Stage lighting

While at National Seminar, I had the pleasure of meeting Alison O’Connell at the soloists’ dinner. Ali lives in Australia and is a professional production manager and stage manager. She has a lot of experience working with stage technicians, and had responded to an SOS last year when I needed information for a concert at a performing arts center, where I would be working with a lighting tech for the first time. I knew from prior experience that I needed to spell out my expectations clearly, as hardly anyone is familiar with the idiosyncrasies of solo bells. For example, I had performed in one venue where the sound tech was surprised to learn I wouldn’t stand in one spot through the whole performance.

Ali graciously gave me permission to share our correspondence about that project.

My initial post to the Handbell-L group on Facebook: I’m performing next month in a venue with professional stage lighting, and will have support of a lighting tech. I’m looking for suggestions about how to take advantage of this. In the venues where I generally perform, the lighting choices boil down to too bright, too dim, just right, and (sometimes) in my eyes. It will be a real treat to have some special lighting effects.

The first time I performed in a venue with a professional sound tech, my percussion teacher made suggestions for how to communicate with the tech about the kind of sound I wanted to achieve. That was invaluable, and I’m looking for pointers so I can have the same kind of conversation with the lighting tech.

Ali’s response on Facebook: Happy to help! Professional production manager and stage manager here… Have worked closely with many less “techie” types to communicate with theatre techs. Maybe message me with your artistic vision and we can get started…

My message to Ali: Thanks so much for your offer of help. I’ll need to think about my artistic vision, beyond bringing out the sheer beauty of our instrument. Would you mind looking at my demo video on my website [link to site omitted here]? That will give you an idea of the kind of program I play, and how I dress myself and the tables. Minus the piano solos, it will be very much like what I’m planning.

Maybe you can make some suggestions for how tech support could make it more effective. In that particular venue, I had to set up in a space I wouldn’t have chosen, because there was an event in the auditorium between my setup and my concert, so I had to set up further back than I would have chosen.

There are pictures of the venue where I’ll be performing on the website [link to site omitted here] in case that’s helpful to you in advising me. I’m not trying to put all the work on you, it’s just that the size and layout of the venue probably matters in making recommendations. Since I’m the featured soloist, I can also ask for a particular spot on stage, if you have suggestions.

I’m playing two classical pieces, one classical piece that’s also a hymn tune, and a modern arrangement of a Scots folk tune. This will be part of a program that will also include solo pieces by 3 auditioned bell choirs, followed by massed pieces. I’m conducting the massed pieces, which I haven’t seen yet. There may be a chance to do something cool with the lighting for those as well. Not sure how much say I’ll have about that.

Second message from me to Ali: Here’s a bit more about my artistic vision. I’m so grateful for your offer to help and hope this is the kind of information you’re looking for.

I want to contrast the graceful movement and pure tone of solo bells with the greater force of choir bells (and especially massed ringing). My first piece is The Call by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I chose it primarily because it’s a simple piece that might inspire some of the other ringers present to try solo ringing. It has a mystical quality to it. I usually start it with singing bell, which I might do in darkness with the light coming up as the bell begins to sound. Eb major, lento moderato, 2:15 minutes. Strophic, from a song.

The next piece is Whither Must I Wander?, also by RVW. It has a wistful quality; it’s about a longing for a home that no longer exists. There’s a very brief setup time between the two pieces; I basically do them back to back. WMIW has some difficult timing elements like rapid arpeggios and flipping out a bell on a ritard. Of all the pieces, this one has the highest train wreck potential and needs the least distractions in lighting or anything else. It also moves around the table the most, as it has the greatest range throughout the piece. D minor, andante, 5:00. Strophic, from a song.

Then there’s an intermission (I start at the end of the first half of the overall program, and open the second half) and I reset for the next piece. I mention this in case there are some cool things we can do with the multiple entrances and exits. The first piece after intermission is The Swan by Saint-Saëns. Musically, I follow Yo-Yo Ma’s interpretation of placing every note. Visually, I want to invoke the grace and tranquility of a swan without actually flapping wings or anything. Technically, this piece is characterized by strategic setups that facilitate the scale passages. G major, adagio, 3:30. From a violin piece.

There’s a brief pause while I reset for the last piece, which was written for me. The composer will be present and introduce it. It’s an arrangement of the Scots folk tune Bonny Doon. It’s a very flashy piece with a lot of cluster six-in-hand and some very interesting dissonances in the accompaniment. There’s a long-ish piano introduction that introduces the main melody. In one verse, the piano and I trade musical lines halfway through the verse, and maybe there’s something we can do with the lights to highlight that. I do most of this piece standing in the same place, and in fact it’s playable off a single table if I play entirely in the treble. When I have the larger table, though, as I will then, I move down to the lower end and play one verse of it in the “5” octave. On my way back up to the treble, I plant a bell handle in a standing bell for a mini-bell-tree. G major/Gb major, andante con moto, 4:40. Strophic, from a song.

