The buzz on Broadway this season is a hip musical called Passing Strange. It all began in Berkeley, CA with a mid-40s African American rock ‘n’ roll musician who goes by the single name of Stew. After a series of readings and workshops, Stew's first musical — the story of a young black musician's journey from adolescence to manhood — was produced by The Berkeley Repertory Theatre and The Public Theatre, garnering accolades along the way to Broadway, where it has settled into the Belasco Theatre, starring none other than Stew himself. But the crown jewel of the show, from a design standpoint, is an incredible wall of light designed by Tony Award-winning lighting designer Kevin Adams in collaboration with set designer David Korins; costumes are by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, and sound is by Tom Morse.
“We knew it was a co-production that would be going to New York,” says Adams about the Berkeley version, adding that Oscar Eustis, artistic director at the Public Theatre, kept saying, “This is going to Broadway.” And indeed it did. “I designed the original version for the Anspacher Theatre at The Public and conceived the wall while in tech for Spring Awakening at The Atlantic,” Adams explains. The wall is, in fact, the major scenic element, hidden at first behind a white curtain that runs across upstage. Other than a few chairs and tables, as well as three small band pits that raise and lower in relation to the height of the stage, there are no other large set pieces.
“I liked the juxtaposition of the 19th-century hall at The Public with the light sculpture,” says Adams, who attributes some of his inspiration for the wall to lighting he discovered while watching a DVD of Liza With A Z. “There was a light construction upstage that was concealed, then revealed, then concealed again. I said, ‘Now, that's interesting.’ When they asked me to light Passing Strange, I read it and thought its structure was perfect for a wall of light to help indicate the movement from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Berlin and back to LA. The wall also follows an A-B-A structure: conceal, reveal, and conceal.”
In the small space at The Public, where the audience surrounds three sides of the stage, Adams liked the way the wall illuminated part of the audience in addition to the stage. “It wasn't just a sculpture,” he says. On Broadway, the wall is bigger (42' wide × 22' high) and seen straight on by the almost the entire audience. While the actual configuration of the items on the wall fell to Korins, it was Adams who handpicked each item and laid in the color. “I had come across fluorescent light bulbs that are new and energy-efficient but were not right for Spring Awakening. I was dreaming of using them for something,” he notes.
The colorful array of lamps on the wall ranges from 8' fluorescent tubes to compact fluorescent lamps, some glass neon and a lot of LED flex neon. Originally, inside the wall were three colors of MR16 lamps — orange, red, and blue — behind holes that let them shine through and “pointed at the audience, like small blinders,” says Adams, who adds that the wall itself is made of thin plywood and covered with fabric. “The sound designer wanted it baffled.”
When the show moved to Broadway, one-third of the MR16 lamps were replaced with Pulsar ChromaHeart Tricolor MR16 modules with DMX control. “They use the new single-cell LED for combining color. There are 30 of those with control boxes,” Adams says. “Steven Katz at Lumescent LLC took a lot of time to show me this new product, and we did a lot of testing of it at his offices.”
Korins also came up with the idea for the wall to split and reveal another surface with all white fluorescents and gold neon, to differentiate the Berlin section from the multi-colored palette of the Amsterdam scenes, which Adams describes as “grounded in warmer tones, with reds, yellows, and ambers,” while Berlin is “cool white fluorescent light.” The wall — built by Hudson Scenic using some of the lighting items from the original wall — is first revealed as the scene shifts from LA to Amsterdam. “The wall from Berkeley went to The Public, and then it was taken apart and rebuilt for Broadway,” he notes.
Adams points out that all the lamps on the wall “use a surprisingly small amount of power.” He also notes that the color in the wall never needs to be changed and produces very little heat. This is an important issue, as the actors are very close to the wall at times. “They can touch the lamps,” Adams confirms. “Someone said the wall looks like Mark Rothko meets Japanese pop,” Adams adds. “He was right on. There are odd monochromatic acidy colors — very unusual, very sharp, very lurid.”
The upstage white curtain is also lit rather softly at first. “The show develops from this low-tech beginning,” says Adams. “The color becomes more muscular as the LA section develops, almost like a drug trip with LEDs shifting color behind the curtain. There are four 8'-long ministrips by L&E on one side that skim across the creases on the fabric in various colors to add depth to the space. Then, things start to pop on and off, and the cueing becomes more abrupt.” Adams likens this lighting to the work of late artist Jeremy Blake, who did digital animation in the vein of 50s abstract paintings. “I feel the LA section is like his work,” notes Adams, who also refers to light artist Dan Flavin as a “huge influence” on his work as well.
