New Control and Dimming System Upgrades in Four Theatre Venues at Boston University

Anyone who sees Kate Burton in the title role of Hedda Gabler on Broadway this season should know that this successful Ibsen revival won rave reviews last winter at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. Founded in 1982, this League of Regional Theatres (LORT) company has won every major award from the Boston Theatre Critics Association (as well as Tony nominations for its transfers to Broadway) for its outstanding productions performed primarily in the intimate 890-seat Boston University Theatre. Yet the company was performing in a space that was seriously under-equipped and outdated when it came to lighting.

Over the past year, all that has changed. This season, as the company performs such plays as James Joyce's The Dead and Betty's Summer Vacation by Christopher Durang, it will enjoy the benefits of new lighting systems installed as part of a major retrofit of the dimming and control packages in four theatre spaces at Boston University (three of them have new fixtures as well). The retrofit was completed in August.

“Some of the old inventory was up to 18 years old and needed to be replaced,” explains Todd D. Williams, master electrician for the Huntington Theatre Company/Boston University Theatre. Williams was the motivating force behind the major lighting upgrade program, which encompassed the Boston University Theatre, which serves as home to three student Mainstage productions each year and the Huntington season, as well as Studio 210, the Lighting Lab, and the small SFA Studio 104.

Funding for the project came from Boston University Theatre Arts Division and the Huntington Theatre Company with a major portion allotted by Boston Edison and BU under the C/I Retrofit 2000 Custom Energy Efficiency Program in conjunction with the Energy Administration and Operations Program at Boston University.

“Boston Edison came through for us based on the ETC Source Four units,” explains Williams. “Our old Mainstage inventory was mostly Altman 360Q units that we had lamped at 1kW, so the Source Four with a 575W lamp qualified for one of its energy rebate programs. We got a large percentage of the cost of each new unit from the utility. When the University saw the projected energy savings, they became willing to assist with the project, not only by contributing several hundred thousand dollars, but also by agreeing to finance the portions to be paid by the Huntington Theatre Company and by the theatre program itself.”

With an eye toward replacing old control and dimming equipment that was outdated and no longer supported or serviced by the manufacturer, Williams wrote a project proposal to convince the University to embark on the retrofit which ultimately represented a budget of $800,000. His goals included upgrading the inventories with new fixtures that are energy-efficient as he phased out the technically obsolete instruments in his stock. “It is also better to own than to rent,” he adds, pointing out that Huntington would spend as much as $35,000 a season on equipment rentals, spare parts for old equipment, and purchases of small items and accessories to meet the demands of lighting designers.

Not only did the Huntington need a state-of-the-art space for its professional productions, but Boston University could not claim to effectively train the next generation of students without next-generation technology on its stages and in its teaching facilities. “We needed to upgrade to be on a par with other companies with which we do co-productions,” Williams adds.

THE NEW GEAR

For the Boston University Theatre, or Mainstage, the control upgrade was designed to allow the use of automated luminaires. The old console was replaced by an ETC Obsession II, with ETCLink to report system status directly to the console. “A designer's remote console [DRC] allows two programmers to work at the same time,” says Williams. “This is especially useful when using automated lighting in our short technical rehearsal time. One operator can program the conventional fixtures, while someone else at the DRC can deal with the automated units.” An ETC Unison architectural control system has been installed for house light control and can communicate with the Obsession II.

Three ETC Sensor SR48 dimmer racks with 138 D20 dual 20A dimmer modules, for a total of 276 2.4kW dimmers with Dimmer Doubling capability, effectively increased the number of dimmers in the theatre without increasing the electrical demand.

In terms of fixtures for the Mainstage, the bulk of the inventory of old ellipsoidals and PAR cans were replaced with over 300 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals of various beam spreads (a full equipment list can be found below), 60 Source Four PARs, and 40 ETC PARNels. “These fixtures use up to 40% less electricity,” confirms Williams. “They also burn cooler, saving on air conditioning, color, and templates.” To remedy the problem of continually renting cyc lighting for the Huntington productions, the new Mainstage inventory now includes 96 Altman Focusing Cyc units, and 20 Altman six-cell T3 Ground Cyc lights.

Another high-ticket rental item for the theatre was the followspot; this problem has been solved by the purchase of three Strong Truss Trouper units with short-throw and long-throw lenses. “The interchangeable lens means we can use these followspots in the lighting booth, on the catwalk, or even in Studio 210,” notes Williams. Additional fixtures include six Arri 5k fresnels, six Lighting & Electronics 6' three-circuit MR-16 striplights, five L&E 8' four-circuit MR-16 striplights, and six Selecon 90° ellipsoidals.

