As lighting supervisor for the Fall for Dance Festival at New York's City Center Theatre, I light 30 dance companies for a six-night festival. Each unique performance features five companies, ranging in style from ballet to contemporary to tap to anything. The companies come from all over the world and perform to a sold out 2,750-seat house in midtown Manhattan. The festival is heavily underwritten, allowing all 16,000 seats to be sold for only $10 each. While only two years old, the festival has quickly established itself as the major kickoff event to the new dance season in New York.
When I was invited to participate in the festival, my first thought was that I only wanted to do it if we could figure out a way to present the 30 works as if each one was being presented in its own home season, with its own lighting plot. From a designer's perspective, one thing that has always bothered me about performing in festivals is the limitations that are put on a lighting design because of a given festival rep plot. I thought, well, here we are in New York City, at the premiere venue for presenting dance in the country. We should be able to accommodate nearly any lighting design within our festival. Now, two festivals and 60 dances later, I can say that, while we have at times had to make compromises, they have been few and each one carefully worked out to minimize the impact on the design ahead of time.
In this festival, our biggest limitation is time. Each day, we arrive at the theatre at 8am and tech all five of the pieces for that evening's 8pm performance. Six main things make it happen:
- The light plot
First and foremost, the plot is robust. This year's plot had more than 330 fixed focus luminaires, 20 VARI*LITE VL1000™ tungsten luminaires, and one Martin MAC 2000 Performance luminaire. This is on top of the cyc lighting and the four-color backlight strips. The plot provides most of the lighting systems used in most dance plots — sidelight, backlight, diagonal backlight, etc. All of these systems are double or triple hung to provide a given system in several colors. The Vari-Lite fixtures are used for overhead specials, though having 20 of them allows us to create additional systems. For instance, if there is a backlight color that cannot be accommodated in the four striplight systems or the two diagonal back systems, we can focus the VL1000s as a backlight system and mix the desired color for that dance. When the plot doesn't already accommodate a design's needs, we work with the companies to try to provide what is needed. This year, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens brought a piece by Ohad Naharin that uses a couple dozen aircraft landing lights in a backlight position. We found a way to fit these into the plot.
By and large, we've tried to build flexibility into the way we work. For instance, we stay away as much as possible from providing repertory colors in any of the fixed systems. Instead, each company is polled several months before the festival through a technical questionnaire as to what system colors are needed to recreate the design in the festival. All the overhead color is changed every day to accommodate the actual needs for that evening. We don't have a “rep blue backlight” in the festival. Indeed, on one night this year, we had three different dark blue backlights in the back striplights. This paid off because the works all looked different, and the integrity of each company's design was maintained. While the fixed focus lights in the plot do have a predetermined focus, we are set up to refocus sidelight as needed.
- Preloading cues
We ask the companies to provide cueing information several weeks prior to the festival. When this happens, we can have the console preloaded with the cues before the company's very limited tech time. By far the easiest cue format for us to deal with is an ASCII cue file. We ask that the cues be written using the festival hookup with an offline editor. Having the cues in ASCII format makes the management of so many dances much easier. As the information comes in, we put together combined files for each of the six evenings. When it is not possible to obtain ASCII cues, we type the cues in ourselves to an offline editor and then combine that information with the other dances for the evening. During load-in, the six ASCII cue show files are converted using proprietary software developed by City Center's programmer to ETC Obsession™ format show files that our console uses.
- A website for festival technical information
Several months before the festival, we create a website with all of the technical information for the festival. Every file that is available on the site is noted with its publish date so that everyone involved can download the most up-to-date information when it becomes available. Files generally available on the site include: light plots, section, hanging charts, and focus charts. In addition, we publish links to the City Center Technical Rider and all relevant technical manuals for equipment that will be used in the festival. For each night of the festival, we publish the night's system colors and a customized magic sheet in a couple of popular layouts. For each company, we publish the sidelight color change forms and a form that describes the special focuses that the company will need. By making all of this information available on a straightforward and easy-to-use website, all the companies have a chance to review their information to make sure that it fits their needs.
The website has been critical to our success in handling this many companies each year. In addition, the website obviates the need to email large files (which, in the weeks before the festival, are being updated frequently by several different people). We publish all files in PDF format, regardless of the application that created them, so that anyone with a computer can download and view the files.
- Detailed scheduling
Creating an efficient and complete schedule also has been critical to the success of the festival. Each morning, the first hour in the theatre is taken up by scenery change-over, load-in and load-out, overhead color change, and the console setup in its house position. The next two hours are our busiest in the lighting department; it's when we focus all of the specials and special systems for each of the evening's companies. Focusing a moving light like the VL1000 with its programmable shutters and other features on an Obsession console is definitely a learned skill! Prior to the first day of tech, our fantastic programmer Tim Buchman spends many hours setting up the console to make the time that we have to work with the companies more efficient. We use a two-channel wireless headset system to communicate in the theatre. Generally, one of my assistants or I will communicate with the programmer to focus the moving lights while taking direction from the company's lighting director or designer. That way, we don't waste time while the guest LD learns the peculiar nature of focusing. Once the specials are focused and colored for every dance, the rest of the day is given over to technical rehearsals. A company is usually given twice the length of its dance plus 15 minutes for its rehearsal period, but many things can cause this time to vary, such as scenery or presence of live musicians.
- Amazing crew and staff
City Center is a first-class venue with a first-class crew and staff. This level of work would not be possible without incredible support. In addition to all of the lighting changes happening all day every day for a week, the carpentry and prop crews are dealing with a large amount of scenery loading in and out each morning of the festival, while the sound crew is mixing everything from flamenco guitar and voice to full orchestras. Hundreds of pieces of color get pulled and filed every day, and 30 dances are programmed with moving lights. The festival is only possible because of this incredible skill and professionalism, and I'm most happy to say that it is delivered with grace, humor, and care.
While it is a ton of work, and the festival schedule is grueling, it is also very satisfying to watch the curtain go up on each of the dances and know that the audience is experiencing the work at its best, as if the company were presenting the work in their own City Center season.
Mark Mongold, City Center Production Manager
Francie Hughes, Assistant Production Manager
Michael Blanco, Production Stage Manager
Rachel McCutchen, Stage Manager
Clifton Taylor, Festival Lighting Supervisor
Carolyn Wong, Assistant Lighting Supervisor
Joe Levasseur, Assistant Lighting Supervisor
Scott Lehrer, Festival Sound Coordinator
New York City Center Stage Hands:
Eric Schultz, Master Electrician
Tim Buchman, Asst Electrician/Lighting Programmer
Augie Propersi, Audio Engineer
Michael Gibbs, Master Carpenter
John McWilliams, Assistant Carpenter
Ralph Scarpati, Flyman
Michael Murray, Property Master
James McWilliams, Assistant Property Master
Festival Production Assistants: