Producer: Kevin Jacobsen
Writer and Creator: Eleanor Bergstein
Director: Mark Wing-Davey
Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings
Audio Designer: Michael Waters
Costume Designer: Jennifer Irwin
Set Designer: Richard Roberts
Projection Design: Tim and Mick Gruchy, Gruchy Productions
Projection Hardware: Interactive Controls
Set Construction: Stageweld
Lighting Supply: Bytecraft Entertainment
Audio Supply: Jands Production Services
The world premiere of the stage adaptation of 1987 film Dirty Dancing was held at Sydney's Theatre Royal, Australia. Written and created by Eleanor Bergstein, the script writer and co-producer of the hugely successful movie, and staged by Mark Wing-Davey, Dirty Dancing draws on a wealth of Australian talent to ignite what is essentially a multimedia concert.
It seems strange that such a characteristically American coming of age story set in the summer of 1963 should have its world premiere in Sydney, but there's plenty of indication that the show has found its audience given the wild reception. The mere sight of hunky dance instructor Johnny (Josef Brown) and his famous line of dialogue, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” elicits wolf whistles and cheers from the mainly female audience.
Realizing Director Mark Wing-Davey's vision for the show was set designer Richard Roberts as well as Tim and Mic Gruchy of Gruchy Productions who supplied the video content. The dominating feature of the set design is the 33.5' by 8.2' projection screen that moves both upstage and downstage as well as up and down, or all together. Weighing four tons the screen still manages to move fluidly while delivering wide, panoramic images.
The use of video images on a moveable screen reinforces shifts in time and place, as well as providing close-ups or aerial views of action taking place on the stage. It helps the audience locate where they are in the story with live camera action, pre-recorded scenes, or sometimes digital graphics.
“Mark wanted to use both rear and front projection in the show but he was adamant that it wasn't to show filmic moments,” explained Roberts. “It had to be a theatrical way of telling something in a filmic manner. The script is very close to the film and with some scenes only lasting a few seconds, it was a huge challenge to find a mechanism that would allow us to stage and honor the story.”
Roberts describes his set design as a machine that provides the staging possibilities for all the scenes, whether brief or long. As well as the projection screen, affectionately named the Winnebago by the crew, there is a stage revolve, a bridge, moveable trucks and a downstage lift. The set was built by Stageweld of Melbourne.
“The revolve allows a changing viewpoint for the audience as if a camera is moving around,” said Richard. “The bridge is ten meters long, the same as the projection screen so that they can line up together. It can lift, tilt, and revolve at the same time.
“There are many moments in the production where the story needs to be presented in a way that recalls, without copying, the film. So when Baby dances across the bridge in the film we needed some structure on stage that would allow us to do that. When Baby walks up the pathway to Johnny's cabin in the film we needed to create a sloping pathway that she could walk up on stage.”
The trucks come on to form small stages or levels while the downstage lift provides a final moment when Johnny and Baby stand on it and are elevated up in front of the screen.
Image content for the screen was the responsibility of the Gruchy brothers, along with Dean Stevenson of Interactive Controls, who designed the hardware. The screen hosts three areas of content: graphics, pre-recorded video, and live camera feeds. Onstage, seven live cameras, three fixed, and four computer-controlled, record the live material. Out of 120 video scenes, 100 are pre-produced and 20 are live which necessitated two separate show control systems. A Dataton Watchout system delivers all of the pre-made content with a Medialon system controlling all of the live cameras as well as the Dataton system; the signals from the cameras are feeding into Watchout system which in turn is controlled by the Medialon system.
“The image content is basically divided into either representing Baby's point of view or scene setting,” said Tim Gruchy. “The combination of the revolve and the video allows us to quickly change scenes.”
A great deal of time was spent sourcing imagery for the screen, either through archives or more commonly, shooting their own material. Not only did the imagery have to be historically and geographically correct, it also had to be filmed at the right time of the day.
“We found that there were quite a lot of disparities between the film and the supposed location of the Catskills,” said Tim. “We had to come up with a solution that sat somewhere between the two. It's more about creating a feeling that you are in the correct location and time.”
The next challenge was integrating the live cameras with the pre-recorded film as a degree of cohesion between the elements was required. Then Tim had to work towards integrating the imagery with the set, something he admits he would like more time to work on. For example if the revolve moves, the content on the screen moves correctly with it.