On the automated luminaire list are 10 Studio Spots, 10 Studio Colors, five Technobeams, three Cyberlights, and four Dataflash AF-1000 strobes, all from High End Systems. There are also 16 Wybron 7" CXI color-mixing scrollers and 12 Rosco Double Gobo Rotators. “Automated units are quickly finding their way into LORT theatres,” says Williams, who points out that moving lights have been used in the Huntington's productions of The Mikado and Molière's Amphitryon, as well as BU's productions of Into The Woods and As You Like It. “Trinity Rep, Berkeley Rep, and the Pittsburgh Public now have them in stock. It is also important that this technology be taught to and used by our lighting design students.”

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Systems integration was handled by Barbizon Light of New England, in Woburn, MA, with Brenda Shepard as system integrator and Bridget Sullivan as project manager. “We started on this project three years ago,” says Sullivan. “Todd Williams had started mulling about how to improve the system which he knew was outdated and just about adequate. His capacity was maxed. He put together a wish list and 10 revisions later came up with a major retrofit for the four spaces.”

Barbizon, who also supplied the lighting equipment, worked on the installation for one full year. “We worked around their performance schedule,” says Sullivan, noting that the university never stopped using the spaces during this period. “That was the real challenge,” she says. “We needed to install the equipment as it was delivered, as there was not a lot of room to store it. Todd made people aware as to when the various spaces would be needed and couldn't be used.”

One of the biggest challenges Barbizon encountered was the configuration of the power distribution in the Mainstage. Due to height restrictions, in order to run connector strips on the catwalk out over the audience Williams needed the old-style ETC strips that measure 4"×4" rather than the new ones that measure 3.3" deep by 6.25" high. This newer size was installed vertically in some places, including along the house ladders on the outside of the proscenium arch, as well as in the tormentor and box boom positions. “There are plug boxes everywhere a fixture could possibly be used,” says Sullivan.

Another challenge in this space is the fact that this theatre only has one permanent electric pipe with connector strips over the stage (there are 43 moving scenery battens). To combat this lack, Williams added 18 portable drop boxes that can be moved anyplace they are needed. For the automated luminaires, there are DMX plug-in locations on the catwalk over the audience, at the back of the audience seating, and eight stations onstage. Some of the plug-in stations include ETCNet, DMX-in, and remote focus unit (RFU) connections.

The ethernet network is ETCNet, which allows three of the four spaces to communicate (not including SFA Studio 104). “By splitting the processors on the dual-processor Obsession II system, and using the remote console, the Obsession can be used for two different productions in two different spaces simultaneously,” adds Williams.

There are also three universes of DMX. “Todd was very specific about how they would work, especially in terms of moving lights. He didn't want them to interfere with the rep plot, for example,” notes Sullivan.

“The Lighting Lab is used primarily as a classroom space for the lighting design classes and as a place for the student designers to experiment,” says Williams. “We wanted the inventories to be consistent throughout the spaces, not only for teaching purposes, but also for maintenance.” The new equipment here includes 24 ETC Sensor 2.4kW dimmers, one ETC Acclaim 124 two-scene preset board, 10 ETC Source Four 50° ellipsoidals, 10 Source Four 36° ellipsoidals, and 10 ETC PARNels.

Studio 210 was originally the ballroom for the theatre, which was built in 1925. It is now a black-box space that seats approximately 100, with a small proscenium stage at one end. It is shared by the university and the Huntington with a busy schedule including four full productions, workshops, and an opera festival, as well as readings, special events, and dinners. It also serves as a meeting space. The new lighting system in this spaces includes 96 ETC Sensor 2.4kW dimmers, one ETC Express 250 control console with RFU and remote monitor, 60 ETC Source Four 50° ellipsoidals, 60 Source Four 36° ellipsoidals, and 45 ETC PARNels.

The fourth space that benefited from this major lighting retrofit is SFA Studio 104, located in the School for the Arts building on the main BU campus, where it is used by the theatre, music, dance, and opera departments as both a classroom and a performance space. “Designers from the theatre program are assigned to several productions there each semester,” notes Williams. “This space did not get new fixtures, but it did get a lot of the older units from our other spaces.” However, 96 ETC Sensor 2.4kW dimmers were installed, to be used with an Entertainment Technology Horizon system that was added in January 2000.

