The Disney Channel’s blockbuster original movie High School Musical has become a phenomenon across the country and is creating more buzz with its live version, High School Musical: On Stage, with more than 1,500 grade schools and high schools showing interest in staging the production. Disney selected two high schools in Fort Worth, Texas, to perform the musical to be filmed and featured in a “docu-musical” called High School Musical: The Music in You and airing this fall as part of a public affairs initiative in association with the NAMM Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for musical education. To support the schools and the work of NAMM, ETC (Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc.) donated the lighting equipment for the production.
Western Hills High School and cross-town rival Arlington Heights High School team up each summer for a theatre workshop, called the Heights-Hills Operation (H2O). This summer, they put on the first production of High School Musical: On Stage. Plans were made to show the musical in Western Hills’ black box theatre, but the space proved too small for a production of this size, so it was moved to the school’s main 50-foot proscenium stage. There they faced a big problem: no lighting equipment whatsoever, and only a couple weeks before opening night. So, they called on ETC Dealer Full Compass, based out of Middleton, WI, for help.
Full compass project manager John Penisten contacted ETC right away to help solve the problem. A strong supporter of education, ETC stepped in to provide the necessary lighting equipment for the production. Penisten says, “ETC's commitment to training and education in the industry is second to none, their support is legendary, and when you add in their ability to deliver a complete turn-key lighting package within a week, you have a perfect partner in every sense of the word.” ETC and Disney also have a long working history together. The Wisconsin-based company has provided specialized lighting equipment and control for Disney venues worldwide for more than two decades.
Included in the ETC lighting system were 36 ETC Source Four® PAR, 14 Source Four 19°, 14 Source Four 26°, and four Source Four 36° fixtures; six Source Four Revolution® moving lights, and a SmartPack® touring pack dimmer. To control the system, an ETC Congo™ jr lighting console with a Fader Wing was selected, because of its ease-of-use and fast learning curve.
After the new equipment was delivered to the school, ETC planned to send southwest regional manager Nick Wurzel to train the lighting crew on the Congo jr console. Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, however, and Wurzel found himself stranded when the highway into Fort Worth was shut down due to heavy rains and flooding in the area. He called Jeff Mabray of local ETC Representative Edwin Jones to fill in.
Mabray led two days of training on Congo jr for the show’s professional lighting designer Tristan Decker, who was experiencing the console for the first time. Decker says, “Once I got my head around Congo jr’s syntax, I loved the console. I had so much flexibility right at my fingertips. The dynamic programming was such a lifesaver, given what little time we had to get the show up and running. The show used two different sets of lead actors with different blocking for a number of the songs, and the Congo jr system made it a snap to switch between cues, and tweak on the fly for each version.” Mabray agrees, “Congo jr was a good desk in a short timeframe and a stressful situation.”
The high energy and fun of High School Musical: On Stage gave Decker the opportunity to experiment with color and to be much flashier with the lighting design than more traditional musicals allow. “The primarily white set gave me a nice backdrop to throw color and patterns onto without fear of disturbing the set designer's intention,” notes Decker. “And once a song kicked in, I punched up movement and patterns to match the pace and spirit of the number.” The Source Four Revolutions also contributed to Decker’s upbeat lighting design. “We had a rather limited rig, so I relied on the Revolutions for most of my color and atmosphere. They gave me a lot of room to play,” he explains.
Adding another challenge to the lighting design was the filming for Disney’s docu-musical by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. The Congo jr console was an indispensable tool when it came time to working with the film crew on the appropriate lighting levels for the video. Decker says, “I don’t have too much experience lighting for camera, but the Congo jr made fixing cues quick and easy. It would have taken me so much more time with the other consoles I'm used to using.”
In late fall, two-minute vignettes will air on the Disney Channel to introduce the documentary, which will be followed up by the full-length feature highlighting the theatrical process of staging the musical.
H2O put on five performances over the span of one week. As a special treat, some of the professional cast members from the High School Musical movie showed up for the final show and joined the real high school students on stage to sing the last number.