Everyone knows the story. Many have seen the show before. A blockbuster motion picture drew record audiences just last year. So how do you get 50,000 people to come to your show year after year? The answer, for creator-producer John Bolin, lies in the state-of-the-art technical effects his staff at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO weaves into the story-behind-the-story of The Thorn.
Part passion play, part musical theatre, part flying-acrobat circus, and part rock concert, The Thorn was inspired by the contrast of the natural and supernatural aspects of Halloween. Then youth pastor John Bolin saw the popularity of Halloween and the fusion of natural and supernatural forces that gave it mass appeal. He wanted to involve the church's teens and twenty-somethings in a top-quality theatre production and at the same time immerse the audience in the theatrical experience of Easter while juxtaposing the natural and the supernatural elements in the story. Using just 20 cast members, the first production in 1996 sold out immediately in the small church fellowship hall. The second year, in the church's larger auditorium, the show turned away an estimated 20,000 people. The church's attendance on Sunday mornings grew, too, and a new facility to accommodate both regular attendance (now over 12,000) and The Thorn was built. (See sidebar “Built for The Thorn”).
Bolin realized from the start that the show would need abundant special effects to show the supernatural elements and keep the audiences coming. The Thorn team collaborates each year to re-write major portions of the show, to improve both story line and special effects. Bolin's quest for Broadway quality takes him and technical director Kevin Morehouse to shows around the US, including Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, “O”, and Varekai. Now the show's staging spills into the lobby and out to the parking lot: fully costumed Centurions on real horses patrol the parking lots barking orders at arriving patrons while audience members in the spacious foyer dodge multiple squads of armed Centurions and impromptu parades of Roman dignitaries. Immersion and realism: a total theatre experience.
The 2005 production had the added challenge of not only a new facility requiring a complete re-design and build of all stage scenery, but the new church is an arena stage with a volume four times greater than the old auditorium. The seating area is a six-sided arena the length of a football field from wall to opposite wall, seating 7,500 for Sunday services and 6,000 for The Thorn. The center stage is a 36' by 36' raised platform connected by a 12' wide runway to the Jerusalem set (end-stage) for a stage depth of over 150'. The Jerusalem set on the 40' deep end-stage occupied one of the auditorium's six walls with a width of 130'. A suspended grid in a sports arena configuration 22' above the center stage hosts six 14' by 10.5' rear projection screens powered by Sanyo PLC-XF45 10,000 ANSI lumen projectors. Also above and circling the center grid 30' wider is a complete catwalk allowing 360° lighting and six spot positions.
The show begins with the supernatural — a Heaven scene on the center stage shrouded by four 20' tall suck-drapes lit from behind. Set designer, Vija Bolin, took the ideas of “immersing the audience” and “showing the supernatural” literally. As the Angel of Light flies in from the center stage grid with the iconic “light-of-the-world globe” and touches down, the suck-drapes vanish instantly into the center stage platform revealing “Heaven” filled with fog, moving lights, 30 understage Plexiglas lights and angelic dancers. For safety and state-of-the-art realism, Bolin brought in Cirque du Soleil's Jeff Jay and Dave Piccola to rig and stage the flying sequences, including two flyers using “silks.”
The two-hour show's breakneck pace is complicated by the logistics of getting nearly 500 cast members, mostly novices — some as young as five years old — on and off stage quickly. Stage director Rob Stennett made use of all of the arena's 11 aisles to involve the audience in the action and make scene transitions almost cinema-fast. Stennett, who is enrolled in the screenwriting program at UCLA (he had to fly in from LA for weekend rehearsals), is one of the production's founding collaborators. He was concerned with audience sightlines in the new arena and the sheer size of the space. “We placed four volunteers in various places throughout the auditorium during blocking to report their view of the action, especially during large crowd scenes,” Stennett says. To improve the view, when 20 Centurions search for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Stennett had them enter down four aisles with fire-lit torches, passing within just inches of the audience.
To further immerse the audience in the action, Stennett staged the scourging and the crucifixion scenes on a 30' turntable center stage. As Jesus is flogged repeatedly, and while he is on the cross with the two thieves, the turntable revolves more than 360° to give all audience members a view of the action. “Some of the actors had to get used to the revolving stage,” Stennett says. “We were careful to keep our youngest actors off-stage during these graphic scenes, which by all accounts, were R-rated for violence.”
