DESIGNING WITHIN LIMITATIONS ON IS THERE LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL?
It's funny the things you forget when you spend too much time doing big shows. That, on a quantity-per-price basis, some makes of color are more expensive than others. That against the ETC Source Four, any older-generation spotlight is going to be a disappointment. That sometimes there are only 36 dimmers--every light has to count. That in a small venue, noise is a critical issue.
That's why it's good to do a small show now and again: as a reminder, reality check, and learning experience. This particular reminder project was Is There Life After High School?
The project's genesis was an unusual one. It began as a show for Mountview, one of London's drama colleges, directed by Matthew Ryan, who for the last few years has been one of Cameron Mackintosh's resident directors, recreating and then looking after productions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon around the world. Matt also brought to the project designer Charles Quiggin, another member of the huge teams of support people on the big shows; college shows provide a welcome relief, a chance for us to do our thing, applying all we've learned from helping others to do their thing--in my case, from working as automated lighting programmer on a selection of little musicals.
That's the good thing about college shows. The bad part: You put in as much time, care, hope, energy, and enthusiasm while all the time knowing that whatever happens, it will only run for four days and then be gone forever. High School proved to be different: Its success at Mountview meant it was reborn six months later with a professional cast for a four-week run at the Bridewell Theatre on London's fringe--by a fortuitous combination of skill and luck we've managed to make this show work twice.
High School is a musical with a book by Jeffrey Kindley and music and lyrics by Craig Carnelia. First performed at the Barrymore Theatre in New York in 1982, it is a free-form piece where a number of characters look back over their lives in and since high school. A Chorus Line for people who were never in showbiz was my early summary. Sadly, it failed to match that show's success: 41 previews followed by just 12 performances.
THE SCHOOL PRODUCTION
Quiggin took an abstract approach to the design, suggesting the world of the American high school through the simplest of elements: a blackboard at one end, an oversized, 3.5m-high (11.5') school locker at the other. The cast would be onstage throughout, performing in traverse to an audience sitting on either side, on stepped seating intended to evoke school field bleachers. Nine lightbulbs, one per character, would hang down the center line, clear for Act I, colored for Act II, and each person would have a chair. Other elements would be interjected into the performance space occasionally: a giant American flag billowing from the locker, a projection of one character's wedding day (video treated to look like 8mm film), oversized memories of childhood--a protractor, slide-rule, push-up bra. Just to add interest, the whole thing would be set on a diagonal across Mountview's Judi Dench Theatre, a black-box studio space of about 11m by 12.5m (36'x41') with a fixed grid at about 5m (16.5'). And the floor would be strewn with crumpled-up paper--an exercise in flame-proofing for Mountview's technical students. For the Bridewell, with a local safety inspector to satisfy, stage manager Pete Wakeman found a manufacturer of fire-proof archive paper. Here's a tip: If you're going to store such paper in a plastic bag, unwrap it well before use. We didn't, and the smell of ammonia at the start of our first performance was almost overpowering.
For lighting, the principal limitations were: audience on both sides, no possibility of followspots, limited dimming capacity (36, with low load limitations on some of the racks), no budget for renting equipment--plus just five days to get the show in, light it, tech it, and open it. The principal complication? A cast who would always be there, could be anywhere, and who would need to be picked out individually or in groups. I remember the mental battle: “It's only a little show; we used to be able to do these without moving lights. I'll do without.” Followed eventually by a phone call to Vari-Lite in London inquiring about VL5Bs. Thanks to its enlightened policy of supporting drama colleges we were able to use six on the show. I wanted eight but beggars can't be choosers. The VL5 is peerless in this situation: compact, silent when still and acceptably quiet when moving, dependable, lightweight, versatile beam, tungsten to avoid mechanical fading issues. The 5B version gave us both the tints and deeper colors that early discussions about playing games of color versus black and white for the flashback versus now scenes suggested we might need.
It was clear, though, that even with careful cueing the Vari*Lites wouldn't always be able to keep up with Sam Spencer-Lane's choreography--and besides, sometimes the person lit would cross behind someone we didn't want to light. The solution came in one of those revelatory moments in the rehearsal room: Often the featured person would stand while the others would be left on the floor or sitting on a chair. Height was the key: A carefully positioned, shuttered crosslight could get the standing performer wherever they went while missing everyone else completely.
