Two thousand six was the second year for Christmas at Resurrection, a musical celebration featuring a 200-voice choir, 75-piece orchestra, 30 to 40 actors, and several vocal soloists. The first act, nicknamed “A Kansas City Christmas,” focused on local holiday traditions and featured secular carols. Next, there was a children's section with a short drama and three songs performed by a children's choir. Act III was a traditional Christmas drama. The program ended with the “Hallelujah” chorus. The sets were carried over from last year but repositioned onstage. All of the drama and 50 percent of the songs were new this year.
My approach to designing and programming this show was to work in layers. First, I made sure the key areas of action were lit. For the 2006 show they added more processionals through the house, more narrator/solo locations, and a house solo. (This was a clever way to hide the main set change). Initially, I wrote a lot of cues just to keep up with the action. Second, I got a feel for the pace of the music and drama, as well as the setting for each scene. The drama and musical directors had some basic ideas for the existing songs based on what we did in 2005 and generic ideas for the new songs. I got the music as early as possible and listened to it frequently during programming to help develop a theme for each song. Sometimes, my programming was abstract; other times, it reinforced lyrical references or coordinated with costumes. For example, during “I Saw Three Ships,” I combined gold floor lights from behind with blue spinning water effects from the front to create the feeling of being near water in the morning.
Next, I worked on the transitions between songs. Having seen my programming style and the versatility of the moving lights in 2005, the directors gave me a fair amount of latitude to add elements. This year featured more medleys, so there were a lot of songs with multiple looks. There were limited sets and a few traditional scene changes, so the show relied heavily on a variety of lighting looks to give each song a unique feel and mark the transition points. I looked at the songs on either side of a particular number and tried to view the show as a collective body rather than just a set of individual songs. That way, I avoided having consecutive songs look similar and also paced myself. Pacing is something that I feel is easy to forget because today's tools can do so many things.
Over a 150-minute show, I needed to mix it up, so for the final layer, I added effects in certain spots for some eye-candy. Fortunately, this show provided some moments where the lights were supposed to be the visual focus, and that also helped me resist the urge to “flash and trash” too often. At the start of each half, there was an overture where the only thing I had to light was the orchestra. The rest of the room was fair game. It was great to have a soundtrack and just paint an empty room. The overtures have become signature moments in the show. There was also a finale for both acts. For those, I started simple and just kept adding layers of effects to each layer of lights or stage area. The finales were as intense as any touring show, but those “wow” moments happened only once or twice during the show, so they had maximum impact.
The first two-thirds of the show had more of a concert feel, with lots of solos, vocal ensembles, and numbers featuring the choir and orchestra. The opening section had some basic cityscape flats and a fountain, so I tried to highlight them as much as possible with colors and projections. For the children's section, I did some graphic projections using the shutters to do geometric shapes. The first act had a lot of bright colors, rotating gobos simulating water and fire, and some big power sweeps at the end of songs. Act III followed the traditional nativity story, and I switched to more traditional lighting with more static scenes and fewer, subtler projections. The second act takes place mostly at night, so it was a deeper color palette with more aerials. There was a stable set that needed to be lit for most of the act and a star projection for the last song. There were multiple locations for the narrator and soloists and several cues where I followed groups of actors across the stage to the manger. I was careful to include extra fixtures in the design, dedicated for specials, that allowed me to keep my base color washes and still have followspot-like specials for key drama moments. We could have used traditional followspots for some scenes, but that would have required more people and a greater time commitment to recruit, coordinate, and possibly train operators. Many churches use volunteers to staff technical positions, and finding qualified people who can work the hours required for a production this size can be tough, particularly this time of year. Using only moving lights was more work for me, but it gave me the control I needed to respond quickly to design changes.
The first obstacle was designing from a distance. I live in Minneapolis, so all of the production planning and design was done offsite. I began planning for the project in July, and I needed that kind of lead-time as we were coordinating logistics between the church in Kansas City, Harvest Productions (a local production company providing the setup/tear-down labor, rigging, and the console), and PRG, the moving lights supplier in Nashville. We conducted conference calls during monthly production meetings, and the directors funneled information to me via email, fax, and snail mail. I also co-designed and programmed the show in 2005, so I was already familiar with the format and venue layout. I decided to design and program most of this year's show in Cast's wysiwyg software interfaced with a Flying Pig Systems Hog 3 PC system. Without the Hog PC and wysiwyg, there would have been no way to build this show given the tight production schedule. Fortunately, I took a lot of venue and set photos last year and was able to get some blueprints and measurements from church staff. Wysiwyg allowed me to move things quickly, experiment with throw distances and fixture positions, and calculate things like cable runs, weight distribution, and gobo sizes. The virtual stage let me accurately communicate our gear needs to vendors and maximize my time onsite.
The next challenge was working with an extremely tight production schedule. I had a two-week window in the venue to set up, program, run four rehearsals and five performances, and load-out. The venue was also sometimes unavailable for programming at certain times due to a children's Christmas production and weekly services on Saturday and Sunday. The busy event schedule meant that we had only 45 minutes to change the venue from normal service configuration to the Christmas musical set during certain days. For example on Saturday, there was a matinee performance from 1pm to 4pm, a normal weekly service from 5pm to 6:15pm, and doors opened for the evening performance at 7pm. I had to design a flexible system that could be reconfigured quickly. This year, I decided to do the musical entirely with moving lights and stay independent from the in-house conventional system. It allowed the church's volunteer lighting director to work on the weekly services and programming while I programmed the Christmas musical. When it was time to switch over between events, I just repatched the house-light control from the church's desk to our Wholehog 3, and I was ready to go. The speed, control, and flexibility of the moving lights were crucial to reacting effectively to last-minute changes in blocking and scenery.
