LD DeGroot Lights Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat at Adirondack Theatre Festival

by Michael Eddy
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Kicking off Adirondack Theatre Festival’s (ATF) 23rd summer season of professional theater is Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat, an electronic pop musical about one of history’s most influential and controversial innovators. Lighting Designer, Jake DeGroot lit the show that is being described as “Hamilton meets Tesla.” It is also the largest production ever undertaken at ATF. 

“This is hands-down the most exciting show to come to Glens Falls since I’ve been here,” said Producing Artistic Director Chad Rabinovitz. “The story is historically insightful and fascinating, and the music is incredibly cool, catchy, and just plain energizing. It’s not just a show, it’s a major musical event. This is ATF’s biggest production ever and I’m willing to bet it has a large future ahead of it.”

With the show’s story revolving around the progression of electrical technology and lighting invention and innovation, the lighting design is a fundamental part of the audience’s experience. “The writers have woven a variety of light symbolism and metaphors into almost every scene and every character, so it was up to Marshall Pailet, the director; Maxx Reed, the choreographer; Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood, and myself to come up with different ways to bring that to life onstage,” explained DeGroot.

The LD and director were both determined to give each musical number its own distinctive look and feel, and base many of them in specific lighting gestures. “In some cases, this means the actors are holding and dancing with hand-held lights ranging from tiny LED finger lights to tungsten-filament Edison bulbs, to cool-white CFL bulbs, to Tesla’s famous Plasma Globe,” said DeGroot. “In other cases, it means heavy usage of practicals including colored fluorescent tubes built into the set and an upstage wall which contains an array of 620 light bulbs which can do tricks like spell the name of their inventor, “Edison".

During pre-production, the design team knew they needed a way to render a dream-world for several sequences during the show. “We needed a tool that would allow us to use light, motion, and color to enchant and seduce both Tesla and the audience,” explained the LD. “This world had to be just out of reach and separated from the more tangible technology of Tesla’s rival, Thomas Edison and the dirty gritty world of the Industrial Revolution in which most of the story takes place.”

DeGroot worked closely with set designer Sherwood to create a tiered grid structure of 130 Elation SixPar 200s provided by 4Wall DC, who provided the show's lighting package. The structure fills the space above the stage, beginning low in the back and climbing to the full height of the proscenium by the time they reach downstage.

Nikola Tesla Drops the Beat at Adirondack Theatre Festival  photo credit:Todd Bissonette

“The SixPars point straight out into the audience and, depending on the moment, can create a canvas we can paint on with color, an intense bank of audience blinders, or even a low-resolution “screen” that we can use for energetic animations and spelling words,” said DeGroot. “Their built-in UV diodes also made for an exciting extra trick they could do and a different type of lighting technology we could exploit. By using a combination of techniques to control the fixtures, I could make them come to life as characters of their own.”

One of the biggest challenges of the grid structure was most of overstage electric positions the LD would normally utilize to hang backlight and downlight were obstructed. This meant getting creative to light the rest of show with Martin MAC Quatum Profiles and MAC Auras. “Having fixtures as versatile as these moving lights was the only way to get the variety of looks and the level of specificity we needed in the tiny slivers of space we have within and between the SixPars,” explained the LD. “The Auras served a unique purpose in that the look of their face was similar enough in shape and size to the SixPars. I was able to replace four of the SixPars in the grid with Auras which would let them participate in larger grid gestures sometimes, but are the workhorse backlights the rest of the time.”

Technical Director David Pierce spoke highly of the service 4Wall provided. “I was pleased with the service we received at 4Wall. Katie Kudrick in the DC office worked with our budget to make the best possible rental for us. As you can imagine, we went through many different versions of rental packages and a lot of back and forth for a couple weeks,” said Pierce. “Katie was happy to continue to work with us to find us a package that was within our budget. We can’t thank Katie and 4Wall enough, without this gear, our production would not have been possible!”

Further information from Adirondack Theatre Festival: atfestival.org
Further information from 4Wall:
4wall.com