Lighting Designer John H. Purnell Discusses ‘Mamma Mia’ at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre

John H. Purnell is the Lighting Designer for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s sold-out production of Mamma Mia! He has done the lighting design for many shows in the Annapolis area, including a A New Brain and Babylon Line for Colonial Players, and Altar Boyz and Light Up the Stars for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre. He has also acted in several productions, including Colonial Players’ Rumors and Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s Bullets Over Broadway. He recently spoke with DCMTA’s Charles Green about creating the wonderful lighting effects for Mamma Mia!, the challenges of working in an outdoor theater, and more.

John H. Purnell. Photo by Jennifer Lee.
John H. Purnell. Photo by Jennifer Lee.

Charles Green: What made you interested in doing the lighting design for Mamma Mia?

John H. Purnell: Clearly, it is the music of ABBA that draws everyone to do this show, including me. I wouldn’t call myself an ABBA fan, but their music was part of my teenage and early adult years. The rhythms and harmonies rekindle that younger version of myself. Anyone who listens to “Voulez-Vous,” “Gimme-Gimme-Gimme,” or “Money-Money-Money” must feel that compelling drive in the music.

However, I originally auditioned to be a cast member and was offered and accepted a minor role. That was back in late January 2019. A few days later, the Director, Jennifer Cooper, and I had a drink at McGarvey’s and I asked her if the position of Lighting Designer was still unfilled. Usually, the Artistic Staff is fully fitted out long before auditions, but Mamma Mia! auditions were very early.

Jen said the position was still open and asked me which I would prefer to do. After some reflection, I told her that I thought I could make a bigger artistic contribution as the Lighting Designer. I had lit Babylon Line for Jen in October 2018, so I had a lot of confidence in working with her. She said “yes” and in retrospect, it looks like the right choice.

What was your design vision for the show?

The show has an interesting mix of rock concert and conventional theatrical production. There are essentially two different light plots for the same stage.

The “reality” part of the design must convey daytime, sunset, and evening light looks for the Taverna courtyard, beach and dock while keeping the actors well-illuminated. This is mostly used for the dialog and plot exposition segments.

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's production of 'Mamma Mia.' Photo by Alison Harbaugh.
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s production of ‘Mamma Mia.’ Photo by Alison Harbaugh.

The big musical numbers then evolve into the color-intense, rapid-fire cues that support the rock concert feeling. The mirror-ball, the fog, the moving lights all contributed to the atmosphere of being at an ABBA concert. We used a lot of sidelight and backlight as well as an impressive array of Six-Par 300 LED washes that delivered the front color.

Much of the success of the rock concert work fell to Jenn Smith, the Assistant Lighting Designer who did all of the ETC Ion programming for this show. Jenn has done this for me for four shows now and is an exceptional talent in her own right. She is also the Stage Manager for Mamma Mia! so it is her finger on the Go-button every night.

At this point, I need to do a big shout out to Dan Snyder, the Set Designer. For Mamma Mia! we had an unprecedented (for me) collaboration of lighting and set to ensure that we could effectively light the Taverna. There were lighting instruments embedded into the set to achieve some of the effects, as well as a number of practical lights (porch lamps and dock lights) to add authenticity to the set. The set color was carefully selected to respond to the intense colors but not overwhelm the actors during the straight dialog of the reality scenes.

There are lots of beautiful lighting effects in the show. What are some of your favorites?

Wow. This is Sophie’s Choice having to pick which baby to talk about and which to leave behind.

“Money, Money, Money” is clearly one of my favorites. In this number, we first expose the audience to what we can do in rock concert mode. The scene where we backlit the dancers in red at the second stomp came off exactly as I had hoped, and it stuns the audience.

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's production of 'Mamma Mia.' Photo by Alison Harbaugh.
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s production of ‘Mamma Mia.’ Photo by Alison Harbaugh.

“Voulez-Vous” is another one that I think came out as compelling. It is the Act I finale, so it has to be really good, of course. The moonlit mottled purple nighttime look was what I was shooting for without it being too dark to see what’s going on. I am not sure how many audience members knew we were using ultraviolet light to fluoresce the war paint the actors put on in a quick change during “The Name of the Game.”