Another design challenge was lighting the immense 105'×60' stage from all sides. The house was so wide that I had to use three-point frontlighting in many cases to prevent side shadows. Things looked great from the center two-thirds of the house, but from the sides or certain camera angles, there were shadows. Again, being familiar with the venue helped, as did being easily able to look at things from multiple perspectives in the wysiwyg model. We used a 100'-long truss to get the angles needed for even coverage from our FOH position.
The stage layout also required precise lighting, and I selected fixtures with shutters to provide more control. This year, the venue built extensions on the wings, which made the front row very close to the stage in certain areas, and there was some drama on the floor in front of centerstage. Because the show was a mix of music and drama, and there was no curtain for scene changes, I had to be precise in choosing what was lit and what was dark. There were a lot of solos and small vocal ensembles that occurred during personnel changes. I used some in-house ellipsoidals focused just on the aisles to light processionals and drama in the house. That meant I was using 3,200'K fixtures, and because of the house video rig, I was very conscious of color temperature. I chose to use tungsten moving lights to keep everything consistent.
Tools Of The Trade
The show requirements led us to the Vari-Lite VL1000TS fixtures last year, and I was very pleased with them. This year, I used them exclusively for the stage lighting. The VL1000 had precise shutters, a great zoom, incredible color mixing, and a great frost that allowed both super-soft washes and sharp gobo projections. Due to time constraints and rig size, I wanted to simplify the fixture inventory as much as possible. The VL1000TS was the only fixture that met all of my requirements and performed very well. The large number of specialized fixtures I needed required me to do a lot of digging to find someone with an adequate inventory. PRG was able to pull fixtures from three different locations to fill the inventory, and their support was excellent. The ReelEFX DF-50 hazers were also great workhorses, as we had to haze the room quickly between events.
I have been a longtime fan of Flying Pig's Wholehog family, and over the last year, I have made the switch to the Hog 3 operating system. I used the Hog iPC for several shows, but this was my first time with the Wholehog 3. It's a fantastic console. It was very stable and had many features that allowed complex looks to be created quickly. The Hog 3PC was a great tool, as well. The Wholehog 3 family really shined on this show.
Wysiwyg was a lifesaver. I sent renderings to members of the production team to communicate ideas more clearly, which was vital, as we weren't able to meet face-to-face. Also having everything in one application was a huge benefit, given the speed and number of design changes. I designed, programmed, drew plots, and created paperwork all in one place, rather than tracking changes in multiple software applications.
Once I was on site, we had some challenges. Getting 80 moving fixtures loaded with gobos, patched, addressed, and working properly took a lot of time, so I lost some programming time due to some unforeseen setup delays and delivery glitches. Kansas City had a major ice/snow storm during the first week, so I lost a rehearsal and more prep time. Thanks to wysiwyg, having a single fixture type, and the features of Hog 3, I was able to work overnight and during rehearsals and show days to make up the lost time. The cast commented on the new stuff I added each day. In a way, it was kind of fun, as the show really changed a lot between rehearsals, but it added a lot of stress. Some scenes were not finalized until the day the show opened. In fact, I was still tweaking until about five minutes before doors opened, which is never something I like to do, but things turned out great. I learned a lot throughout the production process.
Show playback was 100% live. No one on site knew both the show and the lighting cues well enough to call cues like in a traditional Broadway-style theatre environment, and I preferred to trip cues by watching the show myself, rather than listening to someone on a headset. I come from a concert touring and live TV background, so I am used to watching the stage and listening to dialog/music and then anticipating what needs to be done. For most shows this complicated, I am used to programming to timecode so the cues trip automatically. This show is approaching the point where I can only do so much running of everything live. Given the live orchestra and narrator, there will always be a live element to it, but in the future, we may have to look at a click-track or some sort of master clock to automate some elements and keep everything running smoothly.
Considering the complexity of the show, the crew size during the run (one moving light tech and me), and the tight schedule, things ran well. Any technical problems were handled quickly by PRG and High End's tech support.
The show played to nearly 3,000 people during each of the five performances, and everyone was very pleased with the finished product. It was a huge undertaking and turned into a much larger project than any of us envisioned. But hearing the response from the audience during the show and seeing my design come to life on a scale this large was very rewarding. It was a great experience, and I have to thank the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection for the opportunity to work on this unique production. Thanks also to show director Kevin Bogan, COR lighting director Chris Sartain, PRG, Harvest Productions, High End Systems, and Ruehling Associates Inc. for their support on this project.
Lighting Designer: Travis Slyter
Lighting Programmer/Board Operator: Travis Slyter
Moving Light Technician: Candida Boggs
Rigging & Conventional Lighting Company: Harvest Productions
Moving Light Provider: PRG Nashville
1 Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 3 Console
2 Flying Pig Systems DP-2000 DMX Processor
1 Flying Pig Systems Hog 3PC System (Preprogramming)
1 Flying Pig Systems Hog PC USB Playback Wing (Preprogramming)
1 Flying Pig Systems Hog PC USB Programming Wing (Preprogramming)
1 Cast wysiwyg Perform Workstation
80 Vari-Lite VL1000TS
32 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal, 36°
2 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidal, 5°
16 ETC Source Four PAR, MFL
2 ETC Source Four PAR, VNSP
1 Motion Labs 400A Power Distro
1 ETC 96×2.4 kW Sensor Dimmer Rack
9 CM Loadstar 1-Ton Motor
20 Tomcat 10' Sections of 12" Box Truss
2 Tomcat 5' Sections of 12" Box Truss
2 Reel EFX DF-50 Hazer