The Color of Rep

by Natalie Robin

A moment from Dallas Theater Center’s God of Carnage, with lighting design by Natalie Robin. L-R: Chris Hury, Sally Nystuen-Vahle, Christe vela, Hassan El-Amin
A moment from Dallas Theater Center’s God of Carnage, with lighting design by Natalie Robin. L-R: Chris Hury, Sally Nystuen-Vahle, Christe vela, Hassan El-Amin
How one lighting designer put together a rep plot for two very different looks

In January 2012, I was hired by the Dallas Theater Center to design lights for productions of Next Fall and God of Carnage. Next Fall was to be directed by DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty and God of Carnage was to be staged by associate artistic director Joel Ferrell. Both productions had scenery by Tony-winning John Arnone (The Who’s Tommy, etc.), costumes by Thomas Charles LeGalley (Lysistrata Jones) and sound by Dallas area designer and musician Bruce Richardson.

Although originally intended to run in true rep, by the time I was hired the decision was made to run the shows one right after the other, with minimal interruption between performances (one-and-a-half days for changeover, and only five days between performances). So I still had to think of my lighting plot as a rep plot as there wouldn’t be enough time for a complete re-hang.

The set design also took the compressed time frame into account. The ground plans for the two plays were essentially the same to allow for ease in the changeover. The walls of the hospital waiting room would double for all the other locations in Next Fall, and consequently were made of a combination of rear projection screen and painted flats. For God of Carnage, the majority of these walls would be covered with cork panels on which the artwork of the home would be hung. Small changes would be made to entrances and exits, and a double swinging door with a small overhang would be replaced by an oversized fireplace. Only the center painted RP panel would remain for God of Carnage, allowing for an omnipresent New York skyline.

A maquette of the set for Next Fall at Dallas Theater Center, including preliminary ideas for lighting and projection.
A maquette of the set for Next Fall at Dallas Theater Center, including preliminary ideas for lighting and projection.

My Design Process

 

I started my design process by approaching each play separately, as I normally would. I read the plays, making notes about specific lighting mentioned and the feeling of each scene or moment in a breakdown. Before meeting with the individual directors and other designers, I collected both emotional and literal visual research.

The plays are very different. Next Fall is an episodic journey told in short staccato scenes alternating between the present of a hospital waiting room and flashbacks of the personal lives of the main couple. With John’s unit set design, it fell to lighting to create the other locations, including a rooftop, two apartments, a Starbucks, hospital chapel and hospital room. Plus, the conceit of our production eliminated transitions so the lighting had to be specific and unique to each location. All of this made Next Fall a complicated artistic challenge, and in some ways I approached the show like a musical. I knew we would need a lot of options in color and texture to create diversity between timelines and locations. I used deeply saturated colors from Wybron CXI dual scrollers to tone the flashback scenes (deep blue for the rooftop and nighttime scenes, a sunset-inspired orange for the apartment mixed with low frontlight in Roscolux 3407, for example) to contrast the stark coldness of the fluorescent-lit hospital scenes, which were crafted with real overhead fluorescent fixtures with support from Source Fours gelled with L203 and L202 from Lee Filters, which convert tungsten sources to daylight temperature. There were also two systems of backlight: Par 64’s with L202 to support the overhead fluorescents and Par 64’s with Wybron CXI’s for color flexibility.

A pre-viz image, including some light sketches, of the set for God of Carnage at Dallas Theater Center. Set design by John Arnone.
A pre-viz image, including some light sketches, of the set for God of Carnage at Dallas Theater Center. Set design by John Arnone.

Carnage, on the other hand, demanded incredibly specific technique. The play takes place in one room in one afternoon over the course of time it takes to perform the play. The lighting shifts in the production needed to be slow and feel natural—even as they emphasized the devolution of the characters over the course of the play. Color did not figure into Carnage as much because the lighting was meant to feel motivated from lamps and fourth-wall windows. On stage, I wanted a slow building of golden light over the course of the play as the tension increased. But the light was predominately clear with a touch of color correction. Meike Schmidt, the DTC programmer, and I crafted long running cues which shifted the palette while also pulling focus to follow the actors’ movements. The simple and sophisticated color palette of God of Carnage fit surprisingly well inside the broader palette of Next Fall.

