LD: You returned to the Broadway stage this fall with Equus. What was the basic lighting concept for the recent London production, and how does this transfer in terms of design and equipment for NY?
David Hersey: The set design for Equus is a space in which several worlds have to exist, sometimes simultaneously. For example, the central platform is, for the most part, a psychiatrist's office, which can become a variety of locations as Alan's mind is probed, and moments from the past are revisited. There is the “World of the Horses” which slips in and out of our awareness at various moments. The lighting has to create these shifts as seamlessly and as inevitably as possible. To this end, the rig does contain a number of [Vari-Lite] VL3000s and VL3500s as well as [Martin Professional] MAC 700s. The MAC 700s were used because they have a continuous animation wheel, and I needed to do a beach water effect. The moving lights are used to delineate and define the different spaces and to morph between various states. The moving lights contain a number of textures and shapes that have been either masked to fit the set or pre-distorted or both. We use a few VL5Bs rigged in a perch position as roving specials, almost like followspots. Because of the audience on stage, we have to treat everything as theatre in the round. The rig in the London version was supplied by PRG London, and the Broadway version is also being supplied by PRG. The differences between European and American equipment have diminished considerably over the last few years, and the Broadway rig is, for all intents and purposes, identical to London albeit with a couple of minor additions to deal with some of the staging developments.
LD: Richard Pilbrow is also back on Broadway this fall with A Tale of Two Cities. You have known Richard for many years. How have you worked together?
DH: I moved to England in 1968, hoping to spend a year or two there before settling down in New York. I knocked on Richard's door, and he invited me to join the Theatre Projects design team, even though I'd been a bit offhand about a play he had lit in the West End. My initial salary was 23 pounds per week, rising to 25 pounds if I successfully completed a three-month trial period. I assisted Richard on a triple bill at the Old Vic, then The National Theatre, and reproduced his lighting on national tours of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Fiddler On The Roof. We also worked together on a Theatre 69 production of The Tempest in Manchester. My daughter Miranda was born on the opening night around about the time the character Miranda was saying, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that hath such creatures in it…” In the early 70s, I struck out on my own. My two years in England soon turned to several decades, during which Richard became the Englishman moving to America to counterbalance the American living in England. We have of course remained friends all these years, and it is a wonderful coincidence that we are both back on Broadway together after an absence of some time.
LD: What is the best professional advice you have ever received?
DH: “Never fall in love with a cue,” because as soon as you do, it will be cut. Sometimes you get to a point where, if you've seen your beautiful cue once, it will have to suffice as your work colleagues may not see things the same way you do. Some years ago, I lit a New York transfer to London of the musical Two Gentlemen Of Verona. The director promised me a free hand to give a fresh look to the material. In the Act One finale, the dancers were all over Ming Cho Lee's scaffold structure doing the chicken shake, and I had primary-colored shadows of the set and dancers chasing in time to the music. To me, the cue injected energy to the dance routine, and indeed, the dancers seemed to respond to the lights. The director disagreed and rather rudely instructed me to “cut the flashing. I think it's self-conscious.” I was open-mouthed and thought, “Well, it's your show,” so I did as told, in spite of dirty looks from the dancers. The production ran for a few months, and I went back to see the closing night. Unbeknownst to me, the electrician had saved the original cue sequence and reinstated it that night. The dancers erupted, and I felt exonerated.
LD: And the worst?
DH: In England, we have this expression: “It will be all right on the night.” It never is. What's wrong will never fix itself.
LD: Would you recommend that designers juggle a design career with a business venture, as you and Pilbrow have both done successfully?
DH: I started DHA Lighting because I didn't believe you could ever earn a living solely as a lighting designer. When Richard founded Theatre Projects, lighting design was in its infancy in England. He had only just taken the role away from the chief electrician. To give you an idea of how few lighting designers there were at the time, Richard is the first member of the British Association of Lighting Designers, and I am the tenth. I had to rely on industrials which were also in their infancy to fund my theatre activities. The first gobo we ever etched was the IBM logo for a trade show. We tried to use an acid-proof stainless, but that's another story.
In the end, you have to be in the theatre full time if you're going to get anywhere, and it was a great relief when I was able to hang up my trade show stencils. By this time, I had a really gifted group of associates who were very happy to indulge my theatrical fantasies in the development of new and specialized equipment so I was in a very privileged position. Whether this is the path I would have chosen were I starting out today is probably questionable, although I believe the industrial market is still fairly healthy. Many young designers work as associates and as consultants while trying to get their own feet in the door, so maybe it's not so very different. There are many, many more designers than there were when we started, and it's hard to imagine that there are really enough productions to go around.
LD: Is the LED an acceptable stage lighting tool?
DH: I went off sailing a few years ago, and when I came back, there were bloody LEDs everywhere. My first reaction was that they might be fine for discos and clubs but would never be of any use in the real theatre. Then I did a play at The Donmar, which had several window frames hung in space very close to the back wall. We needed to simulate light through the windows with varying color possibilities.
We made a gobo cover light to “project” the window patterns. That was easy. But the color change in the window itself was a problem until I remembered seeing an LED three-color mixing light stick. This gave me a glow in the windows that matched the color changers on the gobos, and I began to change my mind. Since then, there have been many times when I've used LEDs to solve specific problems where space was limited and the actual colors achievable and acceptable. The biggest problem is low-end dimming, as they tend to pop on in an irritating way. Les Mis went to Holland again last spring, and I found a very clever young man who has invented a LED dimmer which has something like 15,000 steps, and the bottom end is acceptable…We are using a system at the Broadhurst, as a few LEDs have managed to creep into Equus. There is a horizontal continuous ring of iCove LED fixtures that lights falling mist and three-color uplighters in stage deck grilles with almost no depth. The horses' heads each have two 1W, 4.5V white LEDs — on separate channels on a wireless dimmer — used in the blinding sequence. I'd guess LEDs are here to stay.