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Lighting Unconventional Stages

Posted on March 30, 2016

“All the world is a stage!” How right Shakespeare was when he penned these words. From warehouses to abandoned railroad depots — not to mention former courthouses, churches and barns — dramatic productions are being performed at a host of sites that were never intended to serve as theaters in the traditional sense of the term. This has created a new set of challenges and creative opportunities for lighting designers working at these unconventional venues.

Mike Inwood is one LD who relishes this challenge. This was readily apparent to anyone who saw his work last year on Andy: A Popera, a cabaret style celebration of the life of Andy Warhol, which was performed in a warehouse on Philadelphia’s North American Street. The Canadian-born designer added impact to the performances on stage by playing off the unique architectural elements of his warehouse setting.

Not surprisingly, Inwood relied on an unconventional mix of fixtures to accomplish this goal. In addition to the expected stage ellipsoidal fixtures, his theatrical rig had a healthy representation of Rogue moving spots and washes. We caught up with the LD to talk about lighting theatrical productions that take place outside a typical theater.

Lighting Unconventional Stages

In Andy: A Popera you designed for a production that took place in a raw found place rather than on a typical theatrical stage. Does it influence the way you design when the theatrical production you’re designing for is not at a conventional venue?
“Absolutely — Whenever I’ve designed a show in a found space, I’ve been strongly influenced by the character of the building. Real places hold a lot of history, whether it’s an open field, and old library or a disused power plant (all places I’ve done shows in). In this case, the I-beams and exposed structure of the warehouse played really well into the aesthetics of Warhol’s “Factory” studio spaces, so I wanted to utilize that as much as I could to reflect that in the design.”

How does this affect the type of fixtures you select? Are you more prone to choose fixtures like the Rogue R1 Spot than an ellipsoidal?
“Since the performance environment is much more open and malleable, performers often were appearing in unlikely parts of the space. For example, in Andy: A Popera, we had one sequence where Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe silkscreens come to life, so there were Marilyn’s all over the place: in the house, on top of a forklift, and all over the stage proper. In this case, having moving fixtures as part of the design was extremely helpful. In found spaces, power consumption is often a major factor as well, so LED fixtures like the Rogue R1 that consume much less power than a conventional fixture make a sensible choice.”

When you have unusual props as you did with Andy: A Popera do you want to accent them with light?
“Being able to showcase our Props Designer Alice Yorke’s incredible work was both necessary to clarifying the plot and a pleasure to do. We had an entire kitchen made of cardboard scenery and props where Andy’s mother, Julia, existed on the set: everything from the cupboards to the kitchen utensils appeared to be cardboard. It provided an interesting challenge to find the right angles to pull out the props that were all in a similar color and textural palette. They also neutralized very interestingly when video content by our designer Jorge Cosineau was projected from the front, so it was fun to play with flatness and dimensionality at different times.”

Lighting Unconventional Stages

An important concern in traditional theatrical settings is key lighting the actors. How is this concern different if you’re lighting a production in an unconventional stage?
“Selective visibility is one of the most important aspects of a design like Andy: A Popera where there is a large ensemble and many principal performers. Using a combination of follow spots in keeping with the cabaret aesthetic of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret (the writers of the piece), as well as the Rogue R1 and R2 fixtures in my rig, I was able to highlight soloists in moments that helped to clarify storytelling and accent the stage pictures arranged by our director, John Jarboe.”

So are you less likely to use ellipsoidal fixtures in an unconventional setting?
“I find it is nearly always preferable to lay in at least a few basic systems of conventional lighting as part of my designs. A lot of this has to do with budget: often a production could not afford a rig consisting entirely of moving lights. For me, it’s also that having static systems of light means I know I can always illuminate the space in a broad sense for basic visibility should it become necessary to build on the main thrust of the look I develop for each scene with specials or movers.”

Moving fixtures are more commonly associated with entertainment rather that theatrical lighting. Do you have any advice on using moving fixtures like these in a theatrical setting?
“The Rogues are actually quite versatile, and work well in a theatrical setting where motion and strong color are major elements. The Rogue R2 Washes were particularly impressive in their ability to provide soft wash lighting that was able to match conventional color temperatures as well as bright saturated colors. This allowed me to use them as area lighting, specials, and units that could create interesting visual effects. Another thing the Rogues have going for them is their very low fan noise. This attribute is very valued in theatrical setting, since noise is a common challenge when using moving lights in musicals or opera.”

Oona Curley 2

Is backlighting more important when you’re lighting a production in an unconventional setting?
“Not per se. I tend to think backlighting is important to help differentiate a performer from the scenery in just about any situation. Using backlighting as a key source also has various (usually powerful) emotional implications that are useful in more dramatic moments.”

What is the biggest difference between lighting a production in a conventional stage vs. unconventional setting?
“I think the main difference is the acknowledgement of the setting itself. In a more traditional theatre, scenic elements like legs and borders serve to mask the structure of the performance space, to render that space invisible. In most site-specific pieces I have done, you showcase the place you’re in, rather than try to hide or neutralize it.”

Are there special issues in power draw when you work in unconventional theatrical settings?
“Certainly. Power is a major concern, especially when budgets are tight. Being able to use equipment that maximizes the power available is a huge advantage. The Rogue R1 and R2 units used a fraction of the power of a conventional unit, and thus were really helpful in being able to get a lot of bang for our electrical buck.”

What advice would you give a designer with a background in conventional stage lighting who is working in an unconventional setting for the first time?
“Find the eccentricities of the space and feature them. Exploit them. See that strange door in the corner, or weird nook in the space? Maybe you can convince the director to have an actor enter or exit through it, and then light it to create a significant moment. Those unique structural elements in a space might really add something to the piece when they’re lit in the right way.”