To help focus the audience's attention during large crowd scenes and to make sure that all audience members have the best seat in the house, four Panasonic AW-E800A video cameras controlled by four Panasonic AW-RP605 pan/tilt and lens controllers feed the six overhead screens. Two additional hand-held operator-controlled cameras were used to augment the four permanently mounted cameras. Switching is done live using a Grass Valley GVG-100 switcher console, presentation switching with a Panasonic WJ-MX50, and main switching with a Vista Systems Montage. All audio and composite video routing is through a Sierra Lassen 3232VS router. Video outputs from the router are sent through eight FSR MAS-3200 scalers to the Montage system. The outputs from the Montage are connected to the projectors using Intelix VGA-HR VGA-to-ethernet extenders. The video system was used to add cloud graphics to the live action scenes and to play back “instant replay” footage during the finale's Resurrection Celebration giving the show a rock concert-like media flare.
Converting the massive set from the previous year's proscenium configuration was made easier this year with the use of the new 10,000 sq. ft. shop, two full-time carpenters, and the use of trained volunteers. In each of the previous years, set designer Vija Bolin, who was trained at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, had to spend hours re-painting scenery painted by well-meaning volunteers — mostly artists from the church's arts group and students in the ministry internship program. This year, however, the 64 set construction and scenic volunteers were mostly trained and an even hand across the set was achieved.
Quick mood lighting changes are coordinated with lighting designer Terry Taylor with the use of a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 3 console with playback wing and four 48-channel (384 dimmers) ETC Sensor® dimming racks. Intelligent lighting is provided by 26 High End Systems x.Spots® backing up 200 ETC Source Four® fixtures with 48 HES ColorMerges™ for CMY color mixing. Additionally, 100 PAR38s were used to light individual steps that surround the center stage and runway as well as in the Plexiglas understage positions and for strategic architectural lighting of set columns and doorways. Six Altman strip lights were added to complete the step lighting.
Above the Jerusalem end stage, Taylor used four HES Studio Color® 575s and four HES Studio Spots® 575s for stage coverage. “We chose the ETC and High End Systems equipment, because I have a great deal of experience with them and I've been certified with the High End equipment. I chose the x.Spots after a shoot-out with both the Martin Mac 2000 and the Vari-Lite VL3000,” he says. “The x.Spots run off of 120V 60Hz current, whereas the others run off of 208V, which would have cost us more. The x.Spots provided better color saturation and better gobo morphing. Remarkably, the 750W x.Spots were nearly as bright as the 1200W lamps used in the other fixtures, and High End provided great customer service.”
The major challenge for Taylor was in spotting actors as they crossed the center stage platform. Spot positions in the catwalk circling the stage would not allow one spot to track an actor from one side of the stage to the other without being blocked by the projection screen grid above the platform. Taylor used six spot operators, one on each side of the catwalk, with three Source Four spots with 10° lenses involved every time an actor crossed the stage completely. The Source Fours were equipped with 36 Wybron Forerunner color scrollers to bring a rich color to the heartfelt proceedings taking place.
Speaking of the catwalk, Taylor says that the installation of the system also had its own set of issues that he had to contend with. “Total Structures had to design a unique, six-sided catwalk and integrated truss system, all of which are suspended from the roof and structural steel about 25' in the air,” he says. “They did a great job, and the system allows us 360° lighting positions and safe access for our staff and volunteers.” Wybron's Autopilot II was also used to turn some of the fixtures into automated followspots in certain scenes, thus allowing some of the actors to be more easily carved out by the light in the huge auditorium.
Taylor also credits Barbizon Lighting for making life a little bit easier for the LD. “They interfaced the DMX system to the ETC Net 2 and Wholehog 3 seamlessly,” he explains. “Since the DMX runs through CAT 5 Ethernet cable, instruments can be plugged in almost anywhere, giving us tremendous flexibility — something we really needed in this arena stage auditorium.”
Due to the unique stage configuration for The Thorn, Taylor had to also consider how scenes would look on camera since video is such a large component of the show. “Because it is an arena stage, the only background we have for most of the production and Sunday morning services is the audience,” he says. “We're adjusting audience lighting intensities and moving cameras closer to the stage. In the future, we hope to add more instruments for the show, which will give us more options.”
With scenes in both Heaven and Hell, The Thorn uses abundant atmosphere from two Reel FX DF-50 Hazers that are part of New Life's normal Sunday array. Low fog from a LeMaitre GS300 Fogger and two High End Systems F100s were fed though tubing to ports on the center platform stage, platform steps, and end stage for instant full-stage coverage.
