March is not normally the busiest month in New York theatre, but this year there was a burst of activity. Three productions in particular earned a great deal of attention and good reviews--each of them representing a distinctly different design approach.
First up was the new play by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan Lori-Parks. The indelicately named F---ing A drew its inspiration from two different sources. In this tale of betrayal and mayhem in an unnamed colonial country, Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is here reinvented as a black woman who is ostracized (even as she is patronized) for performing abortions. The style of the play is pure Bertolt Brecht, however, with electric signs to announce each scene, a score of mordant musical numbers, and a presentational style that never lets one forget that a play is in progress. As the actress (S. Epatha Merkerson, of Law & Order) prowled the deck and catwalks of Mark Wendland’s setting, LD Kenneth Posner’s lighting provided a reliable guide to the production’s shifts of mood.
"I brought two ideas to the table," says Posner. "I knew the lighting wanted to be real, not oversaturated, not in a Caribbean palette, but more European." In many of the play’s scenes, he says, "The color was dry, with lots of gray-blues and clears." When the play shifted into what the LD calls "magic realism," in which Hester and her friends spoke in a language invented by Parks, Posner says, "we went to a heightened, a more golden quality of light." In addition, he says, "The musical numbers exploded into another layer of much more saturated color; we went into an almost vaudevillian quality."
Another extra-theatrical touch: "The space was defined by the use of practical lightbulbs, which gives it a kind of Brechtian look." The play was staged in the three-sided Anspacher space at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, a space that, says Posner, "lends itself to interesting angles of light." The Anspacher is a soaring, vaulted room. "The lights are so far from the playing area," says the LD, "that the angle and distance it has to travel makes it very dramatic."
The production featured a lineup of conventional equipment, all controlled by an ETC Obsession board. Overall, Posner says, his work was about "embracing the space and exploiting the drama in the room, tying the architecture of the room into the design of the set and accenting it with the lighting." He adds, "It’s just old-fashioned theatrical storytelling." Chris Aikins was assistant LD; equipment was supplied by Fourth Phase.
Another kind of old-fashioned lighting can be seen at the new Broadway comedy The Play What I Wrote. Inspired, sort of, by the work of the late British comedy team Morecambe and Wise, The Play features Sean Foley and Hamish McColl as themselves, demented British comics who get tangled up in a not-ready-for-Broadway historical farrago titled A Tight Squeeze for the Scarlet Pimple. The show is British sketch comedy at its wildest, with the added novelty of a mystery guest star at every performance--the good sports have included Zoe Caldwell, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Nathan Lane, and Roger Moore. Tim Mitchell, who usually can be found lighting historical dramas at England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, suddenly found himself being told to focus more units on the big baguette of French bread used as a sight gag at one point.
"More light on the baguette!" he laughs. "This was completely different from anything I’ve ever done. I do big costume dramas and operas. Here, the boys work so bloody hard--you’re just there to facilitate them. It’s not ‘look-at-me’ lighting. It’s about being bright and in-your-face."
Oddly, Mitchell got the job because he had recently designed a production of Richard III, starring Kenneth Branagh. It was "lots of single shafts of light and light curtains--that Shakespearean sort of thing," he says. However, Branagh was already planning to take on the staging of The Play What I Wrote, so Mitchell came along to design the lighting.
Actually, Mitchell didn’t do the show’s original London engagement, but was hired to design the UK tour and Broadway. "We opened it on the road in the UK, which was mad," he says. "We loaded in on Sunday and opened on Tuesday evening--and I’d never seen the show before." The production was heavily reworked for New York, removing many references to Morecambe and Wise (who are unknown in the US). "Every day, there were big script changes," says the LD. Still, he says, he loved the experience of working almost improvisationally, with the show in flux, and everyone, but everyone, making suggestions. "You’re generally rolling in the aisles while you’re doing it," he says. "You have five or six people throwing ideas at you."
For Broadway, Mitchell had the benefit of working with associate LD Vivien Leone, an expert in showing British LDs the ways of Broadway, "She’s brilliant--so well organized," says Mitchell. "I spoke to Vivien on the phone, saying, 'It’ll be a rough ride, but it’ll be a laugh.’ After an hour of tech rehearsals, she peered over her glasses and said, "I see what you mean.’ We had a very short load-in period. All this compounded by us changing the show radically. We were all up against it."
