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The Lighting of The Steadfast Soldier: Lighting Designer T.J. Gerckens

Michael S. Eddy • Design InspirationJanuary 2021 • January 6, 2021

The Steadfast Tin Soldier is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a tin soldier’s love for a paper ballerina. Conceived and directed by Mary Zimmerman, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, originally produced by the Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago in 2018 and 2019, and streamed in 2020, is a heartwarming tale of love, perseverance, and courage in the face of adversity. In the staging of the Lookingglass’ annual holiday production, the creative team have come up with what feels like a large toy theater inside Lookingglass’ black box theater. What Zimmerman, along with scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, costume designer Ana Kuzmanić, sound designer Andre Pluess, and lighting designer T.J. Gerckens have made is a theater in a box that shines and sparkles like a welcome Christmas present. Gerckens takes us through his design that brings a lovely warm glow, as if lit by candles to this uplifting production.

Talk about how your lighting design supports the narrative of the production.
One of the things about this production is we wanted it to be perhaps more theatrical in a way than Mary and I often do. Along the lines of, ‘Hey, we’re putting on a play.’ So we built this miniature theater, which was completely built in a black box. There’s no proscenium or stage, so to speak in that theater. We also wanted to create the warm golden glow of the stage, Christmas time, and everything like that. While at the same time, having some ability to shift for extreme things, like the moment when the tin soldier falls down into the sewer world. There, we threw it into shin busters and took it into a void so that we could kind of catch his mental state; get more extreme in the theatricality. But the story all unfolds on that little, tiny stage. One of my big things was to follow our locations and richening them up where they needed to get richened. Get disjointed where they needed to get disjointed. Like the dinner scene where the lighting is purposefully shadowy and slightly bizarre. Basically, inspired off the music from Andre’s score. In a way it was traditional lighting story telling; more, moment-to-moment rooted in a slightly more traditional theatrical look than we normally do.

How was it working in such a small space? It isn’t like you can get tinier lights.
Working in that tiny space was a real challenge. When I lay out a lighting system, I’m used to doing left, left-center, center, right-center, right systems. You can taper off the edges, and you can shape it this way, and that, but when your playing space is 20’ wide, your center stage area is also your left area and your right area! The pipe trims were at about 15’, 16’ with a false proscenium of 11’ high. Like you said, the lights didn’t get any smaller in scale so we found what we could actually sit on a pipe became a challenge and a limitation we needed to work around.

Talk about your selection of colors and sources to help you support that heightened theatrical style.
Most of the rig is traditional incandescent [ETC] Source Four ellipsoidals. I tend to use a lot of sidelight in my work. (I know we all think we don’t have a style, but we all do.) I was using a LEE 103 sidelight palette to create that golden warm look, with no color front light. Then the thing that allowed me to really flex the space a lot was a batch of 50˚ ColorSource spots. I’d never used those before. I’m a big fan of the ETC Lustr line, but I’d heard good things about the ColorSource and they really outperformed my expectations. I thought they were quite bright, had a great color quality, and allowed me to shift colors. In the scene where he goes under the water with the fish, I shift the color of blue constantly through that scene. There are three or four modulations of the base level of blue, which is created by those ColorSource spots. 

What did you use for the water ripple and flickering fire effects?
It was a Chauvet Abyss, a little 30W LED and it has a couple of different color and different pattern options. It was initially suggested to me by the master electrician, Rachel Lake. We used LED tape for the Advent boxes. That was quite a thing because those pieces needed to track on- and off-stage. It’s hard to tell, but there’s no wing space in that theater; the walls had to hide behind the proscenium arch walls. The technical challenge of creating the control and the cable swag, and everything. They were a challenge right up to opening night, getting all of those working due to the tightness. When you think of a toy theater it seems like things should be simpler, but smaller. Actually it takes a lot of work to fit everything in a tiny little box.

The footlights looked great. What were the sources?
Those were what I call, ‘Home Depot floods’, because we bought them at Home Depot. They’re a little, 150W or 200W incandescent floodlight. They are something that was shown to me a couple of years ago when I specified L&E MicroFills on a show; a version of a GAM Stik-up. The L&Es aren’t manufactured anymore, and they were around $100 each, so my master electrician investigated a couple of alternate units. At Home Depot they cost about $14 and are just as good. The problem we’re having is in the switch to LEDs, we’ve had a hard time finding the incandescent versions, so we had to order from a couple of different places. They do the job perfectly; they have a low profile; a very low energy consumption; and an incandescent warmth. 