“I trained to be a set designer at Cal Arts,” says Adams, who admits to never taking a class in lighting design. But once he started seeing the work of artists like Flavin, he was hooked. “I then started lighting my own sets,” he recalls. “Then, I became a self-taught lighting designer.” He refers to his work on Spring Awakening (for which he won a Tony), Next To Nowhere, and Passing Strange as a “trilogy of contemporary pop-rock light bulb musicals,” stating that, in the 90s, he used incandescent light bulbs every possible way he could imagine. “I like the new compact fluorescents now,” he says. “The colors are remarkable, and they don't dim. The just pop on and off, and I work with cueing them for the pop-rock shows and try to keep developing the arrangement of how they frame the space or are seen as sculptural objects.”
In addition to the wall of light, Adams opted for a rig — provided by PRG Lighting — that he describes as “low-tech and tungsten.” The fixtures include six Vari-Lite VL1000s and two ETC Source Four ellipsoidals used as followspots. “I like the way I can control the tungsten light and get a really warm glow in a human scale on the actors,” he says. “Passing Strange doesn't look like other Broadway shows. It is unexpected, with all that tungsten light,” Adams adds. “I didn't want it to look like an MTV awards show. That's not who I am. And we couldn't begin to afford the cost of going down that path.”
An additional 250 ETC Source Fours — a combination of ellipsoidals and PARs — are also in the rig, 15 with Wybron Coloram scrollers and an additional 10 with Wybron CXI scrollers. Fourteen ARRI 2kW Fresnels are used as toplight and center backlight. “There is also more frontlight on Broadway than off,” Adams points out. “Most of the side and frontlight are variants of white light to pop the people from the bright, colorful wall.” Color filters range from Roscolux R302 and Lee 203 to R51. As the action moves from one location to another, the LD introduced his palette shifts. “Berlin is more Lee 203 and no color,” he says.
The lighting in Passing Strange shifts in timbre as well, with some of the songs lit as if in an isolated concert space, with tight pools of rock ‘n’ roll style lighting and haze provided by an MDG Atmosphere hazer, and it then goes back to a more natural look for the realistic scenes. The lighting for the band adds another layer to the palette, as well. “The musicians each have a white PAR spot and Source Four with a Coloram scroller above their heads, with all kinds of saturated colors I don't normally use, such as unusual yellows, oranges, and electric pinks,” says Adams. At the end of the show, 30 GAM Star Strobes pop on out in the house for an explosion of light during the curtain call. “The lighting adds to the excitement of the show,” says Adams. “It doles out its strength when it needs it.”
If the songs in Stew's rock musical have made the audience sit up and listen, Adam's lighting has certainly made Broadway sit up and look.
PASSING STRANGE LIGHTING STAFF
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Assistant lighting designer: Aaron Sporer
Production electrician: Steve Cochrane
Head electrician: Susan Goulet
Programmer: Rich Mortel
Followspot operators: Erika Warmbrunn and Greg Husinko
Head electrician at Berkeley Rep: Fred Geffken
SELECTED LIGHTING EQUIPMENT
1 ETC Obsession II Console
5 ETC Sensor 96x2.4kW Touring Dimmer Racks
6 Vari-Lite VL1000 Tungsten Iris
30 Pulsar ChromaMR16 Heart Tricolor LED Module
2 ETC Source Four 5° Ellipsoidal 750W (Followspot)
45 ETC Source Four 10° Ellipsoidal 575W
30 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal 575W
155 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 575W
5 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 750W
5 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal 575W
20 ETC Source Four PAR VNSP 575W
45 ETC Source Four PAR NSP 575W
10 ETC Source Four PAR NSP 750W
25 ETC Source Four PAR MFL 575W
15 ARRI 2kW Compact Fresnel
8 PAR64 ACL
4 L&E 8' MR16 4-Circuit Ministrip EYC
4 L&E 6' MR16 3-Circuit Ministrip EYF
60 MR16 Birdies Wide
8 Wybron 4" Coloram II Scrollers
10 Wybron 7.5" Coloram II Scrollers
12 Wybron 7.5" CXI Scroller
6 GAM Twin Spin Pattern Rotators
30 GAM Star Strobes
2 Large Red Police Beacons
1 MDG Atmosphere Hazer