J.M. Barrie's enchanting tale of the boy who refused to grow up, is so ingrained in the public consciousness it even has its own wing in the psychology ward. Indeed, the Peter Pan Syndrome, a label applied to those who refuse to embrace adulthood and choose to exist in a world of fantasy, could also be applied to the theatre's need to update the story. The latest production to immortalize the antics of Peter Pan, his arch-rival Captain Hook, and the Darling children hails from Australia. This production, titled Pan, is a collaboration between the Jim Henson Creature Shop, which was responsible for the extraordinary creatures and set design, lighting designer Jenny Kagan, and sound designer John Scandrett, opened earlier this year at Sydney's Capital Theatre.
A wander through the Henson Creature Shop in London, the birthplace of the extraordinary creatures, induces in the visitor a Pan-like state of awe. The shop opened in 1979, and was responsible for The Muppet Show, among numerous other projects. From there it has gone on to establish itself as an innovator in the field of animatronics, puppetry, and computer graphics. The studio generates in-house productions in addition to lending its considerable expertise to outside projects. A menagerie of creatures at various stages of creation inhabit every floor of the vast premises in London. Anyone on the prowl for an exceptional fancy dress costume would strike gold here, assuming you could operate the array of control rigs that manipulate the various creatures.
Up until recently the shop has concentrated on feature films, television, and exhibition work, but Nick Rayburn, the Pan project creative director for the shop, says that they are becoming more intrigued by the possibilities of live theatre. Their first foray into theatre was the recent production of Dr. Dolittle, in which the studio created over 100 creatures [See TCI November 98]. Inspired by this experience, they responded enthusiastically when approached by the producers of Pan to collaborate on the much-loved tale.
Rayburn notes that part of the attraction for the creature designers was inventing hybrids of recognizable animals to form fantastical characters. As a result of these flights of fantasy, this new production introduces audiences to the wonders of Fribbits, Squassums, and the Grocer Bird, among others.
The Creature Shop also designed the sets because they felt, Rayburn notes, that "a fully cohesive look could be achieved if we designed both elements." Ben Dickens, great-great-great-nephew of Charles Dickens, was hired for his expertise in live theatre to work as the in-house designer, and has created a world in which Victorian England, represented by the naturalistic setting of the Darling family nursery and rooftop, gives way to the ethereal world of Neverland. A 1:25 scale model of the set was created in the UK and carefully shipped out to Australia when preproduction was in full swing.
It was decided to choreograph the scenic changes so that they flowed with the story, rather than force breaks in the action to do complicated set changes. This was achieved through the use of AGVs--automated guided vehicles--to move the sets around the stage. The vehicles were assembled in the UK and then shipped to Australia, unlike the set, which was Australian-built. The vehicles are manned by hidden drivers who control the action aided by automation to provide a seamless movement of scenery.
Movement is also a prime consideration when dealing with the realization of the various creatures. There are 10 creatures in total in the production, with several duplicates, including an entire family of eight Fribbits. Around 20,000 man-hours were spent building the puppets over a six-month period before these too were shipped to Australia.
One of the greatest challenges for the 40-strong creature design team was using animatronic technology in the live and continual performance of a theatre production as opposed to a film production, where camera angles, editing, and post-production create illusions that are much more difficult to achieve onstage. Live theatre doesn't have the luxury of being able to fake what the audience sees in terms of the puppet's presence and performance.
Because of this, every move has to be specially choreographed and designed to fit the environment of the set, so that those characters that do not move about are static because of their mechanisms will still give the illusion of movement and reality onstage. There are eight puppeteers on the production, each of whom controls several creatures via various methods. From the start, the Creature Shop stressed how important it was that the creatures were integrated not only visually but also dramatically into the show.
It goes without saying that the most feared character after Captain Hook is usually the much-maligned and misunderstood crocodile. Three versions of the crocodile were built for the production: one is just a head mounted on a custom-made electric vehicle with moving illuminated eyes, which follow the pirates in a sinister fashion as it appears to lie half-submerged in water (actually low smoke). Another version of the head bursts up from the water to snatch Hook in its jaws.
The 22'-long (6.7m) full walking version of the crocodile was the most challenging to design and build. It is operated internally by two people and is designed so that the body "snakes" when moving. The snaking is linked to the movement of the legs, providing an illusion of walking, even though the creature is actually a three-wheeled vehicle. The head is mechanically controlled and the facial expressions are manipulated via radio control by puppeteers either hidden behind the stage or using controls within the costume.
