LED screen technology has long been a fixture of concerts, stadiums, even the occasional theatrical stage. Now, apparently, it's Chekhov's turn.
US-born, but Italian based, lighting designer AJ Weissbard, who has collaborated with the likes of Robert Wilson (Lady from the Sea, The Days Before), Peter Greenaway, and the Martha Graham Dance Company, has also worked on several theatre projects with director Peter Stein. When the director recently called Weissbard in to work on Chekhov's The Seagull, which debuted at the Edinburgh Festival last year and is currently running in Riga (Latvia), the LD came up with a design making unique use of LED technology.
Each of the four acts is set in a different location, and the director and set designer Ferdinand Woegerbauer managed to structure a layout that maintains a real physical geography of these fictional locations in relation to one another. In order to achieve this reality, the sky had to move along with the house; so the LD's solution was a 15' × 24' LED screen built in a frame and mounted on wheels, with a PC and operator on its counter-weighted base that could serve as both the moving sky as well as a surface for other images. The first act, for example, changes slowly during its 40 minutes from sunset to a full moon rising.
“With Macromedia Director, we built a self-contained program organizing film clips, stills, and transitions,” Weissbard explains. “That way we could jump around and the operator could actually give the ‘go’ command to any image or signal. This was vital, as you're often slave to the video in theatre, having to rewind tapes or cue up to a specific point. Whereas this way, we were able to start sequences exactly in sync with the actors.”
The screen is a customized Jayex unit, with the outdoor visors removed and white face-plates fitted to give maximum punch. This was covered with PVC and gauze facing that diffused and filtered, rendering a clean crisp image without seeing individual pixels, normally the case with LED surfaces. The screen's dramatically bright and has 512×320 resolution.
The overall light plot for the project needed flexibility. “The Seagull premiered in Edinburgh,” says Weissbard, “but we hadn't much tech time for writing cues, plus we were organizing the images and getting them into the wall. The stage was quite full of material and it was hard to get to every light, so I selected adaptable equipment able to accomplish things, not just for effects.”
The final choice was a small selection of moving lights and some color scrollers. Weissbard selected SGM Giotto 400 moving heads (Spot and Wash versions), “because they're quite quiet and reliable, and not too large — an important factor, as everything was in view, with no masking, so the look was important.”
The show also uses a lot of pin spots-the last scene has four oil lamps that are used as a starting point for lighting the whole scene, with the exception of the LED wall, which is in an “exterior space” defined by stage layout and runs a series of stormy sky “effects.” The pin spots pick up people in various locations, helping to reduce bounce light and keep things as localized as possible. The balancing is very interesting, as lighting goes from petroleum, through incandescents (a mix of profiles, pin spots and fresnels) to the Giottos. Levels are very low; almost nothing goes over 40%, so colors were selected carefully.
Though the show has had a long, healthy run, there may be more life in the old Seagull yet. “In Latvia, the show's apparently running for three years with a Russian cast, but I think they may build another show and take a UK cast to the States,” Weissbard notes. “This is anything but a glitzy, over-the-top show, so I'm very pleased with how this unusual combination of technology managed to accomplish something really original.”
Mike Clark is an Italy-based UK journalist specialized in entertainment technology and can be contacted at email@example.com