“Super Trouper” and the fog effect is another one worthy of mention. Fog at an outdoor theater is really tricky; you are subject to whatever winds are blowing that evening. Our solution was to build a “fog box” inside the Taverna and when the Dynamos opened the doors, they would bring the fog with them. It’s been working fairly well although there are a number of great rehearsal stories that Traci, Alicia and Andrea [playing Donna and the Dynamos] can tell!

One of my personal favorite effects are the internal cues in the overture. With the opening measure of music, we dramatically plunged the set from day into night and then modified the light look to support each song fragment in the overture. Often the overture is overlooked in lighting, and this was a chance to engage the audience visually before the songs and dialog began.

Was there anything that surprised you while working on the show?

“Under Attack,” the opening number in Act II, was a dark horse that at the beginning was in a creative free-fall and went through several design iterations to emerge as a quality number. In the end, we used UV light to highlight the white tailcoats worn by the three dads. It turned out pretty well due, in part, to some excellent follow-spot work by our volunteers.

Amazon delivered the wrong sconces for the Taverna. We had ordered the “Greek Collection” but what we received were more like caged jelly-jar lamps. At first, I was very annoyed, but in fact, they looked good and echoed the pier lights.

The last surprise was learning just how much fog we could pump into the “fog box.” Wow! Totally disorienting.

Can you talk about some of the new equipment ASGT purchased? What are some of your favorites?

ASGT received an $11,520 grant from the Phillips Charitable Foundation to purchase more efficient LED lighting. We used the money to buy two Chauvet Maverick Storm 1 Wash moving lights, four Chauvet Colorado 72X Battens, and four Chauvet Strike 1 house lights. Mamma Mia! was the first show where we used the movers and battens.

The moving lights are essential for creating small pools of light exactly where we need them. For example, when Sophie speaks with each of the dads in “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme” those pools are created in the location and color appropriate for each vignette. They arrived just in time to replace our three older failing movers, only one of which was still operational for Mamma Mia!

Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's production of 'Mamma Mia.' Photo by Alison Harbaugh.
Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s production of ‘Mamma Mia.’ Photo by Alison Harbaugh.

Two of the color battens provided sidelight across downstage. The other two were concealed behind the fascia board of the Taverna and provided a variable color set wash which was used in many of the effects such as “Money-Money-Money,” “Super Trouper,” andLay All Your Love on Me.” I was pleased to see this element of the design work out so well.

Favorites? All of the new Chauvet lights worked really well and were a great investment. But I still rely on the Elation SixPar 300IP color LED wash as the backbone of color control for my designs.

What are some of the challenges of working at an outdoor theater?

There are a lot of challenges. Here are but a few.

First, everything must be waterproof. Not just the instruments, though, but the cables, connectors, DMX terminators, etc. And you cannot use gaffers tape or Velcro, which come loose in 100º heat, 95% humidity, and half-inch-per-hour rain. We use black string. One of my lessons learned from this show is to do a cabling design as a supplement to the light plot so all of this weatherproof stuff is organized and ready at the time we take the space from the previous show. The good news about all of the new Chauvet equipment we just bought is that it is waterproof, a substantial improvement from the stuff it replaced.

The next challenge is the sun. At full throttle, we can dump 32,390 watts of lighting power on that stage, but when the sun is up it is like we never even turned the lights on. Their effect is totally overwhelmed by old Sol. As a consequence, the only time we can see the stage under lights is from sunset to sunrise. The actors often need the stage for rehearsal until 11 pm or midnight, so the Lighting Designers must live a vampire existence working until sunrise and sleeping during the day. Jenn and I saw sunrise over the Taverna twice.

Third is the fact that the work is outdoors. At most other theaters, we can darken an air-conditioned building and get the work done comfortably in the mid-afternoon. But at ASGT we are often working in brutal heat and sunlight. The day we took the theater and started the light hang was 99º. We had to be diligent about heatstroke education, clothing, hydration, sunscreen application, paying attention to symptoms and watching out for lightning and thunderstorms. When you are twenty feet in the air on metal scaffolding working on the main lighting truss, there is no escaping the sun and it is the last place you’d want to be when there is lightning.

