Let There Be Light!

What does a lighting designer do when asked to shed light (literally) on an epic original musical in a brand-new theatre space? Michael Chan lets us in on some of his lighting secrets for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens!

As a story, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (the actual name of J.M. Barrie’s original novel) has stood the test of time – like its titular character, it is a tale that never grows old.

Set in Serangoon Gardens, WILD RICE’s adaptation of this story takes on a Singaporean twist. In results-driven Singapore, the struggles of childhood are made more poignant – here, there often isn’t much room for child-like wonderment.

The arrival of Peter Pan literally opens a whole new world of possibilities for the children in this story. They gain the ability to fly, before going on to meet pirates and mermaids in a fantastical realm known as Neverland.

It is from this angle – where anything can happen – that I approached the lighting design for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens.

Michael’s lighting console during tech rehearsals

As a musical and a pantomime, the show required a lot of dynamic effects. To achieve the drastic colour changes, movement and dimming effects that help tell the story, we were blessed with state-of-the-art lighting equipment – most of which belongs in-house to WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan.

We also achieved a first in Singapore theatre with our fully automated follow-spot system, which was specially brought into the theatre for this show. More on this later!

Allow me now to zoom into a few of the musical numbers to highlight the equipment used and some of my design ideas.

Time for a Story

This opening number serves as a prologue to the show. On a Singapore evening, we meet children who are told to go to bed – to get ready for school – to stop being a child. The children respond in a hopeful, playful manner, culminating in a triumphant burst of music: “And if you wish it hard enough, believe and hope and laugh, you will hear it too…” While the song refers to hearing mermaids singing and fairies calling, I believe we can replace those ideas with any other dreams we might have.

The lighting for this song alternates between a cold, hard white state (during lines like “tuition teacher coming soon”) and a bright, warm cheery state (each time the children respond in hope). Through this dynamic snapping between two lighting states, I wanted to visually represent the conflict between the hard, stressed world of adults, which is full of struggles and worries; and the carefree, happy world inhabited by children.

The Lost Boys

Getting lost in the jungle with the Lost Boys!

When they arrive in Neverland, Wendy, John and Michael encounter the Lost Boys – an almost feral band of children living wild and free.

I chose to ‘paint’ this scene using deep, saturated shades of green and amber – thereby creating the look and feel of a dangerous, energetic jungle. Using gobos (textured images) and beams of light, we evoke a sense of sun rays filtering through leaves. The end goal was to give the audience a sense of being in the wild.

Leading Lights

It’s almost embarrassing to list all the award-winning technology found in WILD RICE’s world-class theatre. But suffice it to say that I had access to some of the very best equipment in the business – from the Martin Mac Aura to the Robe T1 Profile lights (which just won the PSLN Best New Series of Fixtures Award in 2019).

An interesting thing to note here is that all of those lights are LED-based. Traditionally, the theatre has used incandescent lights, which are wildly energy ineffective – with 90% of the energy turning into heat, and only 10% converted into light. LEDs are 75% more effective and last much longer, all of which means we are doing our part in being more eco-friendly.

The 3D prism effect created by Xtylos moving light

We were even among the first in the world to incorporate some new lighting technology into our production. The Xtylos, made in Italy by Clay Paky, is the world’s first moving light with a laser light source. It was quite a challenge for me to figure out how to use such an angled beam of light in a compact and intimate theatre.

But it worked brilliantly. We ultimately used it most extensively in By The Sea,the big opening number of Act Two – a song set underwater. I loved the unique 3D prism effect, which reminded me of moving air bubbles and added an extra sense of depth to the stage floor.

On the Right BlackTrax

Fully automated BlackTrax system set up in WILD RICE @ Funan!

Lighting actors in such an intimate theatre like this one can be quite challenging.

There are, of course, the traditional difficulties encountered by having a human follow-spot operator, whose job it is to ‘chase’ performers around the stage to keep them well-lit. A musical like Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens has a huge cast, which complicates matters further.

In effect, we would have had to give up extremely valuable seats within the theatre to make room for at least four follow-spot operators.

For these reasons and more, we decided to use the BlackTrax real-time tracking system for Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens – a fully automated lighting system also used by the likes of Cirque du Soleil.

Keeping track of multiple performers in a small space is a challenge – but not for BlackTrax!

Blacktrax isn’t just a more traditional 3D system, which can follow movement along the traditional XYZ axes. It actually operates in 6D, meaning our performers can yaw (twist about), pitch or roll around on stage, and Blacktrax will still be able to track them. And all we need in terms of space is enough room to house a computer backstage!

We also employed remote-controlled lights (wirelessly controlled via a micro-wireless DMX device made in Sweden) throughout the show to create magical moments for audiences. These include the fairy lights in Ting Tong Bell’s skirt, the two lanterns on the pirate ship and the skull eyes in Pirate Bay. Perhaps most memorable would be the moment when a hundred metres worth of fairy lights sparkle to life in the theatre – you’ll have to see the show yourself to find out when this happens!

Beyond that, I even time-coded the lighting cues – especially for all the big numbers – to music. That’s because there are over 500 lighting cues in this show. The stage manager would have had to call ‘Go!’ for lights practically non-stop and, after factoring in the reaction time of our lighting operator, the very tight cues might not always be executed correctly. So I worked out audio signals with Julian Wong, our music director, that allowed me to keep the lighting console and band in “live sync’ throughout entire songs. This means that our cues for all the songs are fully automated as well.

At the end of the day, a fantasy story like Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens calls for an escape into an Awfully Big Adventure – as Peter himself puts it – and I hope the lighting design has helped the audience to do just that!

Follow Michael on Instagram (@mcyf12) to keep up with his adventures in lighting design!

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