MISÉRABLES - THE LIGHTING DESIGN
by Patrick M. Strain
FOREWARD Let me just say first and foremost that I did not spend a lot of mental energy thinking "How did they do this on Broadway?" Roadside Theatre is not Broadway, and I am not David Hersey (the original lighting designer). So, while I have seen Les Misérables in London and touring productions in the United States, this is how we at the Roadside Theatre in Heidelberg, Germany did the show.
CONCEPT: The Look The overall lighting concept was to reinforce the destitute quality of the characters through the use of an "incomplete" light look; a look that left part of the face in shadow. This, plus the conscious decision not to use spotlights (Roadside is small enough not to need them), allowed the few moments of full, rich lighting to be chosen carefully. Technically, this meant a high side light from stage right, a back light, and a front angle from stage left. The front angle was used sparingly for fill light. For the most part each scene was lit with the high side and back light. This look carried through even to the solo songs, as they especially convey the characters' longing for something that isn't coming.
CONCEPT: Color The overall color scheme was a "cool-colorless" approach. Phrases in the script such "black and cold" that are repeated by many characters at many points guided this choice. The entire production maintained an essentially colorless palette as well; the scenery working mostly in the greys-browns and the costuming using predominantly earth tones. The lighting then brought in the tinge of coolness to the palette. For those who like to know gel colors, the high side light was without color, the back light was Rosco 76 which laid down a nice cool foundation of light, and the front fill was Rosco 60. The primary exception to this color scheme was affectionately known as the "heaven lights." During the scene with the Bishop, and at the death of Fantine, Eponine and Valjean, a rich, warm color was used (Rosco 21). For the Bishop's scene it served as a back light. For the death scenes, it was a simple pulse of light at the moment of death. Also, when Fantine and Eponine return to lead Valjean off to glory, they are bathed in this warm light as well. Thematically, in these cold lives of torment and desperation, it is the warmth of heaven that welcomes them home.
THE "MOMENTS:" The Death of Javert and The Barricade Retreat There were two "moments" that gave us all tremendous heartache. One is Javert's suicide on the bridge, the other is the death of the revolutionaries on the Barricade and it's exit from the stage. (Did any character have such a grand exit as did the Barricade?) Javert's suicide was quite problematic. How do we create the illusion of height of the bridge and the illusion of falling? Scenically a nightmare in our little space as well, that solution became a small bridge railing unit that Javert was allowed to step over which would then fly out behind him (we have no fly space - a homemade rig was created). So the lighting problem evolved. How do we light Javert and not the fly lines? How do we help create the illusion of falling? How much are we concerned with the water? After trying many looks and sequences of cues, including a strobe light, we settled on a fairly simple solution. A small rented effects wheel projected churning water onto a bed of dry ice fog in front of the bridge railing. Two high side lights, one from each side lit Javert on the bridge, but cut off the lines for the most part. When he stepped in front of the bridge, the side lights went out and we were left with the back light and a touch of a front light. When he jumped, only the back light and the effects wheel remained, which allowed the bridge rail to fly up in silhouette and gradually Javert fell, hopefully disappearing in the fog. The end result was not as dramatic as we had hoped, but it was not distracting nor did it appear to be a vain attempt at a super-special effect.
The Barricade proved to be a much simpler and much more effective moment. The Barricade was a single unit which rolled on an off from far upstage. The basis for the Barricade's "exit lighting" was regular old light bulbs placed within the Barricade itself. There were red "party" bulbs placed low, to create a blood-red under-lighting and clear bulbs to help light the dead revolutionaries. Also, there were two PAR 64's (no color) on the floor at the back of the stage to provide a low back light. These PARs also provided a lighting counterpart to the gunfire in the various attacks on the Barricade. When the final attack was nearing it's end, the lighting look on the Barricade slowly faded down to a texture wash and then the lights on the unit gradually came up, as did the back lights. As the Barricade began to roll slowly away, dead bodies in tow, the texture wash faded, leaving only the lights on the Barricade and the back light. Back light streaming through fog is always a nice effect and when the Barricade with it's splotched of red and white slowly retreated from the audience, it never failed to be a dramatic demise (often with applause). Gradually, as the Barricade neared the upstage end of the stage, the lights faded to black and Barricade disappeared into the darkness, the masking curtain then dropped to hide it.
