Moving quickly from interiors to exteriors, from slave quarters to Southern mansions, the action in Dessa Rose called for seamless lighting to easily identify the different locations and transitions from scene to scene. A new musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (composer and lyricist from the award-winning musical Ragtime), Dessa Rose premiered at Lincoln Center Theatre in March, directed by Graziela Daniele. The sets are by Loy Arcenas, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, and lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (a design team that has won 10 Tony Awards).
The musical is based on a novel by Sherley Anne Williams and weaves an imaginary story of two historical people: Dessa, a 16-year-old slave girl (LaChanze) sentenced to death for killing white people in a slave rebellion, and Ruth (Rachel York), a Southern belle abandoned on her husband's farm. The two women, each with a newborn baby, eventually come to understand each other, and Ruth finally helps Dessa and her friends (other runaways) head out West.
Arcenas used a minimum of furniture and props to tell the story, effectively using the stage of the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre to create an environment with slatted wooden fencing, horizontal for the walls and vertical as it moves into the sky above. Pebbles run around the edge of the stage to indicate a river. Showman Fabricators built the scenery.
“In this theatre, where you look down at the stage, the eye is often stopped at the point where the floor meets the back wall,” notes Eisenhauer. “Loy smoothed that out so the eye doesn't stop.” By doing so, he also created a perfect canvas for the lighting. “In an abstract way, the set climbs out of the restrictions of that theatre. The quality, color, and texture of the wood are perfect for the skin tones, and the wood is a surface that light can graze across. This is very subtle work on the set designer's part,” Eisenhauer adds.
The set is abstract enough to allow the audience to buy into the quick changes of locale. “It never prevents you from believing,” says Fisher. “The deck is dark enough to absorb enough light to see the actors' faces. It is better than a bright floor in an amphitheatre like this, where you have to light from three sides, and light piles up on the floor.”
To create light with the quality of both indoors and outdoors, the designers used VARI*LITE VL1000™ automated luminaires as the workhorses of their rig. Two dozen VL1000s are hung on three concentric circular pipes that cover the stage and part of the audience (color correction — 1/4 CTO — was added to the VL1000s over the audience). “The pipes are part of the house rig, and we continued them to complete the geometry of the circle on the upstage side,” says Eisenhauer, who explains that the lighting for Dessa Rose was based on the universal quality of nature and the atmosphere above the earth. The automated fixtures gave the designers the flexibility they needed for the rapid scene changes, rather than using 400 to 500 conventional units.
“The set is asymmetrical, yet the moving lights deliver the symmetrical quality of the sky and light from above, as if in nature, as well as special ideas to communicate different locales,” Eisenhauer adds. “This was a bold choice, a stripped-down rig, yet this is a small venue, and only one or two lights did the job in a given cue.”
There are also a small number of conventional fixtures, including ETC Source Fours® with Wybron color scrollers for backlight and striplights behind the wooden wall (up for the sky and down to shine through the back of the slats). “It was like a puzzle,” says Fisher. “We had to think forward and backward to work out how many lights we could use per cue, since the overall number is so limited.” PRG Lighting provided the lighting equipment.
Eisenhauer points out that, during the design process, certain important decisions influenced the look of the lighting. “We made a very specific choice to make it rustic but not gimmicky. The lighting is simple and flowing,” she says. “This is not about lots of strange shadows or colors. We tried to take away all traces of showbiz. There are no gags. We wanted to make it a believable piece.”
To determine the color palette, the designers did a color test with the two lead actresses side by side. “We had to understand what kind of tones LaChanze (a dark-skinned woman in a pale blouse) and Rachel (a fair-skinned blond) would look good in,” says Eisenhauer. “It was like a lab situation where we could blend colors in.” The rustic look on the set was designed to stay within the tones of the sun and the moon, as well as the incandescent quality of stars. “We used blue, yellow, and amber,” Eisenhauer notes. “But nothing modern — no red, no pink, no purple to speak of. The colors are not too fruity and are not laced with eye-pleasing tones.”
The subject matter of Dessa Rose is somewhat more educational than entertaining, but the underlying message of the musical resonates with universality. Fisher and Eisenhauer added their own sense of universality with a lighting design that soars above the heads of the actors into the big sky above. “We tried to extend the vision of the world on stage and light past the edges,” Eisenhauer says. “This gives it a universal quality.”