After years as a German nightclub for Cabaret and a few months as a carnival dumping ground for Assassins' murderous misfits, Studio 54 recently became the “land of the rising sun” for the Roundabout Theatre's revival of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, a tale of how Westerners made attempts to land in Japan and establish trade in the 1850s. The set, by Rumi Matsui, is constructed of cypress wood surrounded by water to symbolize Japan, while the rest of the theatre represents all of Western civilization and is only accessible by a gangplank.
LD Brian MacDevitt's original design concept drew from Japan's natural beauty after he heard the score, but that idea was all but abandoned when he met with director Amon Miyamoto who suggested graphical images to establish different places, as he had done in previous incarnations of the show. “Most of the effects were on the deck,” MacDevitt says. “Every time someone walks down a path, there was a different path of light, and we used rectangles and squares to establish different locations.” For example, in the song “Poem,” two characters with lanterns are traveling home and every time they change direction, another path of light comes up on the floor. “It's done with very intentional sharp-edged streets of light,” he adds. “We cued the hell out of it that way.”
Those Japanese paths were courtesy of VARI*LITE VL3000s™, which allowed MacDevitt to easily overcome the show's biggest lighting challenge: the set and theatre. The light-colored cypress made Studio 54 seem even larger. “Because the wood was exactly the same color as Caucasian skin — which is usually a nightmare for a lighting designer — anytime anyone moved, we localized the light just around them so we weren't whitewashing the whole stage. It's really important that things were tightly focused. Doing hard-edged shapes around the action really helped take a wide, open white space and pull the focus to the action.”
Since the cast is entirely Asian, MacDevitt had to be conscious of the actors' skin tones and tailor the color accordingly. “There really is a difference when you're lighting a show that is a single race,” he says. “Overall, we made the color in warmer tones, with more of a daylight kind of feel. After the first tech, it felt too cold where it might not have with Caucasian skin tones.”
Aside from the VL3000s the rig also included 360 conventional fixtures, most of which were ETC Source Fours® of varying degrees, as well as City Theatrical Auto-Yokes®, Wybron Coloram II scrollers, and ETC Source Four Revolutions™. Programming was via an ETC Obsession® II console and a pair of Wholehog® 2s.
Despite the relative calmness of most of the show, there is a point near the end where MacDevitt experiments with strobes to create the effect of an atom bomb exploding, which is achieved using 18 High End Systems Dataflash® AF1000s™. “I've never used that many strobes in that way before. I've used strobes to punctuate songs or action or before a blackout, so you don't see decay of incandescent lights,” he says. “We knew we wanted to make it look like someone dropped an atom bomb in that space. The AF1000s on the back pipe were programmed to hyper flash, meaning that they stay on so long they burn themselves out. It's a really intense white flash of light, and it should be violent and devastating.”