Shows tour. Shows transfer. Shows are revived, sometimes right away, sometimes many years after the original production has come and gone. Sets and costumes can be recreated fairly easily based on sketches, ground plans, and photographs, but lighting has a more complicated set of variables. Lighting designers are often faced with unique challenges when relighting a show. Three lighting pros — Rob Halliday as programmer, David Howe as lighting designer, and Ted Mather as associate — weigh in on the art and technology of lighting revivals and transfers.
Halliday On Light
London-based LD/programmer Rob Halliday spent a great deal of time in New York City last fall working on the lighting programming for the Broadway version of Disney's Mary Poppins at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Lit by Howard Harrison, Mary Poppins blew in from London's West End, allowing Halliday the opportunity to use his FocusTrack system — which takes snapshots of every lighting position — to “revive” the show's lighting. The associate LD was Dan Walker.
“On Mary Poppins, the spacing of the overhead lights in London was quite strange because we had to work around scenic items. In New York, it is more typical,” says Halliday. “Having a record of what the lights were actually doing in London was, therefore, invaluable.”
Mary Poppins in New York has 170 moving lights. “There are 1,417 lamp-focuses in the show [each light averages eight different positions]. It's quite hard to remember all of those,” Halliday admits. “Plus, we changed lights in New York [from Vari-Lite VL2000s to Martin MAC 700s]. When we started, the console would just send the values corresponding to the VL2000 spots to the lights in New York; the MAC 700s behave differently so those values had different meanings.”
The pictures from London let Halliday check exactly what each light was meant to be doing and then correct the values in the desk to provide the same behavior. “On Les Misérables, which returned to New York at the same time as Mary Poppins, the FocusTrack pictures were invaluable because Ted Mather, who was relighting the show for David Hersey, had only seen the moving light version of the show a couple of times in London, and Alan Boyd, who was reprogramming the show in my absence, had never done the show from scratch,” Halliday says. “They, too, had changed lights — from VL2000 spots and washes to VL2500 spots and washes. FocusTrack meant they had a way of seeing what each light was meant to be doing in each cue.”
Changes in scenery and costumes can cause changes in the lighting, as well. “In pre-production, it's a matter of making sure that changes in scenery haven't caused problems to the lighting team. If they've moved where a cloth is hanging for a particular scene, is it now blocking the lights that you used to light that scene? If so, do you have other lights you can use, or do you need to fight your case for getting things moved back to their original positions, if that's even possible?” Halliday muses.
“And, of course, you have to take advantage of new possibilities as they open up,” he continues. “The downstage third of the stage in New York for Mary Poppins is much more open than in London — since New York doesn't have the giant guide towers that support the flying nursery — so there was the possibility of getting much more sidelight into this part of the stage, which has turned out to be invaluable.
“I've always believed that the lighting data in the console is the ultimate reference as to what the lighting's meant to be doing,” Halliday notes. “It has cue points, fade times, details of which lights are on, details of which color/gobo, etc., the lights are in, details of where they're pointing, and so on. If you've invested a lot of time and effort in that the first time you make the show, there's no point in throwing all of that away and starting again, so you work from those cues and adapt them to deal with little changes in the staging.”
Halliday finds that some shows don't change much on their way across the pond, but on Mary Poppins in New York, some things — particularly the number “Jolly Holiday” — had changed so much, and the rig was so different that the LDs took a different approach. “We kept the cue points, cue times, color, and gobo setups of the scrollers and moving lights, but then we actually turned all of the lights off through the sequence and started again,” he explains.
The concept and scenography of the number had changed significantly. In London, the number has a gray backcloth and gray sliders. The LDs attempted to make the black-and-white world turn colorful just by using lighting. “There was a feeling that the statues in the number should always feel stony-gray, making it hard to make it truly colorful; in New York, the gray scenery is replaced by colorful versions in a transition at the top of the number; the statues, costumes, and make-up are conceived differently,” says Halliday.
