The Winter Room

wrtitleDesigning a large-scale touring show or event brings many challenges to the designer, but working at the bottom end of the budget scale can be just as challenging – especially when you know in advance that some of the venues have no readily-available equipment or power other than a 13A ring main…


A version of his article was published in the August/September 2007 issue of ‘Focus’ – the journal of the Association of Lighting Designers.

From the start this was conceived of as a small-scale dance/theatre performance piece for small audiences of up to 30 or so. It would be touring to some small halls in the Highlands during November 2006 before finishing in Glasgow’s Tramway 4 studio. Two dancers, a 5m x 5m white dance floor, and limited props. Oh – and a set consisting mostly of white-painted upside-down tree branches hanging overhead that would be moved around during the piece.
In order to accommodate the trees, it was clear that we were going to have to tour a box truss with some tensioned wires overhead to hang the branches on. Naturally, I would also be hanging lanterns on the truss so it could come out of the lighting budget… hang on a minute, I don’t remember agreeing to that!
The truss ended up as a 6m square box on 3m legs – slightly larger than the dance area so that it didn’t intrude on sightlines too much. Actually, it turned out to be a lot less obtrusive than we had thought – it actually defined the performance space very well. Minimal masking was used; just a set of blacks on the upstage edge of the truss to provide a backdrop.

Conceived and directed by choreographer Claire Pençak after spending two winters living alone in a remote highland glen, the piece portrayed a series of abstract images representative of the northern winter; the isolation, the cycle of the seasons, the claustrophobia of sharing a small living space, and above all the overwhelming desire for warmth and light. On one level it could be seen as a deteriorating relationship between two people cooped up together for too long in a confined space; and on another, more archetypal level, it depicted the creation of winter and the elemental forces involved. It was a very organic piece as props included coal, peat, ashes, logs, and lit matches. Indeed at times it seemed to be more visual art than dance, and the designer Brian Hartley also performed the male role.

Right from the initial concept meetings I knew that I wanted an HMI source to provide a cold, wintry keylight. Nothing else would give that almost tactile bleakness of light that an HMI could provide. We also knew that at some point during the piece, we wanted this to move to depict the passage of time as shadow directions changed. I looked at various options using track on the trussing, but as the light would have to pan during its travel to maintain cover of the stage, this didn’t look like it would be particularly cheap or easy to solve.
I also decided at that point to have a gobo cover of bare branches on the blacks, which would enhance the moments when the tree branches were all onstage by making it look more like a forest.
And the other design decision was that I would deliberately choose a very limited colour palette for this piece.
So that was the design sorted out, all I had to do now was find a way to make it all come together and within budget. Some lateral thinking was clearly required.
As the production period progressed, it was clear that I just didn’t have the money to hire an HMI Fresnel with dimming shutters and scroller if I wanted any other equipment. However, an architectural lighting designer friend came to the rescue with two 150W discharge ceiling downlighters that were not only economical on power but had that HMI colour temperature and were amazingly bright – each looked roughly equivalent to a 1.2kW tungsten. After some fiddling around, I ended up housing these in two PAR64 shells with the ballast bolted onto the yoke arm, producing two “HMI PARs” that were just perfect for the job. I still couldn’t dim them, but thought I could still work with that if I chose my moments carefully.

For the main rig, I sourced some Selecon 650W Fresnels and wide-angle zoom profiles, plus three 800W Arrilites that were ideal units for stage fill, again very economical on power and looking a lot brighter than their wattage suggested. One of these could provide a pretty full coverage of the stage area, which is more than you could say for a parcan. Being film lights there was an incredible amount of unwanted spill from them, but nothing that some black wrap couldn’t fix.
For control I had two 6-way Strand digital dimmers on 13A leads and a Strand 200 desk. Somehow I managed to shoehorn everything into 12 channels, plus of course the HMI PARs which ran from a switched independent supply.
To solve the tracking problem with these we ended up going with the simplest solution – mount the two units on a T-bar on top of a wheeled stand and have the Stage Manager wheel it down the wing at the appropriate moment. Brian Gorman our SM, a naturally reticent fellow, wasn’t too keen on this idea as he was in full view of the audience, and he would also have to sit onstage the whole time as there was no masking. However, he eventually overcame his reluctance once we dressed him in a long black coat and rigged a small black ‘flag’ hanging from the T-bar that he could hide his face behind as he pushed it. Both dancers were lying motionless at this point, so it was a really crucial moment.
The end effect was well worth it; the shadows of the tree branches and a line of upright logs on the stage swung dramatically across the stage, mimicking the sun’s daily cycle and providing a very successful ‘time passing’ effect. Many people complimented this afterwards as one of the visual highlights of the show.

For the rest of the rig, I had a couple of Fresnels in L201 for front ¾ fill, together with one of the Arrilites in OW for extra bash from the side when needed. Another Arrilite provided a ¾ backlight cover in deep blue for the night scenes.
Three of the Selecon profiles, in L202, gave a good gobo cover of the upstage blacks. Ideally I would have liked another gobo wash from further out front to cover the whole stage and the performers fully, but that wasn’t an option in many of the halls we played, so I settled for covering just the trees and the blacks. As it was, it provided an interesting separation as the trees could be lit with gobos for highlights and breakup without affecting the performers too much unless they were upstage.
The rest of the pitifully small lantern stock was used to provide specials. There was one scene that required a diagonal split of the stage into two distinct areas; I managed to achieve this with the remaining Arrilite and careful use of the barndoors and black wrap. Although coloured in L202, by running it at a low level I managed to get the warm ‘interior’ look, contrasted against the bright ‘external’ area, lit by one profile in L201.

You can tell that we’re not talking mega-bright states here. A large part of the show was the use of fire in the form of lit matches, and the lighting had to balance against that light source. This became one of the pivotal moments in the lighting. We had started with the HMI’s striking up at the start of the music, and built the rest of the state slowly as they warmed up to temperature. Then I had to sneak in the blue backlight and gobos over a few minutes so that I could switch off the HMIs at a dramatic chord in the music as we entered a night storm sequence, with branches swinging and insistent music. The gobos really helped in this scene as they made the hanging trees seem denser than they really were.

Later, we faded down to the merest glimmer of a backlight special as the two dancers lit a match together centre stage. The match provided the only illumination on their faces. Symbolically, this was the point of light returning at winter solstice, and at a suitable point in the music, I switched the HMIs back on. As they warmed up this time, I added the warmer wash as well as the L201; the contrast from the previous cool blue states was quite startling; even without colour in the warm wash it looked positively spring-like. Later I did go as far as to add some L206 to this wash, just to emphasise the point. Once the warm cover was established, the HMIs were switched off again, so the piece finished in a warm colour palette of L206 and OW.

An added bonus of using the Strand digital dimmers was the noise of the cooling fans. These just kicked in whenever needed, although there is a setting to have them running at low level constantly. Located as they were behind the upstage blacks, they added a very convincing intermittent wind noise that really augmented the bleak wintry atmosphere of the piece – so much so that many people thought it was part of the soundtrack, or even that there was a real gale blowing outside. Needless to say, we kept this in!

I probably got more satisfaction from designing this piece than from many larger works that I’ve done; I also had several favourable comments and a couple of job offers on the strength of it, so it just goes to show that you don’t need to be playing with huge budgets and lighting rigs to produce a good design. Sometimes small really is beautiful.