Sydney Theatre Company’s Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
By Cat Strom.
The Sydney Theatre Company’s Muriel’s Wedding the Musical has just wrapped up at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre after a highly successful run of sold-out shows.
The production, a theatrical version of PJ Hogan’s iconic hit film, was updated to today by the writer himself, and featured original music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall alongside those beloved ABBA numbers.
The dream theatre director/designer team of Simon Phillips and Gabriela Tylesova lead a stellar creative team which also included choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, sound designer Michael Waters, musical supervisor Guy Simpson and musical director Isaac Hayward.
Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest had worked with both Simon and Gabriela in the past, his main tasks were to contribute to the playful spirit of the musical, tracking Muriel’s emotional journey and supporting Gabriela’s boldly minimal set of brightly coloured panels.
“The set design incorporates lots of block colour which needed to be lit quite flatly and subtly in terms of colour,” commented Trent. “I’ve always been confident with colour choices and combinations, and it was exciting for me to play with the colour stories in this show; bright and fresh for Porpoise Spit and grungy and rusty for Sydney, amongst others.
“My colour decisions required readjustment during plotting and teching with consideration of the bright green floor. It doesn’t take many colours particularly well, and very quickly goes Olive or Brown, so I was often figuring out how to light the floor first, then find the actors and other scenery as specifically as possible. Traditionally you may get away with some scenery ending up lit by the bounce off the floor, but in our case everything needs considered and particular direct light.”
One of the challenges for Trent was that the set moved so much; sliding walls and smothers that close down to various apertures meant that every position had to work very hard.
“There are a number of small domestic scenes and quick transitions that take place downstage in order for a big scenery change upstage, so the rig above and around the downstage needed to work quite hard,” added Trent.
“My rig needed to be designed with plenty of flexibility. I aimed for as many different colour temperatures from as many different places as I could. I have been asked why I had so many varying fixture types on LX1 and it’s purely because I needed the ability to have a Tungsten wash together with an arc shutter together with some LED.”
Consequently LX1 held Martin MAC Auras XBs, Claypaky Scenius, Coloram scrollers, MAC TW1 Narrows, Vari-lite VLX Wash, and VL110 arcs. Trent says that the MAC TW1’s delivered nice tungsten pools, the MAC Auras blasted colour and the Claypaky Scenius provided shuttering and gobos.
“It’s a very transitional show, we’re never in one place for very long,” explained Trent. “The design needed to keep evolving and support each of the scenes. I designed a nifty trick of a run of GLP X4 20 Bars just upstage of the most used smother, and they basically travelled with that smother throughout the show so I had a very direct backlight coming in through the apertures. That way I could get the light curtains as well as a nice controllable back light.
“The GLP X4 Bars were really the hit of the design for me, it’s the first time that I’d used them and I loved them. Some GLP X4 10 bars were situated down the side of the proscenium to achieve pickups of side light as well.”
As the show required many specific shutter cuts and crisp, custom gobos, Trent chose Claypaky Scenius fixtures as the workhorse of the show and they soon became the backbone of the rig.
The time of year, the busy Christmas and New Year period, plus the length of season was a challenge as it meant gear was in short supply. Trent decided that he required fixture numbers as opposed to the latest and greatest gear, hence fixtures such as the twenty-four Vari-lite VLX Wash and twelve VL1100s in the rig.
“The fixture list was created in order to get it across the line, to give me as many controllable options as possible,” he said. “We could have had all spangly new fixtures however probably only half as many, but a huge thank you to Tony Davies and Chris Harrison at Chameleon Touring Systems for finding a balance with us.”
The twelve Vari-lite VL1100 AS were three each side on ladders plus four floating on deck on a roving boom. A couple overhead did a few special pickups required to fill gaps. VL3000’s provided a ¾ high side backlight plus tight pull picks ups and big highlights for entrances, midstage and upstage.
Trent commented that the MAC Aura XB’s did a lovely job as a really strong colour option and also as they zoom much tighter than the VLX, they were used to highlight people and scenery. Sixteen ShowPro HEX 16 were used for footlights, with Trent remarking that he chose an LED option as he wanted pixilation and their colour ability.
“They did lots of colour waves and effects plus little sectional highlights throughout the show,” he added. “There was also a run of LED RGB tape down in the footlight trough just to give the blue borders a little bit of light without overpowering the actors too much.
“The two products worked in tandem but should the show have another life, then maybe we’ll switch to something that is moveable and zoomable so I can chase the actors around or flood them out of the scenery wash.”
Atmosphere included one LSG low fog for the fantasy sequence, an MDG Atmosphere for general haze, and a JEM Magnum 1800 each side that got moved around a bit by the floor electricians to do nightclub effects and add a little extra smoke in the air when the atmosphere needs to be thickened. There were also lots of little cues for the Power Tiny that travels back and forth.
Analogue fixtures were a fairly standard rig of ETC Source Fours all lenses, Selecon Pacifics 12/28 + 23/50, HP Fresnels 1.2k / 2k, Source Four pars and CODAs. A couple of Robert Juliat Cyrano followspots worked hard but are kept subtle in the drama, coming to life in the song numbers.
Trent credits production electrician Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin, Head of Lighting at Sydney Theatre Company, with pulling the rig together and coordinating the set electrics under tremendous time constraints.
“I was always pushing Paddy with my timelines, deciding exact set electrics and equipment lists, but he was perfectly at ease and pulled the whole design together remarkably calmly.”
Pádraig worked with Roslyn Packer Theatre Head Electrician Andrew Tompkins to realise the large design in the venue which required some extra planning around Networking and Power distribution as it is the largest automated lighting rig to fill the RPT.
