In all of English literature there are few heroines more put-upon than the title character of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Poor Jane is orphaned, mistreated by her guardian, abused at school. She witnesses the death of her best friend, then is dispatched to a gloomy mansion, Thornfield, to be a governess in a household haunted by rumors of madness and violence. She is immediately attracted to her employer, Edward Rochester, a chilly, difficult man who is involved with a heartless coquette. Even when Rochester finally admits his feelings for Jane, her troubles are just beginning. The wedding day goes disastrously wrong, and she must travel many miles and face many revelations before finally attaining a kind of happiness.

Similarly, Jane Eyre the musical has undergone nearly as many tribulations. Its protracted development period included stagings in Wichita and Toronto (the latter in 1996, where it was overshadowed by the tryout of Ragtime). After years of delays, it opened last summer at La Jolla Playhouse, where it quickly became one of that theatre's all-time hits. Even so, rewrites continued and new designers joined the production. Finally, after a couple of postponements, Jane Eyre opened at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre to mixed reviews, including a largely negative notice from the second-string critic at The New York Times. Since then, it has hung on precariously, struggling to survive the harsh winter months.

All of which is unfortunate, because Jane Eyre has one of the most elegant and innovative designs seen on Broadway in a decade, a design so unified that it virtually obliterates the traditional lines between scenery, projections, and lighting. It begins with the circular, 30-ton “carousel delivery drum,” designed by John Napier, which spins above the stage (itself defined by two turntables), to deliver scenic pieces in a cinematic fashion. The drum also contains scenic projection panels and a circular, spinning light grid, which allows LDs Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer to create a constantly shifting, fluid design.

A REVOLUTION IN STAGECRAFT

According to Fisher, “The carousel, as a device to deliver scenic elements, is revolutionary. From the Renaissance on, we have certain fixed methods of getting scenery onstage. John's design allows pieces to come in at any angle, from almost any direction, and change location in space as you watch. John has taken the entire stage house, from the curtain line to the back wall, and turned it into a revolving delivery system. And within it, he had other tricks — gantries that can raise or lower an object and make it travel left and right.”

In addition, Fisher and Eisenhauer's rig, which consists almost entirely of Vari*Lite® automated lighting units, is also used to project images designed by Lisa Podgur Cuscuna. It's the first time that moving lights have been employed in this fashion and the results are stunning. As the stage revolves, various scenic pieces descend and circle into place, the lighting transforms the space, and projections appear to complete the scene. Simply put, nothing like it has ever been seen before.

Working inside a kind of black-box space, these elements move quickly through the narrative's many locations, creating spare but evocative stage pictures. The young Jane, punished for an infraction at school, stands at center, while a number of windows, created by projections, appear far above her; the large volume of dark space between the little girl and the windows emphasizes her desolation. Later, she arrives at Thornfield and the gate of the mansion — also a projection — looms menacingly before her. Even later, when she wanders the moors, fleeing the truth about the man she loves, projected images of a moon and clouds create the landscape.

These design achievements are not mere ornaments; they are the keys to the production. Jane Eyre, the novel, is the story of a soul's progress, in which the heroine's faith is tested in a furnace of cruelty and deceit, until she emerges, redeemed and redeeming. Like the book, the musical is a first-person narrative, told by Jane herself. The show's design, with its shifts of perspective and pointedly non-realistic effects, reproduces her point of view onstage — an extremely rare accomplishment.

ACHIEVING THE IMPOSSIBLE

It's also an accomplishment that nobody involved in the production was certain could be achieved — and one that arrived late in the day. Napier has been involved in the project for several years, but Fisher, Eisenhauer, and Cuscuna only became attached late last summer, when the Broadway production became a certainty. The other designers are quick to add that Napier was the driving force. “John wanted projections,” says Fisher, adding, “he was prescient in his vision — he knew what he wanted. He said to us, ‘I'm counting on light to tell the story.’” Eisenhauer adds, “John developed the images in his brain; he wanted them to have a soft, painterly quality.”

At that point, Cuscuna, of Stamford, CT-based Cuscuna Multimedia, joined the team. She was well-known to her fellow designers, having worked with Fisher many years ago on the rock revue Beatlemania, and with Napier, and Jane Eyre's director John Caird, on the Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas. At this point, the big question was how to deliver the projections. A demonstration was set up, involving Pani projectors. “Peggy said, ‘What about Vari*Lites?’” says Fisher, adding that the company's VL7 and VL6 units can accommodate up to 14 color slides in their template slots. “After John saw the Vari*Lites, he became enamored of them,” adds Fisher; “they had a cinematic, liquid, floating quality.”

Cuscuna adds, “It was very clear that the Vari*Lite images were as bright as the Panis. Their clarity is remarkable, with astounding resolution, exactly like the original film images. Pani projections are big and create wonderful scenery but, because of the heat levels, the film stock has quite a lot of contrast, which often loses delicate parts of the image.”

The program for Jane Eyre lists all four artists as projection designers. Here's the division of labor: Napier conceived the idea of projections and asked for specific scenes. Cuscuna created them, using photos and drawings and working them over in her computer, with Adobe Photoshop and other programs; part of her task included breaking up the images over several Vari*Lite units to create proper coverage. These images were then transferred to a CD and sent to Vari-Lite, where they were turned into glass gobos. At that point, Fisher and Eisenhauer became responsible for them: “Where do the images come from? How are they split? What is their motion? All these things were part of our vocabulary,” says Eisenhauer. “It was a unique blend of lighting and projection.”

