Lighting Grey Matter

At the end of February, I lit my last school production: Grey Matter, a piece devised by the director and cast exploring the idea of a mandatory test for eighteen-year-olds and detention of those rated as showing higher than 79% likelihood of committing an act of violence. This scenario, based on Adrian Raine's Anatomy of Violence and other similar works, presents 18-year-olds playing 18-year-olds.

It was staged in the round, which presented all kinds of challenges, although they were interesting to solve.


Exciting news! Grey Matter is transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and will be playing 21-29 August at a central C Venues theatre. If you're around, come and see it! More information here.


Plot

I used VectorWorks again, but this time I changed up my aesthetic to make it easier to read. You can view the final plot here.

Photos

By me, during a photo call:

Thoughts

As it was a devised piece, I had to design my rig before the script was finalised. As such, I designed in such a way that allowed me to illustrate the overall tone of the piece, hence the large number of colour-changing fixtures and otherwise fairly neutral gel colours.

The set of this piece is very sparse, and the director wanted to be able to create a "light cage" around the stage, to create a confined space and sense of separation from the audience at select times. For this, we elected to use 48x PAR 36 pinspots. They were controlled either individually or in pairs by a set of 8 4-channel dimmers, which were placed in the grid to reduce cabling. Because of the way the beams came out of the lamps of the pinspots at bizarre angles, it was impossible to focus them into a line along the ground. Instead, I focussed them to look straight from the perspective of the audience on that side of the stage. I controlled these both as standard channels and as a pixel map on the console, which was my laptop running ETC Nomad.

The centrepiece of the design, which also functioned as part of the set, is the group of four office florescent tubes hung in the middle of the grid. They produced a very diffused light, which was useful not only to create the atmosphere of a government-run institution, but also it did the grunt work of lighting the middle of the stage, and the faces of those standing on the outside facing inwards. The low grid height meant that these practicals felt very oppressive, which helped to add the the feeling of confinement. One set is "open white", which I use mainly in the first act, the other is gelled with L246 to create a really dirty-looking light, which I use the institution becomes more like a prison and less like a home-away-from-home.

My other main general cover is a set of six Strand Quartets in R372, which I placed inside the light cage. I was keen for my lighting to be as contained as possible within the cage, motivating the light to come from within the prison. The neutral gel (I like to think of it as a "warm grey") meant that it would work in a variety of tones of scene. I also placed some 1K fresnel downlights with scrollers, which would allow me to wash the stage in different colours: standard colours for the scenes, and more saturated blues (L197, L195, L071) for the projection sequences and presets.

The effect of this heavy downlight package was that I could choose to create shadows under the eyes of the actors when the scene called for a sinister or desolate tone. I did not always want this to be the case, so I placed 4x Source 4 25-50º (with scrollers) on booms in two opposite corners of the space at eye-height. I shuttered these into letterboxes to cover the face and down as far as the top of the chest, to keep them out of the eyes of the audience. To fill in the rest of the body, I used a pair of Source 4 Lustr 2s (generously lent to us by ETC) with 50º lenses on booms in the other two corners of the space. They were much brighter than expected, and really excellent units - I can't remember using them above 70%. Given that we're in the round there isn't really 'sidelight', although these came as close as I could to functioning in that way.

I also had some other generic cover around the outside of the stage, made up by Selecon Acclaim fresnels. Two sides of the square had one each in R372 (to match the interior Quartets), and the other two sides had sets of 3. The middle, in R371, was used to create a stripe across the stage for intimate scenes with two characters in the middle of the stage, allowing me to confine the space further. One side had the other two in L702, which acted as a warm wash without feeling 'homely'. The other had L344 Violet, which was useful for the scenes in which we wanted to break the reality of the prison.

In opposite corners I had a pair of Source 4 36º with R371, focussed sharp, which was useful for creating a cold harsh light during scenes of intimidation. The other two corners had Quartets with L714 (my favourite deep blue), which was used towards the end to create the illusion of night, while the focus of the play moves away from the abstract concept of this institution to its practical consequences for two of the characters.

Finally, I had two Source 4 25-50º with an industrial window gobo inserted (DHA137), one in R372 and one L283. I used these when the characters in the scene were referring to life and events outside the prison to illustrate the idea of an external world in this otherwise windowless room, and as such were placed outside the light cage. They had their cables run to the booth, and I switched them out during the performance by unplugging one and plugging in another, as they were only ever used once at a time: R372 during the day, and L283 as the play moves into the evening. They looked really nice on the pool table in the presets.

I had one more Source 4 Lustr 2 as low as it could go on a boom in one corner. This was used to create an unsettling feeling, and produce large shadows on one corner of the space. I used it in neutral blues to in "normal" scenes that I wanted to destabilise, and I also used it in deep red (and sometimes strobing) for the scenes of graphic violence. I thought about doing this for a while, since the "red = anger" trope is not something I wanted to choose by default, but I thought that from a low angle, and also only used at very specific moments, it was appropriate.

Finally, I had a couple of "fun" lights - a Martin Atomic, graciously lent to us by SPGS, which I used in a moment of white-flash anger and for the climax at the end of Act I. I gradually increased the haze output from our two hazers in the sequence that leads to the end of Act I, so that by the time the strobe went off the strobe made the whole room completely opaque. I also a pair of moving lights that I bought from China from Beyond Lighting. I was really pleasantly surprised by these - they were well-built, very bright, and very precise. I used them primarily to either light a face if it happened to fall in a hole in the wash (a hole-free wash at 3m grid height is not easy), or to allow me to do specific pools of light in a dark stage. Their zoom range is great for that kind of thing.


I'm not going to list things that I did better or worse than last time, mainly because this play was so different from my previous ones that I don't think it'll be helpful. I would say, however, that I thought everything through much more thoroughly than my previous shows, given the dimmer restrictions (12 2000W/chan dimmers, and 6 with a total load of 3000W), and other space and power limitations (we managed to bring the whole show (other than the two dedicated dimmers) in at just under 40 amps, which we had to spread across three ring mains at school). It was also my first foray (ha) into Rosco gels, after having seen them in so many plots. R371 and R372 will now be my go-to neutrals, replacing L201 and L202, which I don't think dim as well.

Credits

Director: Andrew Broughton
Lighting: Alex Forey
Sound: Amos Jackson
Projection: Tom Kell
Film Direction: Felix Mercier

Animation: Guy Metter
Lighting Assistant: Liam Jackson
Sound Assistant: Otto Heese
Technical Assistant: David Jay

Special Thanks to Jeremy Roberts and Mahamed Mahamed from (ETC) and James Wakerell (SPGS) for loaned equipment.