Shakespeare could have only dreamt about seeing his name in lights, so I hope he's heard about the 75'-tall (23m) marquee at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, where his every letter, from the first S to the last E, is outlined in sparkling fiber optics. This not-your-everyday sign was unveiled last September along with the company's new $24 million two-theatre complex on Navy Pier in Chicago.
Five stories high, the sign is a take-off on a traditional theatre marquee made modern thanks to its lighting technology. LD Anne Militello, fresh from her adventures with Spider-Man in Orlando, designed the lighting for the sign and programmed its nightly show. "I had designed several shows in their old space," says Militello, explaining how she got this unusual assignment.
Artistic director Barbara Gaines, who had looked at signs from Broadway to Las Vegas, asked Militello for some advice on how to make an older-style sign look more contemporary. "I decided to use fiber optics around the lamps that spell out 'Shakespeare,'" says Militello, who also requested a darker background so the 2'-tall letters would really pop, even during the day. White paint behind the 1" incandescent lamps helps reflect even more light at night.
To program the light show that animates the sign, Militello used an ETC Expression console, with the cues stored on an ETC LPC unit for playback. "When people first see the sign, I want something fast enough that they can see it happening, but not too flashy in terms of movement," she says. "It had to be in keeping with the personality of the theatre. So it's rapid, but subtle."
To achieve this, Militello used light levels that move from 50% to 70% rather than a more jarring 0% to 100%. "It goes from a smaller glow to a bigger glow, rather than from darkness to brightness," she explains. "The movement is gentle, not overpowering." In the four-minute looping show, the incandescent lamps fade out, leaving just the fiber around the letters lit, before they fade back up in a twinkling pattern.
The sign is colorful, with the white lamps of the letters in the vertical "Shakespeare" outlined by color-changing fiber optics, while "Chicago" and "Theater" run horizontally across the top and bottom of the sign in a deep-amber neon. The fiber-optic component of the sign, provided by Fiber Optic Systems Inc. (FOSI) in Whitehouse Station, NJ, uses 2,000 2mm-diameter endpoints placed on 2" centers, with a color wheel which rotates through a continuous cycle. Each of three FOSI560 illuminators has a 150W 10,000-hour metal-halide lamp.
The use of fiber simplifies the maintenance of the sign and saves on energy consumption. Vincent Frasca of FOSI points out that the fiber setup used for this sign draws just 5A. Had it been neon, the draw would have been closer to 28A, so the theatre has a palpable reduction.
"This is not your ordinary sign," Militello adds. "It says, 'Here is a theatre that's doing something interesting.' It's sophisticated and intricate in its movement, as well as powerful and eye-catching." She was happy to discover that people stand out on Navy Pier at night just to watch the sign. "It's a show in itself," she says.
In fact, for the sign's opening night party, Militello programmed a more complicated show that ran to live music composed for the occasion by Alaric Jans. Friends and funders gathered for a champagne toast as the lights on the new marquee were turned on, adding a new dimension to the nightscape on Navy Pier.