Repertory schedules in most festivals and opera companies mean that a different show is on stage every day, or even twice a day. This turnover can put unusual demands on LDs and electricians. In each situation, some challenges and solutions are universal, while some are unique.
Michael J. Whitfield has been resident LD at the Stratford Festival of Canada since 1980. “Our season runs May through November,” he says. “Typically I light one to three shows a year.” This season, he lit The Adventures of Pericles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Present Laughter, in two different spaces.
“We open shows in rep in all four spaces, with two to three shows running in each at any given time,” says Whitfield, who serves as the on-site resource person for outside LDs who work there. “I send packets of information, especially to new designers, with the basic rep plot per theatre, and an indication of what they can or cannot do.”
The basic plots include fixed-focus instruments, some with color scrollers. “Our goal is a one-hour changeover. This means they can change color and templates but not focus,” says Whitfield. To save time, the festival uses a unique system for custom-made shutters, which Whitfield calls their “primary adjustable factor.” It entails shuttering a unit for a specific production, then taking a picture of each unit's shutters in position using yellow Kodak photosensitive paper, which doesn't burn.
Next, the picture of the shutter positions is laid over a template blank made of heavy-duty aluminum foil and cut out with a matte knife. This creates instant shutters to help facilitate the fast turnover time. “This allows us to change templates but not shutters,” says Whitfield. He also suggests using a frost filter, instead of the lens, to soften the edges of a template, so the same fixture can be used in a different show with a hard focus.
In the Festival Theatre, a thrust stage, the rig is basically the same from year to year. “I serve as a coordinator for the season's basic plot and go over it with the designers, asking what else they want.” For the Avon, a proscenium space, there is a specific review of the plot each year, “to make sure the positions and color are good for the season.” His rule of thumb is, “if you can reach the lamp without a ladder or walk to it on a catwalk, you can change the color or template between shows.”
A large fixture inventory (including two dozen City Theatrical AutoYokes with ETC Source Fours, three High End System Technobeams and several Vari-Lite VL1000s) allows Whitfield to look at requests for specials. “Actually, we run out of space before we run out of fixtures,” he quips. “One designer can't take up too much space or the next designer can get stuck. We try to make the designers think more globally.”
Each venue has an AVAB Panther console and Strand CD80 dimmers, so board operators can move easily from one venue to another. “The electrician is my right arm when it comes to the console,” says Whitfield. “It is important that they are happy with the system.”
Designers are also encouraged to look at what their predecessors have hung, in case they can use it. “The idea is to extend the function of individual show specials to more than one show,” Whitfield says. For Pericles, the third of four new productions, Whitfield used specials hanging for the preceding shows and adapted them to his needs. “For example, blue-ship specials from The King And I became red fight breakups for Pericles, and a deciduous forest became bamboo leaves and palm fronds,” he says.
Occasionally a designer can't work within the confines of such a system. “Once, after two weeks, one designer felt this just wasn't his style of lighting. But that's really exceptional,” says Whitfield, who has worked in other rep houses, from San Francisco Opera to the Finnish National Ballet. “You need to take time to understand the basic philosophy and make it work,” he says. “I can step in and suggest how to manipulate the rig to get the most out of it. There are always adjustments to be made.”
Alec Cooper, master electrician in the Festival Theatre, has worked at Stratford since 1972. His is a full-time, year-round position (Whitfield works a nine-month season). Cooper, who works with each designer, sees his tenure as an asset, especially for follow-through and paperwork: “Most of the crew has been here for over 15 years and the continuity is helpful to give designers hints or tell them why something didn't work before.”
“By the time we clean up, do maintenance, and have a vacation, we have barely a one-month window before rehearsals start again,” says Cooper, who also serves as principal board operator, alternating with another lighting technician on the basic six-person running crew (plus followspot operators when required). Local IATSE stagehands come in for hangs and changeovers.
In readying the theatre for the season, Cooper hangs the basic plot of roughly 200 fixtures, later adding items for each show: “The later shows can use the specials we have added, which is just as well, because by the middle of the season the majority of the prime positions are taken.” He hopes that there is little need for maintenance in season, as there isn't much time. “We have 80 scrollers in the air and a dozen spares,” he says, adding that fixtures are cleaned and aligned in the downtime between seasons. They stay in the air for nine months, with catwalk access to almost everything, both over the stage and over the audience.
