Anne Bogart's directorial style morphs from theatre into dance into performance art as seen in two recent productions, both with lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin. "American Silents" takes us back to the early days of motion pictures, while "The Medium" fast-forwards us to the cutting edge of the technological age. In "American Silents," Sherin used a battery of old and looks-like-old instruments to recreate early 20th-century, first-generation movie lighting, while "The Medium" flickers toward the millennium with the glow of television.
Using a system of frontlight and diagonals as well as a bank of cyclights upstage, Sherin captured the look of an old-time silent movie set in a rehearsal studio/theatre called Raw Space on 42nd Street in Manhattan, where Bogart directed the acting students from Columbia University School of the Arts in "American Silents" in early May. With set designer Neil Patel, she did research into the kind of lighting available in the days of Clara Bow and Mary Pickford. "We researched old movie lights," says Sherin, who discovered that the earliest lights were mercury vapor 4' (1.2m) tubes. "These were a major source until 1916," she notes. "They gave off a very blue light, but old film stock worked with this and didn't read too blue."
Kliegl then developed the carbon arc lamp, which allowed film lighting to be more theatrical. "These had very high wattage and an electrician at each unit to hand-feed the carbon," says Sherin, who had first-year acting students stationed at the floor-mounted units as if they were period lighting technicians.
In keeping with the techniques of the time, Sherin left all the cabling on the floor of the set. "There was no overhead cabling until the 1920s," she points out. "Just a mass of cables on the ground." Patel's set consisted of large rolling walls that moved before each film vignette. "There was a lot of planning to make sure the set could get by, but we let the cables run right across the scenes as they would have done. It was choreographed chaos."
With assistant lighting designer D.M. Wood, Sherin tracked down old-style lights for this project, many of them from BASH Theatrical Lighting. Here Sherin was able to recycle instruments that had been used as props in Sunset Boulevard, which had recently closed on Broadway. She also found some old Kliegl lights and fixtures from Mole-Richardson, which she refers to as "the real thing." She also used Strand 10" beam projectors, which looked antiquated, and added some modern scoops.
To complete the rig, Sherin visited a warehouse at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, RI, where she found four oversized Mole-Richardson cone lights. "These actually post-date silent films, but the huge scale of the instruments was right," she says. Hung overhead as large floods, they were fitted with 300W screwbase bulbs. "They were more scenery than light," Sherin notes. Two Linnebach shadow lights, or wide spread floods, were placed on the floor. "We had these huge shadows pointedly on the walls to make it look like bad film lighting," she says. The one modern touch was the ETC Express 250 console used for control. The master electrician for "American Silents" was Brian Scott, light board operator was Charles A. Burks, and Brian Duea served as production manager.
At the Miller Theatre on the Columbia University campus, Bogart's SITI (the Saratoga International Theatre Institute, which she founded in 1992 with Tadashi Suzuki) presented "The Medium" as part of a trilogy in May and June. Here Sherin's lighting was limited by the lack of fly space in the theatre, but that worked to her advantage as the exposed instruments gave "The Medium" a TV studio look. Overhead lighting was augmented by footlights and flat color washes from the balcony rail. The rep plot for all three shows utilized ETC Source Fours and Source Four PARs, plus 11 Arri 2k fresnels (two with color changers). Once again the console was an ETC Express 250.
"The plot is hung like a full dance plot. That's how I approach Anne's shows," says Sherin. "She is a choreographer, and we needed to transform the theatre for her work. Neil Patel added a false black portal to frame the stage." Sherin used "slit-lighting," or crosslighting from the floor, as well as crosslights as high as 18' (5.5m). Two frontlight systems varied in color temperature, one clear and the other a cooler color achieved with Roscolux 62. The two Arri fresnels with color changers were on the floor and used to re-tint the entire set. "There are 150 cues in a 90-minute piece," says Sherin. "Everything happens at a high-powered speed."
Sherin's lighting for "The Medium" is as stylized as Bogart's movement. Television imagery is projected onto the set, and high contrast lighting crossfades with softer light for dance transitions between sections. "I like a lot of contrast, especially in these types of pieces," says Sherin. "It keeps the eye from getting bored." Sherin also works with the rhythm of sound designer Darron L. West to establish the movement of the lighting. "The set designer provides the canvas, but the work of the sound designer determines the cueing of the show and how it moves."