In Playhouse Disney Live on Stage, Jason Kantrowitz brings Broadway glamour to Winnie the Pooh and Rolie Polie Olie

The target audience may be ages three to six, but the lighting design of Playhouse Disney Live on Stage at the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, FL, is marked by a level of ingenuity (and an equipment list) that suggests far more sophisticated entertainments. For the childless among you, the term Playhouse Disney refers to a morning block of programming running seven days a week on the Disney Channel, featuring such characters as Winnie the Pooh, the robot boy Rolie Polie Olie, six-year-old animated tyke Stanley, and the Bear in the Big Blue House. The scenario for the show Playhouse Disney Live on Stage, which brings all these characters together in one situation, focuses on Tutter, a 1'-high (.3m) mouse puppet, who is too shy to dance and who learns some important lessons about friendship.

The creative team for Playhouse Disney Live on Stage included director Martha Banta, set designer Mark Wendland, and lighting designer Jason Kantrowitz. All three are freelancers, not Disney staff, and all have significant live theatre credits. (Anne Hamburger, Disney's executive vice president of creative entertainment, began her career as artistic director of En Garde Arts, an Off Broadway theatre in New York City. She has played a significant role in bringing internationally recognized theatre artists to Disney theme parks to create stage shows, parades and nighttime spectacles.) Wendland recently designed the Off Broadway production Brutal Imagination and the new Broadway show An Almost Holy Picture. Kantrowitz has a longtime association with Ken Billington, first as an assistant and later as co-designer; he also works extensively on his own. Among Kantrowitz's recent projects are the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular (with Billington), Broadway's Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, and the Off Broadway sleeper The Syringa Tree, in a production which also recently played London's Royal National Theatre. Together, these artists have given Playhouse Disney Live on Stage a distinctly theatrical feel.

In developing Playhouse Disney Live on Stage, speed was of the essence. “The show was put on a very fast track,” says producer John Lee. “Typically, we might take 18 months for such a show, but this one started in earnest in April of 2001 and opened in October.” For that matter, one of the shows, Stanley, had not even aired. Lee says, “With Playhouse Disney Live on Stage we had to use parallel tracking, where all of the show elements were created simultaneously through the intense six-month process. We had a few scripts from Stanley, and some pencil tests, so we went down to the wire on the look of the show.” Kantrowitz adds, “I was brought in late in the project, just about the time when the scenery was being loaded in.” Fortunately, the LD's theatrical background has trained him to work quickly, allowing him to make his demanding deadlines.

COLORFUL BUILDING BLOCKS

The performance venue for Playhouse Disney Live on Stage was originally constructed as the Soundstage Restaurant, a themed environment with catwalks and a balcony bar. It was retrofitted as a theatrical space for a show based entirely on Bear in the Big Blue House, the most popular show in the Playhouse Disney cluster. “My first consideration was to not hide but emphasize the existing structure,” Kantrowitz says, adding that Wendland had painted the catwalks bright yellow and the walls bright blue, to create “the most magical soundstage for kids.” He adds, “I used uplight to focus attention on the yellow catwalks, using [ETC] Source Four units gelled in Lee 015 [Deep Straw]. In contrast, the walls and ceiling are bathed with a Roscolux 79 [Bright Blue] wash from a battery of scoops and Source Four PARs.” The preset look features dramatic shafts of light revealed by two Le Maitre Neutron XS hazers.

The theatre holds 600 for each 20-minute show. There are no seats; the audience sits on the carpeted floor, allowing kids to stand up and participate. “The show is structured like a musical,” says Kantrowitz. “There's a book scene, followed by an interactive scene, which is sometimes musical and sometimes not.” The kids have plenty of room to jump up and dance along with Tigger, as they are invited to do in one instance.

Each Playhouse Disney TV show features a different style of animation; onstage, each sequence has a different style of puppetry, from a small hand puppet like Tutter to the 6'6" (2m) Bear in the Big Blue House, which is a performer in a costume. The rapidly changing styles and sizes called on the LD's skill. “It was a challenge to focus area lights” on actors of such varied heights, he notes. To solve this problem, he made use of a pair of Source Fours in City Theatrical AutoYokes. “I use them as specials for different scenes — at times they function as followspots,” he says.

