Theatre in the round can provide interesting challenges for designers. Yasmina Reza's Life (x) 3, the recently-closed Broadway show at Circle in the Square, gave production designer Mark Thompson and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone a chance to set the play in the circular environment they felt it needed. “We had always wanted to do the show in the round, as it needs an intimate environment, and the piece lends itself to a circular design,” says Vanstone. In the course of the play, the same scene is played three times, in the same apartment with the same four characters, with wildly different results as a couple appears one night early for a dinner party, taking their hosts by surprise.

The circular solution allowed the set to rotate on a turntable and provide a different vantage point for each scene. Yet something was needed to frame the playing area and replace a large metal box internally lit with a blue neon cube that was used in the prior London versions of the production (at the National Theatre, at the Old Vic and Savoy theatres, and on a national UK tour). The solution in New York was a blue laser cube created by laser specialist Norman Ballard.

“As the New York design emerged, the idea of a laser cube occurred to me and to Mark Thompson simultaneously,” explains Vanstone. “We first took the idea to the producer, Ron Kastner, who was very supportive, despite the obvious budgetary implication, and then my associate, Paul Miller, approached laser expert Norman Ballard with a specification. Norman then came up with a method of achieving what we wanted and we were delighted with the result.”

The laser cube was used to begin and end each version of life that the evening presented. “It also suggested the larger context in which the events of the play take place, emphasizing the astrophysical themes of the play which frequently refer to the galaxy, space, and time, and the theories around it,” Vanstone notes. “Another effect was used to signify the passing of time within each version: A rotating, thin horizontal line [created by ETC Source Fours and a GAM TwinSpin with a single gobo custom-made by house electrician Stewart Wagner] projected from three angles and moving at different speeds to create an endlessly changing, overlapping pattern.”

Ballard, a laser artist who works with visual and video artists including Nam June Paik, is also Broadway's resident laser expert: “I have worked on every show with lasers since Peter Pan [in 1979],” he says. He created such effects as the white laser pyramid that floats in blackness for Aida. “Laser effects are evolving and maturing into scenic effects, giving designers a new palette to work with,” he notes.

Part of this evolution is due to the use of fiber optics. “This allows you to leave the physical plant for the lasers far from the stage. There is only a small cable onstage to deliver the beam,” adds Ballard. “This makes the laser medium more designer-friendly, and easier to integrate into scenic elements. There are also new solid-state lasers that are small, portable, and more efficient. They are better suited to the laser artist's vision and fantasies.”

In addition, lasers can now be DMX-controlled, with cues run from the primary lighting console, and a special laser safety officer operating an E-stop in case of emergency (and who also turns on and tunes the laser before and during the show, keeping the beam maximized). “In New York State this has to be a licensed operator,” says Ballard, who teaches a laser operator class for IATSE stagehands. The laser operator for Life (x) 3 is Tokuda Moody, primarily an automation operator from PRG, with Gary Fails of City Theatrical filling in when needed.

At Circle in the Square, Ballard used a large-frame 20W Spectra Physics argon laser (located in a small room under the audience seats). An optical bench split the beam into several sources that were delivered to the stage via several fiber-optic cables, with mirrors above the playing area to divert and bounce the beams around.

Ballard was also able to create the specific blue that Vanstone requested. “The blue is the equivalent of Lee 120,” Ballard notes, pointing out that this blue represents a wavelength of 488 nanometers. “You tune the laser to Lee 120 by separating and blending wavelengths to get the color you want,” he adds.

Once the desired color was achieved, Ballard created a cube with the laser beams to establish the boundaries of the playing area, or the invisible four walls of a Paris apartment. “This helps orient the audience, as a visual allusion to a box set on a proscenium stage,” he says. “Then the ‘walls’ become invisible as you enter these people's lives.”

Each leg of the laser cube was DMX-controllable, and Ballard describes the lasers as “choreographed in sequence,” calling the dancing laser beams “rayography.” There were DMX-controlled servomotors used as dousers that allowed for curving, blending, and crossfading of the laser lines. The cube also constructed and deconstructed so that it didn't look the same each time it appeared. “It came up as a cube, deconstructed, then faded out, or came up in pieces and constructed as a cube,” Ballard explains. “The cube also looked different from different seats, especially in the round.”

The lasers were part of the overall lighting cue sequence (associate lighting designer Paul Miller helped with the programming) with an inhibited submaster, plus the E-stop as a double safety system. “If an audience member is trying to find a seat at the top of the show — and the seats are very close to stage in the round — and looked up, the beam could go right into their eyes. In this case there is no physical barrier to prevent an audience member or stagehand from walking into a beam. It could be dangerous,” says Fails, who is one of the dozen or so licensed laser operators working on Broadway.

“This might be the first straight play on Broadway with lasers as a scenic effect,” says Ballard, happy that lasers are finding a place in the literary context of plays and not just seen as razzle-dazzle rock-and-roll effects. “You need haze to really see the lasers,” he adds (the production used hazers from MDG). “In rehearsal without the actors we had a lot more haze. I might use the cube as a standalone sculpture some day.” In the meantime, Life (x) 3 benefited from the advances in laser technology and Ballard's artistic vision.

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.