Puppets played many of the principal roles in Kwaidan, Ping Chong's entry in the Jim Henson Foundation's International Festival of Puppet Theatre, which took place in various New York City venues in September. Performed at the newly renovated La Mama Annex in Manhattan's East Village, Kwaidan is based on three traditional Japanese ghost stories translated by American writer Lafcadio Hearn. Conceived and directed by Chong, the puppetry was coordinated byJohn Ludwig, with production design by Mitsuru Ishii, lighting by Liz Lee, and projection design by Jan Hartley.
Kwaidan marks Lee's debut in working with Chong, and her lighting follows the philosophy of the production. "The key word is simplicity," says the Atlanta-based designer from a hotel room in Minneapolis, the first stop of Kwaidan's international tour. "The concept is to strip things to their barest essentials and keep it as simple as possible." Nevertheless, the set (pictured) is actually quite large.
"It is complex in spite of its understated simplicity. A lot of scenery moves and flies, but has to be compressed into a very small space," says Lee. The set left her with very little space to hang lights. She used one front-of-house lighting pipe and one electric over the front-of-stage platform area, which is in front of a high wall that spans the width of the set. Numerous set-mounted fixtures were fitted into the scenery, including 3" fresnels used for sidelight and MR-16 striplights used for color. Light boxes serve as the sun and moon.
A rig of about 70 instruments ranges from ETC Source Fours (some with drop-in irises to light two circular windows on the set) to 6" fresnels used to light alcoves on either side of the set. Other ellipsoidals were used with templates to add texture to the sets. Hartley's projections were primarily rear-screen with the exception of a wash of Chinese writing that covers both the set and the actor (not a puppet) in the temple scene. Lee balanced the levels of the light in juxtaposition to the projections.
The color palette is minimal, used very specifically. "I used color only as accents, and to support what was happening." Her palette ranged from R16, R27, and R83 in the striplights to R58 for an exterior graveyard scene. She also used some R54 color correction to soften the light in a mostly black and white environment.
There is an otherworldliness to these ghost stories, and in the first one, "Jikininki," a blue light swirls through as a spirit comes to take away the dead. Lee used a handheld 12V light reflected in a flexible mirror for this ghostly effect. A "magic box" with four incandescent lamps and a 6" lens was used to project an image of a puppet's head. "Some of the effects were developed by the puppeteers as they went along. I cannot take credit for it all," says Lee.