This season, Off Broadway has seen an explosion of new plays by new writers, most of them examining thorny issues in contemporary life. James Vermeulen designed the lighting for two such recent productions; the structure of each play posed a number of design challenges.
Diana Son's Stop Kiss, which opened in December at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, begins, somewhat deceptively, as a comedy about Callie and Sara, two young women in New York whose growing friendship rapidly takes on romantic overtones. The play's initial tone--light, bright, and contemporary--is shattered by a series of flash-forward scenes, in which we learn that Sara has been the victim of a brutal beating. The event that divides past and present is the women's first kiss, which ignites a gay-bashing incident.
The first challenge on Vermeulen's agenda was to create a design that could accommodate the play's split moods. Most of the action takes place in Callie's apartment, a dumpy but large and comfortable downtown loft, expansively realized by scenic designer Narelle Sissons. Because the set includes a ceiling, which pre-empted downlight positions, Vermeulen chose to light it heavily from the side. However, he says, "The problem with that approach is that any unit that comes low and shoots straight across is going to light the set's wall, which is mustard-colored, brighter than the people onstage. We had to find a balance." The solution was "several systems of sidelight--one that cuts off the wall and one that lights the actors. It added up on the units but it kept the look nice and clean."
Vermeulen created a starkly contrasting look for scenes in which a police detective interrogates Callie (as well as another witness) about the attack. These one-on-one encounters are framed in tightly focused blocks of light, which make the apartment set disappear, leaving the characters trapped in narrowly defined spaces. The designer says, "We wanted to do these scenes with two or three units, as opposed to 45 or 50 for the apartment scenes." These scenes are marked by the use of R367 (Slate Blue). "It's my new love," he says. "You mix it with some color correction and you get a colder look."
A number of scenes are set in the hospital where the brain-damaged Sara is struggling to recover from her injuries. Here, Vermeulen used fluorescent units built into the ceiling to create the impersonal, utilitarian look of a waiting room. For scenes set in Sara's room, the designer says he wanted to evoke "that strange, late-night hospital feeling," so he mixed in R87 (Pale Yellow Green) and Lee 104 (Deep Amber). "The Rosco green works great with yellows and reds and ambers," he says; "it creates a cold-warm feeling, a kind of lonely warm light."
Like many contemporary plays, Stop Kiss is written like a screenplay, in 24 scenes; as directed by Jo Bonney, Vermeulen's lighting is a key element in effecting seamless scenic transitions. Similarly, Some Voices, produced by The New Group at Theatre at St. Clement's, contains 18 scenes. Joe Penhall's script focuses on Ray, a young English schizophrenic trying to make a go of it in the real world, cared for by his brother Pete. The odds however, are stacked against Ray; refusing to take his medication, he falls in love with Sara, an aimless young woman who comes encumbered with a pregnancy and an abusive boyfriend. Before long, he begins sliding back into madness.
To accommodate the play's multiple locations, Kevin Price's set consisted of three walls with built-in screens, allowing for projections to do most of the scene-setting work. Faced with projections on three sides of a smallish stage space and with the need to define various playing areas, Vermeulen created a number of tightly focused looks, which kept the light focused more on the floor than on the walls. This approach supported both the scenic design and the director's blocking. "The more you define, the more you cut the light," says the designer, "the more the projection pops and the more the actors stay in the correct place."
Most of the interior scenes were lit from above ("It's a downlight plot," says Vermeulen), but the designer gave exterior scenes a completely different look by using a number of ellipsoidals placed on the floor in down- and upstage positions. These units created a sinister, shadowy look that underlined Ray's fragile place in a hostile world; at certain moments, they were aimed to create shadows from audience members, incorporating them into a sinister onstage ambiance. "The idea is that Ray's insanity is in the shadows," says Vermeulen, who adds that he mixed a number of color correction tints--pinks, greens, and ambers--to create a slightly uneasy feeling. This concept comes right out of the text; "When Ray is crazy, he sees things very clearly--reds as reds, greens as greens. But when he's sane, taking his medication, everything is off--the colors are really pale." Vermeulen also made use of bolder colors such as R26 (Light Red), R94 (Kelly Green), R10 (Medium Yellow) and R59 (Indigo) to wash the projection screens during scene changes, to create a sense of visual interest during the play's many transitions.
Overall, Vermeulen sees the two productions as an intriguing study in contrast. "It was really interesting to go from 24 scenes of low light to 18 scenes of steep light, with variations. The moments in Stop Kiss where we went really steep were really effective, just as the moments in Some Voices where we switched to low light were equally effective."
Both designs made use of Source Four units from Electronic Theatre Controls, with ETC Sensor racks. Both shows were run off of the ETC Express 250 console. Both shows were supplied by Production Arts Lighting. Stop Kiss also features costumes by Kaye Voce and sound by David Van Tieghem. Shawn P. Gallagher was assistant lighting designer and Andrew Baldwin Merriweather was production electrician. Some Voices featured costumes by Mattie Ullrich and sound by Jill Du Boff. Gary Marlin was production electrician. Some Voices ran through February 6. Stop Kiss is enjoying an open-ended run at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre.