Every time I go to London (England) and see four or five productions in a week, there seems to be a leitmotif that links the plays and musicals thematically. It could be unrequited love, family tragedy, or sexual orientation. In September, on my most recent theatrical jaunt, the theme was identity.
The Almeida Theatre, recently renovated and looking quite spiffy, presented the world premiere of I.D., a play written by Anthony Sher, who also stars in the central role. The story centers around the assassination of South African Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd, known as the father of Apartheid. He was stabbed to death in September 1966, by Demetrios Tsafendas, a parliamentary messenger (played by Sher). The play, based on a true story and the book, A Mouthful of Glass, is a portrait of two individuals, the Prime Minister and his killer, both searching for the same thing – identity.
A single set, designed by Katrina Lindsay, serves as many different locales, with the lighting design by Johanna Town helping change the look of the set, and skillfully negotiate the numerous transitions. "When they revamped the theatre, the famous back brick wall was untouched," says Town, referring to the historic rounded brick wall that forms the upstage edge of the theatre. A white metal load-in door was added on the stage right wall, with faux brick on the inside surface to continue the look of the back wall.
Lindsay’s set includes a wall of windows that represents various office locations as well as the bureaucracy endemic in South Africa. The audience balcony was extended to include side windows (that normally serve as lighting positions), and then all the way around the back wall, leaving room behind the windows for light. "I had to keep light on in the windows, even for outdoor scenes," notes Town. "Otherwise the wall looked too dead."
Each of the nine upstage windows was lit from behind with a single ETC Source Four PAR and a RainbowPro color scroller with 33 colors. "This gave me variety in terms of color," says Town, who had to light 28 different scenes within the framework of the same set. Her palette ran from Lee 200 through 206 to what she calls "shocking colors – reds, pinks, oranges, and many different blues. I had to be quite bold to help evoke the emotion the audience might be feeling. I went weirder with the lighting as the action progressed."
Lighting-wise, the house system was updated with more circuits, and a new Strand 500 series console. There is a two-man crew, a board op and a chief electrician. During the rehearsal process, Town found that the blocking kept changing. "This is a very fluid piece," she notes. In order to keep the lighting fluid as well, she added two Strand Pirouettes to the rig. "These became the real workhorses and lit every other scene."
Town also relied heavily on a City Theatrical AutoYoke (with an ETC Source Four) as a live follow spot on an actor who played a tape worm called Lintwurm. This character is Sher’s on-stage alter-ego, a worm that has grown in him from hatred and segregation. "The actor had to learn to work with the light," explains Town. "After a four-hour solo session with him, it was very successful. He moved on a cue then the lighting followed his moves." Town used the followspot as the actor moved into his role as emcee for the play, not when he was the tapeworm.
I.D. Photo: Ivan Kyncl
Transitions between the numerous scenes were designed as cross-fades from one scene to another. "The actors did all the scene changes as choreographed movement from place to place," says Town. "We called it the ballet-of-the-suitcases." The lighting followed suit, with a segue from scene to scene. "There was a cross-fade between two different colors in the windows to lead into the next scene," Town explains. She would then add lighting elements so that each scene change had five or six cues to support the notion of the journey from one pace to another (there are a total of 200 cues in the scene changes alone!).
An example of this is three windows stage right were lit, along with a desk to represent an office, then the lighting shifts to another color in three windows stage left, and a bed was lit to indicate a boarding house. "The key light would shift from stage right to stage left as the windows changed color," Town explains. There are also scenes in a small jail cell with one single overhead light that never goes off (and just think, the killer was in this jail for over 25 years).
I.D. Photo: Ivan Kyncl
As the Almeida virtually has no wing space, Town also used quite a bit of crosslight. "It was hard to balance the faces against the walls," she says. Her solution was crosslight in three colors: lavender (Rosco Supergel 52 Light Lavender) to enhance the worm’s costumes and add an odd glow to the bricks in certain scenes; blue (Lee 197 Alice Blue) to make the bricks look solid; and open white to add to the richness of the sandy hue of the bricks. Her palette also evoked the various locales and moods of the play. "Sher’s world was little more magical, with waterfront scenes that were very blue," says Town. "The boarding house was a cozy yellow. The bureaucracy is bathed in very cold light."
