Sean Clarke on lighting Miss Saigon

Posted on Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

Currently playing at the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, Miss Saigon is a musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, with lyrics by Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. It is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, and similarly tells the tragic tale of a doomed romance involving an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover. The setting of the plot is relocated to 1970s Saigon during the Vietnam War, and Madame Butterfly’s story of marriage between an American lieutenant and a geisha is replaced by a romance between an American GI and a Vietnamese bargirl. The musical’s inspiration was reportedly a photograph, which Schönberg found inadvertently in a magazine. It showed a Vietnamese mother leaving her child at a departure gate at Tan Son Nhut Air Base to board an airplane headed for the United States where her father, an ex-GI, would be in a position to provide a much better life for the child. Schönberg considered this mother’s actions for her child to be “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” an idea central to the plot of Miss Saigon.

Highlights of the show include the evacuation of the last Americans in Saigon from the Embassy roof by helicopter while a crowd of abandoned Vietnamese screams in despair, the victory parade of the new communist régime and the frenzied night club scene at the time of defeat.

Lighting designer Sean Clarke was tasked with creating the filthy world of Saigon as well as isolating central characters in their own world; to use light to take the audience on a journey though the emotions of the musical. The crescendos in the music were met with a decrease in lighting rather than the traditional Broadway sense of arrival for a character, in turn the audience were literally drawn closer to the characters.

“Neil Gooding and Ylaria Rogers certainly directed this production staying true to the complexity of the story, my design helps to make that story clear to the audience,” commented Sean. “The use of the ETC lustrs in the box boom gave me the essential side lighting to intimately light small spaces such as Kim’s bedroom. The generous Riverside standard rig combined with 20 x Martin MAC700’s from Chameleon gave the design the desired flexibility. The use of theatrical top hats on the LED Parcans removed the look of the LED and gave a very stylish look to the production.”

The stage design by Neil Shotter has two fixed towers on either side of the stage which meant that there was considerable planning in the pre-rig to ensure the lights were not obstructed by the slatted roof elements. The helicopter arrival was another challenge ensuring the audience believed in that moment of the musical, the combination of lighting and sound fx created by David Griggs ensured the success.

Sean revealed that the Morning of the Dragon is a lighting highlight for him. The stage is bathed in red wash with thin strips of white penetrating through creating a searchlight effect without exposing the 40 dancers on stage. These lamps then expand to create bright backlight for the interrogation that occurs during the five minute number.

“The helicopter is another personal moment because of the audience reaction to the effect created by all departments,” added Sean. “I have always been a big believer in subtlety when it comes to the use of moving lights in theatre, fixtures should move in black so the audience are not distracted along the way. The bamboo curtain element to the design gives a beautiful scrim like effect which is used a couple of time which the audience are not expecting. It is the element of surprise that makes the role of a lighting designer very creative with a huge sense of accomplishment.”

Miss Saigon has a large production team, it is the collaboration of all of these departments that ensures the creativity and the design brief is met and that the audiences enjoy the grand scale of this musical. With thanks to Eclipse for additional sound equipment, Chameleon Touring Systems for lighting, staging supplied by Megadeck Australia and drapes by The Look Sydney. A personal thanks to Linda Taylor (Operations Manager), Mike Brew (Technical Team Leader) Matt Lutz (Board Operator), Pete Francis, Sarah Webster. Ben McPharlin and VET students from the Rouse Hill Anglican College (Followspot Operators)

This production was produced by Packemin Productions and Riverside Theatres they have announced SHREK the musical as the first production in February 2018.

Miss Saigon closes this Saturday 12th August – Bookings

Gear List
20 x 1kw 12/28 Selecon Pacifics
24 x 1kw 23/50 Selecon Pacifics
28 x 1kw 1.2k Selecon Fresnels
40 x 600w Axial Acclaims
20 x MFL Parcans
29 x RGB Led Parcans with tophats – supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
10 x Mac 700 Profiles – supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
10 x Mac 700 Washes – supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
12 x Colorado LED Strips– supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
12 x ETC Lustr One Profiles– supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
4 x Robert Juliat Followspots (ALEX) – supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
2 x Unique Hazers
2 x Antari ZSeries 3000 II Smoke Machine
11 x Eggstrobes – supplied by Chameleon Touring Systems
1 x Octoport Node – 6 universes

Production Team
Director: Neil Gooding & Ylaria Rodgers
Musical Director: Peter Hayward
Choreographer: Sophie Gospodarczyk
Assistant Director: Jessica Fallico
Assistant Choreographer: Cameron Boxall
Set Designer: Neil Shotter
Costume Designer: Audrey Currie
Lighting Designer: Sean Clarke
Sound Designer: David Grigg
Make-up Co-ordinator: Karen Lamont-Barnett
Stage Manager: Cecilia Nelson
Publicist: Laura Vassallo
Dialect Consultant: Jennifer White