“The challenge now is how to teach the students to use all this new gear wisely,” says Tom Sturge, head of the BU lighting design program. “Even though we have all these high-tech toys, we still have to emphasize good design techniques. What we now have is a great training ground for our students to help them walk right into a professional situation.” In fact, Sturge has taken students on tour for Blue's Clues, a children's musical based on the Nickelodeon show.

“I think the biggest challenge of the installation was the schedule,” says Williams. “We received approval of the project in July of 2000, and, as our season started in seven weeks, we realized that it was going to be impossible to get everything done before things started rolling. We decided to get the new inventory in for the Mainstage, including the Obsession.

“The new dimmers and distribution had to wait until this past summer,” he continues. “That added a little work in that we were planning to change our connectors from an old-style twist lock to the standard 2P&G. In 2000, we had to install twist lock plugs, and then this summer we changed everything over to stage pin.

“Barbizon, ETC, High End, Altman, and the other vendors were great!” Williams concludes. “We prepped the new inventory for the Mainstage in August, did the Light Lab and Studio 104 in September, and Studio 210 in November. As soon as the season ended this June, we were back in the Mainstage, changing connectors, prepping a few last remaining inventory items, doing seasonal maintenance, and installing the new dimmers and distribution.”

While all of this was going on behind the scenes, Boston University decided to renovate the Mainstage theatre last summer as well. “While we thought we would have a nice quiet workspace we were surrounded by scaffolding, painters, and other contractors,” says Williams. Any inconvenience aside, the end result is a theatre with state-of-the-art lighting systems in place to enhance both the audience experience and the educational impact at Boston University and the Huntington Theatre Company.

Contact the author at elgreaux@primediabusiness.com.

BOSTON UNIVERSITY/HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY

Project coordinator
Todd Williams, master electrician, Huntington Theatre Company/Boston University Theatre

Boston University
Roger Meeker, director of production center
Walt Meissner, associate dean BU School for the Arts
Tom Sturge, director, lighting design program
Bill Costa, director, energy administration and operations
Michael Lyons, senior buyer

Huntington Theatre Company
Jeff Clark, production manager
Michael Maso, managing director

Boston Edison
John Brown, team manager
John Doherty, Coastal Lighting, consultant

Barbizon Light of New England
Brenda Shepard, system integrator
Bridget Sullivan, project manager
Charles Brunault, Kathleen Maynard, technical services

Boston Illumination Group
Ed Hyatt, sales rep for ETC and Wybron

Pigott Electric
Charlie Pigott, electrical contracting

ETC
Steve Kokesh, project manager
Michael Sigman, quotations

Wybron
Brandon James, director of sales
Brent McPherson, sales and marketing

High End
Tori Tompkins, logistical support

Equipment List

Mainstage

3

ETC Sensor SR48 dimmer racks

1

ETC Unison architectural control system

1

ETC Obsession II 1500 DPS

2

ETC Obsession II RFUs

1

ETC Expression RFU

1

ETC Obsession designer remote

80

ETC Source Four 36º

100

ETC Source Four 26º

100

ETC Source Four 19º

20

ETC Source Four 10º

40

ETC Source Four PARNels

60

ETC Source Four PARs

96

Altman Focusing Cycs

20

Altman Ground Cycs

11

Lighting & Electronics MR-16 striplights

3

Strong Truss Troupers

16

Wybron CXI color-mixing scrollers

6

Selecon Pacific 90º

4

High End Systems Dataflash AF-1000 strobes

10

High End Systems Studio Spots

10

High End Systems Studio Colors

3

High End Systems Cyberlights

5

High End Systems Technobeams with iris

ETC fixture accessories

City Theatrical Source Four accessories

Pathway Connectivity DMX Repeater

Arri 5kW fresnels

Rosco Gobo Rotators

Studio 210

1

ETC Sensor SR48 dimmer rack

1

Hog 500

1

ETC Expression 250

60

ETC Source Four 50º

51

ETC Source Four 36º

45

ETC Source Four PARNels

City Theatrical Source Four accessories

Lighting Lab

1

ETC Sensor SR12 dimmer rack

1

ETC Acclaim 124

10

ETC Source Four 50º

10

ETC Source Four 36º

10

ETC Source Four PARNels

City Theatrical Source Four accessories