Problem: The production design style at a regional theatre demands or requires a certain type of lighting technology.

The Solution: Forget it, because if it's “unusual” you'll probably be priced out of the market.

Am I the only designer to experience this problem? This is at least the third time I've designed a play this year that either demands or requires a certain technical design answer, and, for one reason or another, the theatre cannot afford the answer that's out there.

And quite often, the manufacturers who produce this technology for us to use have no idea what's going on; they don't know why their units are not being used, bought, or rented.

If you are asked to design the lighting for The Tempest, the first thing you know is that there will be a storm onstage at some point. How do you know? Because Shakespeare demands it. Therefore you will probably need some form of strobe lightning units. Does the theatre have any in its inventory? No. Has the production manager thought (in advance) about the additional lighting technology requirements and associated costs, if his theatre chooses The Tempest? Probably not.

Example 1: I designed the lighting for House & Garden at the Alley Theatre in Houston. The play demands that it rain for part of Act II in the garden exterior set. Since the theatre was in a studio/thrust space with the audience on three sides, I calculated that 16 GAM Film rain FX were needed for S4 units. The local rental shop quoted a completely ridiculous price for the run. The Alley then appealed to GAM directly, who eventually rented them directly to the theatre at a price they could afford.

So, why did the rental shop want to charge so much? Because they did not want to buy the units themselves and then have them just sitting on their shelf after the show. I understand their financial dilemma, but it doesn't help me as a designer at all.

Example 2: I designed Fuddy Meers for A.C.T. Seattle. We really needed an AutoPilot unit to follow a prop car around the stage. One company quoted $4,000 for a six-week run. Obviously out of the question.

Keny Whitwright at Wybron was amazed at the quote for the rental.

Example 3: I wanted to use some AutoYokes on a production, and the rental shop quoted way more than we could afford. Gary Fails from City Theatrical had no idea that the shop was quoting this price and he agreed that the cost was too much.

Example 4: I often like to use large Fresnels in my designs, maybe a 5K tungsten, or HMI Fresnel. Theatrical rental shops tend not to carry these, or if they do, set the rental rate at what a film and TV studio can afford, then quote the theatre the same price. Why should these items be the sole prerogative of the film and TV studio designers?

So what we have is several elements in operation:

  • A new play or production that demands a certain specific lighting design effect or requirement, either in the script, or in the physical design concept.
  • A manufacturer who can supply the answer to that design effect or requirement via its rental shop outlets.
  • A rental shop that doesn't necessarily want to supply that equipment — for whatever reason — or who will supply it, but will effectively price it way out of reach.
  • A manufacturer who may not know that this practice is going on (and then wonders why nobody is using their new technology.)
  • A regional theatre with a fixed budget that may not have considered the additional cost of the design requirement for their chosen production.

One manufacturer thinks rental shops should charge 1-2% of the equipment cost per week in rental. Is this reasonable? Do theatre production managers expect to pay these rates?

I'm not even sure that production managers think about increased lighting technology costs for certain unavoidable technical requirements when they budget their productions. For many of the regional theatre productions that I design, there is usually just a “standard” lighting budget line item that appears every time in the contract.

Finally, when a theatre hires me to design a production there is an implicit agreement for them to support my design ideas — if at all possible — otherwise why hire me? Also, as a lighting designer often known for my innovation, they expect me to come up with a unique and creative design. I'm not oblivious to budgets, neither am I known to be a profligate designer. So, it is immensely frustrating to have the necessary creative ideas, but then not be able to implement them.