- Written by Lisa Mulcahy
- Published: 06 March 2012
War Horse, the now legendary World War I drama depicting the devotion of a boy to his horse, has moved stage audiences in two countries (its National Theatre of Great Britain production in the West End transferred to Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont and won five 2011 Tony Awards, including Best Play). One of the most striking elements of the show is its highly evocative lighting design by Tony winner Paule Constable—her concept masterfully contrasts war and peace, skillfully bringing both the battlefield and countryside to vivid life. Bringing that concept to life—both in development and day-to-day now that the show has opened—is a complete team effort. We asked Constable and her crew to describe how they built War Horse, and how they approach their daily work on War Horse—to them, a challenging but immensely rewarding undertaking.
For Constable, War Horse represents a total meeting of creative minds. “The brilliant thing about this show is that it is a fabulous model of collaboration,” she says. “I’ve worked with co-director Marianne Elliott for 14 years, and scenic designer Rae Smith for 18 productions. Critically, Marianne, Rae and I have built a great sense of trust. Right from the beginning, too, our co-director Tom Morris pulled ideas together with the sense of making a piece of theatre as collaborative artists. So on an average day, it was clear early in rehearsals that the different disciplines of my collaborators could help me decide what I was I was going to do—that the physical shape of the production let my design develop with it.”
As rehearsals progressed, Constable also began to incorporate the work of puppetry directors Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones from the Handspring Puppet Company, architects of the show’s famed horses. “Meshing ideas was everything, as was really paying attention to the idea of space,” explains Constable. “That meant understanding what our puppetry directors intended, and how Rae worked bringing the story to life within the premise of World War I, which was the first war to use man-made machines—the first man-made war. It utilized automatic machine guns, tanks, gas attacks—so in War Horse, from a design element, we feel in the first half of the play an expressionistic world of Edwardian aesthetics, then suddenly, we shift to battle, to people being ripped apart. As we follow Joey the horse on his journey, we first experience this literal, beautiful idea of Devon, warm, comfortable and nostalgic, and then we change—the lighting in the war sequences to me had to feel chemical, like acid blues and greens. That split is essential.”
Fast-forward to bringing the original design to Lincoln Center; Constable continued honing the specifics of her design not only during workshops and rehearsals, but during previews as well. “In coming to New York, we said, ‘This show will never be definitive; we want it never to be complete, or feel fixed, ’” she explains. Keeping this fluidity for Constable meant watching each run, then leaving notes for the next day—“you want to keep fresh and start fresh. Each morning around 9, I’d meet with my lighting guys, giving them a list of lights that needed to be moved, physical tasks like that. Then the creative team met to discuss notes—we’d share what worked, talk over changes. The actors would then come in, and it was a matter of watching them go through the show. Often, shifts I’d make in lighting depended on 20 different elements, working off the director’s choices, the other designer’s choices. So much of my lighting board notes on a daily basis had to mesh with sound design—I must say, every single sound effect in War Horse is an explosion!” Constable feels those vivid effects sum up the show perfectly: “Every person in the audience has a different experience watching War Horse—we really are saying to our audience, ‘Come along with us—we’ll wake your senses up!’”
The lighting for War Horse was designed to emphasize the split between an idyllic home and the barrage of war.
The Lighting Team
Constable’s War Horse lighting co-workers/crew not only enjoyed the technical challenges of bringing her design to life, they felt great admiration for the production’s creative architects. “A wonderful group of people to work with,” enthuses Karen Spahn, U.S. lighting associate. Victor Seastone, lighting programmer, also appreciated the ease with which the show’s U.K. lighting team introduced specs to the Lincoln Center crew. “Nick Simmons, the U.K. lighting associate, was present to help decipher and interpret the show file,” he recalls. “Paule and Nick were both so prepared, and so thoroughly pleasant and generous that it was a joy to help out any way I could.”
Hudson Scenic built a custom deck haze system for War Horse on Broadway to ensure even distribution of haze to help effects pop.
As the show went into the Beaumont, Production Electrician Patrick Merryman focused on adjusting the plot from its U.K. incarnation. “We made a couple of minor adjustments to the rig during the pre-hang, and after that it was mostly about updating cueing to accommodate script and set changes,” he says. His biggest technical challenge? “Paule had used a deck haze system on a production of Les Misérables in Madrid that she wanted to incorporate into War Horse in New York. We worked with Hudson Scenic on the design and construction of custom troughs and how to fit them into the show deck. Hudson built the prototype, and sent it to us to test—it worked great for even distribution, but when pressurized it became a giant whistle! Fortunately, we had discovered that by covering the top with fabric, and re-punching the holes, it completely eliminated the whistling—that was apparently caused by hard edges drilled through the aluminum.”
The Beaumont production required lighting control be consolidated into one control surface where the West End version ran two consoles. This issue was easily solved, says Seastone: "The Catalyst media server was added as a fixture on the Eos console. We programmed lights and video on two separate consoles for the first few weeks of tech, and then we merged show files onto one console and continued on a fully integrated system," he explains. “We also brought in a few effects to the battle sequences, and to assure synchronization between elements, used a few MIDI show control triggers from the sound department.”
Spahn kept organization of all lighting elements tight and seamless. “I was at the table with Paule and Nick, learning the show from them,” she recalls. “I also worked directly with the followspot operators—using the UK show as a base, we developed the followspot cues for this production.” Spahn’s precise documentation was invaluable: “It’s important to have a good record of the show, to maintain the lighting and for use in future productions, like the U.S. tour.”
War Horse Crew Members The Vivian Beaumont electrics crew on War Horse, from left to right. Front row: Frank Linn (kneeling), Automated Tech; Joe Pizzuto (sitting), Pyro Tech; Second row: Adam Smolinski, Deck Sound and Mix; Jeff Ward, Followspot; Standing: Bill Burke, Projection Tech; Larry White, Deck Sound and Mix; Marc Salzberg, Production Sound; Bruce Rubin, Head Elec./Board Op; Pat Merryman, Production Electrician. Not pictured: Dan Rich, Followspot.
Now that the show has settled into its hit Broadway run, what’s the team’s daily routine like? “A typical show day starts at 6:30 with the preset hour,” says Merryman. “My crew consists of 10 members; we run a position check of all automated and conventional units, the projection system, the effects systems (deck haze, gas effect, lift smoke, general atmospheres, sail LED units, and the tank machine pyro effect), the sound system and wireless microphones. We fix anything that comes up from this initial check, and go through the system channel by channel to check conventional unit focus. We try to be off the revolve by 7:10, so that the daily fight rehearsal and notes from stage management for the cast and crew can take place onstage. Around 7:30, Production Stage Manager Rick Steiger asks for the preset to be put in; around 7:55, my crew heads to their show positions and stand by for the top.”
For Merryman , accomplishing that perfect daily precision springs from the fact that War Horse was conceived so well from the start: “Everyone knew what it needed to be from the London production,” he says. Karen Spahn sums it up best when she points out the most important element of War Horse’s success: emotionally resonant material: “The most rewarding thing to me about working on this production is working on a play I believe in—with a story that touches me emotionally.”