The show is divided into four segments, each of which is dedicated to a single TV show. Each has its own stylistic challenges, but, arguably, the most important part of Kantrowitz's design is the way it drives the action, signaling transitions between sequences and cueing the audience when (and when not) to take part in the action. The first segment is based on Bear in the Big Blue House. Bear's house is the main scenic piece here; it eventually splits in the center, revealing a 10'-tall (3m) storybook. The book's cover contains a light box with neon that displays the Playhouse Disney brand logo. A transitional sequence begins with the turning of a page, with custom-designed swirl gobos projected around the auditorium, spinning thanks to GAM Products TwinSpins. At the same time, 130 TPR Star Strobes with different colored caps are detonated, moving the show forward in a burst of color and light.

The second section, Rolie Polie Olie, has a look suggested by the computer-generated animation of the TV show, which has yellow characters in front of a yellow teapot that is their home. To keep Olie and the gang from blending totally into the background, Kantrowitz makes heavy use of sidelight in Lee 110 (Middle Rose), which allows the puppets to stand out. (“It's dance lighting, really,” the LD says.) In contrast, the third part, Stanley, is based on that series' two-dimensional look, so Kantrowitz uses lots of frontlight, with a palette that favors oranges and pinks. This approach is helpful in lighting such moments as the appearance of Dennis, the goldfish, who is actually a tiny rod-controlled puppet, or a huge gorilla who emerges from a trap in a burst of fog. The final segment is from The Book of Pooh. Because the show is set in Pooh's Hundred-Acre Wood, Kantrowitz says, “I projected forest gobos throughout the soundstage. I wanted to transport the audience into the Hundred-Acre Wood.”

CHILD'S PLAY

Each segment builds to its moment of audience participation and the design plays a major role in what you might call crowd control. “I wanted the lights to not just cue the audience but also choreograph their movement. They need to know when to dance and when to sit down,” no easy task when the house is full of pre-schoolers. Thus the lighting bumps up with lots of gobo action when it's time for fun, and then, says the designer, comes “the hard part, pulling the lighting way down and focusing on the characters onstage. The kids really get it — they sense the mood change and settle down.”

The design also uses Wybron Coloram II scrollers, Salvin confetti cannons, and accessories from City Theatrical. Lighting is controlled with an ETC Expression 3, located in a booth on a mezzanine catwalk with one crew member who runs audio and show control as well, with all cues keyed to SMPTE time code. “We built this show to have a life of three to five years. At 50 or more performances a week, that places heavy demand on the equipment,” says Lee. In fact, in response to overwhelming audience reaction, performances have been increased to an unbelievable 11 per day.

Art Thomas is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. He can be contacted at athomas@ignatius.edu.

PLAYHOUSE DISNEY LIVE ON STAGE

Lighting Designer
Jason Kantrowitz

Associate Lighting Designer
Jim Milkey

Master Electrician
Mark Williams

Lighting Programmer
Wes White

Artistic Director
Michael Jung

Producer
John Lee

Director
Martha Banta

Set Designer
Mark Wendland

Technical Director
Larry Sonn

Production Stage Manager
Chris Frisella

Crew Chief
Jimmy Isaacs

Lighting Equipment

72

ETC Source Four 19º 575W

61

ETC Source Four 26º 575W

77

ETC Source Four 36º 575W

56

ETC Source Four 50º 575W

1

ETC Source Four 15-30º Zoom 575W

40

ETC Source Four PAR WFL 575W

6

1kW WFL PAR-64s

12

750W scoops

130

TPR Enterprises Star Strobes with colored caps

2

City Theatrical Source Four AutoYokes with DMX Iris and Auto Focus

16

Wybron Coloram IIs for Source Fours

12

GAM Products TwinSpin IIs

140

City Theatrical Source Four A-size template holders

76

City Theatrical Source Four Top Hats

4

City Theatrical Source Four Drop-in Irises

2

LeMaitre Neutron XS hazers

2

LeMaitre G-150 fog machines

9

LeMaitre BubbleMaster 2000 bubble machines

6

Salvin confetti cannons

1

ETC Expression 3 console

1

ETC Expression Remote Focus Unit