The Sydney Lyric burst back into life on 24 November with the first major post-COVID theatre production; the 2013 Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s beloved Pippin, with Tony-nominated lighting design by Kenneth Posner. CX interviewed Associate LD Mitch Fenton before curtain about how we make our magic while staying safe in 2020…
Australian born WAAPA graduate Mitch Fenton has been living in the USA for the last eight years. After going over to study at State University of New York, he decided to stay, and has forged an impressive career lighting theatre, television, live events, and concert tours.
Having previously worked with Broadway legend Kenneth Posner, Mitch became the obvious choice to bring the Tony-winning 2013 revival of Pippin to Sydney.
Pippin tells the fictionalised story of medieval emperor Charlemagne’s son and his search for meaning and purpose in life. Told as a performance-within-a-performance, the story is presented by a troupe of players, who in this revival, are a group of circus performers.
After blitzing the Tonys in its first year, Pippin went on the road in the US, and the lighting design was adapted for touring. The version presented at Sydney Lyric is a hybrid of the two designs.
“We’ve taken Kenneth Posner’s plots from both the Broadway and touring version and combined them into one,” explains Mitch.
“There are quite a few differences between them, for example, the touring version runs a lot of movers because it has to get in and out of venues faster, while the Broadway version uses a lot more conventionals.
“Broadway used lots of big colour washes from FOH and we’ve added that back in, which I really like.”
As the troupe tell Pippin’s story, Mitch finds himself often lighting very small areas quite tightly. There’s a lot of colour and movement, with bold costumes adorning acrobatic performers.
“The structure of the show and nature of the production has posed some lighting design challenges, which have been met with some custom solutions.
“OPTO Project’s Scott Opie and Simon Toomer have made us a load of custom set electrics,” Mitch relates. “There’s a trough upstage that uplights the circus tent, and OPTO built a custom LED ground row for it.
“There’s also a lot of LED tape controlled wirelessly built into the set.”
The fixtures the show relies on most are 46 Vari-Lite VL3500 Spots and 14 VL3500 Washes.
“On Broadway, we used the VL3000, but they weren’t available here,” explains Mitch. “The change has cut our gobo load in half, but we’ve managed to make the show still look the same.
“Also key to the rig are our 192 ETC Source Four Profiles, and 32 ColoRam II Scrollers as side lights.”
Control is via an ETC Titanium, programmed by Jason Fripp. Mitch has also utilised an ETC Gio @5 in the circle during tech.
Theatre in the COVID Era
Of course, it’s not just the challenge of adapting a lighting design that’s unique to this production. COVID looms large over every aspect of the show, from bump-in to curtain.
Mitch had to complete two week’s quarantine on arrival in Sydney, and COVID-safe regulations have completely changed how the crew work on the show.
“In the US, it would have normally taken us two and half weeks from bump-in to opening night,” elaborates Mitch. “This production will be two and half months from day one to opening. Load-in alone took a month because of social distancing requirements.”
COVID almost threw another spanner in the lighting works in the form of Melbourne’s second lockdown.
“The majority of the lighting rig was sourced from PRG’s Melbourne warehouse,” says Mitch. “Melbourne’s lockdown was announced the week before our load-in.
“PRG’s staff only had time get into the warehouse, test the fixtures, and put them on a truck before they weren’t allowed to come into work again. There was no time to build anything. It all came right down to the nail, and we ended up doing all the prep in the venue.”
The company’s schedule during the build was almost alien to anyone who is used to working in theatre; the cast rehearsed on set from 10 am to 6 pm, then the lighting crew came in at 6 pm and worked until 11 pm. That schedule remained in place until tech.
“If you look at it, we focused and cued across two weeks,” Mitch continues. “But it wasn’t really two weeks, it was three-and-a-bit work days, which is how long we normally take.
“In reality, we’re working the same hours, they’re just spread out. It’s an interesting feeling, having your day free. It’s actually quite nice, but the reality is that we can’t work on as many shows.
“Normally, I’ll come in from another production and leave around opening. By extending the time building a show takes, everyone puts themselves out of work for longer. Not that I’m complaining, as theatre in the rest of the world is closed everywhere except here and South Korea!”
With the show up and running, the cast and crew stay COVID-safe on a ‘zone’ basis. “There’s a FOH zone and BOH zone,” outlines Mitch. “Once you’re in one of those zones and doors open, you can’t cross into the other for the night.
“So, after I watch the show from FOH, I can’t go backstage for notes. We run the production meetings after the show with the creatives out the front and everyone else on stage.
“Everyone wears masks backstage for entire show, and the cast only remove them as they go onstage. We sign in and out on an iPad, and answer COVID questions every day.
“All of us are tested every Wednesday. There is a lot scrutiny, and there’s a lot of extra work involved.”
Pippin is currently on sale until the end of January, after which Sydney Lyric is set to host the hotly anticipated Hamilton, opening March 12.
“I stayed in Sydney for opening, and now I’m heading to see my family in Queensland,” concludes Mitch.
“I’ll then go back to New York in mid-January. Broadway is likely to remain closed until the end of May, and we’re planning a big June re-opening.”
THE LIGHTING RIG:
192 x Source Four Profiles
57 x Source Four Pars
14 x CLF Lighting LED Wash RGB LED Batten
12 x Rosco Miro Cubes 4C
26 x ColorBlast TRX
32 x Custom Built 1’-0” LED Tape Ground Row from Opto Projects
46 x VL3500 Spot
14 x VL3500 Wash
32 x ColoRam II Scrollers
4 x Look Solutions Viper NY Fogger
2 x Look Solutions Unqiue 2.1 Hazer
2 x MDG Atmosphere Hazer
9 x Martin Jem AF-1 Fans
3 x Lycian 1293 Xenon Followspot
CX Magazine – December 2020
LIGHTING | AUDIO | VIDEO | STAGING | INTEGRATION
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