Walking into the Players Theater in Greenwich Village last fall, audience members were informed that Keep Bangin', the percussion-based piece they were about to see (and, it must be stressed, listen to), would run around 75 minutes give or take a few minutes--emphasis on "give or take." Conceived by Jared "Choclatt" Crawford and directed by dancer/choreographer Savion Glover (who won a Tony for his choreography for Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk), the show was a series of percussive pieces--some loud and pounding, others somewhat quieter. The performers liked to improvise, leading to varying performance lengths. Lighting and set designer Shelly Sabel says one performance was even 25 minutes shorter than usual. Asked why the drummers would cut so much, the amused designer gave her best guess: "I guess it was a long day."
Sabel had to be ready to improvise as well (especially during the rehearsal process) and create cues that could accommodate a piece in which the numbers would change at least slightly each night. A 1999 graduate of NYU's graduate design department, she created a New York City subway station set, since many of the numbers are set in the subway and also because that is where bucket drumming has its roots. The various scenes are set in multiple suggested locales, and the adaptable lighting design anchored them in a specific place when they were not meant to be set in the station. The white-walled set consisted of a shiny, prefab tile board courtesy of Home Depot.
The lighting also demanded versatility, so Sabel turned to Wybron Coloram color scrollers for ETC Source Four PARs: "I knew I would have to have them moving live to get flexibility, and because I only had one system of scrollers, I wouldn't be able to go to another system to shift colors," a range of hues from Rosco and Lee Filters.
Among the most effective lighting transitions was the shift from the sunny "Afrunk" (an African tribal number) into "Drunkin' Beats" (in which the drummers play homeless men drinking around a metal trash can). As the first piece wound down, the color was drained from the stage until the scrollers shifted to a blue-green that became more and more saturated until only one of the nine performers was left onstage. That lighting segued into blue sidelight as "Drunkin' Beats" began. The scene was "beautiful," notes Sabel, because "the music and the visual were in sync. It was soft and not bumpy. Savion kept talking about the flow--and that flowed. It was about listening, and that's where it was important that the lighting stepped back."
Sabel also employed three ETC Source Fours with Diversitronics ESM lamps for strobe effects; the lighting was controlled by an ETC Expression 2x console.
There was also the challenge of a new language. "I spent weeks talking to the stage manager about the moments where the piece goes 'da da da da DA da.' And the guys use different phrases for percussion. It depends on the beat, they told me, but some of them go 'ga ga ga ga ga.' And some of them go 'rat a ta ta.' There's no book to Keep Bangin'; it's about the rhythm. And, as they jammed onstage during rehearsal, I'd play with that and cue offstage." The show closed January 9.