Don Slater Shines a Light on QTC’s DOUBT: A PARABLE

When you are part of a theater company for a long time, many aspects of the work become much easier because everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Not to mention why they are doing it and how they are doing it. This very true of my role as QTC’s resident lighting designer. For a typical Quotidian show, Jack Sbarbori (QTC’s co-founder and Artistic Director) is both the director and the set designer. He sends me the script of the show and his set design. I read the script several times and I review the set design. I may have a question or two and those are usually resolved by email. Working within the constraints of the space and the facilities, I build a lighting design for the show. I also do all of the electrical work. Set construction, set painting, sound, costumes, and everything else is covered by others, usually Jack and Stephanie Mumford (the other co-founder). We tend to know exactly what each wants and/or needs and we get everything pulled together, often a couple days ahead of the opening.

Occasionally, we ask someone outside of the company to direct one of our productions. It provides our audiences with a different look from what they see under Jack’s direction. We have had several very successful productions directed by outside directors. Doubt is one of those productions. It is directed by Stevie Zimmerman, an acclaimed local director, working with us for the first time. Many directors have a strong preference for the designers they wish to work with. Stevie expressed such a preference for the set designer and brought Colin Dieck to the production and he has created a wonderful set for us. I was asked to do the lighting and Stephanie designed the costumes.

For Doubt, QTC has a new sound designer and board op in Matthew Datcher. Matthew has extensive experience in the local community theater world and comes to us highly recommended. As one might expect, with several new people involved in the process, there were some surprises. Because I am the de facto technical director of QTC, it meant drawing on some technical theater skills I have not used for 40 years.

Our regular scene carpenter had a New York gig causing a conflict with work on Doubt, so we had to improvise a bit on the set construction. Stevie connected us with Bruce Wiljanen, an excellent carpenter, and builder. Colin found us a scenic artist to do the paintwork. However, part of the set design consisted of 19 24” wide panels of black scrim creating the walls of the set. While Bruce was building the platform, door unit, and stairs that would define the office, it fell to me to handle the scrim. I have done some work with softgoods (anything in a theater made of fabric) and with rigging since leaving college, but not a lot and not recently. Working with Jack, we ordered a piece of black scrim 16’ high and 13 yards wide. When it arrived, I set up a work area at the theater where I could cut it into 24” wide panels. At the local hardware store, I acquired several screw eyes, 65 feet of 1/8” aircraft cable, and clamps. And 30 feet of 2” wide heavy duty adhesive backed Velcro. As I cut each scrim panel, I applied Velcro strips to the top in such fashion that I could fold the scrim over the cable suspending it and have the Velcro fasten it in place. Next, I attached two steel rings to the gridwork above the upstage center of the set. Then I placed two screw eyes into the beam above the downstage edge of the stage at the far ends. The aircraft cable is stretched from the downstage left corner up to the center rear and then back down to the downstage right corner. I did consult a couple of my old rigging manuals on the proper use of the clamps, though it is a pretty simple load. I hung the 19 panels on the wire and attached them to either the set or the floor at the bottom. Part of the set is a large wood cross suspended from the ceiling downstage center. Because Colin wanted the cross hung at an angle (looming over the audience) I had to attach it to the ceiling at three points. Six more screw eyes, three in the ceiling and three in the cross. By attaching the cross at the top of each arm and then at the base, it was easy to adjust the angle at which it hung and it did not spin. Finally, on the stage left side, opposite the door to the office, the design called for a window. We used a frame with no glass hung just outside of the scrim panels to create a window. Another couple of screw eyes and more tie line from the grid and the window was up.

Now I could go ahead to focus and color my lighting instruments. I chose to light the scrim panels with fresnels on the floor pointing up. It is a very good effect. The front lighting is broken into the lights in the office and the lights in the garden as well as those used for the sermons. I also have two small ellipsoidals (spotlights) lighting the cross. This is a pretty severe play and my color choices tend to reflect that feeling. There is very little warmth in the interior lighting. For the garden, I have provided a set of warm toning lights and a cool set as well. As we brought the production together over the days prior to opening, we ran into a couple of problems. The audio system was producing a lot of hum, probably from a grounding issue. And when we all saw the completed set with lights, it was obvious that the color of the window frame was too light (sort of an off white). It would need some paint. Stevie asked that it be painted roughly the same shades of brown as the door.

The morning of our opening, I arrived at the theater about 9 am. I had a lengthy list of items to resolve. Unfortunately, most of them involved multiple trips up and down the 14’ trestle ladder. I got a lot of exercise that day. I had to isolate the power circuit for the speakers, run the 2 100’ signal cables Matthew (the sound guy) had dropped off to replace the aging speaker cabling, make adjustments to several of the scrim panels, work off several lighting notes, and paint the window. On the plus side, I had all day to do this. I had put some thought into how I would paint the window and I started by completely painting it flat black. Now the brown paint that would go over it would not be competing with the white paint below it. I left that to dry and went to work on the sound system. First I had to identify a power circuit that was not being used by any part of the lighting system. Having accomplished that, I ran new power cables to both speaker units. Over the next three hours, I ran the new signal cables from the speakers to the booth at the rear of the theater, moving the ladder about three feet at a time. When the cabling was finished, I completed the fastening of six scrim panels to the floor and then made the necessary adjustments to remove the sag from a couple of the panels. Then I returned to painting the window. There were two shades of brown paint in the collection, but one of them was almost gone. I used the lighter colored brown paint thinly over the black, allowing some of the black to show through. While that was drying, I worked off the lighting notes. I returned to the window with the dark brown paint and lightly brushed that over the previous coat. Now I could add scene painting to the list of theater skills revived after 40 years. I had finished my list. I cleaned up and packed up my gear. Our opening went very well and the speaker noise is greatly reduced.

It was all a bit too last minute for my taste, but it was successful. In addition to working with some very talented new people, I found that I still knew how to rig the softgoods and create a specific look in paint.

DoubtLightMost of QTC’s shows are done in some type of box set, using painted flats as walls. This set design is a significant departure from that form. The walls are formed by the scrim panels, which are both ethereal and menacing at the same time. They help to convey the ambiguity that is central to the theme of the play. The cross floating above the stage continuously reminds us of the importance of the Church in neighborhoods such as The Bronx in 1964. One of the new lighting elements is the use of instruments on the floor. This is something I have done in many other venues, but never for a QTC show. I was also very careful to separate the lighting of the office from the lighting of the garden/pulpit downstage. This helps with the flow of the scenes as it allows actors to clear the previous scene while the new scene is starting.