Tag Archives: broadway

Looking Back – The Who’s TOMMY

I tend to not dwell on the past. The future, after all, is strange and unknown and exciting – so I’m nearly always focused on that. Once a show has opened, I move on pretty quickly. But every now and then, a show comes along that challenges and changes you. For me, that show was The Who’s Tommy. Given that it was five years ago this month that the show opened, I thought it would be fitting to take a look back…

"I'm Free"
“I’m Free”

It began when I was designing a production of Merrily We Roll Along. During rehearsals for that show, the director approached me and mentioned he had two choices for the upcoming summer musical – Disney’s AIDA or The Who’s Tommy. If I recall correctly, I begged him not do AIDA. When he asked why, I told him it was because I could see Tommy in my head. I knew, from the moment he said the title, what the show would look like. One cue sequence “Pinball Wizard reprise” came into my head fully formed, with the final version being virtually identical to my early thoughts.

Poked, prodded, and tested in "Sparks"
Poked, prodded, and tested in “Sparks”

I suppose it goes back to the original 1992 version of the show which brought Broadway kicking and screaming into modern times as far as technology was concerned; largely attributable to the efforts of Wendall K. Harrington and her groundbreaking video design. The narrative of the show, a pop-rock opera with a disjointed story, demanded a unique visual language that Wendall found through video. I was deeply inspired by her work (combining projection with video monitors in an artful, story-driven way) on the original; and quickly added it to the list of shows I wanted to tackle. The initial design brief I wrote proposed an approach that obliterated the line between lighting and video; such that it would be hard to tell which was actually which.

Tommy surrounded by medical "experts"
Tommy surrounded by medical “experts”

I did a significant amount of research in preparing for the show, since I was doing the lighting and video design. I culled through hours and hours of historical footage to craft the opening sequence, which is a little over 15 minutes long; and full of exposition that reveals itself entirely through music and movement without one sentence of dialogue. Grounding the story in the mindset of a specific time and place was important, and the sequence ended up working magnificently.

Captain Walker heads off to war
Captain Walker heads off to war

With each design, I like to try something new. With this show, I used a lot of backlight (fairly typical for me) but this time, I added a lot of texture to the backlight. This gave the show some interesting aerial beam architecture, but even more fascinating was what it did to the stage surface. As the actors moved in and out of the shadows, their movements added to the shadow layers; creating new combinations of color and texture. It’s an idea I have had the opportunity to build on in the years since.

"Eyesight to the Blind"
“Eyesight to the Blind”

Then, I began to experiment with coloring the shadows themselves. This experimentation really paid off in “Eyesight for the Blind” and “Acid Queen”.

The Acid Queen
The Acid Queen

I also experimented with specific color arcs through the show. From the deep blues of the “history” moments, to the light blues of Tommy’s youth, to the colorless aura of his teen years and the blues/greens of the “medical” scenes; to the introduction of yellows in “Acid Queen” (overlayed and penetrating into the blue of Tommy’s youth), and finally to the searing red/yellow combo of Tommy’s rockstar days – I had tremendous fun creating the arc of Tommy’s life with color.

"Pinball Wizard"
“Pinball Wizard”
"Pinball Wizard Reprise"
“Pinball Wizard Reprise”

I also learned how to blend lighting with video and have one serve the other. Many people are worried that lighting will wash out the projected image. By and large, that’s true, but it’s also possible to use lighting (especially in highly saturated tones and with judicious amounts of texture) on top of the video image to create entirely new landscapes.

Tommy gets religion
Tommy gets religion

Mind you, all of this would have been technical overkill had everyone else not been firing on all cylinders; but the cast, crew, musicians, musical director and director were all deeply engaged in the show. It’s not the easiest musical to do, primarily because it hangs on the thinnest of narrative and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but there IS a story there. For some reason, I’m always attracted to shows that are problematic; and this was no exception. Finding the core of the story took some time.

"Smash the mirror"
“Smash the mirror”

Most directors feel that lighting and video should “gently support the narrative”. Luckily, I was working with a director who allowed me to use the lighting and video language to, in some moments, drive the narrative. It was an incredible experience – visual storytelling that I rarely got to do, at the time.

"Listening To You"
“Listening To You”

The show opened to pretty great reviews and we were lucky enough to remount it about six months later at a larger venue. With most of the cast returning (and reinvigorated by a new choreographer who reimagined the movement of the show, turning it into  a more muscular, visceral piece of theatre) we managed to top the original, which was no mean feat.

"I am the light..."
“I am the light…”

The show also provided me with my favorite review ever, from Paul Hodges of The Orange County Register, “I felt as of the afterlife was beckoning at the end of an explosively lit ‘Pinball Wizard’. KC Wilkerson’s lighting and video design ranges from delicately beautiful to tyrannically overpowering – effective in this narrative context.” I have lit quite a few shows at this post in my life, but there are only a handful that I can claim as my best work – and The Who’s Tommy is near the top.

The cast and crew of The Who's Tommy at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts
The cast and crew of The Who’s Tommy at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts

!nsp!re – Young Drama Students Honing Their Craft

Recently, I had the great pleasure of participating in the International Thespian Festival, held annually on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. We were treated to unusually cool temperatures and only a little rain, which made the week all the more pleasant.

The campus at University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
The campus at University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

The festival is produced by the Educational Theatre Association. It features a full week of activities for high school drama students. Some of the activities include performance and technical competitions (National Individual Events), college auditions, a wide variety of workshops for directors, choreographers, actors, techs, and playwrights, and fully-staged student plays and musicals. Among this years shows were, “Catch Me If You Can”, “Of Mice and Men”, “Mary Poppins”, and “Violet”.