Trent commented “Tommo and the Ros Packer gang were always in terrific spirits, we had a lovely time during the five weeks of Bump In, and they are continuing to look after the show with great care.”
The show also has lots of variety in the set electrics; single scenery elements, tracked and flown, together with a custom fibre optic Star Cloth.
“We found a few great things on Alibaba, my favourites are some RGB pixel festoons that go underneath the Cruise Ship umbrellas, they are fun and kind of tacky” commented Trent. “I also had a great time with the pixel tape in the Sydney Harbour Bridge which had eleven universes going to it at the last count with all of the LED pixels, a run of Ergheiz Fusion Bars upstage and a few other set electrics that pick up faces here and there.
“The LED stools for Breaker’s Nightclub were great too. We wanted them to be controllable, so they were a bought plastic stool, retrofitted with brighter LED tape, a SHoW DMX SHoW Baby receiver and LED encoder plus battery fitted; we had a cute little station set up for the charging of them that looked like a crazy experiment!”
The overhead rig was packed with scenery flying and tracking in, curtains and cloths, Trent needed to be very discreet with the amount of space he took up with his lighting. Far upstage was particularly crammed with skylines, back blue smother, white curtain; and they all needed a fair bit of lighting love.
“So on one line I had thirty-three Source Four’s lighting palm leaves and trunks, Sydney skyline and others, then immediately downstage of that was a bar that has GLP’s underslung below a run of CODAs to light the smother. So there was a serious amount of fixtures hung in a triple configuration. That’s another reason I chose the GLP’s – they’re so versatile in a small hanging space.”
The lighting was programmed on the in-house ETC EOS Ti by Robert Cuddon with Charlie Hall taking over at the previews. The show consists of approximately 500 called cues, with 844 part cues and 577 moving light presets.
“As the set was in constant motion, it took a lot of time to get the automation programmed to run safely and smoothly, which meant dedicated lighting time was at a bit of a premium,” Trent said. “I am totally thrilled with the outcome we achieved. As with all remounts, I am looking forward to building the next layer of detail into the design, ahead of whatever its future life might be.”
Sound designer Michael Waters’ biggest challenge was navigating the script and coping with the multitude of changes that were thrown at him every day! The script was written in a filmic style with lots of characters, chopping and changing of scenes and also locations changing at a drop of a hat.
“It’s an extremely wordy, busy script and the result is a very busy mix,” he said.
“As is typical with a brand new show, the rehearsal period is never finished. Even up until doors on opening night we were reprogramming the show as we were constantly getting updated revisions of the script; scenes being dropped, scenes being added, scenes being changed. Throughout the whole preview process it was a state of flux. We were promised the show would be locked off by the third last preview but that never happened!”
Michael primarily utilised STC’s own gear working his design around what was available. Control was a DiGiCo SD8 with the STC having to upgrade their DiGiCo infrastructure as they had no opticore or large enough SD racks to cope with the amount of inputs generated.
“They had to invest fairly heavily to upgrade their DiGiCo systems and you can smell the SD8 burning as every resource on it is utilised!” laughed Michael. “In fact I maxed it out so much, I had to use their second 24-channel version SD8 console for the band monitoring downstairs.”
The STC has a centre cluster of Alcons Audio line array speakers plus four Nexo PS15 which is typically run as their proscenium system, however Michael added some Meyer CQ1’s to it for a bit more grunt.
“It’s a pop musical and needed to be suitably punchy,” said Michael. “The Alcons were maxed out ….. in fact we’re maxing out the entire sound system in the theatre!”
Microphones for the cast were the STC’s Sennheiser kit consisting thirty-two channels of 5212 wireless microphones with 3732 receivers. The band had the usual suspects such as Sennheiser E901, 904, 414, a couple of DPA 4099 and Rode NT5 mics on the acoustic guitars.
“We also had two Shertler DYN P-48 contact microphones on the violin and cello,” explained Michael. “They fed various delay pedals and volume pedals, which the two lady players adapted to very quickly.
“Isaac Hayward did an amazing job of the arrangements and had written in particular lines where the strings had to have effects on them. The idea was to thicken up the string section and there are a couple of tunes where the strings will drop an octave and thicken up the sound then put echoes and delays on it.”
Michael describes the sound design as a collaborative effort between himself, Isaac and the song writers. As well as a few samples, there’s a wide variety of music genres from rap ‘doof-doof’ songs with low frequency sweeps to string-based ballads and then rock pop tunes.
“It was very much a collaborative effort to ensure all of the elements were audible and the challenge there was to try keep enough space in the musical arrangements and the sound design so that the vocals were crystal clear,” added Michael.
“Many of the songs are very witty and quirky so it’s imperative that you can hear all of the words clearly. Every now and then there was a bit of a contest as to whether the lyrics or the beat would win! I had to make sure the lyrics were the winner whilst still giving it that dynamic push, plus ebb and flow. It’s been a tricky mix.”
“When you’re doing dynamic shifts it only takes a millimetre on the fader to get a response so you really have to be very together to get the correct fader moves at just the right moment otherwise it’s in danger of being either too loud or too quiet,” said Michael.
“Unfortunately we weren’t afforded enough time to do proper sound checks; we needed more than one band call, we needed several calls to finish the mix but again, everyone was struggling for time. Of course, sound is the one department always at the bottom of the food chain which is ironic seeing as it’s a musical!”
After collecting positive reviews and the “house full” sign going up for nearly every performance, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical will return to the Lyric Theatre in July 2019.
This article first appeared in the print edition of CX Magazine February 2018, pp.24-28. CX Magazine is Australia and New Zealand’s only publication dedicated to entertainment technology news and issues. Read all editions for free or search our archive www.cxnetwork.com.au
Photos: Lisa Tomasetti. All text and photos © CX Media