When the COVID-19 pandemic forced UK theatres to close in December 2020, the National Theatre’s pantomime, Dick Whittington, at the Olivier Theatre had only previewed four times. The performance on the 15 December was filmed and shared on YouTube over the Christmas holiday period with the National Theatre looking to reach as wide an audience as possible despite the closure.

“It was a stunning production and great fun to work on, but a shame people couldn’t experience that magic first hand,” says its multiple award-winning lighting designer, Jessica Hung Han Yun. “But at least the streaming made it accessible to more people.”

The Olivier Theatre had already been re-configured in-the-round before the pantomime took place, reducing its capacity to approximately 500. A new temporary lighting rig, designed by lighting designer and NT lighting associate, Paule Constable, was installed which stretches over half of the stage and out into the auditorium.

“With the whole rig shifted out half way into the auditorium, and the trim height reduced from 30m to 8.5m, all our natural followspot positions were blocked out,says Jack Williams, lighting supervisor for the Olivier. “And with half the rig suspended temporarily front of house, we were restricted in the number of lights we could hang on the truss due to reduced weight limits and hanging points. We therefore needed something small and lightweight which could integrate into the rig as usable followspots.”

After careful research, four Ayrton Diablo LED profile fixtures were installed as permanent components of the basic rig to act as followspots. These are hung centrally and work in tandem with a ‘real’ followspot operator through a Robert Juliat SpotMe tracking system. The Diablos hang 1m below the main rig giving clear sightlines across the entire performance area, and are side mounted to allow full pan.

“Diablo fitted the bill perfectly,” says Williams. “They are small enough not to obscure sightlines for either live theatre or cameras during filming, and can be positioned to hit every angle of the stage. It’s definitely the best fixture for this use in our present circumstances.”

Dick Whittington marked the first opportunity for Jessica Hung Han Yun to use Diablo and only the second time she has designed for an in-the-round production. “It’s always fun to have a new product to explore and this was the ideal production to try it out on,” she says. “The director and set designer have a non-traditional approach, and we had a number of challenges, including a pastel pink floor floor, a whole new set of criteria for rigging in-the-round and Olivier’s asymmetric auditorium which makes for irregular rigging positions. It can be hard to light actors without lighting the floor or blinding the audience with cross lights. That leaves you with overheads at 45° which is rather limiting, so my challenge was how to make it more innovative.

“Diablo was versatile enough to do everything we wanted and proved very useful in that central position. They were invaluable as followspots in covering the big entrances of the characters and during their musical numbers.  There was no lag in their movement with SpotMe so we were able to follow the characters flawlessly throughout.

“The multiblade shutter system enabled me to outline the ‘pizza slice’ segments in the floor with rich colour to divide the set into areas, and reach into so many angles without dazzling the audience or the cameras during filming. Diablo had all the great punchy colours I needed to create the glitz and glam of pantomime and cope with the pastel pink floor as well!”

The Olivier’s complement of Diablo fixtures was part of an investment of six which the National Theatre added to its inventory before the pandemic struck. They were chosen after extensive testing and comparisons arranged by Ayrton’s exclusive UK distributor, Ambersphere Solutions. “A collaborative decision was taken across all departments, which is the standard NT method when making any investment,” explains Williams. “Diablo was chosen primarily because it proved to be the best fixture across all our venues and, specifically, the best to work with our Robert Juliat SpotMe tracking system in the Olivier. They were the fastest to react to SpotMe and the most responsive and consistent unit of all we tried.

“We are very pleased with our Diablos. They have proved very reliable with no swap outs, which is especially welcome with the access challenges of the current rig. They are light and small, really punchy and extremely versatile. I can see we will have many other uses for them going forward.”

« The Ayrton Diablo has proven to be an excellent purchase for the National Theatre,” confirms NT lighting resources manager, Paul Hornsby. “For its reduced size it certainly packs a punch which makes it very versatile against some of our older fixtures and gives us the ability to get a bright spot into smaller rigging positions than was previously possible. The compatibility with SpotMe in the Olivier has proved invaluable with the theatre now in-the-round as four followspot positions would have been completely impractical in this set-up.

“It’s thanks to the team at Ambersphere for their amazing support, being on site at the NT at 6am on a cold December morning to trial this unit with SpotMe. Little did we know that a few months later, with the world turned upside down, how invaluable this process was for the reimagined Olivier when we reopened last year! »

“We are delighted that the Diablo turned out to be so valuable and play such a big part in the re-configured rig when the NT needed to adapt due to COVID,” says Ambersphere Solutions’ Briony Berning-Pollard. “I’m looking forward to seeing Diablo used on future projects at the NT and other theatres.”


Text: Julie Harper
Photos: © The Other Richard

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