Audio design for The Thorn is complex. From the beginning, Bolin recognized the difficulty in using novice talent. “Actors ‘looked the part’ and ‘acted the part,’ but as soon as they opened their mouth, they lost all credibility,” Bolin says. To gain control over the audio quality, Bolin and sound engineer Daryl Porter decided to use narration, cinematic scoring and tracks while telling the story with music and action. The story is narrated live by John the Beloved (played by Bolin himself) using a DPA 4065 wireless headset. Pilate — played by Roger Perry, who has live lines — and four singers also use DPA 4065 headsets. The six speaker clusters — which consist of six JBL PD764, 12 JBL PD743, 18 JBL Custom PD5128, and six JBL MS28 — had to be tuned separately to avoid feedback when open mikes were outside of the main array.
According to Porter, the two biggest obstacles in designing an appropriate sound system stemmed from the shear volume of the venue as well as the quick turnaround time to convert Saturday night's Thorn production to Sunday morning's worship services. “The enormous volume of the auditorium required that we mike everything,” he explains. “I hid boundary mikes to pick up onstage crowd sounds and even hid a condenser mike on the first step of the centerstage platform to pick up more subtle sounds — like the sounds of Jesus being beaten. We had to watch the actors so they wouldn't step on the mikes.”
Porter admits that the quick turnaround required several very late nights for him and his crew. “Each of the speaker arrays had to be re-tuned from the performance configuration to the worship format. In addition, all of the cables for the Sunday morning 10-member centerstage band had to be reset, because The Thorn didn't use wired mikes, monitors, or power cables,” he says. “Most importantly, the Yamaha PM1D Console made the turnaround possible because it offered total recall of programmed cues. Once the program was set, all I had to do was recall it; without that feature, I would not have been able to change from the production setup to the Sunday morning setup — there would not have been time.”
The 300-member choir was recorded and tracked. Porter and Darren Morehouse combined their voices to track the guttural, hellish voice of Satan using Adobe® Audition® and Sonic Foundry Sound Forge. Surprisingly, even 500 actors yelling at the top of their voices weren't enough to fill the vast auditorium during crowd scenes. Porter added boundary mikes after the dress rehearsal, and bolstered the crowd noise using the 12 Crown Macro-tech 2402, the 18 Crown Macro-tech 5002VZ, and eight Crown Macro-tech 24X6 amplifiers.
Admittedly, most portrayals of Satan in church settings are less than scary. Again, Bolin insisted upon realism and enlisted nationally known artist Thomas Blackshear to design Satan's make-up and individually sculpt his horns in classic form. In addition to the two large horns protruding from his head, Satan features spikes tracing the centerline of his head, on his shoulders, down his arms, legs, knees and spine. After a four-hour, full-body session — including a prosthetic mask, actor Christopher Beard, who is in real life, one of the church's pastors and an Iron Man marathoner, is transformed into a sculpted serpentine demon resembling a nightmarish horned lizard. As the climax nears, Satan and his two dozen similarly horned demon-followers ascend from Hell using an 8'×8' hydraulic lift and 17 traps in the center stage runway.
No Easter production would be complete without explosive Tomb and Resurrection scenes and The Thorn does not disappoint. With a larger arena, Morehouse was given greater space to display the pyrotechnic power that audiences have come to expect, using 196 devices in all. After Centurions place the crucified body of Jesus in the life-sized Tomb (a realistic rock outcropping on a 22'×12'×24' wagon set end-stage) a stone seals the tomb.
After “three days” of mourners climbing to the tomb entrance, Jesus explodes from the tomb as a nine-light Mole-Fay flashes from behind him accompanying detonation of sixteen 16×1 gerbs positioned to cross in front of the tomb entrance. As the crowd fills the stage for the finale, the white-robed Jesus crosses downstage to the center stage platform while pyrotechnic devices punctuate the music in three waves to celebrate the Resurrection. Using his own custom-built MIDI controller signaled from his laptop computer, Morehouse detonated 147 devices in the last song. The smoke from the first three performances clogged the projector filters overhead and necessitated cleaning the projector lenses several times.
While the show's $300,000 budget (recouped easily by ticket sales) may not rival a New York production, the technical effects and the story are fast becoming the “show to see” in Colorado. Bolin was happy not to have to turn anyone away this year, too. When one man drove from Denver to see the final performance, he was nearly disappointed when he was told the show was sold out. Instead of turning him away, he was “hired” to do fire watch, front row center. Immersed in the action, his reaction was simply, “Wow.” Bolin's reaction? “Wait until next year.”
