. “That was a big advantage.” Each of the side ladders also has a Thomas 8-light ACL unit with a Wybron Coloram II scroller. These create a very hot, white light used in numbers such as “Angry Young Man” and “Pressure,” in which “the dancers look as if they're almost frying on stage,” says Holder. “These are very unconventional lights for dance.”

In addition, the band platform has one set each of five DHA Digital Light Curtains placed along its width, above and below it (see diagram, page 50). A third set of light curtains is permanently hung on an electric pipe downstage of the platform, when it rests upstage on the deck. These are used by Holder to create dramatic sweeps and for quick color changes at the beginning and end of songs like “Angry Young Man,” when the backdrop shifts instantly from pale blue to hot orange. In addition, four High End Systems Technobeams® are used under the bandstand, where Holder needed a small moving light for the moments when the unit sits on the stage floor and the light curtains are not operative.

There are a total of 36 MAC 2000s in the rig; in addition to the 12 units in the already-mentioned side position, two dozen more are hung overhead to be used as spots in specific moments. There are also 18 High End Systems Studio Beams, often used for full stage washes. Fourteen Vari*Lite® VL1000s are used to treat various scenic elements. Two Robert Juliat Heloise followspots with Wybron scrollers are located in the side boxes. “I wanted to match the colors from these followspots to that of the sidelight,” says Holder. An additional two Lycian 1290XLT followspots are used from front of house. Control is via an ETC Obsession and a Vari*Lite Virtuoso DX console.

Lighting equipment was provided by GSD. Jeanne Koening served as associate lighting designer, with Aland Henderson as associate lighting designer/automated lighting, and Michelle Habeck, Hilary Manners, Karen Spahn, Thomas Hague, and Keith Parham as assistant lighting designers. Jack Culver is the production electrician.

Out of Town: Bad Reviews and Changes

Movin' Out had a rough time in its Chicago tryout, with many changes made in response to almost universally bad reviews. As the show was reworked, the lighting changed as well. “Out of town, the audience had certain expectations of the show, which was billed as a musical,” Holder explains. “But it was very dense visually and the story was so complex it was hard for the audience to tell who the people were. To the credit of Twyla and the producers, no one panicked after the reviews came out. Twyla acknowledged that many of the reviews offered criticism that was valid, and she was relentless in her efforts to make the show better. She had the total support of the dancers, who offered many good suggestions and worked every afternoon with her, developing improvements and new dances for the first act, while performing the show at night.” Numbers were cut and rearranged in an attempt to clarify and refocus the acton.

“The lighting design also received some pretty harsh critical response, which, I must admit, was not easy to read,” Holder says. “I tried to process what I read and made decisions about I thought was valid and what was not. Once I had a clear head, I talked through my ideas with Twyla, who was supportive about the changes I wished to make. We revisited the show several times during its run in Chicago, reworking the opening number at least twice, and doing extensive work on most of the first act. Most of the efforts were focused on making the story clearer, and making the piece more accessible to the audience from the top of the evening. I did quite a bit of commuting between Chicago and New York during those weeks, as I was also in the midst of previews for The Boys from Syracuse at the Roundabout. I pared it down and simplified it, making sure the focus was on the dance and less about defining time and space. The lighting is less naturalistic and a bit darker and more expressionistic, as well as higher in contrast. I had to respond to the changes in the choreography.”

For example, one song, “We Didn't Start the Fire” was originally a drug-induced nightmare that transitioned into the war sequence. “The lighting had awful, garish colors, an outlandish palette with lime, orange, chartreuse, and purple. It was a mad array of every color in the spectrum,” Holder recalls. He also used a spinning lithographic logo entitled “Agony” in the MAC 2000s.

At the end of the Chicago run, Twyla invited the critics to see the show again. “Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune accepted, and posted an encouraging response,” says Holder. “Twyla, however, felt there was still more work to be done. When we began our short five-day tech in New York, the schedule included lighting a new prologue, set to ‘It's Still Rock and Roll to Me’, another version of the opening number, and several other major changes to the first act.”

By the New York opening, “We Didn't Start the Fire” had become more about what Holder calls “collective female angst and the fear of the unknown or being left alone. It is no longer a drug trip, so the piece also changed from a lighting point of view.” The designer limited his palette to red and yellow, with the women in the ensemble lit in Lee 201 (full CT blue). “The look is much more controlled,” he says, “even with the same spinning gobo, the same cue structure, and the same movement.”

In another song, “The Stranger,” Tharp wanted Judy, the number's principal female character, to stand out, with three male dancers as shadows. “They're like Furies, or her inner demons, and not real people,” explains Holder, who at first used sharp corridors of light for Judy, but found that the choreography didn't allow the dancer to restrict her movement to the light. The number now features backlight from below, with a flipper in the floor revealing MR-16 striplights that function like a row of footlights from upstage. There are also two High End Systems Studio Beams on the floor for diagonal backlight that helps the male dancers look like shadows or metaphysical symbols. “Only Judy is clearly defined within the space,” says Holder.

Throughout the production, Holder works with a huge range of colors yet, he says, “the palette is simple within each number, and hopefully each dance relates to the next.” For the opening numbers, the lighting moves from the golden hour before sunset to the next morning and on though the early evening to later that night. In “Uptown Girl,” hot colors in the lighting are inspired by a landscape of neon that appears onstage, while a smoky bar interior with hot pink and red is used for “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” “Captain Jack,” and “Innocent Man.” In “River of Dreams,” Holder says, “I pulled out all the stops, with bumps, ballyhoos, and chases. This is what the lighting would look like if there was no restraint.” He notes that Tharp is now very high on moving lights. “She sees that, used properly, they can really underscore what she wants to do with the choreography.”

