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LED Specials for I Am My Own Wife

Michael S. Eddy • Light On The SubjectMarch 2020 • February 26, 2020

Fok worked closely with Scenic Designer Britton Mauk on Long Wharf Theatre’s I Am My Own Wife with costume design by Daniel Tyler Mathews. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

New York-based Lighting Designer, Jennifer Fok is a big fan of tungsten as a lighting source; saving LEDs for very specific applications. She found just such a need when she recently lit I Am My Own Wife, at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, employing both standard and custom LED lighting solutions to support the narrative through her design. Fok worked with James Horban, Long Wharf’s Lighting Supervisor to pull together the LED lighting systems being used as part of the overall lighting for the show which requires the lighting to help evoke the various locations of I Am My Own Wife, which tells the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

Fok explains that she has been recently exploring the use of LED tape and LED puck lights for effects and for hard to light areas. “I know that LED tape is not a new tool; but for me using LED tape in different ways, is new. Also, I’ve been using different LED puck lights and custom solutions, in my lighting designs.” She continues, “I think that it’s been very interesting in learning the variations and about the quality of light that can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. I have been learning a lot about the different options because the shows that I’ve been doing recently have wanted a solution like that and needed it for the different ways of storytelling.”

Fok, who works closely with the set designers, notes, “I’ve been learning a lot about how to hide LEDs around the set. I have found that LED tape is a really incredible tool to solve some challenges. In the design for I Am My Own Wife we had three systems of LED specials tucked in and around the set. There are LEDs in the gramophone horns; another system of LEDs uplighting the façade, and then there are ones in the seating area that serve as footlights. James came up with the implementation for the three LED systems.”

Custom-built LED units were installed inside the gramophone horns so a club location could be evoked by the lighting.
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lit from Within

The first system consisted of 18 gramophone horns that surround the main door in the set, which was designed by Britton Mauk. To make the horns stand out and to create lighting that helps transport the narrative to different locations, Fok wanted to place an LED source inside the gramophones. Lighting Supervisor Horban researched sources and custom-built units from different manufacturers. 

“I’m a tinkerer at heart and this kind of work lets me scratch that itch,” says Horban. “One of the things that I love doing is finding parts and pieces that were meant for something else and re-purposing them for what we need. We custom-built these lights from different vendors. For the LED source, I used Epistar 2.7” round RGBW LED adjustable ceiling lights, purchased from a Nevada-based vendor, Ecolocity. They’re normally a flush-mount downlight. I did modify them with a longer tail to fit inside the horns and still leave enough cable to connect to the decoder. I used aviation connectors to re-build and extend the original six-inch leads. For decoders, I used DMX-4 5000 units from Environmental Lights.

In all, we made 20 of these units; 18 for the gramophones and two that were installed in the deck to uplight the columns on the façade of the set.” The gramophone LEDs are controlled in six different groups of three lights each. “We wanted to give Jen as much control as possible because we didn’t have the gear in house to drive 18 separate ones. Groups of three worked well and allowed her to have rainbow fades, or pulse, or be able to separate them.” “For one of the locations in the play, we used the horns to indicate when she goes to a club,” describes Fok. The horns are lit internally in red with no external lighting or toning on the horns; in fact, the overall scene is very dark. “As she travels through the streets and came upon this club, the door is no longer the door to the museum, it becomes the door to the club. I used the horns to give it some color; and to give a different meaning than gramophone horns.” 

Fok uses deep saturated colors often in her designs. LED units are hidden within the set. Both custom-built and standard LED units were used to create this cue. The lighting behind the door was all tungsten.
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Set with Light

The second system consists of two of the custom LED puck lights that are embedded in the floor of the set to uplight the columns. “That was a little mini system,” says Fok. “They helped make the façade feel shadowy and menacing for a few moments in the show. There’s a lot of storytelling going on with the façade and the horns.”

The third system of LED specials were used as footlights. “We had CHAUVET COLORdash Accent Quads that James installed as footlights in the seating area and to light the façade. There were six lights, three on each side to uplight the grid and to provide a footlight for some scenes on the main show deck” notes Fok. 

“We have quite a few of the CHAUVET COLORdash RGBA pin spots,” states Horban. “We use those for birdies, and she had some of those hidden behind the façade of the building to do some scraping of the front and to do some toning.” For the footlights, the CHAUVET ColorDASH units were “hidden in nooks and crannies in our seating banks so we could have a few footlight options there,” says Horban. “I like those units because they have the amber engine, which makes a lot of the designers happy and they are nice and punchy for their size.” 

Fok also had 10 ETC ColorSource Spot Deep Blue units, four of them with Rosco I-Cue mirrors and City Theatrical irises. “I think the colors with LEDs are definitely getting better,” she continues. “My favorite unit now is the [ETC] ColorSource Deep Blue. I think that those instruments—color-wise and matching—are pretty good.”

The wall behind the transom window and door as well as the chandelier were lit with traditional tungsten-source Source Four ellipsoidals. “I try not to replace tungsten,” points out Fok. “If I’m using an LED source, I try to mix it in with a tungsten source or some other type of source. I try to embrace LED but use it minimally. If I’m going to insert LEDs into a cue, I try to make it all blended.” She adds, “We did also use some micro-ellipses to highlight the painting on the wall behind the door.”

The visual result of the production is a truly well-conceived collaboration as Fok’s rich and varied lighting for I Am My Own Wife merged stunningly with Britton Mauk’s beautiful set and Daniel Tyler Mathews’ wonderful period costume designs. Together with the Long Wharf’s crews and director Rebecca Martínez, the creative team has produced a dynamic, well-designed production that is the first major revival in a decade of Doug Wrights’ compelling play. 

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