Integrating the two light plots was much like the integration of the two sets. Luckily for me, John Arnone has a truly collaborative process, and was excited to invite me into it. Together with the production staff at DTC we came to the idea of replacing John’s original projection ideas with custom gobos. We wanted to create custom skyline pictures that felt like we were zooming in on the city and that would place the action in a new location outside of the stark hospital, which had no texture or layered color. John began with a few of the standard Apollo skyline gobo designs and crafted a four-step series of increasingly “zoomed-in” skylines. Then, the folks at Apollo made them into our custom-steel gobos. We also sometimes combined these custom gobos with Apollo MS-1218 (Nightlights 5) or GAM231A Realistic Stars gobos from the front.

For God of Carnage, John created a single static image (also a custom Apollo gobo) of the New York skyline, which was projected onto the RP screen throughout the show. For both plays I used ETC Source Four ellipsoidals with 750W bulbs and 70- and 90-degree lenses to project the images.

And then the real test came. The idea was to consolidate all of the ideas of each play into a single lightplot because of the very short turnaround time. At first I didn’t see how it would be possible within the limited inventory of the Kalita Humphreys Theater and the rental budget. (I got sticker shock when I saw how much more expensive rentals are in regional shops than those in NYC.)

Ultimately, the plot that I turned in incorporated all of the ideas for both shows. I included specials for each show (as well as some spares) and some units intended from the beginning to be shifted and refocused during the changeover. The units projecting the custom gobos could be repurposed between shows and the “stars” system in Next Fall became a color changing low front light system to tone the action of Carnage. The inventory was primarily conventional Source Four ellipsoidals and Par 64’s with Wybron CXI’s, two Rosco I-Cues paired with Rosco’s DMX Irises and four-foot dimmable fluorescents rented from Stagelight in Dallas to create the flat unforgiving light of the Next Fall hospital waiting room, as well as a handful of show-specific practicals.

Terry Martin and Steven Walters in one of the flashback scenes from Next Fall at Dallas Theater Center.
Terry Martin and Steven Walters in one of the flashback scenes from Next Fall at Dallas Theater Center.

Making It Real

 

As in any process, a designer must be flexible and open to change once the work is happening in the room with all of the elements present—especially in a room like the Kalita Humphreys Theater. The Kalita was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Wright’s aesthetic ideals, the “Organic Theory” of architecture, dictated that the only 90-degree angles in the entire building occur where the ceilings meet the walls. The stage itself is circular, surrounded on the upstage side by an exterior curved wall. There is a catwalk overhead following the stage’s circle, and pipes for lighting and scenery can be hung within it, but the lengths of the pipes will vary based on where they are on the curve. Front of house was no better, with curved pipes matching the arc of the stage in concentric circles hanging from slots in the ceiling. Like many theatres, the Kalita is very hard to visualize if you haven’t worked there. Things that work on paper tend not to work nearly as well in real life in such atypical spaces. Aaron Johansen (the master electrician at Dallas Theater Center who was a crucial part of making these productions successful) and his staff were immensely helpful as I prepared the plot, taking pictures and answering seemingly odd questions. And they were equally helpful when we made adjustments, moving instruments and supplementing systems, during focus and tech.

During tech for Next Fall, I obviously learned a lot about designing in that space and what adjustments were needed to bring the initial deign ideas into real life. The most surprising discovery for us was that the rear projected gobos were a much less dominant visual focus once I had shaped the scenes with the other lights. I allowed myself the freedom to move or add lights and repurpose units intended solely for Carnage in order to complete the most successful design possible.

As we completed the tech and preview process for Next Fall, Aaron and I created a to-do list for changeover, which included moving some of the fixtures back to their original place on the plot, refocusing, and striking the equipment which wasn’t going to be useful for God of Carnage (like the dimmable fluorescents). We ended up striking even more equipment during the tech process for Carnage as my design became more and more streamlined.

Ultimately, the success of this hybrid design and plot came down to creating a toolbox out of which we could create any of the necessary locations/looks/feelings needed in either Next Fall or God of Carnage. The multiple palettes from Next Fall meant we had the instruments we needed to create the realistic quality of the lighting in God of Carnage. (We planned for this, but it became even more obvious when we were able to strike several unused systems from the plot during previews of Carnage.) And the flexibility in color and texture needed to transform the scenery of Next Fall became the necessary subtle accents that helped create the theatrical evolution of the lighting in a seemingly naturalistic room for Carnage. Even though the productions didn’t have to work in rep, it was still a nice challenge to create a plot that did.