Westward Journey

by Michael S. Eddy
in Feature
The set included two layers of exterior, a small proscenium stage-within-a-stage, and a small canopy, all of which created challenges for the lighting team.
The set included two layers of exterior, a small proscenium stage-within-a-stage, and a small canopy, all of which created challenges for the lighting team.

LD Japhy Weideman Lights Bella: An American Tall Tale

At the end of September, the world premiere of Kirsten Childs’ new musical Bella: An American Tall Tale opened at the Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theatre. Set post-Civil War, this musical comedy follows the adventures of Isabella “Bella” Patterson, a black woman traveling to find her lost sweetheart who is serving as a Buffalo Soldier in the Wild West. Her journey becomes a fantastic tall tale full of encounters with a wild bunch of characters as she finds herself along the way. A co-production with New York’s Playwrights Horizons, Bella will open in NYC in May 2017. The creative team was able to approach the development of the show with both the Wyly and Playwrights spaces in mind as they designed the new work.

The unique musical, directed by Robert O’Hara, features a creative team that has worked together on many productions and includes: Japhy Weideman, lighting designer; Clint Ramos, scenic designer; Jeff Sugg, projection designer; Dede Ayite, costume designer; and Brian McDonald, sound designer. “This whole team works together a lot,” acknowledges Weideman, “and we have a really good creative partnership. I think this is my sixth show with Robert. It’s always great working with him and I love working with Jeff, Clint, and Dede as well.” Able to work in a well-honed shorthand, they collaborated together to integrate all of their efforts, not just with each other’s disciplines but also with the story itself to carry the audience along through Bella’s story.

The over-stage portion of the light plot for Bella: An American Tall Tale.
The over-stage portion of the light plot for Bella: An American Tall Tale.

Colors and a Canopy

Moving us through locations, set on trains, at the circus, and a period western piece meant that the lighting had to help create time and place, plus as a tall tale, a sense of magic at times. “The show is set in the late 1800s in the West, yet it’s also relevant to today and a commentary on our current social issues,” points out Weideman.  Capturing the period feel of the piece but balancing contemporary colors was key. “It sort of goes between having this sepia period look to then going into these more outrageous, more vivid colors,” describes Weideman. “Colors you would not see in that period but when we’re tipping our hats a little bit to some of the contemporary commentary in some of the songs. Overall, though, we wanted this sepia tone to the show; much like an old Western on TCM from the ‘50s. A lot of incandescent sources, footlights, etc. to give that period feeling. Also we used haze, not too much, but a layer of haze through the whole show really let us get some depth out of a lighting plot that didn’t actually give us a lot of backlight or sidelight.”

The lighting positions were a bit of a challenge as the set consists of a stage-surrounding curved wall with some doors for entrances and a partial ceiling canopy with a 12-foot opening. The curved wall is actually two layers with an interior and exterior wall. “It was actually quite tricky because we couldn’t really get a lot of sidelight into there,” says Weideman. “In a way it forced us into making better, cleaner choices by relying on things like footlights. I could get sidelight in from downstage to really sculpt people but at the same time we didn’t want to just light it from the front with a hard-circle followspot. There was the circular opening at the top of the set where we could bring in a good amount of light and get some backlight through. It was great to be able to really backlight Bella at times with some strong beams of light through the canopy opening. That always made her feel really powerful.”  During the intermission between Act 1 and 2, the canopy material is pulled off, opening up more possibilities for the lighting team. 

Most of the lighting equipment was from DTC’s stock with supplemental equipment, especially more automated lighting, brought in from VER and Christie Lites. “We wanted to have moving lights that we could use in different ways,” explains Weideman. “We ended up using Philips Vari-Light VL1000s with shutters. I also had some VL2500s and Mac Auras along with a couple of VL3500 Washes, which I always love because if you open them up you can really light the whole stage with one light; they’re big and punchy. Those also became really useful.” Alex Jainchill served as associate lighting designer and Laura Choate was the assistant lighting designer.