“The challenge,” says Cooper, “is coordination. You have to get as much out of the rig as possible. It also helps if an LD does two shows in one season — then they can think about both shows when they request the fixtures.” There is also a time limitation, enforced by Ontario's 60-hour work week, which calls for a day off as well. “That includes overtime and there has to be 11 hours between calls,” he adds. “If the set is on stage at 8:00am, we can't work on it until 11:00am, if we went home at midnight.”
NEW YORK CITY OPERA: THE 12-HOUR HANG
At New York City Opera (NYCO), in the State Theatre at Lincoln Center, the day also begins at 8:00am. “When we come in, the set from the previous evening is still onstage,” says Jeff Harris, who has been resident LD since 1996. “In a four-hour call, we change color and refocus, before the afternoon rehearsal.” At the height of the company's fall season there can be seven or eight shows in the theatre at the same time.
“I work with outside designers and let them know what is possible within our financial and time constraints,” says Harris, adding that sometimes time is more restricted than the budget. The basic rep plot includes 590 units, primarily ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (many with Wybron Coloram Scrollers), Source Four PARs, and Strand 5kW Bambino Fresnels (also with Wybron scrollers). “There are no moving lights in the rep plot,” Harris notes. “The schedule does not allow time to program them. We'd have to add a dedicated board operator and a separate console.” He also worries about scenery hitting the lights during changeovers. “With eight shows it's very crowded.”
Harris has divided the stage into 28 areas, each of which has two colors of frontlight, backlight, and sidelight from each side. One color option is from fixed repertory gel streams, the other from fixtures with gel frames. Additional fixtures are rented as needed, such as two ARRI 4kW Daylight Compact 4000 Fresnels, used this fall for Lucia di Lammermoor and Alcina. “We remove them after one production and put them in another place for the other,” says Harris, who designed this seasons's The Magic Flute.
“We usually have three hours to focus an opera the first time around, depending on the scenic requirements,” he adds. On load-in day, we can put in the entire rig during an eight-hour call and, by noon of the second day, we're ready with the focus.” Thus the rep plot is hung and focused in less than 12 hours.
Each time a production comes back into rep, the focus time is usually 90 minutes. “We can focus from 70 to 150 lights in that time,” says Harris, who works with two assistants. “We split the shows. Each assistant does half, and is responsible for the paperwork. We each focus half the fixtures.” NYCO has a running crew of eight electricians (IATSE Local 1); John Healy runs the house console, an ETC Obsession I. “He's the best board op I've worked with,” says Harris. “Tom Maher, our head electrician, is great; the crew is great.”
Harris has a few tricks up his sleeve, such as focusing Act II specials during intermission, or focusing the lights even if the scenery isn't onstage. “They take apart an entire set and put up another every day,” he says. “Working in a repertory house on this scale is a choice for the designers as well. They know we'll be refocusing the show every time.”
Designers are encouraged to think about the size of their rig for future seasons: “Any production might come back with different operas in another season. We have to keep that in mind in terms of special electrics. It's all about compromise, but that's not always negative.” Speaking of LD Robert Wierzel, Harris says. “He designed a production of Madame Butterfly that is very beautiful and easy to put in. On the other hand, his Flying Dutchman is complex and takes more time. We need to work it out, show by show, season by season.”
Mark McCullough, a frequent LD at NYCO sees the challenge as “getting the most out of the rep plot as you can. The more you add, the less time you'll have to cue, and changeovers will be more complex, creating a greater margin for error. Time is of the essence. Also, if a set has a raked deck, you want to try and avoid as much overhead lighting as possible, as they'll be using the stage to get the deck in. It's like a big puzzle, but you need to concentrate on the essential ideas.”
GOING SOLO AT OPERA THEATRE OF ST. LOUIS
With a background in dance lighting, McCullough is used to refocusing before each piece. As resident LD for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, he designs all four productions that run in nightly rep for a month-long summer festival at the Loretto-Hilton Center, also home of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. “We use a combination of equipment from the Repertory Theatre and equipment the opera company owns,” says McCullough, who also rents specials as needed. “The thrust space puts you into a totally different situation — that's why a resident designer works better there.”
In St. Louis, McCullough's challenge is “trying to create a different feel for each show with the same plot. This is the most challenging space. There is a fixed grid and limited positions in slots at odd angles behind acoustic ceiling panels. We can re-color and refocus, but not re-hang, between shows. The set obviously helps you change the feeling of the stage.” Another challenge is pacing the use of equipment, to have something left for the season's fourth opera: “Everywhere you go, resources are limited. Ten years ago you could do a lot more in terms of time and material.”
