Monday, March 23, 2009

All My Love - Production Roundup

I just opened my latest play for which I served as Lighting Designer. It is called All My Love and was produced by my longtime friend Tony Fiorentino with his company Diamante Productions in Chicago. The show is running at the Theatre Building Chicago (TBC) through May 10th, 2009. (Get your tickets now!)

Synopsis: "When a middle-aged divorcĂ©e decides to explore the world of polyamory, she must temper the jealous passions of her lover, while her teenage daughters search for the meaning of love through the prism of their mother’s unorthodox practice of relationships. “All My Love” is an exploration of alternative “lovestyles” and a critique of Western society’s most cherished notions of love, monogamy, and marriage. "

All My Love Reviews: The show has been getting positive reviews and even received a Jeff Recommendation!
List of reviews:
Timeout Chicago
Chicago Reader

Technical challenges:
As a lighting designer, one of the biggest joys I get out of doing this work is overcoming a challenge in an interesting and beautiful way. This play had a few of those that all came together to make a really pretty picture.

1. Using a CYC: The play was written to be set in a house that required multiple rooms; living, dining kitchen, 2 bedrooms, etc... Due to cost/space/time requirements, the idea of having multiple rooms onstage was thrown out. Though creative direction, we were able to condense down to just a living room and a bedroom. The set designer nixed 95% of the "walls" that you might normally have on an interior set in favor of 3 different height platforms and an upstage CYC (cyclorama). You don't see CYCs used much in smaller theatre because most small theatres don't have them available, don't have space for them and they are typically cost prohibitive to rent. In addition, if you use a CYC, you usually need to do some kind of CYC lighting. That requires even further expense to rent in strip lights, special wide throw CYC lights, or newer LED wash units - again prohibited by cost. And to do it right, simply throwing up a CYC is not always the only task involved.

For All My Love we were able to use a CYC donated to TBC from a previous resident company. TBC also had some strip lights that were old, but served our purpose enough that we decided to use them. The availability of these 2 items at very low cost enabled the use of the CYC for the this set. The existence of the CYC allowed me to use varying color of light to help suggest time of day and also to serve as a bright backdrop during certain transitions between scenes, which were always illuminated in some way.

2. Transitions: Speaking of transitions, this was another technical challenge to the lighting design. The director wanted to never go to complete dark during any of the scene-to-scene transitions, only going dark at the end of the acts. Having 3 colors available to mix on the CYC helped provide something interesting to look at during the transitions, as did heavy use of backlight, which darkens faces. This show used a lot of cross-fades with varying timing; good thing TBC is well equipped with their ETC boards.

3. Televisions on stage: Playwrights will always find something to write into their script which is just about impossible to achieve technically on stage. Dealing with a television on stage has been one of the greatest challenges of my career in lighting design, I have encountered the task at least twice prior to this show with varying results. Obviously, the best way to achieve a television effect would be to put an actual television on stage. This is not always desirable, as a television large enough to cast a high output of light is, in most cases, either too large to actually have on stage or cost prohibitive (50" plasma anyone?). In a small space you could scale down and use a smaller television, but you still need to deal with content on the television itself. This can usually be achieved by setting up actor/tech triggered content from a VCR or other digital output device, but if an audience can see what is on the TV, then the content has to be exactly appropriate for the script, which would involve extra cost for production or research.

Since the set for All My Love was not very realistic, we decided that the television effect could be accomplished by something other than a television. On a previous show I attempted to construct a "flicker box" that would randomly flicker a light and then point that light at the stage. I didn't have the budget to buy a real flicker generating device and the one I ended up making never worked right. We had to ditch it at the last moment in favor of a manually flickered submaster. For this show I decided that I wanted to use an LCD projector to project actual television images on stage. Different options were debated (projecting on the CYC, projecting on the floor, etc...) and eventually we decided to point the projector right at the couch in the living room on stage. Depending on the level of ambient light, you would be able to see the content on he actors faces, the furniture, the floor, etc... The content was pulled mostly from Youtube (thanks to VDownloader) and fed from a laptop in the booth via a simple powerpoint presentation. The lens was thrown out of focus as the actual images were not as important as the "look" of television. We ended up with 3 different scenes using the projector effect, including a pivotal scene in the play, and it actually looks really good!

4. Projector light when you don't need it: While the projector idea was a lifesaver for this element of the show, it triggered another problem. Even projecting a totally black slide, there is still light clearly visible onstage during some of the darker transitions and the blackouts. So I had to come up with a way to block this light when we didn't want it, and allow the light to shine when we did. High end shuttering devices exist for this purpose, and super high end projectors have them built in, but this is a low budget show of course. We had a remote control, but the "eye" of the projector was facing the stage, not the booth. Besides, turning the projector on and off during the show might be distracting to the audience that is sitting only 10' below. The better idea was some kind of simple shutter that would block the light during the non projection scenes. During an early production meeting the set designer suggested "just use black wrap!" I was thinking something more complex, such as a model airplane servo or something, but black wrap would be simple and cheap. I ended up using a heavy duty gate hinge, a piece of wire from a coat hanger, some black wrap, and some gaffer tape to make a nice little swinging flap that would totally obscure the light from the lens of the projector. I mounted the hinge to the bottom of the projector mount (a square piece of 3/4" OSB), attached a long piece of black tie-line to the top of the flap, and ran the line back to the booth through two little pulleys. I had to add a little bit of weight to the string above the flap to ensure that it would fall down and out of the way of the lens as the length of the string had enough weight to counterbalance the flap itself. This totally worked and is pretty silent. I never heard it once while watching previews, though I did glance up to see if it was open yet prior to a cue and noticed it slowly lowering :) The other advantage to allowing gravity to lower the flap is that if there is ever a problem with the flap, it will probably be stuck "open" instead of "closed" and allow the projector to do it's job at the minimal expense of casting some unwanted light on stage.

Last week was a long week. At by the time I went home on Monday evening, I had no idea how we were going to get everything done prior to opening. By that time, I hadn't focused anything, and had basically placeholder cues setup. But by Friday evening's performance I had worked out just about all the bugs, at least all the lighting bugs. I had a few notes on Saturday, and a few cue modifications for Sunday, but otherwise everything was perfect by opening.

Here's to hoping I had something to do with Jeff's nod!