Penn State offers unique degree programs in Theatre Design and Technology and a yearly roster of shows that would pump up the resumé of any young stage professional. For the program’s season opener this academic year, students got to sink their teeth into the boisterous musical Bat Boy, an aspiring cult classic that calls for ambitious production design.
William Kenyon, lighting design advisor and head of Penn State’s BFA Program in Theatre Design and Technology, anticipated that his design students would need a control console engineered to handle more than just a conventional-fixtures light plot. “Bat Boy is a show that really asks for a rock and roll lighting treatment and moving light effects," Kenyon says. "Student designers also need to get experience working with a lighting board that does that sort of control. With the increased convergence of lighting and video, lighting designers will have to know about programming intelligent lighting and media servers to be viable candidates in the job market.” Kenyon turned to ETC to put their latest console innovation – the new Congo board -- to the task.
Since Bat Boy was the first show in Penn State’s fall line-up--running for ten performances from September 28-October 9--Kenyon’s student crew had a good chunk of lead time to acquaint themselves with the console’s operational syntax and functionality. They quickly adapted and found that many processes were now easier. Kenyon had also wanted to see how the console would work moving between intelligent fixtures -- when multiple brands had to be addressed. “The way that Congo interacts with moving lights is far easier than with conventional theatrical consoles," he says. "Rather than painstakingly assigning channels to all of the discrete parameters on your intelligent fixtures -- in a channel-chomping ‘horizontal’ manner, Congo assigns the device itself, doing all of the DMX addressing in multiple ‘vertical’ channel stacks, in the manner of a dedicated moving-light console. At the same time, Congo transcends being a hybrid console (a moving light console that can do conventionals as well), by being at its core both a theatrical console and a multimedia system.”
Penn State used a mixed rig of automated and fixed focus fixtures on Bat Boy: Three Vari*Lite VL-1000’s were deployed, with two on the downstage truss and one upstage center. Two ETC Source Four Revolutions® handled effects from the front-of-house towers. Ten Wybron CXI color scrollers attached to fixed-focus Source Fours were used on low booms stage left and right.
The Congo console and intelligent fixtures were put to work on numerous dynamic lighting scenes. In this story about differences (the Bat Boy vs. ‘normal people’), light contrasts become a primary symbol. Kenyon explains, “You have the collision of two different worlds in this play – the cave-like, almost fantastical world of the Bat Boy, from which he emerges, and the ‘real’ world –the interiors and exteriors of a coal-mining town (a house, slaughterhouse, town hall, and a revival). The lightplot must be sophisticated enough to serve those worlds.”
Lighting cues also were critical in delineating character in the play: the veterinarian Dr. Parker is bathed in an eerie green light at key moments when his potential for evil and subversion threatens to erupt. Complex temporal layers of the narrative were also indicated by specials. At the climactic moment of revelation towards the end of the show, a set of scenes are played out simultaneously--a flashback to Bat Boy’s/Edgar’s parents as a young couple is indicated by a kissing pair bathed in purple light, while the older couple is spotlit, down stage. “This kind of dynamic show requires a board like Congo that is fast enough to keep up with all the changes happening at any given time left, right and center, at a rock-and-roll pace,” says Kenyon. “Congo made it possible for us to do multiple cue stacks running on multiple faders simultaneously, so that while one set of cues was bringing up and controlling a moving light as a followspot, another set of cues was presetting the rest of the movers, readying them for their next scene – dialing in the right color and gobo while the lamp was off. We would have had to engage in a much more simplistic representation of the lighting ideas to accomplish all this on a conventional theatrical console, which wouldn’t have had the ability to preset things so quickly and allow so many multiple cues to be run simultaneously.”
Kenyon was especially pleased with an invaluable function on Congo called “Freeze,” which goes well beyond the usual submaster for blackout. “When you switch to ‘Freeze’,” explains Kenyon, “it freezes and maintains the output in that moment of time for every single DMX channel out of every universe that is being output, and maintains that state -- with no change on stage -- no matter what’s happening on the console. Among other things, this solves the problem of having to go to blackout with people on stage, specifically during tech rehearsals, which I never like to do. On other consoles I could write a blackout in blind as a workaround, but you always have to be concerned that bad stuff may track through. We used Freeze in so many situations. That one extra feature allowed the designer to continue to work efficiently throughout the rehearsal process without interrupting what was going on stage. It also saved us during a moment in the second dress rehearsal when a temporary board op inadvertently selected the wrong cue stack. Back in the house, our student lighting designer Jessica Fabo instantly recognized what was going on, went back during the performance, clicked Freeze, loaded the right cue stack, and then unfroze the console and went to the right cue in the right stack – recovering beautifully. This is a very cool feature that I’ve never seen on any console before.”