In his lifetime he seemed eternal, so it's no surprise to see George Burns onstage again, as portrayed by Frank Gorshin in the new Broadway show Say Goodnight Gracie. The conceit of Rupert Holmes' script is that Burns must audition for the Supreme Being in order to make it into the Real Big Time. Thus, the comedian relives his life, especially that part of it shared with his wife and comedy partner, the inimitable Gracie Allen.
As opposed to most one-person shows, Say Goodnight Gracie has an extra touch of authenticity thanks to the projections — still pictures, film clips, and segments of the Burns and Allen TV sitcom, much of it supplied by the Burns family. The projections were designed by Howard Werner and Peter Nigrini; Werner is also the production's lighting designer. The result of this collaboration is a particularly graceful blending of design techniques. When they appear, the projections seem to move forward, simultaneously coming into focus. “That was a conscious choice,” says Werner, “to have the images zoom in, then pull back. It's as if they're coming out of his memory.” Nigrini adds, “The fades are carefully constructed and controlled, so they appear to come out of the RP screen.” This technique, he says, provided “a language for the images.”
The projection system consists of three primary DVD players and three backups plus three Barco 6400 projectors (with three backups), placed behind the RP screen at the back of the set. The units rotate from the conventional horizontal to vertical so the three screens across fit in the portal in a more pleasing composition; control is provided by a Dataton Trax system by Scharff Weisberg. The video cues are triggered, via DMX, through the ETC Expression lighting console. In addition, to ensure that absolutely no light from the projectors spilled onto the video screen when the Barcos were not in use, Werner says, “We added Pani dimming shutters, sequenced in with the show control system, that fades open with a cue, then fades shut with a cue.”
Many of the film and television clips are carefully edited from longer originals, in order to fit certain moments in the script. Editing also played a role in the big coup de théâtre, projection-wise, that comes at the end of the play, in which a sequence of images, running approximately two and a half minutes, reviews the course of Burns' life — backwards. Nigrini says he and Werner were asked to only create a sequence that recapped Burns' life, adding, “The first big decision, which now seems obvious, was that it should be backwards.” He also says that much of the editing was completed in the theatre, as rehearsals progressed: “The first time [it was shown], it was too slow. I was able to speed it up so that we lost about 15 seconds.”
Werner adds that his lighting package is a fairly standard lineup of conventional units, mostly ETC Source Fours, plus some PAR units and groundrows, all from Fourth Phase. However, instead of a traditional followspot — there is no such position available in the Helen Hayes Theatre — the designer used the Wybron AutoPilot with two Vari*Lite® VL1000Ts™ (with a tungsten lamp) to track Gorshin throughout the show. “We needed the tungsten unit, to match the rest of the conventional rig,” he says. The AutoPilot transceiver, he adds, fits into “this pocket built into the shoulder blade of [Gorshin's] coat. It works great; we can really isolate him by the use of a moving light, without having to light the whole stage.”
Other designers on the production include John Lee Beatty (scenery) and Kevin Lacy (sound).