All concerned were pleased with the new version of “Jolly Holiday,” as well as with other design-related changes in New York, and wanted them made in the London production. “A laudable aim,” says Halliday, who discovered it was not totally possible. “We couldn't add everything in London because of limitations in grid and substage space, so we added some of it and added versions of other bits and relit accordingly. The hardest part of this was going back to the old rig, having gotten used to the possibilities of the new rig. For example, ‘Jolly Holiday’ is now lit with VL1000 sidelights doing color shifts. Recreating that with the scrollers on the ETC Revolutions in London is quite hard. The colors were always just in the wrong order. So we took a slightly different approach to end up with lighting that is similar in feel and intent, if not exactly the same in look.” Gear in New York not already owned by Disney from other productions was rented from Hudson Scenic's lighting division.
In meeting the challenge of moving a show from one theatre to another, Halliday suggests that LDs ask themselves: “What can you do in advance to make sure a show is ultimately movable, knowing what the lighting needs to do and fighting for the space and then equipment to let you do the same thing again?” From the control point of view, he works to make the show file “self-documenting” and easy to update as far as possible. “This means using preset focuses so that a light will say it's at position ‘Bed Special in Nursery,’ for example, rather than at ‘pan 42/tilt 39’ or whatever. I take this as far as possible by using as many different preset focuses as possible so that you might have a light pointing at ‘Neelius DR’ and another at ‘Mary DL’ in the same scene, rather than both being set to a position called ‘Scene 1 positions.’”
Halliday also separates things out as much as possible, so edge focus will be in separate presets called “Wheel 1 sharp” or “Wheel 1 soft” and so on (though he notes that this becomes hard on some lights, such as the MAC 700s, where focus and zoom aren't interlinked in any way).
“My aim is that, if you look at the screen, you can tell what the lights are meant to be doing, which is good for the operator running the show and good for me coming back to the show after two years away,” Halliday says. “If you then need to know precisely where the light has to point to light ‘Mary DL,’ then you look in FocusTrack. I also try to apply the same ‘patterns’ to the way the show is plotted. For example, with part cues, part 12 is always moving lights setting themselves for the next scene; part 11 is always scrollers setting themselves, and so on. Once you know the rules, it becomes very easy to figure out what's happening at any point in the show. Of course, this really only works if you use the same console from show to show.”
Rather than transferring show files between consoles by different manufacturers, Halliday and team have been using Strand consoles on shows for more than a decade now — Mary Poppins has a Strand 520i as the main console, a 550i backup, and a 550i remote. “Though, in this case, where we often chose to start again on sequences of the show, we always had the structure of the cues, and we had as much or as little data from the cues as we chose to use,” notes Halliday. “Some might argue that it would be in manufacturers' interests to develop a common show file format to sit alongside the common connection standards of DMX and ACN.”
What happens when the LD isn't there at all? “Well,” answers Halliday, “hopefully he or she has sent in, or left behind, people who are connected with the show — who were there when it was created and known to the director — who he or she trusts to make changes in the style of the LD and the show's original lighting, rather than going off and trying to make the show their own thing.” In Halliday's opinion, that's why associates and programmers are often people who've worked with the LD for a long time and know his style. “Having been around from the beginning of the show is important because you understand why things are the way they are, rather than just that a particular cue is red,” he insists. “Les Mis is a good example. It's very easy to come to that show in a lighting session with an empty stage and go, ‘Ah, it's too dark,’ and start throwing more light at the stage. It's when the people appear later that you remember that Les Mis is about containment as much as lighting — about seeing the lead singer down-center but not seeing the 30 people setting themselves to enter upstage. A good associate will remember why things are as they are, even as they make changes to compensate for a different theatre or changes in blocking.”
On the recent relight on Poppins in London, Halliday's aim was to recreate the intent from New York, even when the precise look wasn't possible. “For example, the way we light the Perspex legs of the set is quite different in New York,” he explains. “We use Pulsar ChromaBattens, set up to give us 10-segment individual control along each leg; whereas in London, each stage-left/stage-right pair of legs is patched together. So in New York, when, for one moment, we create a Union Jack British flag look across the LED legs, we can't do that in London, but we can do a red/white/blue look in a different way.”
Halliday admits to a slight nervousness when making changes without the LD present. “What happens if they come in and hate what you've done?” he conjectures. “Well, if you've worked with them a lot, and you know in your gut that they'd hate what you were doing, you're probably doing the wrong thing!
“My worst nightmare,” he concludes, “is to have the console turn on and have nothing in it and then find all of the backup discs are blank. I'm quite careful to load the saved show into the offline editor regularly to make sure that the backups will load properly, if required. Second worst is to have a show from years ago make a comeback and not be able to find the disc for it. That hasn't happened…yet!”