Still, working with a team that included programmer Hilary Knox and electrician Michael S. LoBue, the team went to work. "You program very quickly and you think on your feet," says Mitchell. "Basically, you’ve got script changes in the morning, rehearsals either in the late morning or afternoon--you have to have something up your sleeve." The LD’s rig included a lineup of conventional fixtures with a mix of Martin MAC 2000s, MAC 500s, and MAC 600s, "which made it easier to make changes." Gear was supplied by Fourth Phase. All in all, the LD describes the show as "a really happy atmosphere." This month, he’s back home doing more typical work, designing several new productions for Royal Shakespeare Company.
There is nothing typical about the current revival of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg by Peter Nichols, currently at Roundabout Theatre Company. Not the funny-while-disturbing script, not the excellent cast led by Eddie Izzard, and certainly not the how-does-one-light-this set by Es Devlin. The set is a painstakingly accurate replica of an English working-class living room, including a complete ceiling, crown molding and all. This literal box set also slides 11’ upstage and downstage throughout the play--just in case the ceiling wasn’t enough of a challenge for LD Adam Silverman. "It is probably one of the most difficult sets I have ever lit," he says. "It is a naturalistic room and you think you would want to light it in the most naturalistic way. The positions you would normally use to light don’t even exist on this set." Bill Rowland, the production electrician, adds, "At first glance it is a straightforward box set, and then you see the complete ceiling, no overhead positions, no backlight, no details to hide lights in the ceiling, and you think it is going to look flat."
Silverman explains how he avoided the flat look. "I had to take a look at what was in the theatre and how I could take the most advantage of those positions. Normally, the box- boom position is very good, but on this set you can’t get high enough to get upstage into the room because of the ceiling, and you can’t get over far enough because then you are only lighting half of the room because of the side wall. So I just tried to figure out the best angle from the box boom to get into the room at all. I used as much of the booms as I could to maintain sidelight and create as much depth as possible. It is a really tricky balance with the booms; you have to balance not over-lighting downstage while lighting some important scenes that happen upstage."
Rowland points out Silverman’s great use of bounce light to get depth. "He used the set really well to bounce the light. He got light focused into every corner and used the ceiling as well. There were some mini-striplights and PARs outside the windows that helped add some color and light." Silverman agrees that the use of the set for bouncing light was key to this successful design. "Often you see a set with a 4’x6’ mirror and it scares you a bit, but here it helped a lot to get some nice sidelight and reach across the set where there was no way to get light. I also put as much light as I could into the upstage corners to bounce as much as I could off those walls; it really helped. Putting light in the windows and skirting light through the curtains to get some light upstage also worked really well."
A Day in the Death of Joe Egg photos: Joan Marcus
The ceiling may have been the most formidable of obstacles for Silverman but there were still two "effects" to accomplish in the show as well. The audience enters the theatre not to a closed curtain but to a show curtain that is, in effect, a full stage blackboard. At first glance, it looks like a scrim but is too solid and it almost seems to glow. It is, actually, an ingenious full-stage light box, of sorts. "It is a rear-projection screen as the blackboard," says Rowland. "We drop a pipe to deck with five nine-light T3 strips to create a ground row and, overhead, we had a row of 650W T3s just one pipe upstage for clearance of the ground row pipe. Finally, we have three 2kW Bambinos [from Strand] on stands 15’ back on the set. It really looks nice and even from front of house."
The second "effect" of the show was more light boxes, but here the twist is more international. Silverman works a great deal in Europe and is well-schooled in the lighting tools available to him. Abroad, he uses dimmable fluorescent units, a choice that US designers avoid when a smooth fade-up is needed. "The paintings were very tricky. Devlin and I decided they would be light boxes. In Europe you work with dimmable fluorescents a lot, but in the US, I was warned by everyone that they would flicker. I had just used them in Europe for a cyc and they worked perfectly. I probably should have listened. We ended up using a lot of neutral density with the dimmable fluorescents and cheated the levels to start the fade-up; it worked out and created the effect we wanted. At the end of the day they worked great."
Silverman’s lighting design for Joe Egg is really a case of the devil being in the details, but as Rowland points out, "The way Adam knew what he wanted and how to get it on this set was great. Adam had the best shot at making it all work, and in the end he really did."