The footlights helped with another point of storytelling, that to me, was really fun. In the scene with the two rapscallions as we call them, fighting over the tin soldier. The use of the footlights allowed us to pull out of reality for that moment, when they go into slow-motion, and do the whole protracted fight over the toy. It’s more traditional theater lighting, but then broken up with moments that pull us in and out of the reality that Mary’s created.

What was a standout solution to a technical challenge on this show?
One of the things that was a kind of technical nightmare for our master electrician, Rachel was the light-up costumes at the end. If you’ve ever done a show with light-up costumes, they are a maintenance nightmare. Rachel really did the research and found the solution. She was quite helpful, and a great partner, with all that. Those costumes along with the walls being covered in fairy lights at the end was one of those projects that took a million years to put together, and we thought might end up looking cheesy. Mary really wanted it and we worked it in, and it was beautiful. It’s one of these things where, my general rule of thumb is trust Mary!

Another one of my lighting challenges was shaping the lights, because I put a lot of texture and color onto the false proscenium. Trying to get the light exactly where I wanted it—and exactly off where I didn’t want it. So, focusing the proscenium took quite a while. We did use the trick where you take little strips of roof flashing and slide them into the shutter slots—to basically make a fifth and a sixth shutter. So, you can cut around the capital of a column, or cut to a curved arch. I used the roof flashing extra shutter trick, to be able to get the lights focused on that giant fish that comes down to swallow the tin soldier and not hit any of the rest of the scenery.

Another fun solution was that at one point, the rat puppet pops up above the ‘water’ when he’s drowning in the sewer scene. We had a problem of how to light the rat because he was right up against the fabric, and we wanted to fabric to look like water. So, while we wanted him to be seen, we didn’t want to flood the whole thing with a pile of light that took you out of the moment. The scene takes place right up against the front edge of the stage, just over the orchestra pit. We had the cellist, a gentleman named Mikael, who we encountered out at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, playing in the pit for the show. Mary said with her usual kind of, ‘Well, why don’t we?’ approach, ‘Does anyone have a flashlight? We could give Mikael in the orchestra, a flashlight.’ I’m like, ‘We’re not giving the cellist a flashlight.’ Mikael commented, ‘I’m not playing at that moment, I could do it.’ Because he’s just the nicest man in the world. So, we grabbed him a flashlight and he kept it down in the pit. When that moment happens, he grabbed the flashlight and spotlights the little rat and then he puts it down after the scene and goes back to playing. It’s just like, who would have thought that I would have this gifted cellist, an internationally known recording artist, running followspot for me?!

If you were speaking with another lighting designer, what would you highlight to them?
One of the things I’d point out—and this I think should be self-explanatory to most designers—would be the sculptural aspect of the lighting, the strong use of constant sidelight in much of the show, to really sculpt out the costumes. This is a show that you could have looked at and said, ‘Oh, it’s an all front light show.’ Because it’s a very, very presentational; very pantomime if you will. Seeing their faces was super critical, but with the lack of depth in the space; the playing space was so shallow at about 10’ to 15’ to the back. With the use of sidelights I could really sculpt out the costumes, and sculpt out the figures, and pop them out from the background. Ana’s costumes were so three-dimensional that you really want to highlight that work. In this show, I’m going to say 90% of the ‘Illumination’, used to see people was the sidelight, because it allows me to do all that work. Then I basically applied color with the top lights and backlight with the ColorSource spots. 

I’d also mention that this was a piece that, for me, was a tremendous amount of fun. Because of the scale and the absurdity of the props and set pieces. Like when the fish comes down to swallow the tin soldier! Being able to light things like that giant fish and being able to light the giant baby head puppet at the beginning—it was just so constantly fun. It was one of these moments of, ‘wow, I get to do this for a living’.  

T. J. Gerckens’ work can be seen at regional theaters across the U.S., on and off-Broadway, as well as opera, both nationally and internationally. He is also an associate professor of lighting design & department chair, theatre & dance at Otterbein University.

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