Michael O’Connor is the resident Lighting Designer at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. AADA recently produced “Robin Hood,” a musical rendition of the infamous thief from Nottingham, which was written and directed by Tony Award-nominated playwright Douglas Carter Beane. Below Michael tells the tale of how the collaborative process of the production forced him to re-think how he normally uses color in his lighting plots.
Color is always relative but designing for a brand new production of Robin Hood pushed me out of my comfort zone and opened my eyes to some wonderful new pallets. The story has many locations, which we created using a beautiful unit set, thanks to set designer CJ Howard, that could be both interior and exterior locations. Rough cut timbers created the framework of Nottingham Castle while doubling as tree trunks when in Sherwood Forest. A hidden foliage drop up stage also helped distinguish each scene.
The choice of a unit set put a great deal of responsibility on my plate, as it would be up to the lighting to sculpt the scenery and change it into the locales needed in each scene. The production was mounted on a thrust stage, with audience on three sides, so the timbers and the floor became my CYC.
After seeing CJ’s set design and Gregory Gale’s costume design I knew I had my work cut out for me. Greg’s pallet and textures forced all of my color choices to become more bold and saturated. For example, I’d planned on the warm side light for the set to be R316 and R18 originally, but ended up choosing R21 and R23 for their vibrancy. The contrast of the two next to each other was magical.
The next step was to take the already radiant costumes and make them pop even more. Again, due to the boldness of the costumes, the R305 and R371 I was going to use were out, and R52 and R55 were in as my diagonal front light. I have used each of the colors before, but never together for a front light on a thrust stage. R55 as a cool was perfect for highlighting all of the cool colors and lavenders – and it never muddied the greens or browns like other lavender filters can. Neither had the transmission level I was comfortable with, but once we brought up cues the cast began to glow.
Next I had to navigate the riches of Nottingham Castle against lush Sherwood Forest. The castle became layers of warmth with each scene motivated by open flame torches or hanging candle chandeliers. We wanted the idea of opulence but with a resonance of evil. Golds, Ambers, and Reds fit the bill: R17, R25, and R30 were the primary washes.
By contrast, Sherwood Forest was all about gobos and mixing color – which, again, took me into unfamiliar territory to achieve the looks we wanted. I dappled the floor with a mix of the rich blue greens found in R395 and R72 and the deep straws of R14 and R15 to create the underbrush of the forest. I chose a template I have used many times for a leaf break up – R77570 “Sponged” – because it has the perfect balance of break up with just enough edge to not appear soft. Finally, I added some R73 and R75 to give the set a dreamy exterior tone. All together, the colors and the gobos provided the harsh reality of being fugitives in the forest while maintaining the rich passion and hope of Robin and his Merry Men.
Being a part of Robin Hood at the Academy was a special experience. Writing a hundred and fifty cues in only six hours became fun by hiding them in Lewis Flinn’s beautiful score. The wealth of energy from the young cast was inspiring to the whole creative team and made all the color risks I took more than worth it.
Photography: Mark Wyville