There were also lighting and lighting effects built into the set. The interior curved wall of the set had a translucent painted material finish that Weideman used to his advantage. “The translucent paint treatment really looked quite beautiful,” says Weideman. “I embedded Philips Color Kinetics’ ColorBlasts to bottom light the walls like a cyc. That solution will travel to Playwrights as the lighting trough is built into the set. Offstage of the interior wall is the exterior wall, where we used RGBW LED tape to up- and down-light the wall. LED tape has gotten so punchy these days and can really light up walls. We ended up creating halos of light with this method. By playing with levels and colors between the two walls it gave us many different options of how to treat the surround from the people,” says the designer. “If we turned all of the light off and just turned on the bottom ColorBlasts behind the interior wall, then it’s almost like a cyc where we could get all of the actors in silhouette, which was really great. Or, we could turn that off and just turn the line of LED tape on either the bottom or top of the exterior wall. 

A moment from Bella: An American Tall Tale, with lighting design by Japhy Weideman.
A moment from Bella: An American Tall Tale, with lighting design by Japhy Weideman.

All Aboard

Part of Bella’s trip west is aboard a train, which posed a creative question to the design team, ‘How realistic were they going to make it?’ Scenically the train is evoked by first a literal image all the way upstage with an old western-style painting of a train. “That’s actually the most upstage section of the set,” explains Weideman. “Up there is a little ‘stage within a stage,’ it’s a small proscenium stage area they use in the show itself. We put some ColorBlasts inside that little proscenium to frontlight the train painting. Then the actual inside of the train is done with chairs; just actors in chairs. We all started by talking about, ‘How realistic do we get? Are we going to do all these effects with low ETC Source Fours with strobe caps and a series of strobes that we shutter and create different pieces of light coming through windows across the people?’ At first we thought we were going to have to get really specific with it, and what we found was actually for the storytelling, simpler was better.”

Weideman worked closely with Sugg to create the right evocative balance between lighting and projection for the train. “Jeff is really brilliant,” states Weideman. “He ended up doing all of those train effects with projection. We had two video projectors in the low box position left and right, so he could treat the side walls that wrapped around. Then you also had the sound and the actors themselves, who would sort of re-position themselves as I would pull lights out and then snap them back on into the scene. Really, it was about how we cued it. It was all in the timing of where we’d take the light out, how we did the video, and then how we would pop the light back on that really sold it.”

Weideman noted another scene in the musical that he feels works extremely well, serving the at times fantastical nature of the show and as an example of the collaborative process between himself and Sugg. “Jeff and I have done a lot of shows together, so we sort of have a language. For Bella we first figured out what Robert O’Hara wanted from a particular scene. For example, there’s one really beautiful image that’s like a dream. She’s somewhere out on the plains experiencing the stars. Robert wanted just a full constellation of moving stars that then start to form the constellations of these different animals. This is one of those times where I start by seeing what Jeff is doing and then light from there. For me in this scene it was clear as I was watching Jeff that the very best thing I could do was pull out as much light as possible and really let the stars dominate the whole space. Jeff did these projections that looked amazing.”

Sugg’s projection work created the appearance of the stars moving around the actors themselves to create the constellations. Weideman describes the effect, “First, one of the characters, Tommy Haw, walks out and he’s got a big cowboy hat, and then the constellation begins to take shape by all the stars forming all around his body. Then we just took one light from the balcony rail, just one hard circle, and simply lit his face and his cowboy hat. Other actors come on stage and they transform into more constellations. It’s a beautiful scene. It’s a good example of how we all work together, it all depends on what the story’s asking for at a particular moment. In some cases it’s all about the video and I need to not let the lighting get in the way. Then there are some scenes that are just big funny scenes that are all about the expressions on the actor’s faces where the video’s not as important so even though he might have stuff up there we get to take over. You feel your way through with the story and listening to what the director’s really asking for, and then just balancing and with Bella we kept finding that the design was often about taking light away. I never wanted too much light, especially because we had the haze and then things get what I call mushy.” 

Weideman is very proud of being part of the team to bring this new work to the stage. “Bella, I think is really special. There’s a lot of great music in it and it’s a show that has so much heart and soul but also hits a wonderful satirical element. It really is unlike anything else I have seen, it has got a very different kind of unique flavor to it. I am looking forward to getting another crack at it when it moves to Playwrights. For me it is very exciting tying it together visually with the way Robert staged it and with all the other elements of the design coming together. As I said, I think it’s on its way to being something special.”