A "creature hospital" has been set up at the theatre for maintenance of the puppets and is stocked with everything from spare mechanical parts to paints, fur, feathers, and anything required for on-the-spot upkeep. Mechanical designs have been kept as simple as possible and materials used are off the shelf, so replacements are easy to source.
The lighting of Pan is achieved with a rig that many lighting designers dream about, which is appropriate given the ethereal nature of the story. "I've always felt that if you're doing Peter Pan, it's about skies and flying," says lighting designer Jenny Kagan, whose design for Pan certainly reflects those priorities. Any production that includes a cyc lit with more luminaires than many entire productions, fiber-optic star cloths, two phase-changing moons, fiber-optic stars in the side masking drapes, two star drops of hanging pea lamps, and an auditorium ceiling with stars shows definite signs of interest in the heavens. Kagan met with the producers more than two years before the production, but first started working on the show when the Creature Shop became involved. "Everyone at Henson was very keen that the lighting was taken into consideration from very early on," she says. "That was really great and enabled a number of good things to happen. I think that one of the strongest things about the lighting and the general look of the show is the way that the cyc works. That is a complete co-design."
Kagan's design team included assistant designers Richard Pacholski and Gavan Swift, associate designer and Strand 520i programmer Rob Halliday, and head electrician Hugh Hamilton. Swift and Pacholski worked a tag-team act: Swift covered the early stages of the production, until his own design work on Piaf took him away from Pan; shortly after, Pacholski had joined the team on his return from lighting Les Miserables in Buenos Aries. For his part, Halliday has programmed for Kagan for several years and is now an integral part of her design process.
The cyc is a painted skyscape, 2m (almost 7') upstage from a scenic gauze painted with the same design to enhance the illusion of depth. Between the cyc and the gauze flies a black velour fiber-optic star cloth with two moon cutouts: one for the scenes set in London, and a much larger, more mystical moon for Neverland. The moons, which were inspired by a lunar eclipse Kagan witnessed on a camping trip, are backlit black rear-projection panels, fitted with motorized sliders to replicate the phases of the moon.
The cyc is lit from the rear with a line of MR-16 ministrips to create a sea-level horizon, and from the front with a conventional bar of cyc floods to cover the tops of skies. A row of DHA Digital Light Curtains hung between the cyc cloth and the gauze can graze either drop, and is extensively used by Kagan to paint color into the white clouds on the cyc. Sidelight on the gauze comes from ETC Source Fours with color scrollers. Moving cloud images are overlaid from White Light VSFX cloud projectors and two Pani 2.5kW scene projectors fitted with Pigi scrollers. Lastly, as Kagan so eloquently puts it, "Just to ice the cake, we have three Martin Mac 600s on a winched track between the cloths, so that we can do moving sunrise sorts of things."
Flexibility has had to be the keynote of the lighting design for a production where everything is constantly on the move. Creatures, cast, and scenery can be anywhere on the stage, and with four rigs from Flying By Foy, anywhere in the air above it. Kagan chose to give director John Banas complete freedom of blocking movement during the 11-week rehearsal process. She achieved this by laying down a general light from the overhead rig of Source Fours, Altman Shakespeares, and PAR-64 cans, then supplementing them with carefully placed moving lights as specials and color statements. Rather than spacing the robotics evenly around the rig, Kagan decided on their function and placed them accordingly. Thus the Mac 600s are used as 3/4 backlights, and the Mac 500s cluster around centerstage as gobo coverage for the "Home Tree" and moving water effects to be overlaid on the smoke from the Le Maitre LSGs.
Breaking with what had become a late 20th-century tradition, Tinkerbell is not played by a laser. Originally conceived as using many pyrotechnic effects, Tinkerbell has been progressively made technically simpler. "It's rather ironic that in an $11-million production, Tinkerbell is made from coat hangers, gaffer tape, knicker elastic, and Maglite bulbs," laughs Kagan. Now a light source animated by the Henson puppeteers, this Tinkerbell is the joint creation of puppet captain Michelin Deisti, Banas, Kagan, and lighting crew member Lynton Blessing, who is now known as the "Tink tech."
With more radio mics and in-ear monitors than most musicals, more sound effects than most plays, and a motion picture-style background soundscape for every scene, Pan is either the ultimate cross-genre stage production or a prototype for an entirely new one. From his first meeting with producer Kerry Jewel and Banas some 18 months before opening night, sound designer John Scandrett had been aware that this would be an unusual production. "We always knew it would be difficult, with all recorded sound, no live music, a lot of sound effects, and the puppet creatures, but nobody was sure how it would work," he recalls. "It really took shape in a great big hurry when we got into the rehearsal room and all of the Creature Shop people arrived from London with the creatures." Scandrett and associate sound designer Kelvin Gedye had based their plans on the expectation that all "creature" sounds would be sampled, but during rehearsals it became clear that as the puppets had to act, the puppeteers needed to vocalize their sounds. Scandrett says, "From a sound point of view, the puppeteers are actors; it's just they're wearing very big costumes, and we bend their voices sometimes to make them sound slightly unreal."
