Angels in America - National Theatre

Movie / Theatre

Tony Kushner’s epic two-part drama Angels in America was first seen at Britain’s National Theatre back in 1992. Now to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the plays have returned to the National, in a new production directed by Marianne Elliott and with lighting by Paule Constable (a duo whose previous collaborations have included War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), alongside scenic design by Ian MacNeil and costume design by Nicky Gillibrand, whose work together has included Billy Elliot.

From the earliest model showings Laurie Clayton, the lighting supervisor for the National’s Lyttelton Theatre where the show was to be performed, knew that it would present a number of challenges. In particular, there was a desire to include lighting in elements of scenery carried on the show’s three revolves plus separate rim revolve yet there was no depth in those revolves to incorporate slip rings to power that lighting. And there were many practicals that would either travel on stage as part of moving scenery or be carried on stage by the cast and set on the revolves or other areas of the set, which spread across every inch of the Lyttelton’s stage and beyond.

But Clayton already knew the solution to these challenges: RC4 wireless dimming. And not only did he know the solution, but he had quite a stock of RC4 products already available in-house to implement that solution.

“I think the first time we used RC4 products was on One Man, Two Guvnors back in 2011, when we bought one transmitter and six two-way dimmer modules. We used the same set-up on the tour, and they worked flawlessly,” he explains. “Since then we’ve added to our stock as we’ve needed to for productions such as Curious Incident and Great Britain, so we have a pretty good stock of RC4’s products in-house now. But the demands for Angels in America were so great that even with that stock, we had to do some shopping, adding a further ten dimmer modules of various types.” The additional units were quickly delivered by RC4’s UK distributor, Lamp & Pencil.

Angels in America’s RC4 kit list features 10 RC4Magic DMX4dim four-way dimmer modules, two RC4Magic DMX4dim-500 high-capacity dimmer modules, and 20 RC4Magic DMX2dim two-way dimmer modules. Some are mounted to scenery, some hidden in stand-alone furniture, and some concealed in individual practical light fittings: as well as a good stock of RC4 dimmer modules, the National also has a healthy stock of batteries and battery chargers to power everything. During the tech period, the National’s lighting team found good LED substitutes for the tungsten lamps originally fitted in some of these practicals, which presented no problems to the RC4 dimmers and dramatically extended the working life of the batteries. “Plus the RC4s great control of LEDs meant we had no problems at all when the TV cameras came in for the NT Live world-wide broadcast of the shows,” Laurie Clayton notes. He also comments particularly on the compact dimensions of the RC4 units, which lets them be hidden away in even the smallest of props or tightest of spaces: “no-one else makes anything as small.”

All of the receivers are fed by one RC4Magic DMXio transmitter, mounted behind the proscenium on one side of the stage. “The signal from that gets everywhere; we have had no problems at all with coverage, which is pretty impressive given that we’re using the full width and depth not just of the stage but of the scene docks behind and next to the stage!” However, the RC4 system’s unique ID ensures that there is no chance of interference with RC4 systems in use in the National’s other two auditoria.

While most of the RC4 units are used very traditionally, as wireless dimmers, one is used for a more complex effect: a telephone switchboard has a Raspberry Pi computer hidden inside to detect which buttons on it are pushed by the actor. This information is transmitted via WiFi to the sound control computer to trigger the relevant sound effect; the sound desk then triggers the ETC Gio lighting console via the OSC protocol, which then turns on the appropriate light in the switchboard via RC4 dimmers.

Though Angels in America is now approaching the end of its National Theatre run, the National’s RC4 stock will be kept busy with uses already lined up on the company’s next two productions. “They’re a great product,” Laurie Clayton notes, “tiny, versatile, reliable, do just what they promise, and with great support from the manufacturer and their distributor here on the odd occasion when something does go wrong or, more likely, when you need to make the dimmers do something no-one’s ever made them do before.”

Written by Rob Halliday.