"The idea was to make the theatre appear as empty as possible," says Vanstone, who collaborated with director Matthew Warchus, set designer Mark Thompson, and costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge on the recent Broadway revival of Follies, a Roundabout Theatre Company production seen at the Belasco Theatre. In Stephen Sondheim's haunting 1970s musical, a group of faded "follies" performers get together at a reunion party in their old theatre, which is now abandoned and awaiting the wrecking ball, yet filled with ghosts from the past.
In keeping with the theme of a theatre ready to be demolished, the lighting rig was conceived so that very little of it is seen by the audience. "You wouldn't have seen a lot of lighting equipment except what might have been left over," Vanstone notes. "The party is a low-budget affair so they wouldn't have brought in much lighting." With this in mind, the rig is "very thin on the ground and very sparse." Working with Thompson, the designers came up with the idea of a gantry as the principal set element. This is a metal mezzanine supported by fake brick scenic columns that conceal vertical booms for lighting fixtures (two on one side of the stage and three on the other). The gantry serves as a promenade where the ghosts of the performers appear, floating in and out in a spectral fashion.
"All you see overhead are two old electrics pipes as part of the set dressing," notes Vanstone, who adds that there are also two additional electrics hung very high so as not to be seen by the audience: The downstage pipe is at 36' (11m) above the stage; the upstage pipe is at 48' (15m). These carry almost exclusively automated luminaires, with six High End Systems Studio Beams™ and three Coemar CF7 units on the downstage pipe and eight High End Systems Studio Colors®, two Studio Beams, and three Studio Spots® on the upstage pipe. The rig was supplied by Fourth Phase in New Jersey.
"They are high but work fine for the angles," says Vanstone about the overhead positions. "The set is open so there's nothing to get in the way. It is a little steep but I enjoyed having them so high. When I came to design this show, I knew I was up against a tiny budget for the moving lights. I made up a spreadsheet with variations of equipment to put out to the rental shops. This is the first time I used the Studio Beams and I got on quite well with them. Because the pipes were so high, I wish the beams zoomed down tighter, but other than that they were great to work with."
The movement of the automated fixtures is not seen, except for a few rotating gobo effects Vanstone added to a dance sequence; rather, they are used mostly as color washes and specials on the sets. Also in the automated rig are two Source Fours in City Theatrical AutoYokes (one in the box on each side of the stage). "These are very useful and work very hard," says Vanstone, who relied on these fixtures for front fill or low-angle static followspots.
Vanstone also used vertical booms with ETC Source Fours, some used as crosslight with scrollers (the rig includes a mix of Wybron Coloram and CXI units). The Source Fours help create a ghostly effect that is one of the most beautiful lighting moments in the show. As the older female stars of follies past gather onstage and relive their memories, their specters (younger versions of the performers as they once were) float onto the stage.
"The ghosts have a bit of a color theme," says Vanstone, who crosslit and backlit these apparitions in GAM's Bonus Blue. "This is one of my favorite colors," Vanstone adds, noting that he used a limited palette of just 16 colors in Follies. "I chose the colors for the scrollers and duplicated them in the moving lights," he explains. "Then I work from that palette rather than an open book. I like to limit my options. This show is rather muted, some dark blue is as colorful as it gets."
The action begins in the darkness as the old producer enters with just a flashlight. "You don't see the gantry at first," says Vanstone, "and the ghosts appear out of the shadows. It's quite a magical sequence. The first time I saw it, I got a chill down my spine." As the ghosts are dressed in pale shades of lilac and lavender, and are lit in cold colors, they look almost monochromatic in terms of their skin and costumes blending together.
"The brief from the director on the ghosts was to make them look as if they literally appear from the walls," says Vanstone. "So I ran with it. This was my inspiration." Yet as the action progresses and the ghosts are integrated more, Vanstone found it a bit harder to treat them separately, but "their entrance creates the atmosphere we were looking for."
The brightest scene in the show is the "Loveland" section, a fantasy recreation of an old follies number. Here the lighting is pink and frothy. "I let rip with the color," Vanstone admits. Faced with a bright pink metal cage for a set, he opted for pink, blue, and white in the light. "This scene is much brighter, in total contrast to the rest."
Also effective are strings of clear light bulbs strung around the stage and the theatre, which are used as a scenic device as well. When the action moves to the reunion party or when it drifts into what Vanstone calls the "ghost moments," the bulbs are on as if to say "we are in the here and now." They pop on when waiters appear onstage to set up the party tables, as if these strings of bulbs were the party lighting. "They are a good link from the stage to the audience," Vanstone adds.
The specials in the show come from the moving lights on the first electric, as there are a small number of conventional fixtures in the rig, and are used more for color washes and templates. Followspots (two Robert Juliat and two Lycian) are located in the lighting booth as well as in the side boxes, which Vanstone found useful with their high angle for picking people out of the general ambiance. One Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® II console runs the entire show, a decision made for budgetary reasons, yet one that worked out well, Vanstone indicates, offering kudos to programmer Laura Frank for her work. "She was amazing and we had a great time."
The show is set in 1971, yet it keeps drifting into the past. First there are the ghosts who inhabit the theatre and represent the shadows of the characters. There are also younger counterparts of the four central characters as they remember various moments from long ago. "These are treated in a different way from the other ghosts. Their color scheme is mostly bright white or Lee 201 color correction in the scrollers and Source Fours. The moving lights are in white with dark blue top light," Vanstone explains. "There are two worlds of the past that collide in Follies."
Photos © Joan Marcus