Playground Central is Carnegie Mellon’s weeklong celebration of independent student work, during which all classes and productions are temporarily halted so that students can propose and participate in any project that they can imagine. The culmination of this is a three-day theatre festival at the end of the week utilizing all three performance spaces at Carnegie Mellon’s Purnell Center for the Arts.

This year Playground Central transformed the central atrium connecting all three performance spaces within Purnell Center for the Arts into an ever-changing light and sound show, and the space served as a central hub for the festival. Slowly moving architectural looks were punctuated by lightshows every time a performance ended and the audience transitioned from one theatre to another.

Playground Central’s main goal was to create a feeling of community and of excitement. Students from various other departments on campus would walk in to see what was happening as the large windows in the atrium turned the lobby into a kind of beacon. The project also got some help from Vari-Lite, who supplied 3000 and 3500-series wash units. The units were placed on the third level, opposite windows looking outside. When it snowed (which is often in January in Pittsburgh) the beams of light could be seen from the entire campus. Lighting designer Ryan Tanker created a “lighthouse” effect with beams sweeping across the upper windows.

“We were very lucky to have manufacturers interested in helping us with this project. Vari-Lite supplied us with automated fixtures; Ocean Optics supplied us with SeaChangers; and Elation supplied LED Impression fixtures,” says the project’s creative director, Jason Read. “The entire rig was controlled by an Eos console, loaned to us by Electronic Theatre Controls. The project really came together because of the generosity of Vari-Lite, Ocean Optics, Elation, and ETC.”

Early in the design process Read realized that with all the lighting and sound gear available, students had the ability to push the bounds even further and create an Opening Ceremony. This idea lead to the iconic “Spirit of Playground” sculpture designed by Leah Pettis and Margaret Cunningham that consisted of pieces of fabric hanging from three concentric circles thirty feet above the lobby floor. Each piece of fabric had a line art design on it, with the figures on the innermost circle representing the goals of theatre: communication, connection, and community. The middle ring represented the creation process: writing, directing, and performing, and the outer circle represented the design areas and dramaturgy.

During the Opening Ceremony a member from each discipline carried the representative piece of fabric to the center of the lobby and attached it to the sculpture, which was then flown to its full height. The sculpture remained for the entire festival and was nicknamed the “Olympic Flame” by some of the students.

Other parts of the ceremony included the opening section entitled, “The Inmates Take Over The Asylum,” a cacophony of sound effects where the architectural lighting of the lobby began to flicker and pulse as the regular Playground Central lighting powered up and took over.

Other Opening Ceremony highlights included a “live-via-satellite” video conference call with assistant head of the School of Drama, Richard “Dick” Block, who helped conceive the festival but was in New York during the opening. It also included a video retrospective of the week’s rehearsals and preparations.
During the day only the LED fixtures of the rig were utilized to add subtle color and to the space. Energy efficiency is one of the chief goals of Carnegie Mellon University, and specifically for the lighting program, so the LED system replaced the normal “daytime” architectural lighting of the space and used less power than the lights it replaced.

Different students served as moving lights programmers over the course of the week. They all quickly took to the Eos console, as it shares syntax with the Ion series console that Carnegie Mellon owns. “I’ve had a great experience with ETC since being one of their LDI scholarship winners a couple of years ago,” Read adds, “And Carnegie Mellon also has a great regional representative, Nick Gonsman, who was very excited to help us with this project.”

Quick programming was critical because of all the windows in the lobby, meaning the lighting team could only program at night for the entire week. Once the festival began, the programming window was shortened to seven hours—between midnight and 7am.

Design Team

Creative Director:
Jason Read

Lighting Design:
Ryan Tanker

Scenic Design:
Leah Pettis and Margaret Cunningham

Technical Director:
James Southworth

Head Rigger:
Alex Serrano

Assistant Master Electrician:
Matt Bialek

Projection Coordinator:
Michael ‘Cody’ Westgaard

Moving Lights Programmers:
Matt Bialek, Michael Berger, Jeremy Lechterman, Erick Leininger, Teddy Sosna, Ryan Tanker, Bryan Ward


1 ETC Eos Console
1 ETC Net3 4 Port Gateway
48 ETC Unison Architectural Dimming Zones
2 Vari-Lite 3500 Wash
2 Vari-Lite 3000 Wash
2 Vari-Lite 500
4 Vari-Lite 2202
4 Vari-Lite 2414
6 Martin MAC2000
2 Martin MAC500
6 Elation Impression
65 Color Kinetics C-200
6 Ocean Optics SeaChanger