One way to absolutely stifle artistic creativity is to have the director announce that the lighting designer has total freedom to create whatever is needed without limitations — any fixture, any color, any angle, any position, anything I wanted. I was very excited.

A world premiere by The Four Corners Project in New York City, It's Karate, Kid! The Musical was an outrageous and unconventional riff on the beloved 80s film. Under the manicured guiding hand of a mystical maintenance man, Daniel-San Larusso wages war against pill-popping, white trash deviants; well-styled, bloodthirsty karate students; raging hormones; and much more.

When producer/director Jake Hirzel sent me the script, I immediately read it, wondering how was I was going to exercise this newfound creative freedom. I was skeptical, to say the least. I agreed to do the project, mainly since I had known Jake for many years and had worked with him on other successful projects. I must admit my skepticism continued until I went to the first reading. I was very impressed with the casting of the show. I met the finest group of young professional actors anyone would want to work with: voices to die for and endless energy. Further, I met with the design team, most of whom were offered the same limitations I was: none.

We were invited to look at the chosen space: the Teatro La Tea at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. When I saw it was located off, off, off Broadway, between Delancey and Rivington Streets on Manhattan's Lower East Side, my first impression was to drop the script and run to the nearest subway train. But as I talked with the design team and director, the collective ideas actually began to take remarkable shape. Teatro La Tea is noted for reinforcing cultural identity through theatrical productions in Spanish/English by contemporary Latino playwrights. This project was going to be new for them as well, and we were about to take this little, but very successful, theatre to places it had never been before.

All of the soft goods were removed, and the entire space was opened up. The 24'×21' space suddenly became a 57'×31' space with an additional 24'×10' thrust added to it. In addition to the added floor, the 74 stadium-style seats were divided up into three sections, adding two sections of risers, one on each side of the added thrust. The space had a fixed grid, 14' at most points and 12' at others. The grid that would usually accommodate fixtures for front lighting suddenly became useless, since it was situated just 10' over the newly constructed thrust. There was basically no place for FOH fixtures.

Power? No problem. We were told there was 300A service. I felt much better, until I investigated the situation and realized it was 100A, 3-phase service, 300A total. This information would certainly help cut down the rental package but did little to help my design efforts. This information also sounded a lot like limitations.

When rehearsals began, choreographer Jennifer Mudge used every inch of floor space — more limitations. Set designer Nick Francone added an 8'×4' platform raising the actors closer to that 14' grid. In addition, a chain link fence defined the upstage limit of the set, and actors would be playing between the fence and the backdrop. I was slowly running out of real estate for lighting positions. I had been warned by speakers in seminars many times to discuss those parameters in early production meetings and claim my positions, but I was so worried about being creative, I had failed to establish where this creativity was going to come from.

The lighting design team was able to come up with a space- and power-saving design that complemented the innovative set design and, I think, enhanced the staging and choreography of this edgy but unique piece. I asked the director early on to describe the lighting design in a word for the introduction of the musical, which was a spoken song, a bit disjointed from the musical itself. His response: “distracting.” So, we went to work.

I was lucky to have assembled a good group of young lighting professionals to work with me. Karl Schuberth, a recent graduate of NYC College of Technology, served as my associate designer and drew the design using Vectorworks 11 and Lightwright 4; Danny Naish from San Jose, CA, and current student at NYC College of Technology programmed all of the moving fixtures with a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog® 2; JP Nardecchia from Detroit, a graduate of Ohio Northern University, served as the assistant designer; and Josh Vasquez from Julliard served as the production electrician. Jon Vaughn, from Lighting Design Group, was the light board operator for the performances and used a Dell Inspiron 8600 with the Wholehog PC program.

The design I had in mind was quite costly, and I only accomplished what I did with the help of Ken Longert of KL Productions, Inc. who gave us a break on the gear rental.

KICKIN' DESIGN

It was decided to use basic R02 fill from ETC Source Four® PARs and Wybron Coloram IIs and no color breakup patterns in 50° lekos to light most of the dialog scenes. The actors were able to work a wide area with little restriction. In several scenes, the actors worked in total half light. We also needed a lot of space for the fight scenes. Although those scenes were precisely choreographed by martial arts expert and fight choreographer Qui Nguyen, I still tried to give the actors a bit of latitude. The musical numbers were lit with heavy saturated colors, hot back light, little fill in front, and hot shinbusters in six different positions. I used basically no front light throughout the show. There were 10' Tomcat vertical trusses used as lighting positions at a 45° angle about 12' off stage. On those trusses were mounted High End Systems Studio Spots®, 50° lekos with breakup patterns, and on the bottom, we mounted Color Pros® to serve as shinbusters at the same 45° angle. Four High End Studio Colors® provided that hot backlight throughout the show. Some scenes were just plain sketchy but well received and, of course, my favorite to create.

Color Kinetics' LEDs played a major role in this production due to the limited power. Two ColorBlaze 48s were used as upfill in the footlight position for those dramatic angles and to provide color. ColorBlaster 12s were used to illuminate each vertical truss with palm leaves to frame in the acting areas. Further, there were additional Color Blaster 12s mounted under the on-stage platform. Nick also designed three streetlights to light our parking lot scenes that housed a Color Blaster 12 each. A fiber-optic backdrop was used, as were several paper lanterns, to create Mr. Miyagi's garden.

A constant haze was used, and Teatro La Tea was the ideal space for that. The solid, low grid with little air movement enhanced the effect of the haze, which added another visual element to the piece.

Unconventional lighting design? To say the least. But it worked for the project, and it seemed to work for the audience. There are several musical numbers that I would have liked to add cues to, but there was no time. I tend to write a lot of cues in dance numbers, but there was a point when I just had to say, “That's the best I can do with the amount of time I was given.” As with most projects with limited budgets, I made changes and corrections well into tech rehearsals. I was still making corrections during our only preview performance. And, like a lot of designers, I second guess my work all the time. I always feel I could have done this or that a little better or brighter, or I could have taken that light out a little sooner. But no greater joy came over me and the rest of the design team than to see Robert Mark Kamen, the screenwriter who wrote the four Karate Kid movies, laughing hysterically from his front row seat.

It's Karate Kid! The Musical

Lighting designer

Bill Sheehan

Associate lighting designer

Karl R Schuberth

Assistant lighting designer

Jean Paul
Nardecchia

Automated lighting programmer

Daniel Naish

Electrician

Joshua Vasquez

Board op

Jon Vaughn

GEAR

2 HES Studio Spot® 575
4 HES Studio Color® 575
2 HES Color Pro® FX
2 Color Kinetics ColorBlaze® 48
18 Color Kinetics ColorBlast® 12
16 ETC 50° Source Four®
2 ETC 36° Source Four
15 ETC Source Four PAR MFL
12 500W Fresnel
2 TSR Fiber Optic Illuminator
18 30W Pinspots
10 Wybron Coloram II
1 Rosco Single GOBO Spinner
8 Chinese paper lanterns
2 2×24 ETC Sensor Rack
1 HES Wholehog® 2
1 FPS HogPC with Widget
2 14'×20' Fiber Optic Curtain
6 10'×12" Tomcat Truss
1 DF-50 Hazer