"In the future," predicts LD Jason Boyd, "I think lighting design for theatre is going to change completely because of moving lights. There's a whole other element now-in addition to color and texture-and it's motion. You couldn't really get that before without a followspot, a gobo rotator, or a pan of water."
Anticipating this shift, Boyd, a theatre and concert designer, has begun incorporating automated lighting into some of his theatrical designs. He has worked with High End Systems equipment for his designs for Brooklyn's experimental theatre troupe, GAle GAtes et al., which, under the vision of artistic director Michael Counts, presents highly visual theatrical pieces in its home space located in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). The 40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse allows the company to play with perspective in surreal sequences where scenes are physically pulled farther and farther back into darkness.
On the recent 1839, an experimental reworking of the Oedipus tale, Boyd and director Counts worked out a sponsorship deal with Austin, TX-based High End Systems, which supplied four Cyberlight(r) automated luminaires, six High End Studio Color(r) 575Ss, and a Whole Hog II console. The rest of the units came out of Boyd's $7,500 budget. This additional equipment, such as the two ETC Source Fours, five 76" ministrips, 12 Altman 360 6 x 16s, 15 Altman 360Q 6 x 12s, and a Reel EFX DF-50 hazer, came from Big Apple Lights.
But it was the Cyberlights that were the technical stars of the piece, as much a part of the show as the performers. Asked why he wanted them, Counts explains, "They have the ability to shift focus; to use them in ways you just can't do with a normal theatre light. In most shows instruments come up, they refocus, they change color, and they come up again. Here, you use one instrument instead of 30."
Cinematic in tone, the beginning of the piece featured constant motion as the beams shifted position and templates spun wildly around, moving from place to place often spinning right on the characters. A stop in the action would stop the lights, then, as soon as the action started up again, so would the lights.
The Cyberlights allowed Counts and Boyd to continually change focus, change the picture, and, presumably, change meaning. Counts is fascinated by the notion that "A person today sees more images in a day than someone in the 16th century saw in a lifetime." (And it's a safe bet that the average theatregoer sees more lighting cues in certain GAle GAtes performances than at most other Off and Off Off Broadway venues.)
Visually, 1839 is a beautifully designed piece, a dreamlike epic with effects that range from startling to hypnotic. Among the most striking of the images is a scene in which Oedipus and his mother apparently share the nuptial bed. The brilliantly lighted scene (the bed glowed courtesy of two striplights with red and white circuits inside them) was designed so that the bed with mother/son (wife/husband) pulls back into the immense warehouse space: what Boyd jokingly refers to as "that famous GAle-GAtes-we-have-a-really-deep-room-check-it-out cue."
Counts wrote the proposal to High End; Boyd underwent WYSIWYG training, which he found to be, in his favorite word, "awesome." Boyd also found High End VP ofsales Grif Palmer and Greg di Donato, sales support services, particularly supportive and the equipment problem-free. Boyd's training session (in California under the tutelage of independent designer/programmer Joe Allegro, formerly of AC Lighting) helped the young designer create the WYSIWYG plot that would be used for 1839.
During his training period, Boyd also took the opportunity to edit Allegro's existing Roscolux color file so that the Rosco colors were organized by spectral order, so "you have all your reds, ambers, yellows, etc., straight down the palette so you can basically go from darkest value to lightest value."
Fine-tuning the palette made sense for a show that Boyd designed to journey from the darkest shades and move to the lightest. The beginning of the piece is awash with saturated indigos and Congo Blues. By journey's end, the stage is suffused with white light.
Being able to preprogram is, according to Boyd, going to change the industry because the WYSIWYG program is, once again, "awesome." He expands: "I'm so excited by it. I think it's going to change the industry in terms of ability to preprogram-I mean, in theatre, it's a little bit more complicated than in music, where you can just do big bold looks. But I think even theatre is eventually going to start heading that way, and we'll be able to at least get rough ideas sketched in for overall looks of color and gobos and things of that nature, since it has all that stuff in the programmer."
Boyd acknowledges that most Off Off Broadway and downtown theatre companies cannot afford a moving lights package but hopes that eventually costs will decrease. He finds the equipment to be relatively easy to bring in: "I put this thing together with High End, they sent us the gear, and we loaded it all in about four or five days. We got it up and running with a very small crew."
One of the few pitfalls was an overzealousness in terms of number of cues; Boyd, Counts, and associate LD Andrew Hill (who came on board when Boyd left mid-tech to go on tour with Natalie Merchant for two weeks) had to cut back when they realized they were getting a little too cue-happy. The first scene alone originally had 157 cues. (At final count, the piece still had around 750 cues.)
In addition to the obvious technical benefits-full blackouts, motion, smooth color transitions, timing based on an actor's motion-Boyd says automated lighting will add " a new flavor," concluding, "It will play a pivotal role inside the show as its own character."
1839 featured an extensive design team. Costumes were by Sam Velez; puppetry and specialty costumes were by Manju Shandler; furniture design and fabrication was by Michael Whitney; video design was by Philip Bussmann. Megan Ingalls was the scenic painter, and Michael Anderson, Tom Fruin, and Jeff Sugg were the associate designers.