Digital Magic on Broadway
It's not often that a graveyard steals the show, but then again, it's not often that a graveyard flies.
The cemetery in question is a six-ton piece of scenery in the new Broadway musical "Dance of the Vampires," which is to open next month at the Minskoff Theater. The set piece makes its debut during a splashy second-act production number called "Eternity" in which a dozen campy vampires suddenly pop out of their coffins and break into song. (Hamlet's graveyard it ain't.)
But it is the way those coffins get there that is most likely to impress audiences. The graveyard, you see, descends some 50 feet from the theater's fly space, traveling vertically with the coffin lids facing the audience. The vampires' lair then tilts to a horizontal plane and magically eases onto the stage, even as the actors - complete with fangs, fright makeup and capes - crawl into position underneath for their entrance.
As all this is happening, dozens of so-called intelligent lights - which can move, focus and change color on their own - are spinning into position for the next cue overhead. At the same time, other set pieces are gliding in from the wings and fog is being pumped out of 10 smoke ports hidden in the stage floor. The noise made by the changeover is covered by music mixed by a computer-assisted sound board and pumped through about 100 speakers strategically placed throughout the theater. The entire time allotted for the set change is under a minute.
How does it all work?
"You hit one Go button," said Peter Fulbright, the show's technical supervisor. "And everything goes."
Mr. Fulbright may be understating things just a wee bit. The effects on display in "Dance of the Vampires," a $12 million comic musical starring Michael Crawford as Count von Krolock, a lecherous bloodsucker, also include a coffin leaping out of the ground, a castle drawbridge and a red-eyed bat that flies over the audience. All are a result of recent advances in stage technology.
Little more than a decade after a helicopter first landed onstage in the musical "Miss Saigon," theatrical designers are stretching the boundaries of what is possible with a variety of new digital tools that allow them to coordinate and control dozens of independent elements - lights, sound, sets and special effects - from a keyboard.
Or so they hope. The enormous capabilities and complexities of stage magic can also cause delays. "Dance of the Vampires," for example, had to cancel its first two preview performances this week because of technical difficulties.
The new technologies have been integrated with a variety of old-fashioned stage tricks and tools, including trapdoors, automation, motorized winches, steel wire and hydraulics, all of which are now operated and monitored by computers. They have also been integrated with manual labor, of course, which is still required to monitor and assist the machines in getting things on and off the stage smoothly.
"Here's how I think of a computer: a stagehand who does not need sleep, with 1,000 eyes, 1,000 ears and 1,000 fingers," said Peter Feller, the founder of Feller Precision, which has designed the backstage scenery controls for dozens of Broadway shows.
"Stagehands are still needed, but the computer adds a layer of control," he said. "Forty years ago he was pushing on scenery with his hand. Twenty years ago it was pulling a lever for each and every machine that had to move something. Today, it's hitting a Go button on a computer and making sure nothing goes wrong."
Computers and computer-assisted drafting have also changed the creative process that unfolds long before the curtain goes up, allowing designers to create elaborate 3-D models for every scene in a production as well as alter the look of a scene instantly.
The same phenomenon has found its way into the scene shop, where the actual physical creation of scenery takes place. Computer-guided lathes and paint machines are making quick work of what used to be intensely time-consuming labor. For example, there is the CNC router, a computerized cutting machine that can take a downloaded image and carve and shape a set piece in the time it takes for a coffee break.
"If you wanted beautiful little filigreed stuff on a handrail, it used to take hundreds of hours to carve out," said Chris Jaehnig, head of the technical production studio at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. "Now, you put it into the computer and it spits it out 15 minutes later."
Sound designers have also been able to ease the workload somewhat, using programs that combine dozens of fader levels into a handful, allowing operators to mix sound more easily. The computer also knows when singers are offstage and turns off their mikes accordingly so as not to let the audience in on any backstage gossip.
Perhaps the field that has been most affected by technological advances, however, is lighting. For years, lighting effects were time-consuming and labor-intensive, sometimes requiring a half-dozen electricians to adjust lights manually.
"In the old days, you'd have four guys," said Brian MacDevitt, a Tony-winning lighting designer ("Into the Woods," 2002) who got his first professional credit in 1978. "Three to hold the ladder and one to go up there and change the color gel."
Lighting board operators would have to set each light level by hand; a good operator handled about 12 dimmers if his fingers were long.
All of that began to change in the early 1970's, when lighting designers began to use primitive computer programs to set and control levels, meaning several successive light levels could be preset and then activated simply by pressing a Go button. In addition to freeing the operator's hands, the computer made sure that the levels were the same every time the cue was called.
"The repeatability of it was seductive," Mr. Jaehnig said. "You press the button and it does the same thing every time."
Computers also added a new layer of sophistication to lighting, allowing changes to unfold as slowly or quickly as possible to make effects like a sunrise more believable. For example, Mr. MacDevitt's most recent show, "Frankie and Johnny in the Clare de Lune," has a 15-minute-long cue simulating the movement of sun across a bedroom.
The first Broadway show to use a computerized lighting board was "A Chorus Line," in 1975. As soon as it was proved effective there, other theater designers began to consider computers as a tool.
In the early 1980's, scenic designers started to use computers to control the speed and placement of set pieces as well as those of the backdrops and other set pieces flying into and out of the theater fly space. Computers began to be used in conjunction with analog sound boards around the same time.
Lighting, however, continues to be the most sophisticated of theatrical mediums, driven mainly by the constant need for bigger and better lights in rock-and-roll shows. State-of-the-art "intelligent lights" can rotate 360 degrees and are now all equipped with motorized irises, which change the size of the beam; with "gobo" spinners and changeable gobos, which change the shape of the light; and color-changing systems, which allow designers to mix subtle colors without touching a single gel. This sophisticated equipment requires an additional crew member called a moving-lights programmer, who works with the lighting designer to create complex visual effects.
The more these technologies are used, especially in blockbuster international musicals like "Phantom of the Opera" (in which a chandelier famously drops onto the stage), the more they are expected by audiences and directors. "Everybody got spoiled," Mr. Fulbright said. "People expect it now."
As do employers. All graduating theatrical-design students "are expected to be able to use computers to draft and design," Mr. Jaehnig said. "You have to."
Still, Mr. MacDevitt, who teaches lighting at Purchase College of the State University of New York, says he teaches students to "try to prevent the gear from getting ahead of the show," and envision everything as if they "have six lights and six dimmers."
Indeed, some designers are also somewhat skeptical of the aesthetic potential of computer-assisted drafting and devices like the CNC router. "The computer doesn't have the ability of an artist," said David Gallo, the 36-year-old designer who created the scenery for "Dance of the Vampires." Mr. Gallo still hand-draws and paints most of his scenic designs. "The machine tends to sharpen things off - a jagged line or other ramshackle elements - and sometimes you want things to look a little ragged," he said.
For all the time-saving advantages of computerized theatrical devices, there are limitations. There are also some effects that simply cannot be computerized, like the illusion of flying in "Vampires," which is created by actors on wires onstage and by stagehands who control their flight with pulleys and steel cable.
All of this can make old-timers a little wistful for simpler times.
"If the computer crashes, you're toast," said Mr. Fulbright, surveying a bank of monitors backstage at the Minskoff. "It's almost impossible to run a show like this manually anymore."