Mather Knows Best
In October 1985, Les Misérables opened in London, where it has now become the West End's longest-running musical, moving from the Barbican Theatre to the Palace Theatre and on to Queen's Theatre. In March 1987, the American version opened at the Broadway Theatre — winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical — and ran until 2003. Designed by John Napier with lighting by David Hersey, Les Mis reopened in November 2006 for a limited engagement at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway.
Associate LD for Les Mis Ted Mather worked on the bus and truck tour of the musical in 1989 and then worked on the first national tour and bus and truck tours for a few years after that. “I came back for the 10th anniversary restaging in 1997 and have looked after it in the US since then,” he says.
The plot on Broadway this time around is quite different from the original in terms of equipment and control — “totally different,” confirms Mather. In fact, he points out that the revival plot is based on the UK production, with a lot of automated fixtures instead of PARs (which were plentiful in the original NY plot, along with a few color changers with a selection of four colors), the original single-color DHA Light Curtains, and PANI projectors. “We took the UK plot and filled it out a bit more for the changes we wanted to make in the staging. Most of the effects are now done with Vari-Lites, but we still use White Light VSFX cloud projectors, as well as beamlights, animation disks, and gobo rotators. They're still the best units for those kinds of things,” says Mather. The console is a Strand 550 as that's what was used in the UK. The lighting positions were mostly the same but jammed much tighter because the Broadhurst is a shallower theatre than its London counterpart.
The backbone for the relight was the UK disc. Mather made a cue synopsis that merged his notes from previous versions he had done with what Hersey had done in the UK. “We each have our way of remembering what a cue does, so I needed to keep my notes to recall each cue's purpose,” he says. “It was a bit of a kludge the first time through because I had re-channeled some things, and I had not worked on the UK version, which this plot was based on. We had new lights that Rob Halliday copied information into to get us started, and, of course, our set and theatre were different. It was a lot to sort out during a short dry tech!”
Mather found that co-director John Caird (sharing the credit with Trevor Nunn) wanted to experiment. “It was all up for grabs, and whole sequences went out the window as we tried new ideas,” he says. “John Caird was really liberating in pushing me to try different ideas and rethink certain scenes, just as he was doing. There was much talk of how and why scenes were staged originally, and if now, given the opportunity, we should do it differently.”
In the same way, producer Cameron Mackintosh strongly encouraged the design team to rethink as much as possible. “His brief was to think as if we were lighting it for the first time today and how we would do it,” explains Mather. “There were many looks that have become iconic, so we didn't want to abandon those, but we looked at how they were done technically in the past and tried to come up with the best way of doing them with current technology.
“Cameron was emphatic that the production be intimate and visceral and fresh,” Mather continues. “He let us try a lot of different things, but the measure was, once we were in previews, whether it helped or hindered each emotional moment. We did a lot of polishing — and grinding — during previews.”
In the end, the attitude was very similar during the 10th-anniversary restaging, where the lighting was “colorized” with the then-new DHA Digital Light Curtains and loads of scrollers. “We would try a new color or approach to a scene and think, ‘Can we do that? Is it legal in this world we've created or just different from what we are used to?’ You push, you pull back, and you get a comment or two from Cameron,” says Mather.
The look of the show is still based on Hersey's original lighting. “I tried to push the color palette to be a bit more saturated while working in the same hues, and I was able to get much more specific and detailed because of the VLs,” says Mather. “My concern was to not lose the poetry of the original lighting. It's so fluid and natural but totally manipulative. There's a great danger with movers to draw a lot of attention to the mechanics of what the light is doing, at which point you've upstaged those talking people on stage. If you pull the audience out of the time period, you've blown it.”
One of the challenges for Mather was that Hersey was busy in London lighting a production of Porgy and Bess and unable to come to NY during the relight. “We had a meeting in London with the entire team and talked through the whole show and what ideas John and Cameron had for changes,” Mather says. “I watched the show in London with David, and we talked about how we could adapt that version to accommodate all the potential restaging. A key part of that was getting a handful of new Vari-Lites so we could quickly try new ideas without untangling the existing cues. I did the New York plot but sent a steady stream of questions to David, Rachael McCutcheon — his associate in the UK — and Rob Halliday for their opinions.”