I should mention that both my accompanist and I are rather conservative and would be more comfortable with the kind of lighting you’d see in a classical music concert, not a rock concert. As you know from your own solo work, I need to see the bells to pick up the right one, and my accompanist plays from a score and needs to see it. The accompaniment for this concert will be entirely piano.

I have old video footage of 2 of the pieces, and I hope to have audio of the other 2 shortly. If that would help, I could post them for you to look at. Let me know.

Thanks so much, and please let me know if this answers your question about my artistic vision.

Ali’s response: I’ve had a look at your videos and read your artistic thoughts about your performance above. I think I’m starting to get a feel for what you are looking for, and it’s probably reasonably similar to what I would want.

Firstly, some basic technical type words that will help you understand what I’m going to say next, and will be the same words that the lighting tech will use and understand. Forgive me if you already know these, but I don’t like to assume people always know what I’m talking about! Please also keep in mind that I speak “Australian” and terms may vary regionally!

Wash – broad even lighting across the stage. Washes can be in different colours.

Special – a pool of light focused on a particular place. For example, in an orchestra, you would have a wash to light the orchestra with a special on the conductor.

Backlight – to ensure that you look 3-dimensional on stage, most technicians will backlight you as well as from the front. Backlights are often coloured.

Gobo – this is like a stencil for light. A metal plate with cut out shapes is placed in the lighting unit, projecting the shapes in light on the floor. A “breakup gobo” could be very effective to create a dappled effect on the floor around your tables.

Cue – a programmed change in lighting effect

Many theatres (at least in Australia) will have what is called a “standard rig”, which is a lighting set up which is suitable for use by many different shows. Your venue also appears to have this as well. Often these have a 3 or 4 colour wash (maybe red, lavender, blue and “open white” – no colour), including backlights and a few specials. Most theatres will refocus the specials to suit you, but extensive re-setting on their standard rig will require more people, more time and therefore will cost more.

It also pays to consider how much time you will have for rehearsal with the technicians in the venue. Many times, I’ve had inexperienced people come into my venue wanting a lighting change for every verse, or to have a special effect on the fourth line of the third chorus. Most techs and stage managers will have no problems with this if you have the opportunity to rehearse several times until it’s right. When choosing cue points, try to imagine how obvious that cue point would be to someone not familiar with the music.

I had a situation once where I was given the instruction, “When she raises her arms, snap to black” (quickly blackout the lights on stage). What the performers neglected to mention was that she raised her arms 8 times during the piece! By the time we got to the last one (and the correct cue point), I was so concerned that I called the cue late, just in case, ruining the effect. It was awful. So the moral of the story is if you don’t have the time to rehearse until everyone is comfortable, then the chances for mistakes to be made are huge, which will upset yourself and the technicians. Less is definitely more in this instance!

I think you should ask for, at the bare minimum:

Special on the piano – to both highlight the pianist and allow her to clearly see her music.

Specials on the tables – must not create any shadows on the table so you can always see your bells without distraction. Specials should also light you evenly as you move up and down the tables.

3 or 4 colour wash

In terms of positioning, downstage and centre is always the easiest place to light.

Once you have that, you can be more creative. One of the best things you can do for the crew is to produce a running sheet. This should have a clear list of each item performed, plus any set up or “chat to the audience” times. I’ve attached an example document. A good crew will be able to transform your clear ideas into a good looking show.

I would also strongly recommend having a production meeting with the crew at the venue well before the concert date if possible, to discuss your requirements. They will be able to take your ideas, tell you what is possible in the venue within your budget, and also make suggestions on how best to present your work. When performers are less technically experienced, I’ve found that some of the best shows are those where the artist is organised and has a clear vision (which you do) and then is willing to allow the crew a degree of creative control within those parameters. The crew are just as heavily invested in making sure that you look and sound as good as possible, and will really appreciate your trust in them. I’m not saying you won’t ever run in to a less helpful person, but being prepared will definitely help!

Also, it would be really worth bringing a friend to the rehearsal who you trust and understands your artistic vision. That way, you can have a set of ears and eyes in the audience while you’re on stage and can give you feedback. Also, allow yourself as much time as possible to “plot” the lighting with the crew, and to rehearse.

There’s a lot to digest here – let me know if you have any questions!

From Nancy: Here’s the running sheet I prepared, based on the example Ali provided:  Nancy Kirkner 5-12-12 running sheet

I sent this information ahead to the venue and called to discuss it with the technician. Because we had only half an hour to rehearse all the solo pieces at the venue, and the event had a limited budget for tech support, we decided against lighting changes during individual pieces. The venue couldn’t provide a color wash, but they did use a breakup gobo. On my YouTube channel solohandbell, you can see this effect in the video of The Swan from May 2012.

I’ve worked with sound techs on several occasions, and will write more about that another time.

Thanks to professional production manager/handbell musician Alison O’Connell for her extensive input to this article.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,