Acclaimed and innovative, a mind-blowing new production of Richard II adapted by Canadian playwright and provocateur Brad Fraser is playing in the Tom Patterson Theatre as part of the 2023 Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.
Conceived and directed by Jillian Keiley, the work is choreographed by Cameron Carver and lit by Leigh Ann Vardy who is utilising 12 x Astera Titan Tubes and four Helios Tubes as stunning and inventive lighting and visual props to assist the ambience and narrative flow.
Jillian Keiley wanted a minimalist stage setup, and as the creative team started to evolve the aesthetic – with the action set in a Studio 54-inspired disco steeped in the glamour, grit, and glitz of 1970s/80s New York – it became essential to involve lighting elements that could take on the roles of both physical props … and metaphysical suggestion.
In particular, they wanted light sources that a ‘Chorus of Angels’ could use and manipulate.
Leigh Ann, Jillian, and Stratford Festival’s technical director Greg Dougherty started looking at options for sourcing the right luminaires to meet this challenging brief, and it was Doug Ledingham, head LX for Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre who first suggested looking at Astera’s wireless Tubes as a versatile and dynamic solution.
Chris Pegg from Astera’s Canadian distributor Lumenayre rocked up with some units and demonstrated some of the capabilities of the Tubes. “Basically, this was exactly what the creative team wanted,” stated Doug, “it was a ‘Holy Grail moment’.”
The confrontational piece asks some cerebral and awkward questions swirling around a time of general craziness, hedonism and living life full tilt, all juxtaposed with bathhouse raids, Stonewall, gender rights uprisings as the politics of conservatism and fear reverberated, threatening to throttle expression and freedom.
Leigh Ann was especially interested in the concepts of divinity and disco. “Richard believes his power comes from the divine, so I wanted to match the boldness of Brad’s adaptation with sharp, bright lighting to help support this play’s audacious vision!” she explained.
She was thrilled at seeing the first Titan Tube demo by Chris, “What was already in our imaginations in terms of lighting – were these fixtures!” she stated, adding that she was even more impressed when the Titan and Helios Tubes “could do far more than I had anticipated.”
Initial concerns were that they might be too fragile or too heavy to work as hand-held props, but this dispelled as soon as she physically held them and saw firsthand “just how rugged and lightweight they are!”
The Tubes are used multiple times throughout the performance but never lighting an actor, set or scenery piece in a conventional way, an aspect that also fitted the lateral approach and brutal directness of the piece.
One of Leigh Ann’s favourites is a bath house scene when the cast enter in a transition holding the Titan Tubes. On a downbeat of music, the lights snap on and sputter out, creating a dramatic shift in the mood. The cast then place the Titan Tubes in patterns on the stage, unlit, and as each character enters a small ‘room’ created with them, they glow in different colours to outline the action. “So, they can work in an architecture context as well as illuminative!” she notes.
In the play’s prison scene – Richard, who believes God gives him the right to live above the rules, is banished to a prison near the end of the show – a stark look is achieved by flying a 4ft diameter disco ball in to about four feet above the stage. The Chorus of Angels then carry 12 Titan Tubes onstage and attach them to a custom-built cage around the disco ball. As the ball flies out, the Titan Tubes are eased down to create illuminated jail bars around Richard.
The jail is ‘broken’ by a character wielding a Helios Tube and ‘smashing’ the bars which is highly effective with a combination of shattering glass sounds and Helios pixel effects.
In the final moment of the show, Richard is stabbed with a glowing pink Helios Tube, and as this happens, the colour drains out of the Tube as neon pink blood pours out of his wound.
All of these demonstrate the ingenuity and imagination of the creative team as well as the detail and finessing which is possible using Titan and Helios Tubes in this very precise and dramatic way. More ideas of how to integrate them dramatically and figuratively into the piece flowed freely as the production was developed.
For Leigh Ann, the most important aspect of the lighting fixtures needed to play all these parts was their ability to respond to effects, pixel mapping and control, plus “their excellent dimmer curves”, which enabled the host of very subtle effects as well as the big bold gestures.
She notes that they were rarely run at full intensity, and “are super punchy, crisp and clear even at low intensities.”
A major general lighting challenge was keeping the show’s electric energy pumping, and this was also the most invigorating part of crafting the lighting.
“It is a visual and auditory feast,” she described, “So pulling the audience’s eye to the critical story beats was my obsession through the tech process.”
“The Astera Tubes were fundamental to achieving this,” Leigh Ann concluded, adding that she’s enjoyed creating a magical world that is “exciting, irreverent, and where the design elements have supported the storytelling throughout.”
From the Stratford Theatre’s standpoint, Doug is also very happy that they made the investment. Apart from being instrumental in Richard II, “they will be great stock items to have on hand and will definitely be used on future productions,” he stated.
The Stratford Festival workshops created some customised feet and bases for Richard II, allowing the Tubes to be quickly deployed around the stage as well as attached to bespoke pieces like the jail cell frame.
“I already knew they were a fantastic product for film and TV applications, but for us, portability is a key and we can even programme them while actors are holding them and dancing! Being pixel driven, they can easily be integrated with our other pixel-based fixtures” remarked Doug.
Located in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, the Stratford Festival is North America’s largest classical repertory theatre company, producing and presenting a dozen or more shows a year in four distinctive venues. Works including classics, contemporary dramas, and musicals, with special emphasis on the timeless plays and ever-relevant writings of William Shakespeare.
Charlie Gallant as Lord Willoughby (rear left) with members of the company in Richard II. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.