I recently lit Breaking Legs by Tom Dulack — which plays like Neil Simon wrote an episode of The Sopranos — at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward, CA. The theatre has an ancient dimming system — 48 dimmers at 3kW, 12 dimmers at 7kW, and a bank of three circuits with another master control circuit for the house lights. There are also six dedicated switched non-dims, with switches at the stage manager's panel SR and another bank of switches upstairs in the control booth, with a “take control” function at both desks. There is a physical slider-type patch panel SL with the dimmers — but in another closet — and any circuit can be physically assigned to any of the 60 dimmers, or any of the six non-dims, or to a slot that leaves the circuit continuously hot, like a typical wall receptacle.
Our current “light board” consists of two 48-channel Dove converters, with a Dove StarPort PC software control system, which we are running on a 386 computer. The software is 99.9% mouse driven, which can be a pain in the derrière when you are trying to set precise levels (You can't type in the level you want; you have to scroll the mouse to it.)
Breaking Legs takes place in the back room (suitable for receptions and banquets and other special rentals) of an Italian restaurant somewhere on the east coast. Our director, Lucien Vinci, is Italian, from New Haven, CT, and insists that he has eaten at the restaurant in the play, so that's where our set is. Nothing in the script or in the set tells you that, however.
The stormy October weather is mentioned, and the actors are removing overcoats when they enter from outside. In a slightly embarrassing faux pas, I heard the actors talking about their concerns with the weather they had just endured, while I'm looking at what appeared to be a beautiful spring day on the cyc — I thought I was saving the special effects for later, which goes to prove the LD best not be lax in digging through the script for the verbal clues to the time of day and season of year.
The flat run of the cyc is around 45'-50' before it hits the 6' radius curve and the extremes. I used four different half-tone (or mesh) cloud gobos, distributed across the 50'. They overlapped a bit, which proved to be a serendipitous accident. I also used two (count ‘em, two) moon gobos, one higher on the cyc and smaller, and a second moon, rising practically out of the roof of the restaurant, and huge. The moon gobos were also halftone and very realistic in appearance. We were careful to orient them both the same way and had to turn one of the gobos around to get the patterns to match up. The second moon was suggested by and reinforced the Dean Martin hit in the soundtrack for the show: “That's Amore.”
For the three-color cyc washes, I used Rosco 83 (Medium Blue) for the night sky, Rosco 65 (Daylight Blue) for the day sky, and Rosco 19 (Fire), for sunset and toner colors. Each color was loaded into five evenly spaced Far Cycs to achieve each wash. The clouds were each on separate dimmers so they could be controlled independently.
The stars were the element that really needed some tweaking. I randomly strung bee-lights directly behind the cyc, suspending them from the cyc batten. Unfortunately, they looked like strings of bee-lights, not stars, and were unusable. I had a lighting tech start removing the little lamps, but that caused a whole string to go out, so I had him put them back in, and we snuffed the lamps by wrapping them with black gaff tape. I had to take out about 75% to get rid of the stringy look and make the lights halfway resemble real star distribution.
With time fades up to 30 seconds for several follow-cues in a row (the next cue executes automatically when the previous cue is completed), I was able to animate the passing and gathering of clouds and sunsets that continuously change, subtle enough not to call attention away from the action, but it was obvious that things were changing if you glanced up at the cyc above the set now and then. I was also able to animate an evening darkening into night with the moon and stars gradually appearing in the night sky. The stars behind the cyc — hidden when they were not lit and shining through the cyc when they were — approach the threshold of stage magic. And it's way cheaper than a fiber-optic curtain. One word of warning, however: if a star cue lingers for a long time, it is possible for even a low-wattage lamp to burn the cyc fabric. It won't catch fire, especially if the fabric is flame-resistant (which it should be), but you could leave a little charred spot on your cyc that you can't get rid of. In most cases, this would not be visible to the audience, but theatres generally want to preserve their resources as long as possible. I never run the bee-lights above 65% in my cues for this show, and that reads just fine. Any hotter, and they start looking like individual bee-lights instead of stars.
Stephen Randall Carnefix is the technical director for the Douglas Morrisson Theatre at Hayward Area Recreation and Parks District (HARD) in California.