White Light Rocks On with Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert

© David Jense

Last month, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre reopened with a concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar; making it one of the first major London venues to do so post lockdown. Having supplied the Open Air Season for many years now, as well as working on a host of outdoor productions over the past few months, WL was called upon to supply the lighting for this much anticipated concert.

Created by the team behind the Olivier and Evening Standard Award-winning production, Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert is a special staging of the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Complying with government regulations, this version is being performed in front of a socially distanced audience in order to ensure the complete safety of everyone in attendance. And while there has been a lot of changes to when the show played here last, the creative design team remains largely the same, including Lighting Designer Lee Curran who was nominated for an Olivier for his original design. He comments: “This is the first show I have worked on since lockdown. Over the past six months, I’ve had five shows either cancelled or postponed, one show close early, as well as the US tour of Jesus Christ Superstar put on hold. So when I was asked to come back and light this concert version, I was incredibly happy to do so! That said, nothing about this has been normal. Everything happened so fast, to the point where the time from which I had the first phone with Tim Sheader until the first live public show was less than five weeks. As such, there was very little prep time and decisions on the lighting plan had to be made very quickly”.

Lee has obviously lit this show before and his previous work has achieved critical acclaim. So was it a case of approaching the concert version as a brand-new piece, or staying true to his original design? He explains: “I felt instinctively that it had to be recognisable as ‘our production’, but knew it could never be a simple revisit for two simple reasons: one, a socially distanced cast and two, a different set! Fortunately, the nature of the Evita set which we were working from meant there was really only one significant problem to solve, which was getting the backlight positions we needed for a range of spots. I worked out a goalpost solution which got incorporated into a larger framework that Tom Scutt designed to rise above the original band housing.  The other factor that quickly became apparent was how much bigger the lighting design had become since the original production in Regent’s Park. The last three productions had been indoors, and by the time of the US Touring production which we made last year, every aspect of the lighting was bigger and more complicated. So picking a way through that in the limited time we had was probably my biggest challenge”.

© David Jense

The other challenge was the more practical one of having to work around the strict regulations now in place. Lee comments: “Our Production Manager Andy Beardmore had to do extensive work on risk assessments and systems to make everything Covid-safe. This covered everything from temperature checks when arriving at stage door, to wearing masks at all times when on site, to one-way systems for moving around the site. We had medical-grade wipes and hand sanitiser at our production desks. Similarly, I kept my own headset for comms, and wiped down my desk and everything on it every day. There were a lot more procedures covering backstage too. Everything from how the trucks were loaded to allow for safe unpacking and moving of gear, to how the crew worked in rigging and focusing. And as for the choreography of cast and crew backstage during the show, to maintain social distancing – that was an unbelievable effort by everyone involved”.

As the company moved into Tech, Lee found himself once again focusing lights outdoors after midnight; something he calls “the nature of the gig”. To achieve his lighting design, Lee approached WL who were once again intended to supply the entire season pre-Covid.  He decided to draw on fixtures that he had used on previous incarnations of the show, as well as ones he knew he could rely on within the outdoor space. He explains: “The rig featured a lot of Par 64s, giving us punch and energy and effects that are visible even in matinees. Clay Paky Sharpys were deployed for beam movement and effects in a couple of the bigger numbers. Martin MAC Viper Performances were used for spots, and Viper DX Washes for crosslight. SGM P5s are acting as backlight washes and lighting trees, and ETC ColorSource Spots are there for sidelight, with a few Source Four Tungsten Profiles doing the little bit of front lighting we have. Look Unique Hazers and Viper smoke machines gave us our atmospherics”.

Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert has opened to critical acclaim and has marked a much welcomed return to live theatre. It will run until 27th September.

Lee concludes: “To be making any work at all, especially a production that we all love so much, is an incredible privilege now more than ever. The theatre deserves huge praise for taking the risk to produce the show, when it would be far easier and financially more prudent to stay closed. They’ve given 140 people employment when there is precious little else around, and they’ve offered a bit of hope to the whole industry. The audience response has been phenomenal, and I think there have been tears before, during and after every performance, as people process their own feelings at simply being back in a theatre, on top of those our show evokes. Hopefully it won’t be too long before that experience becomes commonplace once again”.

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