After a bumpy start in Chicago, Movin' Out is a must-see hit in New York. Says Holder, “Twyla's untiring efforts and incredible focus on making the show work was a huge inspiration. And living through the travails in Chicago made the ultimate success of the show on Broadway that much sweeter.”

MOVIN' OUT

Selected Lighting Equipment

9 ETC Source Four 10° 750W
38 ETC Source Four 19° 575W
50 ETC Source Four 19° 750W
118 ETC Source Four 26° 575W
70 ETC Source Four 26° 750W
44 ETC Source Four 36° 575W
28 ETC Source Four 36° 750W
27 ETC Source Four 50° 575W
2 Arri 5kWs
7 ETC Source Four PAR VNSP 750W
8 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 575W
9 ETC Source Four PAR WFL 575W
46 6' MR-16 EYC 750W striplights
5 6' MR-16 EYF 750W striplights
9 Thomas PAR-36 250W ACL 8-lights
15 Altman 650W Focusing Cycs
8 Mini-10 300W
2 ETC Source Four 19° 750W with City Theatrical AutoYokes
1 ETC Source Four 26° 750W with City Theatrical AutoYoke
14 Vari*Lite VL1000s
15 DHA Digital Light Curtains
36 Martin Professional MAC 2000s
16 High End Systems Studio Beams
4 High End Systems Technobeams
182 Wybron Coloram II scrollers
2 Robert Juliat Heloise 2,500W followspots
2 Lycian 1290 XLT 2kW followspots
2 MDG Atmosphere hazers
4 MDG Max 3000 foggers
6 Bowen fans
City Theatrical accessories for Source Fours

NOT JUST AN UPTOWN GUY

You have to love Don Holder. There he is, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer of Disney's mega-hit, The Lion King, and now the LD for Movin' Out, the hottest new thing on Broadway. But no sooner did Movin' Out close in Chicago than Holder was hard at work on another show or two. The next blockbusters of Broadway? Not at all. Anyone looking for Holder would have found him in the 299-seat Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, designing the lighting for Terrance McNally's A Man of No Importance, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.

“I worked on it during the hiatus between Chicago and New York,” says Holder. “This is a classic example of how interesting it is to be a lighting designer.” But how can he boogie so seamlessly from the world of rock and roll to a quiet, musical play set in Dublin circa 1960? A world in which Alfie, a bus driver played by Roger Rees, puts on amateur plays in a church basement, but runs into trouble when he attempts Salomé.

“This is a pretty substantial show for the Newhouse,” Holder notes, adding that director Joe Mantello did not want the piece to seem sentimental or romantic. “These qualities seemed inappropriate to him. He wanted to look at the piece in a more understated and muted way.” Collaborating with set designer Loy Arcenas and costume designer Jane Greenwood, Holder helped create a world he describes as “not sugar-coated or sweet. This is a world with some danger to it, yet also an innocence of the world of these people and their amateur theatricals.”

The structure of A Man is cinematic (the musical is based on the film by the same name) with many fluid scene changes. “This makes the lighting tricky,” says Holder. “The lighting creates the sense of transition and defines each scene. The different spaces are book-ended by Alfie in the church basement.”

As there are many quick scene shifts, Holder used automated fixtures including six Vari*Lite® VL2000 spot luminaires, 14 ETC Source Fours with City Theatrical AutoYokes, and three 10° Source Fours with City Theatrical followspot yokes. “The piece is very demanding in terms of specificity,” says Holder. “I wanted the fluidity that moving lights offer.”

During the tech process, Holder's work was detailed and slow, making sure the cueing would be seamless. “The color palette is as monochromatic as possible,” he says, “in order to create a Dublin true to where these people lived. We wanted a dark, rainy city. This is not a musical comedy or a cartoon.”

So does he take a rest after the openings of Movin' Out and A Man of No Importance? Nope. He heads out to California to design the lighting for the world premiere of Richard Greenberg's new play The Violet Hour in South Coast Repertory's new theatre (designed by architect Cesar Pelli).

“This play is very intimate, yet surreal and abstract, a departure for the playwright,” says Holder. Set in 1919, The Violet Hour is about a strange machine that shows up in a publisher's office (a heavily detailed naturalistic design from Christopher Barecca) and starts spewing out writings from the end of the 20th century. “The lighting is a passage through time,” Holder explains, “from that magic time of twilight in New York City to a no-time dreamscape in a surreal environment.”

About his on- and Off Broadway lives, Holder says, “I feel at home in both worlds. My career started in the smallest, humblest regional theatres and I did Off and Off Off productions for a long time and am still very much at home there. I am attuned to the limitations, and appreciate it more now that I've done bigger things.”

Having always wanted to be a lighting designer, Holder admits to wanting to work on a Broadway musical since the age of 10 or 12. Now that he has The Lion King, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Movin' Out, he feels “It's nice to come home to an intimate space, and work in a smaller palette. There are fewer choices to deal with.”

Holder also enjoys the challenge, no matter the size of the project, and likes working with a great ensemble of actors in a small venue. “People forget that until five or six years ago all I did was Off Broadway,” he says. “Now I'm really happy I get to do both.”

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.