The Lighting Rig at PS 122 Gets a Facelift

Ever since it opened in 1979 in a former public school on New York's Lower East Side, Performance Space 122 (P.S. 122) has been a kind of supermarket for the avant-garde performance art scene. Virtually every performer of note has passed through its doors, including Spaulding Gray, John Leguizamo, Blue Man Group, Danny Hoch, Ann Magnuson, and Kate Bornstein, to name but a very few. Night after night, for two decades, audiences have lined up outside the dilapidated former schoolhouse to take part in dance, drama, and performance pieces that raise questions about race, gender, and age, while simultaneously challenging conventional aesthetic notions about live theatre. It has often been a locus for controversy, and never more so than for the support it leant to the notorious NEA Four (Holly Hughes, Tim Miller, Karen Finley, and John Fleck), whose work induced apoplexy among the likes of Sen. Jesse Helms, ushering in a nationwide debate about the appropriate use of government funding for the arts.

Even when there was more government support than there is now, institutions like P.S. 122 struggled to survive, and technical upgrades have not always been a top priority. When Frank DenDanto III arrived there in 1998 to become resident lighting designer the technical systems in place were, at best, primitive. “Both spaces [there are upstairs and downstairs theatres] were archaic,” DenDanto points out. “There were a few units, some ellipsoidals, some Altman fresnels, plus a small rental package from Big Apple Lights. There was an ETC Vision and a two-scene preset board that swapped between spaces. In the upstairs space there were 36 Leprecon dimmers and downstairs there were only 12 LMI dimmers.”

Many companies, he adds, rented supplemental equipment but, even so, “There were many deficiencies in our inventory. Units didn't work well. The electrical problems ran the gamut.” The problem, he continues, “was that we were doing so many shows, with a constantly rotating staff, there was never any time to service equipment, and little, if any, consistency in our setup. When I started there, nothing had been serviced for at least five years.” Furthermore, he says, “In the downstairs space, we had the 12-pack of dimmers serviced with 60A of electricity through 12-gauge cable laying on top of the grid; the cable was burnt through where it touched the grid, from overloading the power when tying in extra dimmers. We found a lot of stuff like that.”

DenDanto came to Performance Space 122 shortly after finishing at NYU's Department of Design. He arrived there at a vital moment, as the venue, led by artistic director Mark Russell, entered a new phase of its existence. “I was hired to bring a designer's perspective on upgrading the lighting system, to make it more user-friendly, easier to handle the demand,” he says. He adds that, as a designer, he wanted as much instrumentation and control as possible. Thanks to money from a Joyce Mertz Gilmore grant, and a few favors that he called in, DenDanto set about doing just that.

THE UPGRADE, PART ONE

“For the first time in years the place went dark, for two months in 1998,” says DenDanto. Upstairs, he installed a rep plot using ETC Source Four units and PAR-64s. The cabling went from old school bundles to Socapex multi-cable runs. All of this was purchased from what was then known as Production Arts (now called Fourth Phase). “I cashed in a favor and got a good deal,” the designer recalls. The existing upstairs inventory (about 40 units in all) was rebuilt or repaired and moved to the downstairs space, to augment the tiny equipment list there. Also installed upstairs were 96 CD80 2.4kW dimmers from Strand Lighting and an in-line ETC opto-splitter. The dimmers were purchased from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Speaking of the Strand dimmers, he says, “They're very solid and very easy to repair.” (Other upgrades included work on the venue's sound system.) “The resulting rig was small,” he says, “but it worked — and it really allowed for the flexibility needed.

“Our next season lasted three years — nonstop,” cracks DenDanto, but he's telling the truth, as Russell kept the venue constantly booked. However, P.S. 122 again went dark this past July for another two-month pause, while the designer and his staff once again worked on systems upgrades. “We get about 30 shows a year in both the upstairs and downstairs,” he says, “and they're getting bigger. Artists are in need of better video, sound, more lighting — and the lighting needs DMX control, for rotators, fog, haze, moving mirrors, you name it.”

THE NEXT STEP

As a result, DenDanto says, “We cleaned up the power lines, and moved all circuits to the ceiling above the grid.” Now anything added to, or moved in the “rep plot” is attached to the grid, making it instantly distinguishable from the house inventory, which makes changes that much easier and faster. New control has been brought in: an ETC Microvision downstairs and an ETC Express 250 upstairs. The latter will be highly important; DenDanto himself used moving units for the one-woman show Rave Mom, starring Ann Magnuson, which played there last month. Amusingly, DenDanto adds, “Some of the European groups booked into P.S. 122 actually mourn the passing of the venue's two-scene preset board.”

There were other improvements as well. All the dimmers were serviced and trimmed. The spaces' floors were sanded and refinished a satin black; the windows got new soundproofing covers that seal out daylight; the sound-mixing location was moved into the house and given a clean power supply to accommodate the influx of more live music. All of this, one imagines, came in handy right away as the first new shows of the season were guaranteed to be challenging. Upstairs reopened with Avant-Garde-A-Rama, the venue's traditional two-day roundup of the latest in performance, while downstairs there was Clarinda Mac Low's piece The Division of Memory. “It requires seven video projectors and multiple live and source sound feeds,” DenDanto says, adding that extra dimmers and inventory were squeezed into the already tight 18'×25' (5.4×7.5m) performance space.

The Division of Memory is a good example of why Performance Space 122 chose to upgrade its systems. “In 1998, they saw a sink-or-swim current in downtown theatre,” DenDanto points out. “To stay true to our mission, to serve as a platform for new and emerging work, we had to step up our equipment and our production values. Today production values make or break a show. Artists are demanding more in video, sound, digital imagery, DMX multiplexing, everything. The downtown scene has incorporated technology at a fever pitch. P.S. 122 had to catch up, or flounder and die. It might seem to some people that what we have done is small, but it has really made a difference.”

Now, DenDanto says, P.S. 122 is ready to take on all comers, a good thing, since at least nine different companies will be in and out during the first two months of the fall schedule. The designer credits his technical director, Derek Lloyd with facilitating the daunting schedule. “Derek is an Australian who got married and stayed here. He works very well with downtown artists. You know, TDs don't always embrace change. Derek is a TD through and through, but if you throw him a curve ball, he goes with it.” For example, French choreographer Jerome Bel, who appeared there in September, asked for a set made up of a large rear stage wall and one lightbulb in the middle of the room. So far, so good — but then came the news that he didn't want the rep plot to be visible to the audience. “Unlike a lot of TDs, Derek said okay,” says DenDanto, adding that at this venue, flexibility of staff is as important as flexibility of equipment.

The future plans are more of the same: to continue to expand the space to make it easier to design in. “We are hoping to get an NYSCA grant to install a new sound system in the second floor,” says DenDanto. “I would love to move the CD80 packs to the downstairs theatre, and replace them with new ETC Sensor racks. Continue to beef up the inventory. It might even be nice to add some moving lights. It could be anything from buying more lights to building a new theatre. The moral is to keep pace so the art can come first; that is, after all, what we do.”

Contact the author at dbarbour@primediabusiness.com.