Sometimes, when collaboration is really cooking, designers and technicians can provoke each other to make new achievements. So it was with the recent Hamlet at Houston's Alley Theatre. Neil Patel's set design included a 30' turntable and a curved rear wall of brick extending up to the tension grid lighting positions; at times, a tower detached from the wall and became part of the stage picture. “It was a harsh, distressed environment, which looked like the inside of a warehouse,” says LD Chris Parry. He adds that its starkness and scale recalled productions at England's Royal Shakespeare Company. Nevertheless, because of the wall, he says, “There wasn't really a cyc or sky;” he was concerned about backlighting and differentiating between interior and exterior scenes. “Then,” he says, “I had the idea of a wall of fog in front of the brick wall, so that it could become a cyc of sorts.”
Thus lighting supervisor Clint Allen went to work creating the wall of fog, a plan that was complicated by the set's circular design. The fog, he says, was fed from below the stage, and was drawn upwards, creating the wall effect. Using three F100 fog machines from High End Systems, he fed the fog through a flexible tube. “I put a fan in front of the tube,” he says, “to build a positive pressure through the hose, which took the fog upwards. Then we built a set of exhaust fans directly above the stage, which pulled the fog up. It created a draft, like opening two windows at opposite ends of the house.”
Timing was everything; the fog had to appear and disappear in seconds. “We used the Coldflow formula [which comes with the F100], which dissipates really quickly,” Allen says. One scene ran nearly 20 minutes, so, he says, “We had three fog machines; with two running at a time.” Each machine would run a cycle of approximately 30 seconds, then shut off for a minute, to keep from getting too cool. To drive the fog through the tubes he used two CITC Director fans, with five exhaust fans placed above. “They're basically attic ventilators,” he says. “They pull a lot of air, but they do it quietly. I had about 6,000 cubic feet per minute of exhaust.”
With the fog wall in place for the exterior scenes, Parry created a stark, angular design in a limited color palette of blues and blue-greens, working the brick wall with toplight, uplight, and various gobo textures. “We had a custom curved ring of 56 [ETC] Source Four Pars above the perimeter of the circular revolve stage — where the smoke wall would be,” he says; “I suggested the perimeter lights to Neil, who incorporated them into the set design." In addition, the LD says, “There's a 2' grating all the way around the stage,” under which he placed 35 industrial flood units from Home Depot ("Cheaper than anything else we could find!" he notes). “In the first ghost scene,” Parry continues, “the soldiers walked around only on the grating ring, through the fog wall, and were lit only from above and below.”
There were other effects as well, says Parry: “I had two 5K Fresnel units in the rig; one was directly overhead, above the center of the revolve, and one was used as a single-source backlight over the whole revolve. During one of Hamlet's soliloquies, for instance, I used only that backlight unit, which created a very stark, lonely look, which I'm a big fan of.” At other times, he says, “I used three Image Multiplexers™ from City Theatrical; each makes one gobo look like six. I used them with gobo rotators for effects when the turntable was in motion during scene changes. They would create a confusion of movement that was rather effective.”
Parry says, “We did a huge amount of R&D to make [the fog wall] work, and I'm totally indebted to Clint and his crew. It was really a case of putting all your eggs in one basket. If it didn't work, there was nothing else.” Fortunately, it did work and became a key aspect of this theatrically effective design. Hamlet ran at the Alley through June 22.