With this concept established, the rig fell into place very quickly: a boom on each side of the locker and of the blackboard with a head-high Strand Prelude profile spot in Lee 202 (half CT blue), a wide PAR-64 (Rosco 356 Middle Lavender from one end, R318 Mayan Sun from the other) to give a big, colorful crosslight to the whole company, then 500W fresnel uplights for the surreal moments. The VL5Bs, three per side, steeply angled; 500W fresnels giving a flatter five-part cover (with a focus going up to the stomach of the opposite audience an acceptable compromise), two Source Fours with the theatre's stock of Wybron Forerunner scrollers (with house scrolls, a great way of discovering new colors) giving high sidelight, plus a Source Four PAR with scroller offset at each end to give an angled facelight, this an inventory-enforced compromise that worked surprisingly well. Some deep-blue toplights, two Source Fours giving a directional broken gobo light onto the paper, and a variety of other specials. And an extravagant-feeling four Source Four PARs in L200 (double CT blue) providing light out from inside the locker. The huge strip of light they formed through haze gave the show its defining opening image: the locker opening and spilling these middle-aged people back into their past.
Of course, that's more than 42 dimmers. Finding circuits that could be replugged during intermission brought the number down, but not enough. Nine dimmers for bulbs seemed excessive: The show's student production electrician, Martin Goodman, built a box that could switch the nine bulbs to either of two dimmers, allowing bulb pattern crossfades. Thus, we fitted--just. The problem of controlling all this was overcome by the college's well-timed purchase of a Strand 300 Series console which coped with aplomb during two fraught days of plotting the 320 cues the show seemed to demand--in part by its style, in part by the need to keep the Vari*Lites moving with the cast. But that's a battle you need help with; I took care to explain to the casts in both versions of the show the way they were going to be lit and what that implied (be consistent or be in the dark), and they, in turn, were brilliant. Members of both casts commented that, following these conversations, they'd discovered a new awareness of their interaction with light, which was gratifying.
THE COMMERCIAL TRANSFER
Talk about the show's return started at the beginning of the year. Little money, of course, but that didn't matter: It was important that the show lived on. Producer Ian Stephenson did think he'd allocated a reasonable budget to lighting, until a conversation that went something like this. Him: “That should be plenty; there weren't many lights at Mountview.” Me: “No, there weren't, but six of them were quite expensive ones!” Our new home, the Bridewell--a fabulously eccentric performance space converted from an old swimming pool in the City of London, with a balcony running around one end, the pool still clear under the wooden floor and the dimmers housed in an old changing cubicle--had a reasonable stock of equipment, but we had become reliant on the scrollers, and would need Source Fours for the gobo work--using them alongside their spiritual predecessor, the Strand Patt 23.
So, we did some wheeling and dealing. I was determined that the hire companies actually got some money, but I'm sure both Vari-Lite (who again supplied six VL5Bs) and White Light (who supplied the extra conventional gear and Rainbow scrollers) thought the figure I mentioned was per week. A borrowed 300 Series avoided the impossibility of number-crunching a moving light show into a different console. And with a whole 48 dimmers to play with, the rig grew slightly: extra star gobo uplights, houselights instead of using the VL5s, color as well as 202 on the mirror ball, and some fresnels in green--replacing a green frame found in the Mountview scrolls, used in a surreal sequence seen through the eyes of a character wearing red-and-green 3D glasses, but missing from White Light's standard scroll. The frontlight went a shade warmer. The main directional gobo coverage also needed an extra lamp, as the Bridewell playing area was nearly twice the length of that at Mountview: This was a commerical show now and we had to get enough seats in to at least offer the potential of breaking even. The set-up crew was a selection of friends persuaded that they'd really like to get back to their fringe roots; I think they had fun, and they did get a rather good dinner for their efforts.
Visually, the show ended up remarkably similar to the Mountview version with a few major plotting changes--showing the importance of getting the “building blocks” (equipment, positions, focus, setup of equivalent dimmer curves, and so on) correct. We added and refined, but the big brushstrokes remained the same, and the show was superbly run by stage manager Kate Best.
One cue we'd created at Mountview remained surprisingly critical even in the bigger venue. In the last scene, for almost the first time, we had just one person onstage, speaking rather than singing. Without music, the drone of equipment fans became, to me, critically distracting. So, on cue, we cut their mains. It is impossible to adequately describe the effect, but I do believe it made the show. I wish that the manufacturers of every lighting product could have been there. Sometimes you do find a product that surprises you in this respect: a Reel EFX DF-50 hazer was effectively unusable; Look Solutions' Unique hazer gave great, variable haze and, more importantly, was silent.
The Bridewell version was a hit. Jeffrey Kindley flew over and pronounced it the best version he'd seen (an unexpected advantage of working on modern shows; you couldn't get that from Shakespeare). Musical director Martin Lowe and I got grumpy about a Time Out review that mentioned the rest of the creative team without us--but then, lighting is, I suspect, primarily about pleasing yourself, and I was thrilled with what I'd achieved--something that doesn't always happen. The pre-focus nerves gave way to making the most of happy accidents (as critical a skill in lighting design as careful planning) and teamwork, then enjoying the results.
The show ended its run in May. I miss it still.
Rob Halliday has now returned to his day job, programming the West End transfer of My Fair Lady for David Hersey. He can be reached at email@example.com.