THE CHALLENGES MOUNT

The process was fraught with complications every step of the way. The configuration of the set created problems for Fisher and Eisenhauer — many units were hung from the circular rig, as the designers relied heavily on overhead positions, to protect the integrity of the projections. “If the carousel is moving clockwise,” Eisenhauer says, “some lights will move away from the downstage playing area. When scrim panels come in, you trap lights out of the audience's view. There was no room for a large number of lights.” That's why the rig is almost entirely automated — each light must perform numerous functions. “One moving light will project an image of leaves, then, five minutes later, it will be used as a backlight,” says Fisher.

Nevertheless, Eisenhauer notes, it was extremely difficult to know where the lights should be placed, to allow for coverage of the scenery and actors, and also to provide for the correct placement of images, all of which had to be decided as the show was being rewritten and restaged. “We had a version of a scenery ground plan and a projection plan,” says Eisenhauer, “but of lot of it shifted as John Caird's direction evolved.” In many cases, the challenges involved complex mathematical problems. “We had to determine overhead positions long before we knew the moment-by-moment requirements,” she says. Also, “The center point of the turntable on the deck is different from the center point for the carousel above it. We needed to adjust the pan and tilt while the carousel was rotating to maintain a constant look.”

Cuscuna says that when she first joined the production last summer, she understood there would be “a handful of projections.” But as time went by, the role of projections become more and more crucial to the design, and she turned out more and more images. “I can be extremely prolific,” she says. “I must have made 200 pieces of artwork, that then went into Photoshop or other art programs.” Also, she says, “Many times, I don't treat an image with just one type of effect — I'll do watercolor on one part of it, then fresco another part, and leave the rest. John responded to images with a foggy look. I came up with the background for Thornfield when I was dropping my kids off at school. I live in Connecticut; it was a foggy morning, thick as pea soup. I ran and got my camera, and spent the morning going through the fields, photographing trees and branches through this heavy fog.”

Many of Cuscuna's images are highly suggestive, rather than explicit, in keeping with Napier's design concept. “John didn't want it to look like a slide show,” she says. “There's one image with autumn trees and there's the shadow of a church steeple. The image tells you you're in a church graveyard without showing the graveyard. With the projection, you can infer the scenic pieces that aren't there. It allows your imagination to build the scene.”

Just as Fisher and Eisenhauer had to grapple with placement of lighting units in a small, movable space, Cuscuna had to design images not always knowing the angle from which they would be projected. “If your scenic designer wants something cinematic, or at straight angles, you have to decide at the very beginning where the image is going to go,” she says. “Projections are built like scenery and have a geometric relationship to the space.”

In many cases, however, Cuscuna had to design in a vacuum, so “everything has an extreme angle because it comes from the carousel ring. Each image has not only a top-and-bottom keystone, but a left-right keystone as well.” Many prominent images, she adds, are projected from the balcony rail, “which was our safety net. I could guess the keystoning from there.”

However, as more and more images were incorporated into the design, time became an increasingly worrisome factor. “It's a two-week process,” says Cuscuna, discussing how the slides are made, adding, “then it takes another two weeks for another order. We only got to submit two orders. As it was, we got some images only a few days before we opened. Nobody was comfortable with that.” By this time, the show had postponed its opening for a week.

“We had to do something so much more complex in the same amount of time,” says Eisenhauer, adding that each moving light cue had to be coordinated with the moving scenery and in concert with Paul Gordon's musical score. In a typical show, adds Fisher, if a light goes out, the result is not necessarily noticeable. Here, each light contained important visual information. Thus, he says, “Every parameter meant something to us.” Eisenhauer adds, “Imagine the exponential quality of it: There are approximately 70 Vari*Lite automated luminaires. Multiply that by 15 gobos. Multiply that by 9 to 12 parameters per light — and you're into a really incredible matrix of responsibility for the technology.”

Nevertheless, the effects are subtly astonishing, the line between design elements often invisible. At one point, Fisher says, “A window flies in with a beam of light going through it; as the window revolves, the beam of light goes with it.” When members of the ensemble step in for Jane and narrate a scene, the text of the novel is projected on the actors, providing a visual link with Brontë's novel. The large tree in the garden at Thornfield is one of the production's most impressive pieces of scenery; however, says Fisher, “It is lit with projections of branches, which fills out the image onstage.”

A VISION REALIZED

It is the coming together of all these elements that is so remarkable. “Look at the first big scene in Rochester's study,” says Fisher. “There's a window, a desk, some portraits. The wallpaper is projected on a scrim. During the scene, the whole set” — including scenery, projections, and lighting — “turns 15°, changing your point of view. It's something that the movies do all the time,” but is rarely seen onstage.

The show was programmed using the Vari*Lite Virtuoso console, with the Virtuoso playback unit used to run the show; an ETC Obsession handles the small number of conventional units. The Virtuoso is “an amazing tool,” says Eisenhauer. The show works, she adds, only “because of the reliability of every single function of every single light. It only works if all the motors and data streams are absolutely reliable.” She adds that it was “an immense effort. There were periods when we didn't really know if it all would work. But with our staff, and the support of Vari-Lite, a lot of smart people were willing to step up and solve the problems.”

Those people included assistant lighting designer Bobby Harrell, Vari*Lite programmer Victor Fable, production electrician Richard Mortell, assistant electrician Derek Healy, and projection assistant Peter Nigrini. The lighting equipment, other than the Vari*Lite units, was supplied by Fourth Phase. Additional photographic images were supplied by Robert Schezen and Graham Nobles.

In fact, if a production was ever an advertisement for the virtues of collaboration, this is it. “It was a first-rate collaboration,” says Eisenhauer, “of something that's never been done before.” “It was one of the most creative experiences I've ever had,” says Cuscuna. “The ideas kept coming. The crossover is amazing. The lighting becomes the scenery and the scenery becomes the lighting.” Indeed, one suspects that, whatever happens with Jane Eyre the musical, its design will have an effect on thinking about theatrical design for some time to come.

Photos: ©Lewis Lee.