Time and Memory

by Michael S. Eddy
in Feature

Ben Stanton used color sparingly, creating a colorful world mainly with the children in the show.
Ben Stanton used color sparingly, creating a colorful world mainly with the children in the show.

LD Ben Stanton Talks About Lighting Fun Home on Broadway

The Tony Award winner for Best Musical last season, Fun Home, based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic memoir, introduces us to Alison at three different ages and delves into memories of her dysfunctional family—especially her father—and her coming to terms with the past as she sets out to write a book about her life. Such a story to be told theatrically required a thoughtful design to capture the passage of time, the evoking of memories, and the graphic novel style. Fun Home, currently playing at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, has set and costume designs from David Zinn, sound design by Kai Harada, and lighting design by Ben Stanton. Stage Directions spoke with Stanton on lighting a show based on memory, the challenges of lighting in the round, and how LED ellipsoidals made him “flip” his design approach.

In the Circle

Along with the design challenges of the script, the show itself is staged in the round. Stanton explains the creative team’s initial trepidation about dealing with the myriad challenges that arrangement presents. “The most obvious challenge was just the fact that we staged the show in the round,” states the designer. “There’s a technical challenge of making sure that everyone can be seen and heard, and we all know it’s harder to hear people if you can’t see their faces. We were really cautious, quite frankly nervous, going into it. We were worried about focus; about making sure that people knew where to look.”

“Comic Panel” gobos and spotlights help highlight actors on the stage and focus attention.
“Comic Panel” gobos and spotlights help highlight actors on the stage and focus attention.

Fun Home is structured as a memory piece and as Alison appears at three different ages moving back and forth in time throughout the show, the creative team needed an easy way to indicate these different times and places. “We had to challenge ourselves to articulate the difference,” he notes. “Between modern day Alison and her memories; which were often both on stage at the same time. We had to find ways to keep her separate from, but connected to the memory. We needed to make sure the audience always understood where to look, while maintaining a connection between the characters on stage, plus it’s a really intimate space. Often times there’s not a lot of distance between Alison and whatever the scene is that she’s talking about; remembering; experiencing.” 

One lighting tool that Stanton relied heavily upon was the followspot. When working in the round, followspots aren’t usually one of your go-to light sources, but in this case, Stanton had two at his disposal. “One of the things I was very grateful for was that the producers agreed to let me use two followspots,” laughs Stanton. “At first there was an assumption that we wouldn’t have any followspots because when you stage in the round there’s a conventional wisdom that unless you have three or four followspots, they wouldn’t really be effective. We found it actually was very effective to have two followspots; one on each long end of the oval. They work in almost every scene in the show. This is probably one of the hardest followspot jobs in the city.” 

The followspots allowed the creative team to create a scene in part of the space with moving lights and conventionals—but then Alison, as the narrator, could be highlighted as she moved through the memories that she is experiencing. Stanton explains, “I was able to make a case for these followspots being able to keep her alive but not in the scene; sort of floating. This was as opposed to the scenes which were all much more grounded in whatever the reality is at that time. That was one way we were able to accentuate the memory aspect of the story telling. We rarely exist in the entire space; it’s really a progression of vignettes, small scenes between two people. These scenes are usually anchored by a piece of furniture and then we tried to create a 'bubble'—if you will—of light around that scene. And then Alison, wherever she was, would often be in a followspot watching and commenting on the scene.”

Movers, LEDs and Incandescent

One thing that many people have commented on about the lighting is the integration that Stanton has done with LEDs and incandescent lighting and how deftly it has been handled in Fun Home. “I’d used LED moving lights in the past, but I had not used LED ellipsoidals before this show,” he explains. “One of the main reasons that I chose them was that they were very quiet. I knew that I needed my main lighting systems—my face light, my area light—to change color, particularly because we were presenting in the round. At a minimum I needed to be able to quickly switch from a cool color correction to a warmer CTO, and when I contemplated what it would mean to put scrollers on 150 lights in Circle in the Square, even if we tried to turn the fans off, it would have been an unacceptable noise level. It would have detracted from the piece and all of the things we all knew were so important.”

