This fall, Donald Holder opened three Broadway shows in one month: The Violet Hour at the magnificently renovated Biltmore, and two new musicals: The Boy From Oz, and Little Shop of Horrors. You have to wonder when he sleeps. For example: Little Shop underwent a change of director and near-total renovation of its cast after its early summer tryout at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. Previews for the Broadway edition of Little Shop took place simultaneously with the tech week for The Boy From Oz, a show that underwent significant design changes. The Violet Hour saw one cast member replaced during rehearsals and another during previews; it, too, featured a designed that was significantly rethought from an earlier production. (It was also directed by Holder's wife, Evan Yionoulis.) To complicate things even more, while designing Little Shop, Holder was working on August Wilson's Gem of The Ocean at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, for which he won the Ovation Award for Best Lighting, as well as the London production and US national tour of Thoroughly Modern Millie.
To cope with the time crunch caused when Little Shop changed its opening date, he turned to Vivien Leone, bringing her in as associate LD. “I needed a special person I could leave in the theatre to interact with [director] Jerry Zaks,” Holder notes. “She generated the paperwork, worked with the lighting shops, and did the nitty-gritty. We e-mailed changes back and forth and had a lot of phone calls, as I was in and out of town.” Holder was onsite for the focus and tech week of Little Shop of Horrors, but used every free moment to check on The Boy From Oz.
“I ran from the Imperial [home of Oz] to the Virginia [where Little Shop is playing],” he says. “I saw a preview in the evening, say on a Sunday, and did notes in the morning or on Tuesday. That way, I was able to keep the show where I wanted it visually. Jerry Zaks really focused on acting and performance-related issues, so there were few technical rehearsals in the afternoon. Fortunately, it all worked out. I ran from theatre to theatre and Vivien did the day-to-day management and took care of my notes.”
Little Shop of Horrors is the revival of the 1983 Off Broadway musical classic about Seymour, a nerdy florist who accidentally breeds a man-eating plant, named Audrey II. The Florida tryout ended with the director and most of the cast being replaced. “There was a huge transformation from the Florida production,” notes Holder. “The plant was redesigned to look more threatening.” Audrey, seen in different and ever-growing versions, is a giant high-tech puppet (designed by the Martin P. Robinson and the Jim Henson Company) complete with hydraulic lift and puppeteers to operate the tentacles. “The plant starts out sweet and innocent, then gets menacing, foreboding and evil, more film noir-ish,” Holder adds.
Scott Pask's set of dilapidated skid row buildings has a neutral, basically gray, palette that Holder transforms with saturated colors. “My approach is based on Marvel comic book colors and Grade B sci-fi flicks,” he says. “This world is colored through light, based on the emotional content of the scenes and the emotions of the plant itself as it takes over the world.”
To light Audrey II, Holder chose colors that are keyed off the plant: turquoise, blue, yellow, and gold, as well as blood red. “The space gets more blood red as Seymour becomes consumed by his desire for power and success,” he says. As the plant gets more and more threatening, the lighting reacts with more highlight and shadow, creating a chiaroscuro effect. “Yet the light cannot reveal too much,” adds Holder, noting that if the plant were backlit, the audience could see the puppeteers. “The challenge was how to add shadows and highlights to a big green and yellow plant,” he says. To do so, he added deep blue and aqua shadows while the environment remained tinted in different shades of red. “There is never a followspot on Audrey,” he says. “The automated lights follow the movement of the plant, which has a limited range of movement until the end of the show.”
When Zaks took over the production, Holder says he “brought a sense of direction to the piece — a clear, distinct point of view, and a new level of energy. He wanted to make the story crisp and precise, while finding the comedy in it. He got it on its feet and made It an ebullient, fun evening in the theatre. In Florida, it never got to that point.” Coming on board, Zaks was happy with the style of Holder's lighting. “In bringing it to New York, I told him I had some ideas I wanted to articulate differently, as I had more resources,” the LD adds. “We were also dealing with new scenic elements, so I discovered things I wanted to change.” He adds, “I had a handle on the vocabulary and structure. I was not starting from scratch. The basic idea of the set is the same, and the approach is the same. I didn't have to adapt my entire way of thinking, although this is the third version of the lighting plot.”
