Tag Archives: wendall k. harrington

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

Go. Do. – Travel (New York)

There’s something about breaking out of your normal surroundings that refreshes and rejuvenates your creative soul.

I had the opportunity to visit New York recently and it was remarkable how it shifted my perspective. I was there to attend a series of courses presented by Live Design magazine called the “Broadway Master Classes”. These multi-day courses consist of panel discussions, workshops, lectures, and meet-n-greets with notable, award-winning Broadway designers in the area of lighting, projection, sound, and scenic. The highlights for me included a discussion and demo of LED fixtures against conventional fixtures by lighting designer Don Holder, a workshop/demo on color presented by lighting designer Beverly Emmons, and a lecture on what projections needs from lighting presented by the incredible projection designer Wendall K. Harrington. These are three designers who I hold in very high regard. To hear them speak about their craft and demonstrate ideas was a wonderful experience.

The Chrysler Building at night.
The Chrysler Building at night.

I also had the opportunity to attend seven shows; “Lucky Guy”, “Peter and the Starcatcher”, “Fuerzabruta”, “Newsies”, “The Nance”, “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots”. All of them were quite good, with “Peter” and “Kinky” being the standouts for me personally. It was overwhelming to see so many shows in a short period of time, and to see how all of the different designers supported their respective scripts.

The set design for “The Nance” was seemingly simple but ingenious. It was a large periaktoi set upon a turntable, with numerous staircases and doors, and additional set pieces that would fly in or track on to change locations.It really captured the feel of a specific era in New York’s history.

For “Matilda”, the set nearly stole the show, with oversized children’s blocks at it’s heart. Each set piece in some way reflected this structural geometry. It was the opposite of “The Nance” in that it was intricate, massive, and complex – but served the storytelling beautifully. I was confounded a bit by the lighting. First off, it’s the easiest thing in the world to “armchair” other designers work; so instead of not liking others work, I tend to just have a lot of questions. It’s a beautiful design with some absolutely stunning looks but I had lots of questions after “Matilda”. The costumes in this show are simply incredible.

“Lucky Guy” is an intricately crafted play and all of the elements work seamlessly together. The scenic, projection, and lighting felt of one mind; though designed by three different designers. More than any other show I saw, the design felt woven into the fabric of the play. Getting to meet and speak with the lighting and projection designers afterwards was wonderful as well.

I wanted to like “Newsies” more than I did. This is likely more about me having lost my taste for conventional, big, splashy musicals than a reflection of the show itself. Again with this show, the scenic, lighting, and projection design worked incredibly well together; functioning as multiple locations in a specific period of New York’s history.

“Kinky Boots” was the unknown for me. I hadn’t seen the 2005 movie, but with a book by Harvey Fierstein and a score by Cyndi Lauper, I couldn’t resist. A fun story, warmly told, with some lively songs; this show surprised me. The costume design on this show is pretty spectacular as well. The set and lighting design both serve the show well.

I’m going to skip “Fuerzabruta” because it’s more of an experience than a show. It’s really hard to describe; but if you find yourself in New York – GO.

Which brings us to “Peter and the Starcatcher”; a “grown up prequel to Peter Pan”. The set (by Donyale Werle) is pure genius. Assembled from found objects it supports the style of story wonderfully; in which actors use every one of the props and set pieces (in a seemingly makeshift manner) to represent a variety of locations. The lighting (by Jeff Croiter) is simply magnificent; beautiful, layered, textured with little unexpected surprises peppered throughout the show.

Perhaps, though, the best thing I observed in any theater while I was there that three of the shows (“Matilda”, Newsies”, and “Peter”) all had a significant amount of young theater-goers in their respective houses. From around 8 years old (“Matilda”) to late teens (“Peter”), the crowds were rapt and responsive. It was so heartening to see hundreds of future theater-goers enjoying their experience.

I didn’t have much time but one of the benefits of traveling alone is being able to do A LOT very quickly. I managed to spend a decent amount of time in SoHo, the Village, and Little Italy all on the same day, with even a quick jaunt to Ladurree (for macarons to take home) on the upper east side and Grand Central Station. One of the many things I love about New York is how all the neighborhoods feel different. Each has it’s own vibe, it’s own voice.

I had the opportunity to visit The Cloisters, a museum near the northern tip of Manhattan built in the 30’s and housing medieval art and tapestries. The museum is a beautiful space, with an intricate design and a great use of light and texture.

The Cloisters Museum
The Cloisters Museum

Access to the museum is through Fort Tryon Park, where the flower fields were really beginning to show off their summer colors; such an interesting juxtaposition to the skyscrapers of the city and the medieval architecture of the museum.

Fort Tryon Park, on the way to The Cloisters.
Fort Tryon Park, on the way to The Cloisters.

One of the first things I did was take a walk on the High Line; an abandoned elevated railway track that has been re-purposed to include gardens, jogging paths, gathering spots, and cafe’s. It’s a stellar example of taking blight and re-imagining it into something completely different. It’s now the centerpiece of the neighborhood, used by the whole community and is a point of pride. As I sat in the sun, enjoying my bagel, I marveled at how the will of a community can change their surroundings and bring something like this into existence.

Where there was once decay and abandonment, there is now life and energy.
Where there was once decay and abandonment, there is now life and energy.

A little farther south, a much larger re-imagining is being undertaken on the site of the World Trade Center. Near the 9/11 memorial, new buildings are rising. It is an intricate, expansive story of tragedy and re-birth; and is somewhat awe-inspiring to witness. I spent some time there, thinking of that day and how much it has changed our world. The memorial, built on the footprint of the former twin towers, features two square waterfalls, each 30 feet high, which collect in a reflecting pool, then plunge into an unseen void in the center. It is a powerful piece of architecture and its amazing at how the sound of the falling water masks much of the city noise, making the space almost eerily muted.

9/11 Memorial
9/11 Memorial

A brief walk through Central Park led me to the Bethesda Fountain. Adjacent to the fountain is an arcade of stone and tile arches, where a small group of musicians was performing. Their voices, in this acoustically-friendly space, were magnificent.

Arcade near the Bethesda Fountain.
Arcade near the Bethesda Fountain.

I also stopped for a moment in Strawberry Fields, where there is a fitting tribute from Yoko Ono to John Lennon – black and white tiles, inset into the path that say, simply, “IMAGINE”.

With that, I started thinking about how every input we receive changes us. How one new thing can alter your perception. How a trip to a busy, chaotic city can seem peaceful and relaxing. And how, in this magnificent city (and many, many others), there are artists and creative people doing that they do, pushing forward, creating new work, giving us new things to see, to hear, to do, and to experience. This is the wonderful thing about travel. It forces you to re-engage all of your senses. It demands that you pay attention to the new surroundings and stimulus. And by re-opening yourself, you allow in new material, or content, or inspiration, or whatever you want to call it. All of that new inspiration is then sitting there, in your reserves, ready to come out in support of your next creative endeavor.

"Imagine all the people..."
“Imagine all the people…”