Last summer the Bregenz Festival in Austria presented a new production of West Side Story on its large stage that floats in the middle of Lake Constance. Set designer George Tsypin created a dilapidated industrial urban landscape with a glass, steel, and concrete skyscraper that seems to be collapsing and rising at the same time. His concept was to represent corporate America, as well as the ruin of a brick tenement that moves up and downstage, and offstage into the water, on rails. Interestingly, despite the eerie similarities, Tsypin submitted the design two months before the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
The top of the sculpture/skyscraper is made of glass; for Tsypin, this represents a dreamlike vision of Manhattan. Lighting designer Jim Ingalls, who, like Tsypin, is based in New York, used simple 1kW floods mounted on the understructure of the set. “They are circuited in groups to make squares and rows of light, all clear but with a greenish tint through the glass,” explains Ingalls.
“I tried to use the angle of the set, to have the light coming from the direction of the skyscraper along the length of the floor,” he continues. “Light also came from the other side, from the downstage tower, so that big directional light was as parallel as possible along the length of the stage,” Ingalls continues. “Big single directions along the axis of George's set worked well.”
His rig includes 4kW ARRI Suns, Svoboda light curtains for area sidelight, and ACLs arranged in groups of eight. “These provided bright and fairly specific light,” says Ingalls, who also used 88 PAR64s as footlights, five 3kW Ushio Xenon followspots, and a mix of sodium vapor, fluorescent, and neon sources to accent the set.
“The challenge was to create focus, especially for the book scenes,” says Ingalls. “In a 7,000-seat house, what I learned was that what might be called ‘normal comedy cueing,’ (build on the key change, pull down for the solo, etc.) doesn't work on such a big stage. It was distracting.” He found that the big statements worked better when less modulated than normal.
The outdoor setting, which is in fact the world's largest floating stage, meant that technical work took place after dark. “We had to work from 10pm to 2am, after the rehearsals, at the beginning,” says Ingalls. “Then we put it together toward the end of the rehearsal period, opera style. I watched rehearsals during the day to know what to do at night. It was dramatic when it hailed during a couple of lighting sessions.” Ingalls worked with two programmers from the festival staff, Michael Schernigg and Helmut Walser, who used two Compulite Sabre consoles, one for the conventionals and one for the automated part of the rig.
Since it wasn't yet dark at 9:15pm when the performances started, Ingalls found that the floor lighting helped focus the action at the top of the show, since the other lighting didn't punch yet. “It was just getting dark as Tony and Maria were falling in love,” he notes.
The set and lighting remained on the lake all winter, like a giant sculpture waiting for the production to come back this summer (it opens on July 22). During the day, the sun bathes the set in light, with its metal and glass gleaming out on the lake. “At night, it is like a light installation before and after the show,” says Tsypin. “You could see it from the mountains. It was almost like a cosmic object.”