Holder also notes that he wanted to preserve the show's intimacy in a Broadway house, which affected his gear choices. Incandescent sources include ETC Source Fours in City Theatrical AutoYokes (which he likes for their silence), and Vari-Lite VL1000 tungsten spot luminaires (more or less silent, he notes). There are also 12 Martin Professional Mac 2000s with harder edges (these are the only unit that generate noise in the rig, he points out, but he likes them for their versatility and brightness). “Sound designer Richard Fitzgerald was concerned about fan noise,” says the LD. “This is a chamber musical with lots of book scenes.” So to help keep things quiet, High End Systems Studio Colors (no fans) are used to light the buildings. The show is run on two consoles: an Obsession II and a Vari-Lite Virtuoso. The lighting equipment was provided by Fourth Phase, New Jersey. Aland Henderson and William McLachlan were the automated lighting programmers; Michael Jones and Carolyn Wong, assistant lighting designers.
WHEN I GET MY NAME IN LIGHTS
The Boy From Oz is a bio-musical about the Australian entertainer Peter Allen, starring the incredible Hugh Jackman. “This is a memory play, and the framing device is a theatre; the place where Peter Allen is telling his story [after his death],” says Holder. Nevertheless, Robin Wagner created additional scenery depicting nightclubs, apartments, and Radio City Music Hall. “It's a pretty fluid environment,” says the LD, who designed an exposed lighting rig on moving trusses (custom-designed by Wagner) to emphasize the theatrical setting for the musical.
The exposed rig turned out to be a signature concept of the lighting design. “The trusses were originally meant to come in for specific scenes, like performance numbers,” Holder says. “But halfway through the rehearsal process, everybody decided they liked them and that we should keep them in view for the entire evening.” This meant a huge change for the LD: “By keeping the trusses in, many other lighting positions were eliminated. The technical implications were immense.” In the middle of tech week, Holder found himself adding new lights in new places. “I had to carve out the space differently,” he says. “Anything from above the truss would have been shooting through steel, not air, and you would have seen shadows-yet, in the end, it made a lot of sense.”
“My job was to tell the story in as theatrical and elegant way as possible,” says Holder. “Since the space is so spare, I tried to embellish each memory scene with color and detail to create a sense of place.” For example, in the reprise of the song “When I Get My Name in Lights,” originally sung by Allen as a boy in the Outback, Jackman is in a black void onstage. “But what is that space?” asks Holder. “It had to be stylized as part of a theatrical realm.” To create this theatrical element, Holder has Jackman dancing in a sea of automated lights that converge to retain and embellish the look of a concert.
In a scene set in the television studio where Allen is appearing on the early 60s TV series Australian Bandstand, the color is keyed off a bright pink floral backdrop, with a sea of yellow daisies in patterns on the floor. “This is a 60s TV shoot,” Holder offers. “There needs to be high-energy white light that responds to the choreography, with subtle focus shifts to help the audience.”
Holder strove to give each scene its own look: a Hong Kong bar scene, where Allen meets Judy Garland, has custom gobos on the floor creating a mosaic of light to mirror a drop on the set; the vaulted ceiling in Radio City Music Hall is created with an even band of 15W incandescent bulbs circuited so that when Allen, dressed in top hat, white tie, and tails, swipes his cane, the light moves across the portal. For a scene in which Liza Minnelli (who was married to Allen) rehearses a number in a TV studio, Holder looked at videos of Minnelli in performance and deferred to the period with the lighting, playing with the angle, intensity, and movement of the light on giant red letters spelling LIZA, rather than opting for color-changing moving lights.
“Ninety percent of the show takes place in the 70s and 80s,” Holder points out. “I didn't want the lights to look too technologically advanced for the period. All high-tech moving lights would have been an imprudent choice.” As the trusses are changing height constantly during the show, Holder needed a compact fixture that was versatile in terms of beam spread. “The VL2000 was the only choice,” he says. “They are the workhorse of the show as they are in the only positions that are unobstructed by the truss. I packed as many of them as possible onto the rig.” He also used some ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs for backlight color washes. An ETC Obsession II controls the conventional lighting, with a High End Systems Wholehog II for the moving lights. The lighting equipment was provided by Fourth Phase New Jersey. Michelle Habeck served as associate lighting designer, with Mike Jones, Traci Klainer, and Hilary Manners as assistant LDs.
