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Black Over Red

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In August 2001 we were engaged to design lighting for Glasgow-based Theatre Cryptic’s co-production with the Latvian Radio Choir, a music theatre work based on ‘Requiem’, by the Russian poet Anna Ahkmatova.

The show premiered in the National Opera House in Riga and later transferred to Glasgow’s Tramway…

This extraordinary production was over three years in the making, beginning when Cryptic director Cathie Boyd and composer Anthea Haddow were invited to Riga by the British Council, with a view to exploring cultural opportunities to further British/Latvian relations.

After meeting with conductor Kaspar Putins and hearing the Latvian Radio Choir, they agreed to this joint venture. Anthea composed the score for a music theatre requiem that would not only showcase the remarkable vocal abilities of the choir, but would include multi-channel textural soundscapes, dance and video elements. The choir, who were more used to concert performances or radio concerts, were excited and a little apprehensive about the prospect of moving and singing on a stage, in costume and under lighting, but threw themselves into their task with polished professionalism. Work on the piece proceeded piecemeal throughout 2000.

Other members of the creative team were added — Trane House Red produced video sequences that would be projected onto the backcloth, Latvian sculptor Glebs Panaleyev started work on two monumental monolithic sculptures in aluminium, and Cathie explored the dance possibilities of the piece with dancer/choreographer Michelle Mann. Last of all was lighting designer Grahame Gardner, who joined the team in Riga just two weeks before the premiere. It was a tough proposition to go into a foreign opera house with only a minimal idea of what equipment they had. Fortunately, they did have rather more than was listed on the technical specification, and the resident electrics team proved to be friendly and accommodating once communication was established!

Cathie was very particular about some of the ‘looks’ she wanted, particularly in the ‘Church’ scene shown here, which required 24 crosses projected onto the floor. Marty Smits, our local production manager, spent many hours hand-crafting foil gobos for the theatre’s stock of 26o Source 4’s. They only had 12 of these however, so he had to cut two for each gobo. It required delicate focussing and positioning of lighting bars to get an even layout on the floor.

One of the dance sections was lit using a pair of 2kW PC footlights to project large shadows of the sculpture onto the backcloth, and dancer Michelle (also projecting a large shadow) used this beautifully, her shadow appearing to reach out and touch the twin shadows of the sculptures. It proved doubly poignant as we had lit this section on the morning of September 11, and it seemed chillingly prophetic later that evening when we saw the news reports. That tragic event added whole new layers of meaning to the piece.

Another ‘look’ that Cathie was keen to achieve was an effect of 12 columns of light, into which the choir, dressed in flowing white robes, would wander. In the UK I might have been tempted to try and achieve this using parcans, but fortunately in Riga they had a huge stock of 2.5kW PC’s which, spotted right down, and with the addition of a little smoke, proved ideal for the job and was one of the highlights of the lighting.

Such complicated lighting took what seemed like an age to plot on the theatre’s Compulite Ovation 4D. Having to relay every instruction through an interpreter, coupled with an operator unfamiliar with the finer points of the board, made this a very slow process. One sequence of four delayed follow-on cues in the epilogue took something like 45 minutes to plot! But with patience we got there in the end, and it meant I had more time to spend looking at the stage than I normally get in production periods.

The show premiered on September 13 in Riga. Given the recent events in America, it proved a very cathartic experience for everyone.

After only two performances, it was time to head back to Glasgow where, in a month’s time, we had to do it all over again in Tramway. It would be hard to find a venue more different from the Latvian National Opera House and the show required considerable re-staging. But that’s another story…