In discussing his lighting design for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, starring Scarlett Johansson in the role of Maggie at the Richard Rogers Theatre, Neil Austin says, “Williams is very specific about light. He mentions the time of day, the heat, the fireworks, the impending storm, both in the speeches of the characters and in the stage directions, so many of my initial ideas were formed from the script itself.”
Austin then met with director Rob Ashford, set designer Christopher Oram, and sound designer Adam Cork to discuss how the creative team was going to present a vision of the world that Williams wrote. “As a design team, we have collaborated many times before over the last decade, and we worked very closely this time on creating a complete representation of the world Williams describes both visually and aurally,” says Austin.
“The action is continuous during and between each of the acts, conforming to the Aristotelian unities of time and place,” Austin continues, noting that, at the start of Act I, Williams describes the “fading, still warm light” and “gold-fretted shadows,” and Maggie complains about “so much light in the room,” causing her to “let down the blinds.” Later in the same act, Williams describes that the “sunset glare has diminished,” and by the end of Act I, he describes the “fading, much faded, gold light.” “Act II continues on from Act I in time, and halfway through the act, the characters are on the gallery watching fireworks,” says Austin. “Also in this act, the moon is mentioned. In Act III, stage directions and dialogue mention the storm, thunder, lightning, and the interior lighting dimming as a result.”
Austin intuited that “from all of these clues, it is obvious that, at the top of the play, there should be a low-angled, golden sun penetrating through the windows, making the room brightly sunlit and that this should set over the course of the act, leaving us in dusk fading to night for Act II, which allows the lightning and internal lights dimming to register in Act III.”
With Williams being so specific, and as the designers were going to approach the piece naturalistically, all of Williams’ directions were of relevance to the design process. “I believe in a holistic approach to theatre, where all the technical and design elements work toward the same storytelling goal as the actors, where we, as designers, surround and envelop the actors in the world that we all are trying to create with the goal of taking the audience on a journey and telling them a story,” says Austin. “Ideally, those elements of actors, story, and design combine together so seamlessly as a whole that the audience is unaware of the individual elements. Lighting, for me, must support the story, providing information on time and location as well as the more subtle, imperceptible, and manipulative elements of mood and atmosphere. Once all of these have been achieved, visibility will have resulted naturally. Actors, in general, seem to appreciate this style of design as it helps them create the drama and leaves them feeling less exposed than under bright white frontlight.”
For Austin, some of the challenges came from the scenic elements, in spite of Oram’s claim that no walls were in the way of the lighting. The LD found that the large windows with no walls, a fretwork ceiling, and a surround of pale painted voile all provided their own challenges. “Combined together, they influenced the lighting design heavily,” he admits. “Essentially, it is a box set with a ceiling, except everyone can see through the walls and the ceiling to spaces beyond, so the lighting instruments have to be much further away than what would have been ideal.”
The fretwork ceiling allows a base of broken light to enter the space, for which Austin has an array of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals in a variety of colors to evoke both the changing light of the day and the exploding fireworks in the sky. “Because the audience can see straight through the gaps in the ceiling and also because the light coming through these gaps needs to be as parallel as possible, the bars to achieve this are mounted just under the grid at between 45' and 50', and accessed by catwalks from the fly floor. The units are carefully focused to specific sections of the ceiling, so the entire ceiling structure is lit, but the light only lands on the stage and not on the surround or in the audience,” he explains.
The ceiling on the set also means that, to access the actors’ faces, much of the light has to come from in front of the proscenium. “This provided a much flatter angle than I would normally have liked, so it is all the more important to make sure the keylights are as effective and dominant as possible to negate the flattening frontlight,” he adds.
“These keylights through the windows for the sunset and the moon are very far offstage because of both the lack of walls on the set and also the voile surround,” Austin continues. “In an ideal world, PAR cans or something similarly punchy would have been used from closer to the windows, but because of the distance between the booms and the windows, and the need to shutter the light so none spilled through what would have been walls, I instead use Source Four profiles with scrollers, doubling up the units to get enough punch out of the light that lands on stage.” These units also provide the lightning in Act III, as the lighting designer prefers not to have “a harsh strobe feel but instead, a soft, slower-reacting distant, slightly dreamy lightning,” he says. “I also persuaded Christopher that there should be no glass in the windows, both to allow all the light through them and also to stop unwanted reflections as they are opened and closed.”
Because of the limited number of positions that can actually reach into the box set, Austin opted for eight ETC Source Four Revolutions placed in the proscenium and perch booms to cover all bases and needs for highlights and once again confirming his penchant for tungsten sources. “LED would have been unsuitable for much of this production,” he asserts. “Profile units wouldn’t have had the intensity required over the distance needed, and I don’t enjoy the unnatural color rendition of LEDs on faces and costumes. I do think LED is a very good alternative for cyc lighting, though, where it can offer a low-energy equivalent and a saving in terms of color costs.” Austin originally specified LED units for the cyc, but unfortunately none were available from PRG, who provided the lighting package, so they sent Altman Focusing Cycs, which Austin says are a good alternative.
Austin also considered SeaChanger Color Engines—for their color-mixing ability and silent nature—but ended up using scrollers on the Source Fours that shine through the windows. The palette is what Austin calls “a very subtle range of colors to be able to scroll live throughout Act I to create the passage of time needed for the sunset,” on a rather hot day in the world of Tennessee Williams, where allusions to sex, homosexuality, truth, and lies are set in a visual context of southern comfort, but the discomfort of the characters on stage is palpable throughout.