When Pippin moved to Broadway from the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, MA, it brought along Kenneth Posner’s dynamic lighting. Posner’s Tony Award-nominated design, one of three nominations received by the designer this year, eloquently supports director Diane Paulus’ concept of setting the story in the circus. Posner collaborated with scenic designer Scott Pask, costume designer Dominique Lemieux, choreographer Chet Walker, and the circus creator Gypsy Snider to create a brand new world for this revival of an iconic show.
Live Design: Where did you start on Pippin so that your design supported the production?
Posner: The process started with Diane’s concept that the production takes place in this world of the circus—maybe not so much the American or Western circus, but more an Eastern European circus. Scott Pask had done extensive research and he had a lot of photographs of these crazy, amazing circus performers. I noticed the photos all had a sort of Brechtian quality about the light; very cold and angular with a slightly brutal quality, which became the inspiration for the lighting. The lighting becomes more haunting and edgy as it follows the arc of the play.
My initial thought with the opening number, “Magic to Do” was ‘how does that translate into a circus world?’ We tried many different things in Cambridge and wound up with the opening image of the Leading Player’s shadow upstage of this darkened canvas tent. Then the tent comes to life and you see the Leading Player’s shadow moving—with Chet Walker’s choreography paying homage to Bob Fosse’s movement. The idea of the shadow happened to be Gypsy Snider’s, who is the circus acrobatic choreographer. Again, the idea sprung from this original notion of blending Pippin’s world and the circus together. When the curtain drops, the circus environment creates the magic which takes on this incredible life; glorious and majestic and inviting. The lighting supports that idea by using bold color and energetic movement to create that world. That continues to be the feeling until deep into the second act when the play takes a sharp turn and becomes about Pippin and the revelation of what defines extraordinary. As we get into the more serious aspects of the second act, the lighting goes into the more Eastern European circus quality I mentioned. When we get to Pippin leaping into the fire to prove that he is “extraordinary” and the performers are coaxing him into leaping the color drains and it is a starker reality. The lighting becomes cold and austere.
LD: Was it challenging to transfer this design from A.R.T. to the Music Box Theatre?
KP: I have to credit Eddie Pierce [design supervisor] and Jake Bell [production supervisor] for squeezing us into the Music Box Theatre, which is certainly smaller than the large stage house at Cambridge’s A.R.T. At first I didn’t think we could fit this physical production into the Music Box. I thought we would have to redesign it, but they managed to make it happen, with some minor adjustments to its scale and scope. When it came to redesigning the lighting everything needed to be slightly compressed, but the bones of the design that we started with in Cambridge is still what we have on Broadway. I embellished it a little bit and moved some things around to better shape and sculpt the space but overall it is the same design. Everything stayed in relatively the same relationship between the lighting and the acrobatics and the scenic elements. Even the trims stayed essentially the same with only slight adjusting. The biggest change was the front of house plot because of the nature of the two different theatres.
LD: Were there different considerations for lighting the circus acts?
KP: This is my first experience with a circus and lighting for this type of performance. The lighting needs to be very specific to each act because for each act there are angles of light you have to avoid and some angles of light that need to be embellished. Sidelight is also tricky, sometimes because people are juggling and that sort of thing. Gypsy, the choreographer helped me with to understand the fabric of that vocabulary and once I understood that, it was easier to understand what they needed and what to avoid; like ‘if I am catching someone in the air, I can’t have a downlight on me.’ Once you know, it is easy.
LD: Where there any key choices in the plot, equipment, etc.?
KP: The design for Pippin is really straightforward. It is actually one of my simpler designs. I use low sidelight to carve out the space and make the performers pop. Overhead I use interesting and dynamic angles of light to carve out the space, to give variety to the space, and to help create the multiple dimensions of the circus world with the different acrobatic equipment in the air. I put up a moving light rig that would lend itself to the dynamics of the space. PRG provided the lighting and they were great. They have supported me for 25-30 years now and I think of them as collaborators.
LD: How did you approach lighting the tent itself?
KP: It is very much like lighting a cyc; actually, exactly like that. This was one of the more major changes I made when we moved into New York. We didn’t have the same resources available at A.R.T., which is a regional theatre and therefore at a different budget point than Broadway. Originally the back lighting of that tent canopy was three red, blue, and green PAR cans on a curved cyc pipe. Those PAR cans were replaced on Broadway with LED striplights. That was probably the major change between the two spaces.
LD: Any other thoughts about designing Pippin?
KP: Essentially, the design for Pippin is about taking the Fosse world of the original and the world of the circus and fusing them together. From a technology point of view there is nothing earth shattering, it is really about how the story is being told.
It was great working on this with everyone in this wonderful, collaborative environment. Chet Walker is a wealth of knowledge about Bob Fosse. Of course he danced in the original so he is almost an encyclopedia for the show. Then there is Gypsy Snider who is not from the Broadway theatre world at all and what she brings is this incredible imagination and passion and energy with her circus choreography. It was great watching these two worlds blend together. Diane distilled it all and edited it all as well as inspired us—the design team. Dominique Lemieux, who is from the circus world, was genius, and brought a wonderful sensibility to the process. Then you add Scott Pask, who is an amazing dramaturge and set designer and we wound up with this team of artists that brought this fantastic idea to life and I got to be part of it