When Tony Awards season arrives, theatre mavens are sometimes befuddled by certain choices that have been made and shows that have been slighted. But when PLSN caught Pippin after it opened this spring, it was obvious why it was nominated for, and won, a slew of those coveted accolades. Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus has revived a 40-year old show and created a vibrant spectacle complete with athletic performers telling a tale of passionate soul searching and patricide under the alluring aura of a circus big top.
Tony Award-winning lighting designer Kenneth Posner embraced the chance to work on this musical, which is the third Diane Paulus production to move from the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) just outside Boston in Cambridge, MA (where she is artistic director) to the Great White Way. (The others included Hair and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.)
“Diane is extremely collaborative,” Posner told PLSN. “It’s a very inclusive process in the room. She appreciates a lot of voices, and she takes those opinions and observations and shapes them. I think that’s how Pippin evolved from its early days at the A.R.T. in Cambridge to what you see on Broadway today.”
The Broadway rendition of Pippin at the Music Box Theatre is very close to what was done up in Cambridge, according to Posner. Some adapting and adjustments were made for the Music Box, but the design essentially remained the same. “The A.R.T. space is much larger, and when we started production at A.R.T. the notion of moving it to Broadway was way out in the distance, and there certainly wasn’t a specific theater chosen at that point,” recalled the LD. “I never thought we’d be able to do it. I give credit to [design supervisor] Eddie Pierce and [scenic designer] Scott Pask’s folks for compressing that design from the A.R.T. into the Music Box. We lost a lot of depth, so we basically compressed it to fit in the depth of the Music Box, which was at least 10 feet shallower than the A.R.T. space.”
The focus of the show’s design was how it takes place within the world of the circus inside the tent onstage, with the mystery of what lies beyond the tent revealed at the end of the show (something not featured in the original production). “The research started with a lot of Eastern European circus performers, so the quality was more Brechtian than anything else, which is where we arrive at the end of the play,” said Posner. “But the notion of the circus and the color and life and magic of the circus world within the tent was always the core and central idea, and just embracing the architecture of the big top. Rather than making it a linear idea, it was much more of a circular idea. All the light really follows the contour of the tent surround.”
An important part of the lighting design concerned the grid over the stage and the performers. The real estate there had to be split between the acrobatic gear and the lighting truss in order to avoid having the circus performers shake the grid, a situation that could prove dangerous.
“Basically the way it played out was, Scott designed the set in collaboration with the acrobatic designer,” explained Posner. “Then I made a pitch for it — what I thought the best places for the lights would be within this circus canopy and embrace the notion of having less real estate and unusual places to put lights. I was steered into that design. It really helped create the angles that tied in well or embraced the shape of the space, the architecture of the canopy.”
Posner said they used fewer than 40 moving lights in the show and approximately 250 to 300 conventional fixtures; a lot of LED sources built in (to the set pieces and in a ground row on the floor) and scenic electric (which drove the show). There were also lights hung on curtains and the presence of ring curves “which are the little benches that are moved in place around the space. The actors mask that little lighting trough.” Another spot for LEDs and light fixtures was inside “the chute,” which was “that upstage proscenium arch where the performers and circus props came out of.” Using LEDs on a show like Pippin — in which the lighting schemes vary from the bright, eye-popping circus sequences to the darker, more intimate moments when Pippin spends much time with his wife and contemplates his life — help a lot, especially as the LD noted he gets “terrific color rendering and color variety” from them.
There are between 500 and 600 called light cues in the show, and a majority of those transpire in the first act, which has more of the circus sequences. The second act is more introspective and reflective as Pippin, now living with his wife after taking over his father’s kingdom by assassinating him, tries to sort out his life and what he wants from it. “Most of the second act they’re at Catherine’s estate, and the light really does collapse and focuses in,” said Posner. “It was about collapsing the environment down so you could really focus on the story and their relationship. The tent can become very vast and almost like a sky, but it could also transform and become very, very intimate and recede and become a darker environment.” Similarly, the scene in Act I where Pippin murders his father King Charlemagne in a church also has that more intimate lighting feel.
“From a storytelling point-of view, we spent the most time solving the ending,” noted Posner, “the notion of what is extraordinary and the notion of the fire and Pippin demonstrating this to his fellow performers and his leading players orchestrating all of this. From a lighting point-of-view, it wasn’t technically complicated, but it was certainly a part of the play that we all collectively spent the most time in solving, and finding the right vocabulary.”
Unlike many modern Broadway musicals, Pippin is not a constant parade of razzle-dazzle. It offers a wider variation in mood and emotions that, during its second act, allows the audience to pull away from the illusion of the circus scenes and the illusions that Pippin has about life. “Pippin goes back to old-school stagecraft — simpler gestures; a performance-driven, music-driven experience,” observed Posner.
Pippin gave Posner the chance to work again with scenic designer and fellow Tony Award winner Scott Pask, whom he has collaborated with on Elling, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and 9 To 5. “He’s such a gifted guy and amazing collaborator,” said Posner of Pask. “He’s such a smart dramaturge. He opened up this piece 40 years after it was done on Broadway brilliantly and iconically by [LD] Jules Fisher, [scenic designer] Tony Walton and [costume designer] Patricia Zipprodt. To have this opportunity to revisit it was certainly thrilling and humbling and also took a lot of care.”
Posner also enjoyed the physicality of the circus performers. “They are truly athletes. The notion of what a circus performer brings to Pippin versus what a typical Broadway performer brings — they’re different skill sets. And the way that [choreographer] Chet [Walker] and [associate director] Nancy [Harrington] and Diane morphed and blended these two worlds together is, for me, where the magic is derived from.”
Although Posner has worked on many Broadway productions, he relishes the chance to work on smaller off-Broadway shows that offer different opportunities. “I do a lot of them,” he said. “They don’t get the same recognition as a Pippin or Kinky Boots, obviously, because of the Broadway exposure, but one of my favorite pieces I did last year was a musical at The Public called Giant. Frankly, I thought it was some of my best work in a long, long time. I was given a beautiful landscape to light and the score was glorious, very much in the spirit of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. It was huge, with a 27-piece orchestra in the pit, and no one knew about it.” Despite receiving Drama Desk and Obie Award nominations, it didn’t really shake up the mainstream.
When asked if he learned something new on this latest production, Posner replied, “I think you learn something new every time you do a new show. I don’t know if I can pinpoint something specifically right now. Generally speaking, I learned a lot about the circus world and the notion of lighting performers moving through space, lighting three-dimensionally. So as the performer moved through the air they were lit, which is something I don’t normally have to deal with. That was a challenge that I embraced and fell in love with on Pippin.”