Advice from an expert: Vol. VI. New technology is like new toys

Last week I had lunch with an exec. at PRG (the go-to shop for all lighting rentals for Broadway, car shows and the rest of the free world).  PRG was the original supplier of the lights in Phantom, the longest running show in Broadway history, which means it first installed the rental package 21 years ago.

As you can imagine, technology has changed a “watt” (sorry) over the last couple of decades.  So, Phantom had to change out all of their instruments, right?

Wrong.

Despite all of the advancements the lighting industry has made, the bulk of the Phantom package has stayed the same. They’ve swapped out the board, made some tweaks, changed some instruments and cabling (some changes were made for safety’s sake), but basically the same technology that thrilled audiences 21 years ago is still thrilling them today.

So what was the advice this expert imparted to me over burgers at Joe Allen’s?

Be careful of the new lighting technology companies that come out with new toys every year, making designers drool like 12 year old boys over the latest video game system.

It’s a Producer’s (and a parent’s) job to tell your designers (and your kids) that when times are tough, you have to play with the toys you have.  Because if toys from twenty years ago can still be effective, then last year’s toys can still be a lot of fun, and they are a lot less expensive.

Some designers/kids may cry if they don’t get the newest thing.  But the good ones will get creative.

I’d add that if your story is a good one, the audience won’t care what you’re playing with.

Comments
  • Brad Peterson says:

    I agree with you, for the most part.
    With a show like Phantom, there were other reasons not to overhaul the rig. The fixtures that were used when the show was originally designed output a completely different quality of light (I’m talking about the conventional – non moving – fixtures). Updating the conventionals to their much more efficent and modern counterparts would change the entire look of the show – which is completely off limits.
    Changing the console is only logical because today’s models are not only much more powerful, they are more reliable.
    Phantom isn’t hurting for money. They recently replaced their entire sound rig and cancelled two days of shows to achieve the install.
    I agree with you that designers need to be limited (we like to be as well!).

  • Thanks for the expert opinion, Brad! Just to clarify to everyone – this post isn’t about whether or not shows should redo their package if they are lucky enough to be a long runner. It’s about how audiences can be more than satisfied without having the most cutting edge and expensive technology on the market (because we all know, those lighting companies make money by developing new product).

  • Chris says:

    Absolutely true. Limitation breed creativity.
    I’m in school for design in theatre now and I can totally testify to this on the technical side too – a 20 year old lighting instrument is generally as effective as a brand new one. The only major advantage of switching out to new instruments would likely be energy efficiency – new lights are significantly more energy efficient than older lights, and this alone might make it worth it for a producer to swap out lights.
    That said, all the fancy intelligent lighting and robotic lighting and that stuff – it’s a bunch of fun (seriously, if you can play with a robotic light you will understand) – but it’s often unnecessary. My school doesn’t even own a stock of intelligent lighting; they want to teach us to rely on conventional lighting. It makes much more sense because, again – limitation breeds creativity – and it makes us better designers all around.
    Great post, hope your holidays are a success (in business and outside of it)!

  • Frank says:

    Nicely paternalistic view of your creative staff following on PRG’s paternalistic view of their customers. Kind of explains their reputation for customer service. But I’d note that like kids, your expectations of your designers behavior can have the unintended effect of actually manifesting exactly the behavior you are paranoid about avoiding. “Don’t… touch…. that!”

  • Not that I’d ever believe that a rep from PRG would be blowing smoke but this seems like driving a car by just looking in the rearview mirror. When “Phantom opened in 1988 at the Majestic (which took six months to load-in), the hype was about the “toys” rather than the story or even the score. From Frank Rich’s 1988 review: “The physical production, Andrew Bridge’s velvety lighting included, is a tour de force throughout – as extravagant of imagination as of budget.” “There are horror-movie special effects, too, each elegantly staged and unerringly paced by Mr. Prince. The imagery is so voluptuous that one can happily overlook the fact that the book (by the composer and Richard Stilgoe) contains only slightly more plot than ”Cats,” with scant tension or suspense. ”
    The tour package, which was state of the art at the time it went out, has to replace fixtures because there are no replacement parts for the moving lights. And when “Phantom” opened in Las Vegas not only was the lighting package updated, it was upgraded to “state of the art” again.
    The history of advances in stagecraft, from calcium lighting to A Chorus Line’s novel computer board, shows that these advances in fact bring more people into the theatre than keep them out and always have. At the same time the technology has created efficiencies that have cut production costs and manpower requirements. Or would you like to go back to piano boards? These advances can also enhance the artistic vision as demonstrated by Cirque due Soleil.
    As a producer, don’t make the mistake of eliminating the foghorn effect from “Long Days Journey” just because you don’t want to pay for a soundboard operator. The question is and always should be what does author and the audience want?
    To the young LD whose school only has conventionals: I hope the tuition you’re paying has stayed the same as it was as 25 years ago. Because if not, you’re going to be coming into the marketplace at a disadvantage and you’ll be learning how to run moving lights on some producers dime. And there will be a dozen people in front of you that will know how. Don’t let the school blow smoke in your direction either.

  • Frances Aronson says:

    Paternalistic outlooks and comments such as those expressed by the PRG rep make me see red. I suggest that you take a few designers to lunch–most of us are not gearheads, but we do like equipment that works consistently and efficiently. Source Fours simply work better than older equipment, no matter what Chris (above) thinks. They are smaller, more efficient, don’t warp templates, etc., etc. LED units use fewer dimmers to produce more colors, and because they don’t have moving parts, they are quieter. Advances will continue to be made that will save producers money and will save designers time (which also saves producers money). Moving lights have their place, whether used as refocusable specials in a crowded rig or for more showy effects.
    Shops don’t like to invest in new equipment unless they are sure that they will recoup their investment. Until then, they want you to use the equipment that is already sitting on their shelves. That’s business. But to denigrate designers for having ideas or for specifying something the shop doesn’t happen to have seems like very bad business to me.
    Brad Peterson (above) is correct that wholesale replacement of fixtures in Phantom would constitute a change of design, which is contractually forbidden.
    To be sure, there have been wonderful shows done with very little, as there have been wonderful shows done with the latest and greatest, Phantom and Les Miz included.
    If you treat your designers and creative team members like children, you breed resentment and game playing. Why not listen and work with them to achieve the goals of the production. After all, you want the show to look good, too.

  • Thanks for the great comment. Only one note . . . You said, “The question is and always should be what does author and the audience want?”
    That’s the ideal situation, but unfortunately, for a Producer, there is a very important third variable . . . what you can afford. 🙂

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