Near the end of the show, Allen, in concert, sings “I Still Call Australia My Home,” and a tableau of Australians is seen through an upstage scrim, with a fiber-optic star curtain behind them: the curtain was made by I. Weiss and uses TPR illuminators. “What was challenging was the number of scenic drops and where they are on stage,” says Holder. “I sometimes needed a lot of equipment in odd places to create a visually even space.” For example, the set depicting Allen's New York apartment has a skyline drop at mid-stage with a reflector drop just 2' behind it. “I needed to get two electrics into this narrow space,” says Holder, who designed a series of electrics that nestle above each other in the same plane. “This show is more technically challenging than it seems,” he confirms.
20TH CENTURY BLUES
Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour, is set a New York City publisher's office in 1919. Chris Barreca's set is white, with tilting walls and black and white cityscapes visible through large windows. The story centers on a young publisher who has a scary look into the future when a machine arrives unannounced in his office and begins spewing pages of books not yet written.
The Violet Hour is the first production by Manhattan Theatre Club in the newly renovated Biltmore Theatre. The first challenge: the Biltmore redo was being completed at the same time the show was loading in and focusing. “This is not a true Broadway lighting situation,” Holder notes, explaining that the theatre has its own in-house lighting system with ETC Obsession II console, ETC dimmers, and ETCNet2 Ethernet network. Holder added City Theatrical Auto Yokes (with 10Þ Source Fours), and two Martin Mac 2000 in a ceiling cove above the audience. “The throw distance from the cove is 80' to the edge of the stage,” he notes. “I needed a strong source; an ellipsoidal wouldn't do it.”
He also has a number of units in the space between the windows and the backdrops, including light boxes, and booms with multiple sets of ETC Source Fours to create morning sunlight, moonlight, and the reflected light for the violet hour, when daylight turns to dusk. “The passage of time is very important,” says Holder. “The play is structured as a progression in time of day, so it is important for the audience to sense those time shifts. Yet it also has an abstract, surrealistic quality; a sense of limbo between 1919 and the present.”
The production was previously seen at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA. “The groundplan for the set changed dramatically, becoming more complex,” says Holder. “In California, it was like a corner office in The Flatiron Building, with windows upstage center. In New York, there was a hallway, with forced perspective. For New York, I designed a new plot, though the concept stayed largely the same; the layout and the technical choices were different. At the Biltmore, what you see outside the windows is much more heavily detailed and sculpted — there are three-dimensional buildings at stage left that lit like real buildings, with the changing of light of day in mind. The idea was to make the drop look more 3D, like a continuation of the buildings through the paint treatment on the drop; the shadows and highlights on the drop match the lighting on the buildings. We didn't want the audience to be aware of two textural treatments.”
While the mysterious machine is actually offstage and unseen, the set designer wanted the audience (and the actors) to be aware of its presence, yet without revealing it completely. “Chris Barreca had the idea of seeing the shadow of the machine on the walls of the set as a way of establishing its presence, and he designed an elaborate system of gears, cogs and pulleys that would look very interesting and convincing if revealed as a moving shadow,” says Holder. “I also felt that shadows were useful in creating a subtle form of visual abstraction for the play.”
In addition to the shadow of the machine, Holder used shadow sources to reveal the growing offstage storm of paper in the first act, and to underscore the moment when a character leaps from the window, late in the second act. “After a lot of trial and error, we found that a 1,000W Fresnel with the lens removed and the reflector covered with City Theatrical Blacktak gave us a very crisp and bright shadow. We used three of these sources (in three different locations) to cast machine shadows from different angles on the upstage office wall.”
Speaking of working with his wife, Holder says, “It's like working with a long-term collaborator. We have worked on many, many productions together and have a shorthand. I knew her taste and the style of what she likes to see, and she has a certain level of respect and trust for my work. There is no getting-to-know-you phase, yet, because she is my wife, I feel an obligation to do my best work. It is important to exceed my standards. I don't want people to think I got the job just because I have an inside connection. Also, the way I get notes from her indicates that she is totally uninhibited and not at all hesitant to tell me how she feels” He adds, humorously, “And if I have an idea or a question, I can call her at two in the morning! Seriously, we have a very professional relationship when we work together.”