TWO A DAY AT THE SHAW FESTIVAL
Time is also of the essence for Kevin Lamotte, director of lighting design at Canada's Shaw Festival since 1998. The Shaw Festival operates three theatres from April through November: The Festival and The Royal George, both proscenium houses, and The Court House, a thrust stage. Lamotte is at the Shaw full-time for six-months a year, designing elsewhere in the off months — and keeping an eye on maintenance or pre-season planning.
“Planning for next season happens in the fall, when they hire the lighting designers for the next season. Things ramp up for me in January and February,” says Lamotte, who designs three or four shows per season. While hanging the rep plot, he holds what he calls “a bare-deck focus.” No set is onstage, so he uses a groundcloth with composite marks to show their placement. “The LDs will drop in and audition the lights I've focused,” he says, noting that there are negotiations for cuts along walls and colors. “The intricacies of the rep plot change somewhat but we know the gear we've got and where it goes.”
Overhead wash lights (30 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with scrollers from Christie Lites) allow designers to get the extra colors they need, and an electrician changes gels manually in four different front-light systems with 18 units each (primarily Source Fours). However, color cannot be changed the balcony rail or high sidelight positions. “We do not fly the electrics in and out during changeovers,” says Lamotte. “There just isn't enough time.”
There are 530 units in the Festival Theatre; 300 in the rep plot, the others available for allocation on a show-by-show basis. All three theatres have a Strand 530i console (there is a spare as well). The festival has a head electrician plus one electrician per theatre who serves as the primary board operator.
Things get busiest toward the end of the season, when the fourth show is in tech, plus three more in rep. “We can only tech show D in the morning, so there is a late night changeover,” says Lamotte. During lunch, the matinee set goes on stage, only to be replaced later in the day by the evening's set. “That's the nature of doing rep,” he adds.
One thing Lamotte likes is the chance to work with the other LDs. “Lighting designers rarely get a chance to work together,” he says; “as theatre artists we are collaborators, but not usually among ourselves. Here we get to share ideas and collaborate on the rep plot.”
CINCINNATI OPERA: THE EUROPEAN WAY
Thomas Hase is resident LD at Cincinnati Opera, where he designs all four productions per summer (excepting co-productions). “We load-in in June, and spend a week getting the theatre ready for opera,” says Hase, adding that Cincinnati Music Hall is primarily a classical-music venue. The opera augments the house dimmer system and hangs its own rep plot: “We also load-in power distribution. We run two productions back-to-back in rep, then have a production week when we tech the next two that run back-to-back.”
Trained in Europe, Hase is a big fan of large-source lighting. His rig has many large units that can be moved around as needed. These include 12 Arri 5kW Fresnels with Wybron Coloram scrollers, and a variety of Strand Sirio HMI fixtures in 2.5kW, 4kW, and 6kW, all with Colorams. There are also four Inno-Four HMI fixtures, and four Robert Juliat 2.5kW HMI profiles (some equipment is rented from Fourth Phase or Hase & Associates Ltd).
Automated units include six High End Systems Studio Spots, two Martin Mac 500 and two Martin Mac 600 fixtures, six Meteor Lights Ellipscan moving-mirror units, and four Meteor Puppeteer moving-yoke units. “The challenge here is to stay very specific with what we want to do with each opera,” says Hase. “We have to work fast and furious.”
The schedule allows 10 hours to focus the rep plot, eight hours to focus each opera, and 18 hours for cueing. “We can have some pretty heavy cueing,” Hase says, noting that a recent triple bill had 200 cues, and ran in rep with a Turandot that had 180. “The crew is great,” he says, tipping his hat to IATSE Local 5. “They really support what we are doing. When I took over seven years ago, I came in and hang fixtures they never saw before.”
Other leading opera companies that perform in rep include San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and The Metropolitan Opera. LD Duane Schuler works frequently in both Chicago and at The Met. “Rep plots are getting smaller in terms of the permanent hang,” he finds. “There is a wider range of things happening in terms of the lighting and lighting styles. You need room on the pipes for larger fixtures. People are realizing you can't do it all with a standard rep plot.
“A variety of designers makes for a better season in the end, so you have to leave more room for each individual to come in,” he adds. “You have to be able to accommodate both single-source design or many little areas of light. In the bigger houses it's more a question of space than equipment.”
Speaking of equipment, Schuler has Beta-tested the new ETC Revolution automated ellipsoidal, using it recently in a production of The Marriage of Figaro. “The beauty with this fixture is that they blend in with the rest of the basic plot as they have an incandescent source,” he says. “They are very bright and very quiet. They could become the perfect repertory source for opera.”