Students rehearsing onstage (Photo by Matt Conover)
Students rehearsing onstage (Photo by Matt Conover)

Also included is an opening night event staffed onstage and backstage by specially selected students. Opening the festival this year was “An Evening with Shaiman and Wittman”, featuring the writer/composer duo of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, a cast of eight students, and two Broadway singer/actors.

Rehearsing "An Evening with Shaiman and Whittman" (Photo by Matt Conover)
Rehearsing “An Evening with Shaiman and Whittman” (Photo by Matt Conover)

The student technicians are mentored by seasoned pros and are afforded a unique learning opportunity; given that the show is blocked and choreographed in a day and teched in about an hour, with no cue -to-cue or other rehearsal.

Lighting focus with me and student Sam Molitoriss (Photo by Matt Conover)
Lighting focus with me and student Sam Molitoriss (Photo by Matt Conover)

It’s a great way for the students to learn how to pull a show out of thin air. I worked with three bright, motivated students and enjoyed my time with them immensely.

Me, with my three lighting students (Sam, Jalyn, and Madison)
Me, with my three lighting students (Sam, Jalyn, and Madison)

The students were also treated to a special cabaret featuring Broadway performers Carla Stickler and Justin Brill.

Carla Stickler, Broadway's current Elphaba from Wicked
Carla Stickler, Broadway’s current Elphaba from Wicked

This week drove home for me, yet again, the importance of introducing and nurturing a love of the arts in our nation’s schools. Only a small percentage of arts/drama/music students choose to pursue a career in the arts. Those who do pursue a career in the arts face a mountain of challenges; made all the more daunting by a culture that devalues artistic contribution and rewards “celebrity” instead.

Those who do not pursue a career still carry a love of the arts into adulthood, introducing their friends, family and children to art, drama, music, and dance; four forms of expression that make us more well-rounded humans; that teach us more about ourselves.

It’s difficult to not be cynical about the state of the arts in our nation. With threatened cuts to the N.E.A, arts programs being cut out or scaled back in public schools, and theaters, operas, and symphonies folding all over the U.S., the outlook appears bleak. This, despite the numerous studies conducted within the last five years concluding that the arts support and cultivate creativity in the nations youth and that creativity is the number ONE quality sought by the world’s business in their leaders.

The conclusion ought to be obvious to our political leaders, but it’s clearly not.

In order to not cave into that bleak cynicism, I volunteer my time to work with these students through the California State Thespians. The time I spend with theatre students rejuvenates my own passion for my chosen career. I see their youthful drive, their unbridled love for their craft, their excitement, energy, and clear sense of purpose and it re-inspires me all over again. I hope they find their experience to be as enjoyable and rewarding as I do.

!nsp!re – 12 Days of Cre8tivity: Donyale Werle, Recycling Imagination

Post 9 of 12

I went to see the touring version of “Peter and the Starcatcher” recently, after having caught it at New World Stages in New York this past May. The tour retains the intimate feeling of the New York version, which I was happy to see. The cast does a wonderful job with the dense, wordy, witty material and includes a number of standout performances. Again, though, I was taken with Donyale Werle’s Tony-award-winning scenic design. Donyale is a leading member of the Broadway Green Alliance, which strives to educate the theater community about making environmentally-friendly choices.

Donyale Werle, during production of "Peter and the Starcatcher"
Donyale Werle, during production of “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Donyale has said that her approach to the design of “Peter” fits perfectly with the show in that it’s about, “creating something out of nothing”. The proscenium for the New York version includes bottle caps, kitchen implements, sippers, toys, rope and a variety of other items, most collected or donated by kids through the Broadway Green Alliance. Each iteration of the show has embraced that aesthetic, of starting with collected items, then making them into something creative and artistic that fits the show. Due to the rigors of travel, the touring set has less recycled material than the New York versions, but the vision remains intact using green materials.

"Peter and the Starcatcher" Touring Set, Act 1
“Peter and the Starcatcher” Touring Set, Act 1

That vision embraces the imaginative and hand-made. Throughout the show, which takes place on two separate ships and numerous locales on a remote island, the scenery only suggests the locations. The cast fills in the rest, stimulating the audiences imagination by using ladders, fabric, umbrellas, rope, and other various props, along with their bodies to tell the story.

The cast, surrounding Peter and Molly, using tiny LED's to suggest stars.
The cast, surrounding Peter and Molly, using tiny LED’s to suggest stars.

The overall effect is magnificent, but not in an over-the-top way that makes you loudly exclaim “WOW!” It’s more understated, like an under-your-breath “wwwooooowwww”, as you re-engage parts of your imagination that may have been closed off for years. The show pulls off the unique feat of asking the audience to participate in a different way; by taking us to far-off places that are only barely suggested. The encouraging thing is that audiences appear to love the idea and are happy to go along for the ride.

Donyale Werle at work in her Brooklyn studio. (Photo James Estrin, New York Times)
Donyale Werle at work in her Brooklyn studio. (Photo James Estrin, New York Times)

Of course, some theaters have recycled for years, mostly by re-using flats and furniture for different productions; but this approach is significantly different from that. By going out into the community to collect cast-offs and trash, sifting and sorting through the detritus, then re-combining the elements into something new and artful, we have a different conversation about how and what we consume, and what happens to items after they’re no longer supposedly “useful”.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????I suppose an argument could be made that all this approach does is delay the inevitable; that after this usage, the items will then end up in a landfill. While that may be true in some cases, I think the greater value is in asking the question: What can we use that’s already out there? How can we be creative and artful with what already exists? Inevitably, creation and destruction are bound together; but are there ways to minimize the impact to our world? These are heady questions; and I’m hopeful that we can find answers, with artists like Donyale Werle leading the way.