[pictured above, Act I--Turn of the Century "White Christmas"]
To most people, the words "church Christmas pageant" conjure up images of scenic drops that tremble, cardboard angel wings, and dim light emanating from old coffee cans. Then there's the Fort Lauderdale Christmas Pageant, produced by the First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale. It's a Radio City Music Hall-size spectacle that combines piety and pizzazz in equal measure.
First, some fast facts: The pageant runs for 19 performances, and features a 300-voice chancel choir, a 40-piece orchestra, a combined cast and crew of over 1,000 people and a barnyard's worth of animals. The first half of the show features traditional carols in a turn-of-the-century setting, plus a children's parade, a winter wonderland sequence, a downtown shopping scene, a choir concert, and an international dance number. The second act traces the life of Jesus Christ, from prophecies of His birth, through His death and ascension into Heaven.
[pictured above, Act I--Beginning of Choir Concert "Light A Christmas Candle." Reflects Jacques, "Over 250 lit candles on stage! The fire marshal was in the Christmas Spirit!"]
Indeed, the pageant has grown so much since its beginning in 1984 that it is now broadcast nationally on PBS; this year it was shown in other countries as well.
The production represents a unique partnership between professional and amateur theatre folk. The performers and musicians are drawn from the local community. The design and technical staff are professionals. (The scenery for the production was designed by Peter Wolf and Bill Eckart, names that will be familiar to an older generation of theatregoers). For the last five years, the lighting has been designed by David Jacques. The job never gets dull, however, according to Jacques. For one thing, the first act format changes from year to year. For another, the designer uses the latest lighting equipment each year, resulting in new challenges and new effects.
[pictured above, Act I--Choir Concert--Points out Jacques, "The three stars (from Cybers) would track to the center at the climax of the song...creating a sparkling giant Christmas Star."]
A key fact about the pageant, says Jacques, is "each act is a separate show. There is a wide range of musical and emotional dynamics. The first act is pure entertainment, with some secular tunes--it presents the message of the season. The second act is the story of Jesus. Act I is mostly flash, entertainment lighting, with a great deal of movement and special effects. Act II is designed more like an opera. We used the automated lighting in a more conventional way, although there are some powerful effects."
The show is presented in the church's vast 3,000-seat sanctuary, which presents both challenges and opportunities. Both Jacques and automated lighting programmer Michael Irwin agree that the lighting positions are far from the best. "Because there's a height of 55'," says Irwin, "many lights can only be reached for service by rappelling down to them. I had a great master electrician, Michael Barman. This guy is a champ. Any time we blew a lamp, he had to rappel down to the front-of-house rig."
Furthermore, says Irwin, "In this particular venue, because of the way the instruments are hung, it's a kind of trapezoidal truss layout, over the pulpit and pews. You've got a lot of side positions, but, as you back on the ceiling, which also slopes up, the units are never in the same orientation. It was a lot of fun programming all the information." He adds that he worked out many of his calculations using WYSIWIG.
Jacques says that he used the sanctuary's white, angular sloping ceiling to create certain effects: "I also brought in floor fixtures, [High End Systems] Technobeams with wide-angle lenses" to do deck and ceiling treatments. "That was a gamble," he adds. "I thought with the wide-angle lenses they might be too weak, but they really kicked. I was really surprised by their power. I was able to project lots of images on the ceiling with them--stars, patterns, all sorts of stuff."
This year, for the first time, Jacques used Coemar equipment in his redesigned plot. "There are two plots for the show," he says, "the truss plot and the front-of-house plot. There are [High End Systems] Cyberlights and [Coemar] CF 1200s at the front of house, placed on flying trusses and little goalposts. There are also Cybers on the truss. In the past, we've used Vari-Lite and Martin. There are also Cybers in the FOH Torm positions. Due to budget restraints, this year I used 30% fewer automated lights. In the past, we’ve used Vari-Lite and Martin. The nice thing about the Coemar units is that they have a wonderful zoom and you can flood them out--so effects that, in the past, required two lights, I could do with one light this year. There are also 12 CF 1200s for area lighting, color washes, and for scenes in the audience. are also 12 CF 1200s for area lighting, color washes, and for scenes in the audience. These fixtures also aided in balancing for video."
Also, there are 24 Coemar CF 7 units hung on an overhead truss. "In Act I, they're used for overhead gobos and spotlights, and to light the drops. I needed a zoom instrument, to go from pinpoints to something that would flood out. I also used ministrips to light the drops. There are some conventional units, but it's mostly an automated light show."
