The last week was my second time working on production at this relatively new building called Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (the last time was in August this year). Once again, it is a Chinese opera showcase organised by Traditional Arts Centre, in which I am reprising the role of set and lighting designer.
Working in this theatre (auditorium to be exact) is a challenge, because basically it works more like an auditorium than a regular theatre. Staging-wise, there is no fly loft, so technically you can hang stuffs on fly bars, you can’t fly them out. Also, the mechanisms for the fly system makes an awful lot of noise while moving up or down, and they move relatively slow too, making scene changes with hanging sceneries a hassle. Since there is no way to fly scenery in and out seamlessly (and quietly), I decided to go for a minimalist and generic look on stage throughout the entire performance for both nights, perhaps something that is simple in fabrication and setting up (to try and keep the set cost to as low as possible), but still looks grand visually without being too over-the-top. That led to my concept of using an imagery of a typical Chinese opera headgear as the main icon of the stage backdrop, to give a sense of the stage being the “Chinese opera universe”. As the artwork for the backdrop was rendered vector-style using Adobe Illustrator, it looks a bit harsh visually, so to soften the entire stage visual, I added 3 translucent fabric with peony motifs behind the backdrop, with them peeking through the backdrop’s archway opening.
Lighting-wise they only have mainly ETC profiles with some fresnels and LED CYC lights. Hence it is hard to do good sculpting or to create good ambience lighting. The last time I worked there, I almost maxed out their entire family of on-stage ETC profiles to just create 2 systems of coloured wash to wash the entire stage, leaving me with only a few spare profiles for some specials. This time round, I saw that they had floodlights on the on-stage lighting bars, and I was delighted. Although I hate how the light from the floodlights spills uncontrollably everywhere, but at least I can still use them as a general no-colour wash, and free up more profiles for other purposes. To add colour on stage, I came up with 2 systems of high crosses (one amber and one blue) on stage, 3 systems of angled fill lights (one red, one blue and one open-white) coming from box booms, and mixed with 2 units of Philips LED wash lights (originally meant for washing their cyclorama). This kind of a lighting plot isn’t exactly ideal, but with such technical and logistical restrictions, at least it is still workable, as I have seen how Chinese opera troupes in the past rig their lights in similar configurations for touring performances on public make-shift stages. The end result is rather satisfactory, in my opinion. I managed to still create some mood lighting with colours here and there without having the face lights washing away all the colours on stage. Having said so, I had to really fine-tune the intensities of the face lights a lot, even during show time, trying to seek a balance between sufficient facial coverage for the actors and saturate-enough ambience colour wash for the stage.
The most challenging part, however, was how to get everything up in one day and opens the following day, without the luxury of watching full dress rehearsals prior to bump-in, or even get a glimpse of the respective opera troupe’s past performances of the excerpts they are going to perform. So the set was being rigged at 9am, light focusing commenced at 10am, and lighting cues had to at least half complete by 2pm for actors to do spacing with, and 70% done by 7.30pm for full run with lights, all within the same day. As such, I can only do a very rough plot based on snipplets of scenes I can find online performed by other troupes (to at least know how the stage blockings might have been), or based on what I feel the scene should feel and look like based on the script I was given, and then clean up on-the-fly during the spacing and full run. That is really tiring, but apparently this is a norm for Chinese opera productions here, due to high rental cost of theatre spaces, and many Chinese opera troupes just can’t afford to book extra theatre days for tech work. It may sound crazy for designers like me, but being the kind of person I am, I actually enjoy such challenges. In a way, the satisfaction gained when I see my design coming to life on stage is relatively higher than usual, due to the extra effort put in.