The magic, romance, and intrigue of William Shakespeare define the second season of The Bridge Project, a three-year series of co-productions by BAM, The Old Vic and Neal Street devoted to producing large-scale, classical theatre for international audiences. Directed by Sam Mendes, As You Like It and The Tempest were designed by Tom Piper (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Paul Pyant (lighting), and Simon Baker (sound) to be performed in repertory and tour following their premieres at BAM earlier this year. The plays are now in London at The Old Vic, June 12 to August 21.
In designing the lighting, Pyant found several challenges. "You know going into the project that these are two very different productions to light," he says. "You know also that sometimes they both will play on the same day—a matinee of one and an evening of another—which automatically limits what you can do in the time available between shows. You know there are two major seasons of several weeks each in New York at the BAM Harvey Theatre and in London at the Old Vic. You also know there will be several more venues all over the globe from Singapore and Hong Kong to Madrid and Paris. You know these dates are only for maybe a week or so, and that you have a very limited load-in and fit-up schedule. This all adds up to trying to make the most you can out of what is logistically possible in the time, manpower, and budget. You have to be fairly clairvoyant in order to second guess where the visuals of the production are leading through the complex 12-week rehearsal period that Sam Mendes prefers."
Another challenge was the choice of fixtures. "One approach is to design a flexible rig based on moving heads, but this is not practical when it comes to the ambient noise generated," says Pyant. "In plays, the silences are sometimes as important as the words, and excessive rig noise is a major distraction to both actors and audiences and especially to our bat-eared director, who has a particular aversion to this. A large moving light rig was also not within our budget limits."
The UK-based set designer, Tom Piper, associate designer at the Royal Shakespeare Company, created a basic setting for both plays, marking the first collaboration for Pyant and Piper. As Pyant describes it, the set features "a back wall fashioned as a replica of the famous Harvey Theatre back wall but with three entrances added…flanked by two upstage and downstage mirrored walls which, in effect, gave us an infinite horizon line. The area within these walls is a flat area that is a forest of trees for As You Like It and a pool of water for The Tempest." The water provides its own set of challenges for the fast changeover on days with a different show for the matinee and evening performances.
Both shows are performed on a raked stage that forms the main playing area for each, with the addition of a circle of sand for The Tempest. A second wall in As You Like It flies in to shut off the upstage area. "As You Like It is the more realistically based piece, as far as time of day and seasons," says Pyant. "You also have the contrasts to establish between the harsh totalitarian court of Duke Frederick and the equally harsh winter landscape of Arden Forest, to which Duke senior and his followers are banished, and which in turn turns into the idylls of spring/summer/autumn during the remainder of the play. The Tempest, after the initial storm, is set on an island where the natural meets the supernatural, sometimes in the same scene."
Pyant was lucky to be able to draw from his considerable experience of working with a repertory lighting rig or, as he says, "having been weaned on such rigs at Glyndebourne, The National Theatre, and The RSC from an early age. Of course, we did have some moving elements, but they were limited to equipment that was more or less silent in operation." These included a few Philips Vari-Lite VL1000s and VL5Bs. "As we did want a lot of flexibility, I originally also included 13 VL3500Qs—my favorite tool of late—but in the end, the Qs were by no means quiet enough, and we had to make do with just six units to bring the ambient noise level down to an acceptable level. In the end, we even had to limit the number of scrollers to reduce noise levels further. Otherwise, the rig consists entirely of ETC Profiles and PAR units."
The Bridge Project tour does not carry any of its lighting gear on the road, as the lead times between venues are limited. In fact, three complete sets were built to satisfy the schedule. "Only the props, costumes, and musical instruments tour with the company, another logistical nightmare for the administration," says Pyant. "The rig is sourced in each venue, and there is usually a lot of variety in the standards of equipment available."
Control was also an issue, as budgets did not allow shipping of the control system, so the team surveyed systems likely to be available worldwide and settled on the Philips Strand 500 series. "There is simply not enough time in schedules to completely relight for each venue, so the show was programmed on a hired Strand 530 at BAM," says Pyant. "Local adjustments are made on the in-house systems or on hired Strand boards at each venue. We did achieve our goal, ultimately, by not having to change anything at all focus-wise between the productions, which was lucky, as the scenic changeover seemed to take all the time available between shows."
Pyant put together the production’s support team, with associate lighting designer/programmer Dan Large and production electrician Leigh Porter taking the productions on tour. "I returned for the season at the Old Vic and was scheduled to take the productions to the ancient open-air amphitheatre at Epidarus in Greece, where we managed to adapt last year’s The Winter’s Tale with great success, but the realities of the world financial crisis caught up with us, and the Greek government curtailed our visit there this year—a huge shame. Mention must be made of the huge support given by the BAM Harvey Theatre production staff, especially Audrey Hoo, our production manager, and John Manderbach, the master electrician, and his team for the invaluable support given during the creation of the productions."