“If you could power a production by the passion of the cast, musicians and crew, then this show should be unstoppable,” was how Naomi Symeou described the enthusiasm of the creatives and technicians responsible for bringing Green Day’s musical American Idiot to the stage of the Arts Theatre West End in Leicester Square. Naomi is the General Manager of Sell a Door Theatre Company and supports owners and show producers David Hutchinson and Phillip Rowntree. “Everyone involved in the show lives and breathes the music and it created a real buzz of excitement in-house, simply at the privilege of being able to work on such a passion project. I often think we should have a competition to discover who is the biggest fan, there would be a lot of contenders!”
The original and inspiring lighting design is by established theatre lighting designer Tim Deiling, himself a massive Green Day enthusiast who happily confessed to becoming quite emotional when director Racky Plews approached him with the intention of bringing the show to a London stage. “I grew up listening to this band and these songs, I memorised the lyrics from the cd insert and knew that it would make the most amazing musical. I’d seen the show on Braodway which was amazing, I doubt I could ever get bored of this music,” Tim said. Naomi added, “Racky and Tim are both avid Green Day fans, there is no story from their teenage years that doesn’t have a Green Day soundtrack attached. Their passion is contagious and we quickly realised we wanted to find a team full of superfans.”
As well as proving a hit with fans of the band and theatre enthusiasts, American Idiot also met the approval of the critics. The Telegraph said “from one hit to another, the audience is fed 90 minutes of uninterrupted chaos, as the show crashes through the barriers of the traditional musical set-up.” Rocksound noted “Aesthetically, it’s on point—all the action takes place in one set with minimal props, pinned to a backdrop of graffiti and flickering television screens, neatly summing up the impatient, attention-deficit generation we’ve become.” Whilst the London Theatre Guide commented on the venue being that “overheated hell-hole that is the Arts Theatre—a perfectly grungy environment for a grungy show.”
Although telling the same story as the Broadway production, London’s American Idiot has no ties to its North American cousin, which means Tim has had complete creative control over how the show is lit. He explained: “It’s a whole new production with entirely different staging and creative direction. Ours is a more gritty, rock n roll show than what they did on Broadway, but we couldn’t reproduce what they did there even if we wanted to because our stage is three times smaller than the St James’. However, in defence of the Arts Theatre, the limited space and rough aesthetics do the show no harm, giving it the air of a typical dirty, rock n roll venue.
Due to the limited number of seats in the theatre, a restricted budget was another challenge for Tim to work around. He explained: “Because we didn’t have a never-ending budget to spend, I learnt about some great products PRG XL Video have which I never knew existed before; like the BB4s, which sit at the back of the set and work as light curtains but do so much more as well. They have a real retro look about them and are more Green Day than I could ever have imagined.” Speaking of his relationship with PRG XL Video, Tim said: “John Pauls is amazing, he completely warmed my heart when he could see how much this show means to me and I thank him so much for that because this show could never be what it is today without the flexibility and support of PRG: Live.” Another restriction compromising the technical preparations of American Idiot was a limited period of time in the venue to set up before the show opened. Tim explained: “I did all the time-coding on an Ion in my bedroom between working on other shows, the music department were great and gave me all the click tracks weeks ahead of time and promised not to change the tempo. Without that, there’s no way I could have programmed almost 800 time-coded events during the short time we had in the theatre before opening. We only had six tech sessions before the opening night, we switched the rig on literally 45 minutes before the first tech rehearsal. I programmed everything myself because it was quicker than communicating what I wanted to a programmer.”
Tim’s refusal to let any obstacle hinder his pursuit of perfection for the show is well illustrated by learning how he lit the bullet holes in the set: “I was inspired by an effect they used in the music video for 21 Guns, where lots of bullet holes appeared in the walls of the room they were in. I looked at so many lighting products that almost did the job but didn’t quite work, I was describing the kind of product I was looking for as similar to an LED torch, when I thought, why don’t we just use LED torches? So, we bought 120 of them, chopped of the battery connections, wired them back to 4 24 way driver boxes and pixel mapped them into the console. The effect looks amazing, I use them as an effect when the world feels like it’s shattering apart, like in 21 Guns and when they rip the suburban landscape apart after 9/11. Whenever there’s a scene involving violence and rage, I use the bullet holes.”
Another creative use of LED Tim employs is through the use of 48 3 unit LED modules attached to various sections of the set which are used as egg strobes during songs when the music goes pattery and wild. Tim added, “we also use them as city lights when the characters are walking through the city trying to work out what to do with their lives, and they look all pretty and twinkly.”
Tim chose to use Gantom 1 LED pin spots and located 48 of them at various points around the set. “I use them to do lots of fun, rock n roll beam effects, the great thing about them is that they’re so small we’ve been able to hide them on the floor or behind bits of set.” He stressed the importance of his close working relationship with set designer Sara Perks; during a walk around the set, you realise how many tiny lighting solutions are wired into the framework of the set, as well as 6 Martin Professional Atomic strobes, cleverly hidden behind mesh panels. With the absence of any followspots, Tim uses 2 Clay Paky Alpha 700s out front, he explained, “they do lots of things during the show, one of which is lots of spotty, spotty stuff.”
Naomi expressed her elation at bringing the show to the stage and commented: “It’s probably a cliché to say, but when you work on a show for so many months before it opening it really becomes your baby and so I feel like a proud mum to a new-born—terrified, exhausted and ecstatic in equal measure! I have to confess I wasn’t a huge Green Day fan growing up (I wasn’t cool enough…) but now I’m an avid fan—the music is so impulsive and angry and beautiful—it’s tough not to get hooked.” When asked about the choice of venue, Naomi explained: “The Arts Theatre comes with limitations due to capacity and space, but the production is created with that in mind so it’s the perfect venue to house the show. Being in Leicester Square puts us in direct competition with the big boys, but we’re enjoying being their ‘noisy neighbour’. The design, direction, choreography, lighting, sound and performances by our hugely talented cast, crew and musicians are exceptional and certainly rival the nearby West End shows. It’s fantastic to be counted among them and we have received great support from the industry around us.”
Account Manager John Pauls handled the show from PRG XL Video’s perspective and was immediately struck by the energy driving it. “I met Tim in our Covent Garden office when we first discussed American Idiot and was blown away by his vision for the show. There were the usual budgetary barriers to overcome, but he was open to all the suggestions to help realise his design. The solid commitment of the cast and crew shines through in the show, which has been a thorough success at the Arts Theatre and will be heading out on a UK tour next year.”
Tim’s enthusiasm for the show is unfaltering, when asked to sum it up, he said: “It’s basically the American Idiot album with 7 minutes of dialogue. Think musical theatre meets rock n roll. There are so many changes to the lighting that are purely related to the music, I mean you can’t do Jesus of Suburbia without using 200 lighting cues. There’s lots of side-light and typical musical theatre lighting, with a ton of par cans, cues, moving lights and non-standard fixtures chosen because of the effect they produce. This production’s different from others because we all have such a strong affinity to the music that everybody involved with the show gives it their absolute all.” American Idiot ran until 22nd November at Arts Theatre London and will tour the UK from March-June 2016.