Low-tech solutions for a musical revue at Theatre Memphis
In an age when automated lighting fixtures, kinetic scenery, and high-tech projection gear are almost ubiquitous, it is refreshing to run across a simple, old-school series of solutions that yield an interesting design. This was the case at Theatre Memphis, where Hot 'N Cole: A Cole Porter Celebration! ran in the 400-seat proscenium mainstage in February. Directed by Bennett Wood, with sets by Christopher McCollum, lighting by Ken Friedhoff, costumes by Andre Bruce Ward, and sound by Steven Gary, Hot 'N Cole featured one unit, set with different looks created through variations in the lighting.
“The original version of Hot 'N Cole was done in the ‘80s,” explains McCollum, who designs almost all the shows at Theatre Memphis as the resident set designer. “The script tells you that they want a modern approach, and the director wanted to keep that concept. He didn't want it to be a period piece.” McCollum created the unit set with a look that he refers to as “retro ‘60s, hip and swinging. The main element is a white wood screen reminiscent of Palm Springs or Las Vegas architecture,” he says. The set sat on the orchestra pit lift, used as a thrust stage, with two pianos and a cast of six performers — three men and three women who made exits and entrances from behind the screen.
To add visual interest, McCollum layered various elements on the set: A drop made of cream-colored ribbons sat 6' upstage of the wooden white screen, which featured cutout squares in a repeating pattern. “We used floral ribbon that was very inexpensive,” he notes. Behind the ribbon drop was a black scrim, then a muslin cyc in a neutral blue, with striplights at the top and bottom. For a simple star drop, the designers created a “spider web” of Christmas lights hung on a batten in front of the cyc and behind the scrim, “so the audience couldn't see the lights as they flew in,” says McCollum. “This kind of star drop is very low-tech. I learned how to do it from lighting designer Dennis Parichy in the ‘80s Off Broadway.”
For the preset, a life-sized cutout of Cole Porter stood on stage. “Thee performers address him as they provide a little background biographical information,” says McCollum, who also created a Cole Porter set piece to fly in for the finale. “It's one of those wonderful 20-second moments in the theatre,” he says. “They are singing ‘You're The Top,’ and the set piece flies in to celebrate Porter as the composer of all the songs the audience has heard.” This round element made of wood, metal, and mirrors encircled a black-and-white cutout of Cole Porter, looking as if he stepped out of a period movie, surrounded by starbursts with a combination of small frosted and clear light bulbs at the tips. “There were two channels that chased,” says McCollum.
The stage also featured a platform for the pianos and two low sets of stairs — all painted a deep, retro red — with warm espresso wooden slats behind the stairs and on the tops of the platforms. “The stairs had an open construction for a modern look,” says McCollum, who adds that the red columns on the set were also crafted of wood but were meant to look metal. “The floor was made up of squares in a beige motif,” he adds. “The neutral tone took any color light that was put on it.”
This neutral and white set concept gave LD Friedhoff an open canvas. “The set had a lot of layers of texture, with the screen and the ribbons,” says Friedhoff, a graduate student in lighting design at the University of Memphis, who marked his second show as a freelance designer at Theatre Memphis with Hot 'N Cole. “The white wood screen acted like a cyc, which I lit with gobos and color scrollers,” he adds. The rig consisted of a mix of 130 instruments including ETC Source Four ellipsoidals and PARs, plus Altman ellipsoidals, many fitted with Wybron Forerunner scrollers. “There are no moving lights,” confirms Friedhoff, who only used fixtures from the in-house inventory. “There is not much of a budget for rentals — just about $300 for expendables.”
For his color palette, Friedhoff stayed with cool steel grays and blues for what he calls “a nice, crisp atmosphere,” punctuated with strong colors such as red, blue, and amber. “There are strong red and amber looks in the lighting since the set had a strong red element, and I wanted to stay in that world,” he notes. “The colors in the scrollers are manufactured by Apollo.” He used the stock color scrolls to avoid further cost.
“Each song had a different look with a solid color from the top for a toning effect and a gobo layer to pop out on top of that,” says Friedhoff, who worked with the tempos of the songs for color shifts to help set the mood. He programmed the show on an ETC Express console, while the stage manager ran the board during the run-of-show. Solid color washes behind the white cutout screen came from Altman R40 borderlights as a ground row — in a three-color system of red, blue, and clear — plus Altman Sky Cycs above with red, blue, and green.
“I used a frontlight system in zones of R54 [Roscolux 54 Special Lavender] and L201 [Lee Full CT Blue] to help pick out the performers' faces,” Friedhoff says, referring to the theory of Stanley McCandless: “The angle of the frontlight was placed 45° to either side of the focus point, one warm and the other cool. This creates definition on the actor's face. I always use an abundance of high angle and low angle sidelight to sculpt the human form. This is one of my favorite tools as a lighting designer. I also pay special attention to composition and the overall stage picture, allowing the light to direct the eyes of the audience.”
In this production, Friedhoff used R18 [Flame] and R78 [Trudy Blue] in the low-angle sidelight booms and added break-up patterns from Source Four ellipsoidals overhead to add interest to the floor. “The multiple layers on the set were very helpful,” he adds. “I was able to create layers of depth with the lighting and add variety,” he says.
The design for this production of Hot 'N Cole is low-tech yet effective, in an instance where necessity is the mother of simplicity. As McCollum sums it up, “So many of us in the trenches just can't afford high-tech options.”