ROADSIDE: The Challenges Roadside Theatre presents lighting designers with quite a few challenges. First and foremost is it's 11'-6" grid height. This, accompanied by the relative scarcity of instruments and circuits, leaves coverage and control a delicate balance. In reality, the general area lighting should break down into about 7 areas across the apron, and then 3 sets of 5 areas each behind the show scrim. This, however, would eat up ALL the available lighting instruments (even with a trim 3 lights per area, that would result in needing 66 lights for the general area lighting, a luxury we just couldn't afford ourselves). So, we ended up using 5 areas across the apron, and 3 sets of 3 areas each behind the show scrim. In order to make this work, we had to flood our instruments and add diffusion to help spread the light. This, of course, made using the areas separately (I know - a sin in lighting design) but it was the best we could get. Needing to control each of these areas separately for many of the smaller scenes, the general area lighting took about 45 dimmers alone. But I digress; the grid height, in addition to making it difficult to get good coverage out of the widest flood, also posed problems with the Barricade. Whenever you lift someone off the floor on Roadside's stage you are asking for trouble - hard to light, and the risk of actors smacking their noggins on the instruments. So, add a Barricade that the actors are climbing and jumping on with long guns and waving flags and the potential for disaster increases exponentially. Fortunately, the actors did well not to attack the lighting grid, but getting the light to hit them was still a challenge. The solution became (and thank goodness most of the Barricade scenes take place at night) hanging four of our new (they arrived AFTER the initial light hang, actually) 50° Source Four instruments with breakup patterns to come practically horizontally across the stage. This provided a nice wash of pattern and without scorching too many revolutionary heads. Unfortunately, there was still need for some additional light, and there were a few places where the revolutionaries were confronted with a light on their forehead, almost literally.
23 - 4.5x6.5 Altmans
16 - 50° Source Fours
16 - Souce Four PARs, Wide lens
48 - 6" Altman Fresnels; 1 - 8" Altman Fresnel
6 - PAR 64, Wide lens
1 - Effects wheel (sorry, we rented it and I don't remember the brand)
1 - Halogen Work light (used to uplight the sewer grate)
12 - Practical street lamps with flicker bulbs (on the proscenium and throughout the house)
12 - Barricade bulbs, red and clear
1 - Star Curtain
72 Permanent dimmers
30 Additional portable packs
(Again, I'm sorry, it's European equipment and already in house, so I didn't pay much attention to the brand names)
Control: ETC Express 72/144
Plot: Executed using MacLux Pro 1.7
PARTING WORDS So, who's reading this? Audience members looking for a behind the scene's look? Designers in another community theatre looking for how to do this monster of a musical? David Hersey "slumming it"? Let me just say a few words of reflection and encouragement. Les Misérables is a wonderful show, and it is hard to envision it as anything but the technical marvel it was in Paris, London, Broadway and the ensuing touring shows. It is, however, just another piece of theatre, and it can be made to fit any theatre the same way ANY big musical can be made to fit any theatre. Are there more things that I wish I could have done with the lighting for our production? Absolutely. But on the other hand, I know I could have done it with less. Every lighting designer who is limited to the house inventory deals with the space/equipment they have at hand. I had 102 dimmers and about 130 instruments on hand. To some, that is not enough to do anything. To others, that is a treasure trove. You do what you can with what you have. Was our version as grand as the original production? No, but I don't believe that made our production any less entertaining for our audience. Our version of this epic musical was just that, ours.
If you have any other questions that you would like to pose to Patrick Strain, please feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com. See his on-line portfolio at http://www.patrickstrain.com