Screen To Stage
Tony Award-winning lighting designer Nigel Levings had to work to an enormously tight schedule, which was hampered by the late arrival of the set. Marks on the stage floor and pieces of brown paper that were moved around the stage were all he had to enable the focus of his lighting.
“It's been a fairly scary experience!” says Levings. “In fact we have lit the whole show on an empty stage with no scenery at all. No matter what happens, if you start four weeks behind there is no way anybody can make up that sort of time.”
The veteran of about 380 productions, Levings describes Dirty Dancing as an extremely complicated show that has a total of 450 lighting cues: “There are more scenes in this stage version than there are in the movie and we don't have the benefit of an editing suite! Eleanor specifically wanted to add scenes that were cut from the movie even though some of those scenes only last five seconds.
Levings used a combination of High End Systems Studio Spots® and Studio Colors® as well as VARI*LITE VL1000s™ for La Boheme on Broadway; it is a package that he now favors for large musical productions, including Dirty Dancing.
Levings first put his lighting design together eight months prior to the opening of the show and he has changed it little since. “It's a nice mixture of quiet moving lights,” he said. “At one stage we added some x.Spots to the front of house for some more grunt but I wasn't very happy with them — I don't really like the color — so they've been replaced by more Studio Spots.”
The large video projection screen obviously caused Levings certain difficulties, particularly the fact that it regularly moves position. Being nearly 9.8' deep, the screen effectively eliminates a substantial amount of the lighting rig and Levings had to find ways to light around it.
“Sometimes your choice of shots is very limited because you can't get around it although we have some lights beneath it,” he says. “It's one of the reasons I chose a rig that is dominated by moving lights as they give you more flexibility.”
Control is a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2 with a few little hacks to get the screens set up the way Levings likes them. “I don't like the way that the Hog reports back its information on screen to lighting designers, it's very much an operator's board,” he said. “The show is channeled according to the instrument function and then we describe blocks of channels, such as ‘all side facial light,’ making the Hog think that it's a type of fixture so it then blocks it all together in a panel on screen. That makes the display easier for me to work with.
“We looked at Hog 3 but no one could convince me they could set the screens up the way I like them. I'm a real fan of the philosophy of the Hog; the ability to easily set individual fade speed times on individual channels. Eventually on this show there will be a lot of very intricate timing within cues.”
Words And Music
Michael Waters of Jands Production Services designed the sound for the show which consists of several pit and onstage band configurations and a cast of 33. “This production is not really defined as a musical but rather a play,” Waters explains. “The script is virtually the same as the movie, with added scenes, but there's a lot of music throughout the show. Consequently the biggest challenge was trying to get the dialogue heard above the music and you can't have the music too quiet as it's generating a vibe.”
The flown PA is a L'Acoustics V-Dosc system with 20 DV-Dosc in a stereo stalls and circle configuration with the bass bins flown above. A center cluster holds four Arcs with an MTD112 strapped underneath. Several Meyer Sound UPM-2 speakers supply frontfill and delay while JBL surround speakers are also deployed. A couple of small Mipro speakers are used for stage effects; one has been placed inside an old record player so when it “plays,” the sound of the record player appears real. More are placed in a radio and the piano. “It's all done RF via a Shure PSM700 so when the real pianist plays under the stage, it looks and sounds like the actor is playing for real,” explains Waters.
Control is via a Yamaha PM5D-RH digital mixer as well as three Yamaha DM1000 digital production consoles. With no outboard gear required, less space is required front of house allowing the producer to sell more seats. “The PM5D-RH onboard Add-On dynamics processors are capable of capturing subtleties that other simple digital simulations cannot even approach, and in addition, I can create the sounds of sought after vintage gear,” adds Waters. “By utilizing all the on-board effects and dynamics packages offered by the PM5D-RH and DM1000s it has enabled me to remove all the usual outboard equipment and wiring associated with such a large scale and complex theatrical production while keeping all the audio in the digital domain. The three DM1000s provide in-ear monitoring and sub-mixes of the pit and stage bands into the PM5D, which by using its complete scene recall will control all the vocal radio microphones and surround sound effects via midi to SFX by Stage Research and for the entire sound system setup.”
The producers of Dirty Dancing are convinced that this production is set to tour the world for years to come. Currently the production is scheduled to tour Australia until 2006, New Zealand and Asian shows are planned for 2006 and the UK premiere will take place in 2005.