Identity is also a central issue in Jerry Springer The Opera, where let’s face it, nobody knows who they really are. Based on the (not-very-tasteful) American television talk show, this musical is proving to be successful in the UK. It started with a cult following at the Battersea Arts Centre and Edinburgh festivals, then became a sell-out hit at the Royal National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre, and has now moved across the river to London's Cambridge Theatre in the West End, where it opened on October 14, 2003.
Rick Fisher lit the sets designed by Julian Crouch (act I mimics the TV set; act II is the burning-in-hell version of the same set). "This show is very fresh and original in approach in terms of theatre," says Fisher, who joined the design team when the production went to Edinburgh. "It’s like a reality musical showing things you usually don’t see on stage. It’s a musical but sung through like an opera. There are not a lot of big numbers but there is a lot happening on stage." What’s happening are Jerry’s guests revealing their innermost secrets and desires, usually causing pain to their loved ones as these lurid revelations are made.
Jerry Springer The Opera Photo: Catherine Ashmore
"The first act is seen as if you were in the studio audience," says Fisher. "The lighting changes as we go into the fantasy mode, such as a pole dance. But even these numbers are lit as if they are part of a TV show and lit as a TV lighting designer would light them -– not like a Broadway-style number."
For the National Theatre, Jerry Springer The Opera was quite a gamble. Here, Fisher used a small rig of automated theatrical luminaires, rather than television studio fixtures. "The show needed the energy," says Fisher, who dropped the rig into the boundaries of the set to look like a studio lighting system. "At the National, we couldn’t chop the rep plot, so these lights were brought in as a second rig." The fixture list included 14 High End Systems Studio Spots and 24 Martin Professional MAC600 wash lights, plus six Vari-Lite VL5Bs from the National’s inventory. "we chose the lights that would be the quietest," says Fisher. The rig also included some conventional fixtures.
As the automated rig could not stay in place when the show rotated out of the repertory, some of the fixtures flew out and were wheeled off on pre-rigged trusses and stored backstage. "The show ran 88 performances in six months," notes Fisher, pointing out that the rental of the additional fixtures was both a technical and financial challenge for the National, where the fixtures were rented from Essential Lighting in London.
The console was the National’s resident Strand 550 (in the West End this became a Strand 530 board). Fisher gives credit to Vic Smerdon, saying she "brilliantly programmed the show at the National." Smerdon moved with Fisher to the West End as associate LD; Martin Chisnall joined the show as production electrician.
Jerry Springer The Opera Photo: Catherine Ashmore
"The show is a bit brighter in the West End," says Fisher, who found better angles and wasn’t working around a rep plot. The new rig was supplied by White Light and The Moving Light Company. The rig supplied by White Light included 60 ETC Source Fours, four 5kW Fresnels fitted with scrollers, 20 PAR cans, ten Strand Alto PCs, 16 Cantata PCs, four Strand Beamlights and 20 MR16 James Thomas Birdies. White Light also supplied two MDG Atmosphere haze machines, two Le Maitre LSG low smoke machines, four Smoke Factory Data smoke machines and the 24" mirror ball called for by the show's co-author and director following his comment that "a show with no mirrorball is a seminar!"
The Moving Light Company supplied an expanded rig of automated luminaires including 30 High End Studio Colors, 12 Vari-Lite VL2000 Wash units, 19 VL3000 profile spots, and a full range of moving light products from DHA Lighting: two Pitching Digital Light Curtains, two standard Digital Light Curtains and two Digital Beamlights. Fisher also used six High End Studio Colors fitted with the tungsten Indy lamp to provide a tungsten, color-mixing source.
"There are over 700 cues all together," says Fisher. "Many of these are snap cues, or bumps. One 55-second cue is by far the longest. There is not a lot of subtlety in this show."