Arriving at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, I was confronted by a large glass exterior with “PHILADELPHIA THEATRE COMPANY” written on the outside.
I am here in Philadelphia with the Broadway production of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (directed by Susan Stroman), that received a total of ten Tony® Award nominations last year, and I am spending time working alongside one of the greatest lighting designers in the world, Ken Billington (lighting designer of CHICAGO world-wide, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, DREAM GIRLS, RADIO CITY HALL CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR and numerous broadway musicals ) along with his Associate Lighting Designer John Demous whom I met whilst lighting the Australian production of MOTHERHOOD – THE MUSICAL. This whole experience came about when I was speaking with John via email regarding Motherhood where he put me in contact with Ken Billington and an invitation was made to visit America and spend time with him learning and watching him remount THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS for its regional American Tour and attend a master class in lighting that he was speaking at in New York.
What has to be noted here, even though the show didn’t last a long time on Broadway, is that the show and other shows like this generally end up doing national regional tours that can go on for years. This show is opening its tour in Philadelphia for 2 months at the prestigious Philadelphia Theatre Company and then touring across America for the next year or so.
My first day with both Ken and John was on Friday night, which involved a focus of all the moving lights in the rig. I must mention here that originally at the Lyceum Theatre, New York, the show had at least forty moving lights in the air on stage and ten to fifteen out FOH [front of house]. This has been cut down to around twenty moving lights on stage and around ten FOH. Conventional lights consists of at least two to three hundred in the rig. You can see from the photo on the right that the show is heavily side-lit from both the FOH Box booms through to at least four booms on either side of the stage consisting of fifteen to twenty lights preside. These lights exist both with scrollers (allowing for the use of colour in the side light) and no scrollers – that consists of a single colour pallete with flesh tone.
The moving light focus is pretty much what we in Australia call an update of positions of the moving lights to what was originally plotted in the previous theatre. Now here lies the most important part of the session and paper work is the key to getting this right. If your paper work is not correct, i.e. the taking of notes on the positions that the moving lights need to be in each cue, you are going to head for disaster when it comes to moving the show around on the road. The biggest lesson I have taken back with me to Australia after having spent a week with both Ken and John is that their paper work is absolutely immaculate, consistent and up-to-date. Rob Halliday, a renowned lighting programmer throughout the world, has designed a program that allows the lighting designer (such as Ken) to take a photo of each cue and then the program prints out a list of cues with the shot of each cue and all the information that is required in the updating of the moving lights. See below as an example.
To give you some idea of how long a show like this takes in terms of focusing lights, it took eight hours for the conventional lighting focus and another six hours for the moving light focus. This does not include the plotting time and updating of cues. The big thing that needs to be remembered is that 'time is money' and everything needs to be done quickly in the theatre. This show was plotted during the technical rehearsal (no plotting time before hand) – Ken never lights the stage without the actors. “There’s no point in going back and doing something twice or completely re-doing a scene,” Ken says. Having worked with Broadway theatre director Susan Stroman on at least ten of her shows, she knows what Ken will deliver as a lighting designer and so the phrase 'trusting the designer' comes into play. I asked Ken the question if he has ever had moments where both the director and him have had a moment where both minds have been in sync for a light plot and he said that “[When] Hal Prince and [I were] working on Fiddler on The Roof [we] were both thinking of exactly the same creative looks during the whole light plot."
Saturday's session started at 8am with the continuation of the moving light focus through 'til 12 noon lunch. After lunch we returned to begin the start of the technical/spacing rehearsal. In Australia there is, in many cases, a spacing call and then a technical rehearsal called. However, in Philadelphia, they combine both, and after having watched the whole session I prefer to do it this way as you are saving many hours of precious time while placing the cast on the stage. John Demous (Associate Lighting Designer) calls the dome cues whilst Ken is updating or replotting scenes with the board operator. Because this show has not brought its stage manager from New York, the Philadelphia Theatre Company have had to buy the stage management bible from the producers of the show on Broadway and the new stage manager has had to “learn the show on the fly” which makes the process a little slower, which for Ken and John can become tedious and dragging. The show has been plotted on an ETC Eos and has not come with its original lighting programmer which can also slow the process down a little for the lighting designer. The lighting desk is running 950 channels of light across 2 universes. See below for a picture of the lighting desk.
This show has very much a minimalist set with the lighting driving a lot of the show and providing many of the looks of the show as well as the telling of the story. Much of the lighting is used to light the black chiffon upstage with the use of a double cyclorama batten to light the top, middle, and bottom of the 'cyc.' This is used pretty much nowhere else in the world and the effect achieves an amazing three-colour look on the cyc. The technical rehearsal consisted of stopping and starting the show for the placement of the performers onstage. After having watched the tech. rehearsal for the last couple of hours it became apparent that Stroman has directed this show with the lighting designer clearly in mind – hence why Billington was booked to light the show. (A quick word on how Ken was appointed – the show was originally done in Minnesota and then moved to Broadway where the original lighting designer was not re-appointed and Ken was brought in at the last minute to pull together a lighting design virtually within a day). The tech. rehearsal broke for dinner from 5-6:30pm with rehearsal starting again at 7pm. Before all personnel break for dinner, resets of staging are completed so when all of the crew return the tech. rehearsal can continue.
Read Part II of Jason Bovaird on Lighting Broadway here.