Talk about problematic. During the run of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, hydraulic controls that drove a six-ton pyramid frequently broke down. When the show moved to Broadway in 2000, lighting designer Natasha Katz was the only member of the design team to stay with it. The Broadway run had problems, too. Initially, a tomb in Bob Crowley’s Tony-award winning set was lowered from above; after a performance, when it broke from its support and fell to the stage, the tomb was grounded.
Creating scenery for a show with multiple locations and quick changes presents any scenic designer with problems. “You’re in the palace, then outside, then in the desert, then by the river,” says scenic/projection designer Justin N. Lang of the show that is set in and near Egypt.
For a recent MUSKET theatre company production at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, student producers decided to hire a professional lighting designer and rent sets, props, and costumes. That LD, Craig Kidwell, advised them to bring in Lang to create the locations, cutting costs and making the production more original. So it happened that in September, less than three months before the show opened, Lang found himself in a production meeting.
“There was no time to build or paint elaborate pieces of scenery,” Lang recalls, explaining that the design called for at least eight different full-size drops, and there was just about enough time for the volunteer crew to paint one. Using projections would create other problems, since there was no time to tech, either. The team would get into the theatre on Monday for a Friday opening, and most of Monday would be used for load-in. Kidwell had to marry lighting with choreography, music, and projections. To complicate matters, Kidwell had been hired as technical director, as well. “The challenge wasn’t that I couldn’t do both jobs but that there was barely time to communicate everything to all the crews,” he says.
Because of the late load-in, cueing was delayed. “It took us halfway through Tuesday before video was able to start cueing,” says Kidwell, who did lighting cues on Thursday, during the final dress, because he was solving technical problems on Wednesday. “It went so terribly, it was terrifying,” adds Lang. Both wondered if the show would be ready by Friday’s opening. Although Kidwell had an assistant designer, he didn’t have a technical support team. Equipment was a problem, too. “We had committed to using an MA Lighting grandMA video for our media server and had already cued it all on a grandMA2 console,” says Kidwell. As it happened, the console was promised to a theatre in Detroit on opening night.
The Nile River and boats figure importantly in the show. “Water is a big challenge, too,” says Lang. “You can’t put a full boat on stage. If you put the hull on stage, you have to push it.” And then there was the tomb. At the end, two lovers are buried in the sand. Lang knew of the problems on Broadway and on the national tour, and he knew he would have to find a way to bury the actors, safely and in full view of the audience. Working in a large theatre with a small budget, Kidwell and Lang would have to navigate the logistical problems of the most technically complex show either had ever designed, using unfamiliar equipment. Friday’s performance would run reasonably well, but both say it was more a preview than a finished show. “We did a lot of it on the fly on Friday,” says Lang. By Saturday, the glitches had to be out.
The show is framed by scenes in a contemporary museum, where visitors look at artifacts from the world of the story. Lang created a box with transparent plastic on three sides to represent the tomb; it could be lowered to cover a “statue” enacted by a motionless actor and pulled up and off. As museum visitors walk about, their images are reflected in the glass. “Nobody on the crew could weld, so I made the box myself,” says Lang. That, it happened, was one of the only scenic pieces anyone would make. The upside of being the TD as well as the LD was that Kidwell could divert much of the $12,400 budget from scenery to projections, and the two designers could tell the story in moving projections, with just a few essential props.
Lang filmed river scenes in upper Michigan. “The trees in Escanaba, Michigan are dead and barren by fall, and it looked like Egypt,” he says. He also created content with Apple Motion, Final Cut Pro HD, Adobe Photoshop, and Illustrator, and he purchased clips with pyramids because it would have taken too much time to draw something that specific. “Working with the technology saved us because we could make sweeping changes on the fly,” says Lang.
The projections defined a variety of locations, including kinetic trees and river waters that moved swiftly when fortune favors the brave and slowly when slaves are captured. Images moved vertically, horizontally, and out to the audience. Timing projections to stage action was sometimes difficult. “You had to change ahead of time on this rig,” says Lang, who asked the choreographer to move the dancers a little slower in one number so that the video would be timed to them. In all, Lang had 20 specific images projected on the back wall and others on strips of fabric that doubled as pillars. For palace scenes, he used white silk—voile from Rose Brand—to create a luxurious look, contrasting that with erosion cloth for the slave camps. Time constraints prevented Lang and Kidwell from testing the ability of these fabrics to take light and projection. “When we got them in the air, they lit up gorgeously and totally accepted the projection,” says Lang, who built all curtains with 200% fullness because he knew one layer would not be thick enough to hold an image. Four projectors and two types of media servers ran the content, projecting on scrim and on the floor. Kidwell would have liked a 15,000-lumen rear-protector, but when he learned the rental would be more than $3,000, he opted for a Christie Digital LX120, served by an MA Lighting grandMA video processing unit.
“I had to keep my light off the video, and Justin had to make sure the video was high enough so I could light the actors,” says Kidwell, who avoided frontlight and used a good deal of dance lighting and strong sidelight. “I turned sidelight on at the beginning of the show and didn’t turn it off. It allowed me to light around the video in the time I had,” he says. When dancers created the shape of a pyramid on stage, Kidwell was able to use heavy sidelight to mirror it with a reverse pyramid. He used other light occasionally, including three followspots in the second act. In Egypt, sunlight is direct, harsh; in the palace, it was rich and lush. Kidwell used a lot of ambers in lighting the Egyptian sun, and Lang used amber in the slave camp. “We made hyper-realistic choices,” says Lang. “We went to dark, rich royal blue water and not tan sand but dark gold, reinforcing that we were doing a musical.”
Since they were encountering technology they had never used before, the pair started tech in Lang’s apartment Sunday night. “We carried in a Barco High End Systems DL.3 and a lighting console and spent four hours working before we could get an image to come out of our projector,” Lang says. “When we got into the theatre, we had six hours under our belts.” “We ended up renting the grandMA console for the first four days,” adds Kidwell. “On Thursday, we switched to my laptop running MA OnPC software and using the same network, so Justin could program video on the console at the same time I was programming lighting on my laptop. When the console left, my laptop took over as the master console using the NSP to process the signal. It sounded so simple.” The original plan was to install the NSP during load-in, controlling the show from the beginning. “In that case, we would have used the console as a very fancy user interface to make Justin’s video programming easier,” says Kidwell. When the NSP was late—delivered the day before the console was being returned—Kidwell loaded the show onto the NSP from the laptop. “It was more than a little hair-raising, but it worked nearly perfectly,” Kidwell says. “We ran Ethernet to the media servers to allow us to move content to them and control them without needing to run multiple runs of control cable.” Control was over Art-Net; the grandMA2 console ran Series 1 software.
Lang researched Egyptian boats and found that the hull was less important than a massive sail in the center. By flying in a large video screen, projecting moving water onto it, and putting a sail on stage with two platforms suggesting direction, Lang had his boat. Sometimes, he projected maps on the sail. The boat was present only part of the time; other scenic props included spinning pieces with hieroglyphics and a golden throne. For the burial scene, Lang created a solution in his backyard. “I purchased 150lbs. of sand and a Plexiglas box,” he says. “Craig and I poured sand into the box, and we filmed it in miniature.” In the theatre, sand appeared to fall on the lovers, and the box filled until they disappeared, from the bottom up. “We could hear everyone holding their breath,” says Lang. “Projection is a very efficient way of doing theatre,” Lang adds. “A drop would take three scenic painters 12 hours each, and then the drop just sits there. It takes one person between eight and 30 hours to do one piece of animated content. It’s a better use of time and money.”