The radio mic system required to accommodate all of the actors and creatures in the production is comprised of 24 Sennheiser SK50 transmitters with 1046 receivers and 12 Sennheiser SK102 transmitters with 1036 receivers. The "creature actors" are also equipped with Sennheiser EK 300 in-ear monitors that carry a mix of foldback and "creature comms," communications with the stage creature coordinator. Some of the creature actors are unable to see their exact stage location and depend on the creature comms to give them stage directions. In the case of the crocodile, the two puppeteers inside also have a radio-linked video monitor, fed from a camera overlooking the stage.
Steering the location of the voice of Tinkerbell to match the light source that dances about the stage has involved much painstaking work for BSS Soundweb programmer Julian Spink. The steering technique, which System Sound has developed over a number of recent productions, entails dividing the stage and auditorium spaces into zones. The Soundwebs are then used to manipulate both the level and time domains of a sound to locate its apparent origin in a specific zone. All system EQ and delays are also processed through the show's two Soundwebs.
The music tracks recorded for Pan were timed to the lengths of scenes early in the rehearsal schedule, and as the shape and lengths of scenes evolved, so too did the music. Effects designer and editor Paul Hitchens, who had produced the show's 200 sound effects, was asked to stay on at the Capitol, with his Pro Tools system, to re-edit the music during rehearsals. Hitchens, assisted by Vanessa Scallen, edited the music each morning; Scallen would then spend the rest of the day updating the scores being used by stage management for cueing.
Pan is being mixed on a 42-channel, F-Type Cadac desk, with creature mics mixed on a Yamaha O1V. All sound replay effects, music, and background tracks are sourced from a Richmond Sound Design AudioBox with a 9GB hard drive controlled by ABControl software running on a Mac Power PC. There are two separate speaker systems in use, a vocal system, and a surround-sound system for music and sound effects. The vocal system is built up from left and right Meyer UPA-1Cs, and truss-mounted UPA-2Cs supplemented by UPM-1 front-fills and Apogee SSMs for the delayed feeds to the stalls. The music and effects system uses 4 Meyer CQ-1s and 4 PSW-4 sub-bass units as the main source, 2 Meyer MSL-4s as onstage effects speakers, and 12 EAW JF80s for surround and effects.
This version of Pan is described as "live family entertainment that is almost a blend of stage play and movie"; such is the "wow factor" inherent in the technical and visual elements of the production. These factors enable the show to challenge the current concepts of live production, and smudge even further the fragile line between fantasy and reality. It's something Peter Pan has always been very adept at achieving.
Sound designer: John Scandrett Associate sound designer: Kelvin Gedye Effects designer: Paul Hitchens Music recording: Sound Zu Sound engineer/operator: Paul Tilley Radio mics: Jenny Morgan & Suzanne Jones
Lighting designer: Jenny Kagan Lighting programmer: Rob Halliday Associate lighting designers: Richard Pacholski & Gavan Swift Head electrician: Hugh Hamilton
Sound equipment list (partial) Supplier: System Sound Effects edited on Pro Tools Replay: Richmond Sound Design AudioBox Creature sounds submixer: Yamaha O1V Main console: Cadac F series Radio mics: Sennheiser SK 50/1046 and SK 2012/1036s In-ear monitors: Sennheiser Evolution series Speakers: Meyer Sound powered speakers (main FOH); Apogee foldbacks; EAW (surround-effects) Signal processing: BSS Soundwebs Amplification: Yamaha H5000s & H7000s Intercoms: Clear-Com wired talkbacks; Motorola211 GP300 wireless two-way comms
Lighting Equipment list (partial) Lighting rig supplier: Chameleon Touring Systems. DHA Digital Light Curtains Martin PAL 1200 framing spots Martin MAC 500 spots Martin MAC 600 washlights, w/Stage Electrics spill rings City Theatrical AutoYokes* ETC Source Fours Altman Shakespeares Scrollers: Wybron, Rainbow Pro, & Colourset City Theatrical followspot yokes Strand 500 series consoles Pani projectors with Pigi film scrollers White Light VSFX effects Howard Eaton Lighting Limited radio-controlled dimmers Le Maitre LSG Low Smoke Machines