Steve Glaeser is a theatre producer and director in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
BUILT FOR THE THORN
For New Life Church's Pastor Ted Haggard, theatre production in the sanctuary is as natural as doing a Sunday morning service. “It's part of the personality of the church,” he says.
When New Life's attendance grew to over 9,000 on Sunday mornings forcing three 90-minute services, everyone knew it was time to build a larger auditorium. At the same time, The Thorn began to draw over 20,000 people every year. The new 7,500-seat auditorium was designed accommodate the mega-church's worship services (now with over 12,000 members attending two morning services) with specific features for the annual production of The Thorn.
Size and configuration were the first accommodations made. Haggard wanted all seats to be no farther away from the center platform than they were in the old auditorium. Given the need for 7,500 seats, the six-sided arena configuration was chosen. The new facility is literally a football field in length — 297' — from wall to opposite wall, with a suspended steel roof of 80' from peak to floor. The house is raked with dinner theatre in mind, as the carpeted floor steps up 12” to a new level every 12' from center stage. Since the seating is not permanent, tables can be brought in to seat at least 2,500 for dinner theatre.
With the heavy use of fog and pyrotechnics in The Thorn, a bi-level air conditioning and heating system was installed with settings for arena services and end stage productions. In addition to the six main speaker clusters, three pre-wired audio cable containers with ShowPro Chain motors were installed so that speaker clusters could be hung on across the end stage (south wall) if needed. An additional electric was hung for the south wall to light the end stage and reinforced steel was used in all of the catwalks and gridwork for heavy use in flying actors and lighting positions.
A sealed audio room and a trough for audio and video cables were specified from the beginning as were the under-auditorium 10,000-sq.ft. fully equipped scene shop and two 10×8 roll-up doors. A hydraulic pump in the basement feeds lines in the stage to drive various set components like the scissor-lift and revolving stage in The Thorn.
“This year, we staged The Thorn with what we had,” Haggard says. “Next year we will probably double our equipment.”
Audio Equipment list
Yamaha PM1D Console
|12||Crown Macro-Tech 2402 Amps|
|18||Crown Macro-Tech 5002VZ Amps|
|8||Crown Macro-Tech 24X6 Amps|
IQwic software control
|6||JBL PD764 Speakers|
|6||JBL MS28 Speakers|
|12||JBL PD743 Speakers|
|18||JBL Custom PD5128 Speakers|
Aviom A-net/Furman HDS hybrid monitor system (18 stations)
|8||Audio Analysts custom wedges|
|18||ShowPro Chain motors|
Shure 20-channel UHF (10 U4Ds)
Shure UA845 distros with UA870 Active antennae
Shure UA888 interface
Shure PA760 distro, PA805WB antenna
|6||Shure Beta 87a|
|28||Shure Beta 58a|
|6||Shure Beta 58|
|2||Shure Beta 52|
|6||Shure Beta 98S|
|10||Shure MX200/Ace Backstage Choirsticks|
|8||DPA 4065 headsets|
|6||Crown CM311 headsets|
|6||AudioTechnica Pro 35x|
|12||AudioTechnica Pro 37|
|2||Skjonberg CS-400RDC controllers|
Audio Analysts custom frames and bumpers
Wholehog® 3 Console with playback wing
|4||48-channel (384 dimmers) ETC Sensor® dimming racks|
|26||High End Systems x.Spots®|
|200||ETC Source Four® fixtures|
|48||High End Systems ColorMerge™|
|2||Reel FX DF-50 Hazers|
|36||Wybron Forerunner color scrollers|
Wybron Autopilot II system
|6||14'×10.5' Da-Lite rear projection screens (over stage)|
|4||14'×10.5' Da-Lite projection screens (interior walls)|
(Screens powered by Sanyo PLC-XF45 10,000 ANSI lumen projectors)
|5||Panasonic AW-E800A cameras controlled by 4 Panasonic AW-RP605 pan/tilt and lens controllers|
Grass Valley GVG-100 switcher console
Vista Systems Montage™
|8||FSR MAS-3200 Scalers|
Intelix VGA-HR Active VGA to ethernet extenders All audio and composite video routing is through a Sierra Lassen 3232VS router.
6 computers for the purpose of audio recording, video recording for internet streaming, song and scripture presentation, presentation graphics, video playback, video editing, video DJ, character generation and router control. Software includes: Apple® Final Cut Pro®, Adobe® Premiere Pro®, Adobe After Effects®, SongScreen, Corel Photo-Paint®, Adobe Photoshop®, MS PowerPoint, Adobe Audition®, GarageCube Modul8.