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Way Off Broadway follows 21 strangers who face their fears to live their dream in theatre director Sarina Condello’s production of the Wizard of Oz. Their dream? Singing, dancing and acting in front of a live audience of 1,100. Their fear? Singing out of tune, stumbling, and missing their cues. They’ve only got eight weeks to transform from total amateurs to polished stars. Most of them haven’t been in a musical production since grade school, and some have never been on stage at all. But it’s all for a good cause. Proceeds from the performance go to Condello’s charity, The Big Little Caravan of Joy, which brings performing arts to underprivileged children in Africa. Way Off Broadway follows the casts’ journey as they experience the transformative powers of participating in a live theatre production.
I came to this project via a long-time colleague, director Joel Goldberg, who had asked me if I could lend my talents to this small-budget production that was big on heart and needed a boost to get it over the top. I was involved in the design of the lighting for the rehearsal space and the finale.
The challenge for the production and for me was the venue. The rehearsal space was the Eastminster United Church in the east end of Toronto. A church, vocal performances – a natural fit, you would say. But the rehearsal space was not the church itself but a basketball court in the facility that is used during the week. This court is unique in that it is actually sunken, like the sunken living room you would have found in houses contemporary with the 1950s. This presented its own brand of unique visual challenges. This sunken court meant that the background for most of the shots would be yellow-toned brick offset by the orangey-yellow tones of the court floor. Since the basketball court was still active, this imposed other restrictions on us. We could not leave our lights set up for shooting as they would likely get damaged by basketball players. As you can appreciate, with budget always a consideration, set-up time is always limited.
It fell upon me to come up with a lighting design that suited everyone’s needs. The lighting had to provide sufficient light for a healthy exposure, typically f4.0; create images that had snap and texture, not the flat images that we have sadly become used to from so many shows with five camera angles; be easy to set up in minimal time by a small crew (gaffer and dolly grip with some assistance form production assistants); and meet the budgetary requirements of the show.
The architecture of the sunken court actually afforded us a unique opportunity. As we were located in the basement, the support pillars that underpin the church sanctuary above provided us with lighting positions. There were four pillars on the north side and two pillars on the south side. These five fixtures were combined with the fixtures at both ends of the court mounted on the backboards. I used the basketball backboards as lighting platforms that were out of shot but provided the necessary lighting from off-axis angles to light our performers.
Our instrument of choice was the 4x4’ Kino Flo fixture with switchable ballast. We mixed the tubes in the fixture, combining one tungsten tube with three daylight tubes. This gives you the daylight punch that you need and adds a little warmth to the light so that it is not too cold-looking. To keep the lighting from being flat, I used a technique that I have used on large outdoor concerts to give performers an edge from all camera positions. Simply put, you use a hard-edged source – in this case we used four 36-degree Source 4 fixtures, one at each of the four corners of the basketball court. Focused in an X pattern they provided edge light for the performers, regardless of where the five cameras were in the shooting area.
Early on in the process, Antonin Lhotsky, who was the series cinematographer, and I made the decision to shoot daylight with Sony EX3. These cameras were the workhorses for this project. Five EX3 cameras captured the bulk of the footage. This was augmented by a Sony F3 on a slider for process and behind-the-scenes shots. Lighting with daylight made sense as we had to shoot in mixed lighting conditions where daylight was the predominant light source. This decision would also carry over into the concert phase of the production at the Danforth Music Hall. Antonin and I decided on an F stop of 4.0 or higher for the theatre show. This decision was made to assist the camera operators with focus. There was no time for marks, and the action was going to be fast and furious. So we thought more light would be best. Using the equipment package that we had afforded us plenty of headroom as far as light intensity was concerned. Even the most saturated colours gave the operators enough light to focus with.
At this point I think it is important that I mention that I was just one element, the lead element in the lighting team. It is essential on a show with such tight timelines that you have personnel with the skill sets and personality to work under pressure without cracking. This show was a one-shot deal. There would be no re-takes or pick-ups. Over the years I have put together my dream team that supports me on shows like this. There are many key personnel, but perhaps the most key is the console operator, Eric Bartnes.
Eric transfers my vision into reality. He is not just a button pusher, he is a true collaborator. We work hand-in-glove to create seamless effects and a lighting design that supports the production. Eric stores the lighting cues in the lighting console. He executes the cues based on script call from stage manager (not on this show though, there was not enough rehearsal time).
Eric and I had a game plan before we got to the theatre. He would operate the main console –a Compulite Orange controlling all of the effects and set lighting – and my job was to control the exposure on the faces using a sub-wing of the main console. Eric and I always sit side by side so that we can communicate without intercom. We have developed our own visual shorthand that only occasionally requires verbal communication.
Since we were setting up this show in a working theatre and not a sound stage, there is a protocol to be followed. Key to that protocol is the flyman. The flyman is responsible for all rigging, installing points for lighting trusses. He brings in the line sets and properly balances the counterweights once lighting instruments are added, then flies the line sets out. The flyman also operates the main curtain and any backdrops for the production.
The spot operator uses an intercom and works under the direction of the lighting designer using a cue list. The spot operator also highlights key performers during the show. On a show with only one spot, this person is crucial and must be at the top of their game. In an amateur show like this one, sometimes the spot operator has to anticipate cues that might come before or after the time that they were seen in rehearsal.
For seven weeks the troupe rehearsed. As we neared the finale date, it was time for me to begin the last phase of my involvement in the production. One Sunday during rehearsal, the director and I spent an hour together breaking down the script with an eye to building the lighting cues for the finale. An hour was all we had. During our meeting we talked about the feel of the show. This allowed us to define the colour palettes for the show, scene by scene.
Pulling together a show like this is all about building looks that support the text and the performers and fulfill the director’s vision. Since this production was supposed to be an amateur production it was incumbent upon me to make the show look polished without being slick. If it looked too slick it would not be in keeping with the amateur nature of the performance.
Way Off Broadway turned out even better than I had hoped. The keys to our success were clear communication, a shared vision of what the show should be, and a sound plan to execute the shared vision. We delivered on two counts: we provided the performers with a stage to support their work, and we delivered a world-class show for the live audience of 1,100 people. The show was put on by amateurs but it did not look amateurish. For that I am grateful.
Way Off Broadway debuted March 2 on Bravo! Canada. The show was produced by Montreal’s Apartment 11 Productions.