[pictured above, Act II--Jacques describes this scene as, "Shofar revealed behind a scrim. The automated lighting was used for specials and bold strokes of light."]
Again, the designer notes, each act has a unique look. For the first act, "There's a lot of color and movement and morphing patterns. It's like most musicals. You have to design it number by number and tie it into the overall theme of the show. There are, I think, about 650 cues in the first act. In the second act, there are 150 cues, in 80 minutes. You do tend to get cue-intensive with automated lights."
Although the second act has a darker, more restrained look in some respects, the designer also achieves a number theatrical moments. For a Nativity sequence, the actor playing Joseph holds up the infant (played by a real baby), and there's a broad downward sweep of beams from CF7s onto the infant. During the Last Supper sequence, says the designer, "There are candlelight effects, from automated units, bouncing off the table. You don't really 'see' it, but you know the candlelight is there." The Crucifixion sequence begins with the actor playing Christ dragging the cross across the stage. In years past, the LD, says, "this is where the Martin PAL units came in handy. I created a 'path of pain,' forming a sharply shuttered road of stark white light through which he walked. The chorus people stood behind, reaching their hands into this wall of downlight. This year, not using the PALS, I didn't have the same shuttering capability, so I used the Technobeams from a low angle to create this wonderful shadow effect as Jesus was carrying the cross."
Jacques uses Coemar units for the Crucifixion itself, three CF 1200s for toplighting on the cross and backlighting the archway downstage of it. The Resurrection, he says, "is simple but effective. The tomb is downstage of the crosses; the front is made of scrim, so we bleed light through it. There's a huge beam of light from a CF 1200 above and slightly upstage--it's a kind of 'God light' that pierces Jesus. The next moment, light cuts through the roof of the tomb. Additional ‘God lights’ bump on DS of the tomb supporting the climax of the music. Jesus stands, turns upstage, and exits the tomb, and there’s a crossfade, from the CF 1200s to a blinding light located directly upstage from an unseen stagehand holding a par can. We go from super high-tech to super low-tech in a matter of seconds."
[pictured above, Act II--The Path of Pain--Jacques says to notice "the choir reaching in to the wall of stark light."]
Jacques emphasizes the key role played by Irwin on the production. I've used the two best programmers in the world on this show--Jorge Valdez, when we had Martin equipment, and now Mike Irwin. I have used people in the past who weren't of their caliber, and it's a waste of money. The designer-programmer interface is so crucial; if you don't have a programmer who can clue into your style…well, let's just say that you have to be a very open person to be a programmer."
Other key personnel included associate lighting designer Helena Kuukka ("One of the finest assistants in the country, and a wonderful designer who contributes greatly to this production," says Jacques), assistant lighting designer Michael Schrupp (one of Jacques’ graduate students), and production manager Ryan Bates, whose company Majestic Productions, provided most of the professional backstage labor force.
[pictured above, Act II--The Resurrection--Jacques used "God Lights" from CF1200s to "illuminate the saved DS of the tomb."]
The automated lighting is run on a High End Systems Wholehog console, with the conventional units controlled by an ETC Express.
Overall, says, Jacques, the experience continues to be a positive one. "This was the first show I've ever done for a church organization," he says. "I enjoy working with these people. They really respect your creativity." That's Christmas present enough for any designer.
The complete lighting equipment list, as supplied by Miami Stagecraft, follows:
6 High End Systems Technobeams w/ wide angle lens
21 Coemar CF7 Hard Edge
10 High End Systems Cyberlight (4 with narrow lens set)
15 Coemar CF1200 Wash
1 Whole Hog II Console with Remote
1 Hog 1000 Console (backup)
18 ETC S4 10°
53 ETC S4 19°
70 ETC S4 26°
9 ETC S4 50°
14 Lighting and Electronics Mini strip 3 circuit 6'
3 Wildfire 400 spot/flood UV fixtures
4 Lighting and Electronics 4.5" fresnel
2 GAM Flicker generators
1 22" mirror ball & motor
2 Lycian 1275 Long Throw followspots
2 Altman Voyager Short Throw Truss follow spots
3 Grey Interfaces Opto splitter
1 Le Maitre LSG low smoke generator
House equipment at the church includes the ETC Express console, ETC dimmers, four Strand Par 64s, 60 Strand Lekolights, and two Lycian 1266 followspots.
Photos: David Jacques.