Mather also made up a handful of custom gobos, which he sent to Howe for input, and they had a few email exchanges during the tech rehearsals. The lighting team also included Mather's assistant, Mark T. Simpson; Amith Chandrashaker, who tracked moving lights; and Anne McMills, who did pre-production. “Rob Halliday did the preprogramming and hoped to join us but got stuck at Mary Poppins. Alan Boyd did all the programming in the theatre,” notes Mather. PRG provided the rental package.
“Half the battle in Les Mis is not lighting the 15 stagehands clearing furniture upstage while a scene is playing downstage,” Mather notes. “The Broadhurst is very shallow, so we had to rethink how to bury the light in many cases because the geometry of the theatre was not helpful.”
Mather finally admits he was a bit nervous just before tech started. “Cameron really wanted to reexamine everything — lighting, staging, orchestrations, costumes,” he says. “On one hand, you think, ‘Great, we're not bound by the past,’ and on the other hand, it won a Tony for Best Lighting, Best Musical, Best Director — it's been hugely successful. Why mess with it? But Cameron and John told us lots of stories of how it originally came together, things being added, thrown out, and changed. It broke down the mythological proportion of the show, so we really did get into the mindset of doing a new production. After a show has been around so long, you forget that it went through the same growing pains in its genesis as any show today does. I had the rush from lighting a new show mixed with ‘I'm dead if I screw this up.’”
Howe To Relight Woyzeck
Also based in London, LD David Howe was called upon to light the New York version of a recent production of Georg Büchner's play Woyzeck, which had premiered in London at the Gate Theatre and was subsequently invited to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. “In actual fact, I did not design the original show, but I had been invited by the director to see it,” explains Howe. “Therefore, I was extremely excited about working on the revised production for the much, much larger venue of St. Ann's. In London, the show was site-specific with no prospects of moving.” The Gate Theatre in London seats approximately 90 to 100 people maximum, and the stage is 18' wide by 27' deep. In contrast, St. Ann's is vast, with a large black-box playing area of approximately 60'×60' with seats for 300 in the configuration used for Woyzeck. The production was really able to expand into the new space.
The brief from director Daniel Kramer to set designer Neil Irish and Howe — as the new LD — was to make the production work in the new space. “The set design retained some elements of the London production but also needed to fill and really inhabit the New York City space,” says Howe. “We creatively felt our production should take over the theatre, and every inch of space should be used for the ‘World of Woyzeck,’ highlighting the space around the character and contrasting it with the tiny community of the play.”
Equipment-wise, Howe felt the production needed broad strokes of light to either fill the entire space with light and color or to tightly define a minute private moment. “I was able to use a great deal of low-angle cross-light — unavailable at the Gate Theatre — crossing the space from one side only, enabling the characters to be etched in with light, sometimes against an upstage 20m-wide colored cyclorama.” The equipment used was a mixture of ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, Source Four PARs, and a single Arri 4kW HMI Fresnel with DMX dowser colored with Lee 106, which blasted harsh color into the space, producing a wonderful single-source shadow.
“The director wanted to further develop the use of color, angularity, and the intensity of the focus of the lighting,” says Howe. “He is constantly evolving and recreating his work. This production is his own published adaptation of Woyzeck. He's very happy to be in technical rehearsals and enjoys the constant search to find new symbolism and meaning. Therefore, he is open to bringing new thoughts, looks, colors, and textures to the lighting and production.”
Having worked together on previous productions, Howe and Kramer have established their own form of color language. “So I know what type of colors and intensities excite his visual palette,” says Howe. “The lighting never wants to be pretty, but ‘clashing,’ ‘jarring,’ and ‘layered’ are words we often discuss. Intensity and angularity are so important.”
Since Howe was brought in to relight for a new space, there was never any intent to reproduce or reinterpret the original lighting. “We had to reinvent, move on, challenge, and explore,” he says, not hampered by the original lighting design. The lighting team included moving lights programmer Jason Boyd on a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog 2, while conventionals were programmed on an ETC Express by what Howe calls “a changing team of St. Ann's wonderfully supportive freelancers.” The Wholehog 2 triggered the Express console via MIDI.
Owen Hughes, the in-house production manager, produced bid documents for rental companies to add equipment to supplement house equipment. PRG supplied moving lights, plus extra dimming and conventional fixtures.