Related to that is the impact of weather events on set building and painting, light hanging, and rehearsals. ASGT gives us ten days to mount a new show. Two rainy nights can seriously disrupt the tech-in schedule. Fortunately, for Mamma Mia! we had pretty good weather–hot, but generally dry.

What do you hope audiences will come away after seeing Mamma Mia?

I hope they won’t go away thinking about the lighting. I’d like them to come out singing the songs and enjoying the experience of the show. Now, I want you to be thinking about the lighting! [laughs] For general audiences, though, the best lighting helps highlight the performance but isn’t really noticed.

Who or what inspires you?

A Lighting Designer has to be inspired by the Director’s vision of the show. Jen Cooper assembled a great Artistic Team for Mamma Mia! and the collaboration was excellent. We fed off each other’s ideas. We studied a lot of Greek island architecture, colors, light fixtures, windows, shutters, etc. We were in unanimous agreement from Day 1 to cover the ramp with a pier and light it with practical pier lights.

Developing the cues for the show (there are about 250 in our version of Mamma Mia!) began with a meeting with Jen Cooper where we exchanged ideas and blocking thoughts. Then the process (for me) becomes very solitary. I watch rehearsal videos and listen to recordings of the music and look for inspiration from both the music and choreography. Each cue is very complex; it can take three hours to develop the cues for a single number such as “Dancing Queen.” Jenn Smith and I have evolved an Excel-based notation system that allows me to describe which lights at which levels in which colors should be part of each cue.

I also try to see a lot of shows in New York and London, and get inspired by the great work I see there.

What got you interested in doing lighting design for community theater?

In high school, I belonged to a church choir. When I was a sophomore, the lead soprano asked me if I would play Will Parker in Oklahoma at a nearby all-girls school. That opportunity was too good to pass up! I ended up doing three shows for them: Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, and Anything Goes.

When I went to college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I decided to give up theater, because of the time commitment. That didn’t last long! I acted in a few shows, including Peter O’Toole’s character in The Ruling Class. I was the special effects designer for Passion of Dracula. I bought a book on lighting design and taught myself how to do it. Rensselaer being an engineering school, I could get 35 engineers to design and build the effects.

After college, when I entered the working world, I again swore off the theater. This time I lasted two or three years. I did a few shows, then told my wife when our second child went off to college, I’d throw myself back into the theater. Sure enough, three years ago, I dived back into it. In the last 15 months, I’ve worked on about 8 shows – acting in Clue the Musical and Rumors at Colonial Players, Bullets Over Broadway for Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, and lighting A New Brain and Babylon Line for Colonial Players, and Mamma Mia! and Altar Boyz for ASGT. I’m trying to do more onstage work now, so it’s back to auditions.

I think part of my strength as a lighting designer comes from being a performer, knowing what a performer’s needs are, and how to make them look good.

What’s your dream project?

Each design is its own “dream project.” It never ceases to amaze me how a script at the beginning of production seems so lifeless. Just words on a page. Yet through the artistic process of a team, the play or musical comes to life in a way that awes and inspires. Most of the time I look back from Opening Night and say to myself, “I didn’t think it would be this good.” Of course, that isn’t always the case, and we’ll just refer to those other shows as “nightmare projects”!

Your question, however, suggests an answer of a show in a venue that would be immensely rewarding to light. I suppose Wicked might be the show. When I saw it in London, I cried at the powerful way the technology carried the story forward in “Defying Gravity.” The venue is a bigger unknown. Definitely a proscenium theater, but I don’t imagine they are going to cut me loose in the likes of the Gershwin Theater to light my rendition of Wicked! Maybe ASGT will do it someday.

Mamma Mia! plays through September 1, 2019, at Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, 143 Compromise Street, Annapolis, MD. To see if tickets are available, check at the door, call the box office at (410) 268-9212 or check online.

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