Chess was an incredibly invaluable learning experience in designing for a musical, especially so for this special concert-staged version.
As a creative team, we had decided to center all design aspects to a “concert” staging of the show. We worked on the idea of having a goal-post truss since this would allow lighting to reach many downstage positions and also allow me to to have arrays downstage of the actors. It also allowed me to extend array positions into the proscenium opening instead of being limited to being to the side of the proscenium.
We decided to place the 25-piece orchestra onstage centre to direct the focus of the performance to be on the music. Minimal set pieces framed around this staging to help give us context to the music and set the storyline. There was also a large ensemble of 35 on risers on both sides of the orchestra; they were miked with a pair of small diaphragm condensers for each section. A total of 7 leads and 10 featured ensemble were on wireless handheld microphones to capture forward sounding vocals yet give them the freedom to move around the stage. The featured ensemble had individual lines as well as group vocals that were sometimes supported by the large ensemble.
Under the mentorship of Mike, we spent a substantial amount of time brainstorming various configurations of system design, but finally decided that Chess would be the one show that I can implement a stereo concert-style system without the typical musical theater vocal center, due to the pop-sounding instrumentation. I also intended to not have under-balcony fills if I could design a line array system that can deliver enough to the back of the house under the balcony. We realized this was very achievable in the Irvine Barclay Theatre - each array was broken into three components - the top 2 cabinets for the balcony, the middle 3 for the far end of the stalls (including mix position) and the last 3 cabinets for the stall seats nearer to the stage. The curvature of the arrays helped focus energy to the balcony and under-balcony but a wide splay covered the stalls nearer to the stage. We made sure to have even SPL to all three sections of the seating without losing any level in the stall far/mix position. This was the final design.
Not unexpectedly, there were some slight discrepancies with the truss height and audience seats, so we opted to add 4 Meyer MM4s for frontfills. This helped to cover the slight drop in the first two rows of the audience.
I had originally decided to automate orchestra faders every time there was a musical change. This proved to be too time consuming during tech and dress to make sure I updated all the correct scenes. Now on hindsight, perhaps I should limit myself to one snapshot per song as a start and add more snapshots only if it was needed. 🧡
The whole production process was a huge lesson for me in terms of managing a team of this scale. This was the first time I was lead designer in a musical this big. I learnt the importance of effective and clear communication with the director, musical director and my team. It was also a good reminder to always think a step ahead of the work schedule and design process. Designing my first big musical here at UCI has definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone to learn to interact with a team I have never worked with before. There’s still much for me to learn, but I’m grateful for this wonderfully challenging experience.
Photo credit: Paul Kennedy
Photo credit: Paul Kennedy
Kudos to Hunter for being such a patient assistant designer and for always keeping me on track when things got crazy! And kudos to Jack for being such an amazing mixer and team player!