Chameleon battles the rain for West Side Story
Wednesday, 24 April 2019
west-side-storyThe first musical to be performed on the harbour-side stage
Australia - After eight years of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH), Opera Australia presented West Side Story, the first musical to be performed on the harbour-side stage.
Boasting a stage that is almost two and a half times larger than any indoor stage in Australia, the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series is one of the biggest outdoor theatrical events in the country, and a highlight of the Australian cultural calendar.
The stage and venue are constructed from the ground up in just 25 days by a crew of approximately 150 people for an exclusive four-week performance season. The West Side Story set, designed by award-winning designer Brian Thomson, is an urban New York City-inspired stage design that features a highway overpass that weighs approximately ten tonnes and soars 15m above the stage, three custom-built subway cars and the West Side Story letters spelled across the back of the stage.
Cranes positioned the 80-tonne foundation of the stage onto nine pylons in the water to create a seemingly floating stage which can support up to 150-tonne in weight. Throughout the performance, the stage is accessed via a floating walkway that connects land and sea.
The custom-built venue includes the expansive stage which sits above the Harbour, an orchestra pit, which is hidden in the ‘underworld’ directly beneath the stage, plus on land there’s site and crew offices, dressing rooms, and grandstand seating for approximately 3,000 people. Along with the grandstand, there are multiple bars, food outlets, a restaurant and very respectable toilets!
For every one of the nine productions over the years, Chameleon Touring Systems has been an integral part of the design process, supplying lighting and crew for what can be a difficult set up.
For West Side Story John Rayment was appointed lighting designer and he wanted to find a style that allowed him to move from a seemingly ‘straight’ lighting plot into a more theatrical expression when it came to some of the musical numbers without jarring. After all, it’s a musical set in a naturalistic world, not a fantasy land.
“Not all the musical numbers call for an ‘it’s showtime!’ approach,” he explains. “By simply adding the floor cross-light to a monochrome street scene was enough of a lift for a couple of dance numbers. It all had to have an overall plausible sense of being 'real'. That said, there are grand moments in there for going off to dreamland just a bit.”
Major challenges for John included making the ‘real world’ not look too theatrical but still hold their own. Also, the dialogue scenes had to stand up against the musical numbers and not feel too much of a let-down visually.
The 25m angled backlight run under the freeway structure presented particular issues: every group tilt preset of the 20 Martin MAC 2000 Wash XB had to be individually composed since no two lanterns had the same angle of throw.
The centre FOH tower is always a compromise between the rigged movers on the outside and the followspots inside as the followspots have to make their shots between the two levels of lighting trusses, which means they rig differently than the other FOH towers. Each of the three FOH towers held a mixture of Claypaky Alpha 1500, VL3000 Spot and VL3500Q.
Jason Fripp programmed the show as he and John go back quite a long way, over many shows, and they have a great understanding. They set up the pre-visualisation out at the Olympic Park rehearsal venue for a week.
The weather Gods have been particularly unkind this season with unbelievable rain almost the norm. The Chameleon crew has had to work hard to keep the gear working and the constant rain has made maintenance very difficult at times.
(Jim Evans)

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