Théâtre de Complicité, the verbally agile UK-based theatre company, wowed New York audiences last spring with Mnemonic, a collaborative work conceived and directed by the company's artistic director Simon McBurney. The word mnemonic is defined as: (1) assisting or intending to assist the memory, and (2) of memory, and Mnemonic pulls the audience into a web of multiple stories, whose fragments are derived from the actors' own memories as well as written stories such as The Man in the Ice by Konrad Spindler.
Lighting designer Paul Anderson and sound designer Christopher Shutt (winners of this year's Drama Desk awards for best lighting and best sound design for Mnemonic) are veterans of other Complicité productions. They were joined by set designer Michael Levine in his first venture with the company.
The story of the discovery of a 5,200-year-old male body found in the ice on a frozen mountain weaves in and out of the angst of a contemporary love affair as Mnemonic exhumes memories of the past to examine what we choose to remember from the present. “There are subtle changes each night as the actors find new meanings,” says Anderson, who served as LD and board operator for the production. “There are new cues and timing each evening. It is very organic and keeps us on our toes.”
Anderson accompanied the production on its tour in the UK and Europe, as there are often bold changes as a Complicité piece evolves. “This takes the pressure off finishing things within a certain time scale,” he notes. “You can bring new ideas to the piece after you go away and have time to contemplate.”
The lighting design for Mnemonic is cinematographic in style as well as a little surreal, as the action jump cuts from scene to scene. Anderson has the luxury of a long rehearsal period, often as long as 10 weeks, during which McBurney creates the elements of the show. “He starts with a basic story until the format for the production begins to evolve into the final product,” explains Anderson, who gets the lighting equipment he needs from Sparks Theatrical Hire, a rental company in London. “I phone them in the morning and get it later in the day. They let us take what we need and play with it.” Additional equipment for the New York engagement was provided by Fourth Phase in New Jersey.
To create certain effects Anderson played with bubble wrap and plastic, as a plastic curtain is one of the main set pieces. “The plastics take light very well,” he notes. “In New York, the plastic was milkier and took the blues better and the greens looked different.” Since the audience looks at the curtain for quite a bit of time, Anderson played with the lighting of it, adding color, ripples, rotating gobos, moving cloud effects, and video projection.
The LD did his own programming for the show and admits to “tinkering with tiny percentages to find what looks right.” In New York, he worked with lighting coordinator Andrew Baldwin-Merriweather, and refers to him as “great.” The lighting is controlled by a Strand 520i console, which has been with the tour since its run at the Royal National Theatre in London last year (replacing the original ETC MicroVision FX console that started out with the show).
The rig includes 38 ETC Source Fours (twenty-six 36°, eight 26°, four 50°), as well as two Strand Bambino 5kW fresnels, eight Colortran 2kW fresnels, and two Robert Juliat SX714 profile spots, one with a venetian blind gobo and the other used as a tight backlight special. There were no automated luminaires; rather, Anderson's “gimmicks” were created using White Light 2kW tubular ripple machines and a Howard Eaton 500W ripple effect with the glass removed to make the lines more linear. He also used eight 8" Rainbow Pro scrollers on PAR cans and two 12" Rainbow Pro scrollers on the 5kW fresnels, as well as DHA gobo rotators, and two White Light VSFX units with storm cloud disks, backlighting the plastic curtains.
As the action shifts frequently, Anderson made the lighting and use of color specific to each locale. “In a train and in an apartment the lighting increases a sense of confinement,” he notes. “On the mountain, which uses the entire expanse of the stage, there is more sidelight.” The light for the mountain scenes is very cold, from a 5kW Bambino fresnel backlight with color correction, and hot sidelight which drops in intensity or switches to the footlights to show shifts in the time of day or weather conditions.
Fifty specials (ETC Source Fours) with no color help pick out actors in certain scenes, while the PAR cans (with scrollers) on each side of the stage provide crosslight with color. To create the light in a train compartment, Anderson used specials from front of house with a DHA train flicker wheel. There are also 40 PAR-36 pinspots, placed five on each of eight side stage booms, used to criss-cross the stage with very narrow beams to highlight actors and objects as they move around the stage.
The lighting for Mnemonic is “surreal enhancement to support the show emotionally,” adds Anderson. “The action is very fast-paced and you have to concentrate quite hard to keep up with it. The emphasis is constantly changing.”