Lighting Designer Josh Epstein has designed for many of the top regional theaters in the United States, including the Mark Taper Forum, Guthrie Theater, Goodman Theater, and Arena Stage. Before the pandemic, he had the opportunity to create a lighting design for a new opera – and he put our new Miro Cube® 4CA fixtures to work as footlights in the production. The amber chip inside this RGBA light is unlike any other on the market, which is why Josh chose it as his footlight solution.
I had the privilege of designing the lighting for the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new Opera, Ellen West. The piece, based on a poem of the same name by Frank Bidart, had its premiere at Opera Saratoga in the summer of 2019 before it went to the Prototype Festival in New York City in January 2020. The opera was directed by Emma Griffin with scenic design by Laura Jellinek and costume design by Kaye Voyce. My assistant on the project was Jasmine Lesane.
Early in the design process, it became apparent that we were going to need to develop a very particular and specific lighting vocabulary with a fairly limited number of instruments. One of the sources of light that we discussed a lot was footlight. But, we needed to find a lighting fixture that met a number of conditions: it had to be small as there was a lot of staging on the floor that we couldn’t block; it had to be bright, as it was going to sometimes serve as the only source of light on stage; it needed to provide heavily saturated color at times; and it needed to have a white light that looked great and blended beautifully with a primarily tungsten light plot.
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan performs as Ellen alongside baritone Keith Phares as her doctor.
I thought for sure I was going to have to double up a set of tungsten birdies next to some sort of LED source in order to create all of the qualities of light I needed. But then I had the opportunity to see a demo of Rosco’s new Miro Cube 4CA at LDI. After seeing the quality of its phosphor-converted amber emitter, I thought it might be a good match for us and potentially eliminate the need to use two different sources of light. So, I reached out to Rosco and arranged for a demo fixture to get a closer look at the unit. I was instantly impressed with the fixture’s ability to mix both a subtle white and vivid colors. It was exactly what we were looking for on the opera and I immediately specified the unit as the footlights in my light plot.
The opera, Ellen West creates an emotional and psychological landscape in which the title character sings about her struggles with the perception of her body and her relationship with food in a world closing in around her. The sparse scenery by Laura Jellinek invokes the feeling of some of the turn-of-the-century Danish painters like Vilhelm Hammershøi and George Achen. Using the emotional quality of the gorgeous, sun-filled rooms created by those master painters as a starting point with which to introduce the audience to the space, I looked to shift and change the opening environment as we moved between the clinical descriptions of Ellen’s treatment by her doctor and Ellen’s deeply personal observations.
The Miro Cube 4CA worked beautifully in giving me the flexibility to make subtle color temperature shifts as we progressed from soft, reflected sunlight to cold, harsh, clinical lighting. The whites, both cool and warm, meshed nicely with the rest of my light plot, but the unit was also a capable workhorse as the scenes shifted into Ellen’s psychologically abstracted space filled with thick, lurid color. The deep colors I could produce with the Miro Cube were punchy enough to hold up, even with many other lights on around them.
There is a repeating bell motif throughout the opera and we often used that sound as a catalyst for enormous state changes in the lighting that took us deep inside Ellen’s mind. I had originally planned on only using the footlights for those moments of the piece because they could make drastic color shifts on a dime. But because I could also make such minute shifts to the color temperature of the white light the Miro Cubes produced, I found myself turning them on more and more. They really added an unexpected layer and depth to a variety of my lighting looks.
I was really proud about how the project turned out and was thrilled that it was recognized with a 2019 Knight of Illumination Award. I can’t wait to see what these lights can do on future projects and I look forward to getting back into the theater and using them again soon.
Josh Epstein is an LA Ovation and Knight of Illumination Award Winning lighting designer. He is also a faculty member at the USC School of Dramatic Arts and the creator of the collaborative theater software, Cuelist. Josh received his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three daughters. You can see more of his work on his website: www.joshepsteindesign.com.
If you would like to learn more about the footlight solution that Josh used in his lighting design for Ellen West, please explore the Miro Cube 4C & 4CA product page on the Rosco website.