Stanton conducted a lot of demos to find the right LED ellipsoidal, finally settling on the ETC Source Four LED Series 2 Lustr units. “I went into the ETC office many, many times to look at these lights,” he says. “I was convinced that they would be bright enough because our throw distance wasn’t that long, but I was nervous about mixing the LEDs with incandescent lamps. Once I was confident that I could get a decent color-corrected warm color out of these lights then it was a no brainer. I had high hopes that they would add a whole other layer of versatility to the show but at a minimum what I needed them to do was put out the correct quality of white light and be silent. They did that and so much more.”

Stanton continues, “What I found was, I had to rethink how I used my ellipsoidals and my moving lights. The ellipsoidals were so versatile. I could switch very quickly from white light to a deep, deep color—and lighting in the round changes the rules too. There is no back light; there is no front light; so you just have to think about how you’re going to light faces.” 

Ben Stanton flipped the roles of ellipsoidals and movers, using tungsten movers to catch actors’ faces.
Ben Stanton flipped the roles of ellipsoidals and movers, using tungsten movers to catch actors’ faces.

In the end, Stanton flipped his thought process about how he would deploy his lighting fixtures. “I ended up in a lot of scenes creating a base coat with the ellipsoidals, in a more saturated color and then cutting through with a tungsten-source moving light to carve out the actors faces, which flips the traditional idea of ellipsoidals as face light. I used Martin TW1’s because of the tungsten quality and because I could customize them to the scene. I ended up lighting faces with the TW1’s and Vari*Lite VL1000’s as a true tungsten light. And then underneath that I had a base color with the LEDs. So I kind of reversed how I was going to light the scenes; it’s not necessarily what I planned to do going in. It was a learning experience.” 

The other benefit the LED ellipsoidals brought to the design was the color versatility it afforded Stanton. “And I had a great programmer—Alex Fogel—who was totally on top of it all,” comments the LD. “Once you start applying that kind of versatility you really have to have a good programmer who can manage it all. Alex spent an entire day matching LED colors to gel colors with a tungsten ellipsoidal next to an LED unit. We were trying to show a lot of restraint color-wise in the design and most of the scenes are just lit in slightly color corrected warm or cool white light. I really like the TW1’s open white; it’s a very warm incandescent light. We stuck to a fairly conservative color palette throughout most of the piece.”

Stanton feels that the color choices give the show a very distinct look. “I think it’s a stark show for a musical,” he comments. “For color we used a lot of deep blues that create a certain sense of memory and create an ambiance underneath certain scenes; but generally it was a white light show otherwise. There is one song called 'Raincoat of Love' which is a nod to the Partridge Family. I made some custom ‘70s flower templates for that song that we use over the entire stage that have very traditional 1970s colors, not all of which you can mix to, so it was clear to me that making some custom artwork for those would be really helpful. There’s a song earlier in the show called 'Welcome to the Fun Home.' It’s the kids coming up with this cool Jackson 5-era disco number; it’s a fake commercial that they’re doing for the funeral home that their father runs and the kids run and dance all over the place. For this song we use really bright poppy colors produced by the Martin Viper series fixtures, and we create a dance floor for them. Those are moments when we move into a colorful world; basically whenever the kids are dancing, there’s color.” 

The lighting design team included Ken Elliot as associate lighting designer and David Sexton as the assistant lighting designer. Dan Coey was the production electrician and Alex Fogel was the moving light programmer. Christie Lites provided the lighting equipment.

“I had a great programmer, great associate and assistant, a great electrician and followspot ops, and really, really good gear,” Stanton sums up. “Together that made it all work. It was certainly hard work, lighting a musical in the round can be slow going, but it was fun. I usually pride myself on writing cues very quickly, but on this show the rules were different and we had to stop and really plot out how we were going to get everybody lit; how we were going to make the show work. And, man it’s such a great show; the writing is amazing; the direction is really smart; and I had what I needed to do a good job so I feel really grateful for all that.”

ONLINE BONUS: You can download Ben Stanton's light plot and other paperwork by clicking here.