Lighting and Sound International, October 2014

The Magic of the Roundabout . . .


Sarah Rushton-Read visited the pop-up venue during its residency in Summerhall at this year’s Edinburgh Festival to find out what makes the Roundabout’s world go around . . .


Someone once said there is nothing new except that which has been forgotten - and when something apparently forgotten is seen with fresh eyes, in a contemporary context, it can deliver exciting and refreshing perspectives. Theatre company Paines Plough’s portable, touring Roundabout Theatre has done exactly that; a new realisation of traditional touring theatre that - having embraced new ideas, technology and materials - is able to reproduce its own productions, as originally conceived and produced, anywhere they choose to take them.


Like the travelling players of old, Paines Plough endeavours to take its work as far and wide as possible. But while they strive to maintain the quality of the work, it has often been hampered by the technical and architectural restriction that host venues inadvertently impose. In response, Paines Plough has designed its very own touring venue.


With 168 seats arranged in the round, The Roundabout is an intimate, dynamic and socially democratic space. From the outset the design approach has been collaborative and holistic. Conceived by Paines Plough’s artistic directors James Grieve and George Perrin, Roundabout has been designed and delivered by a collective that includes scenic designer Lucy Osborne, lighting designer Emma Chapman and specialist effects and lighting designer Howard Eaton, with technical and space planning consultation from Charcoalblue and acoustics consultation from Gillieron Scott Acoustic Design.


For the structure itself, Paines Plough began collaboration at an early stage with scenic construction specialist Factory Settings, chosen for their background in theatre construction and their reputation for innovative fabrication techniques.


Lighting, sound and the architecture of the space have evolved concurrently, a process not without its challenges, but one which has led to some very imaginative thinking from the design team. The result is a dramatic departure from the norm for the lighting, sound and control aspects of theatre production.

Lucy Osborne discusses: “Scenic elements and props are kept to a minimum. The focus is on the actor in the centre of the space, and most importantly the writing. The architecture of the round enables each member of the audience to tune into the reaction of the people around them: it’s a true democracy. Whilst not a configurable space, the first two rows of seating can be removed in sections to allow for a greater degree of flexibility.”


The venue has been in development for some years, with prototypes showcased in both Sheffield and Shoreditch. Charcoalblue was invited to consult after the first prototype in Shoreditch Town Hall. Working closely with the team, their task was to unlock Lucy and Emma’s vision into a design which maximised the collective audience around the stage and which could be flat-packed into a truck and built in a short period of time. Gavin Green comments: “This was one of those dream projects where no egos were allowed at the table, everyone worked as one and we were driven by a belief that it was possible to create this beautiful, intimate space.”


The differences? There are no trusses overhead, no conventional lighting or sound positions; both elements are integral to the architecture. Roundabout doesn’t need specialist tools or skills to erect; it takes seven people just a day and a half to put together. It also only needs one individual - in this case touring production manager Rachel Shipp - with prior knowledge of how it fits together and the only tool required is an Allen key!


“Emma was absolutely the innovator here,” stresses Osborne. “Emma, James, George, myself and the producer Tara from Paines Plough had a key meeting where we discussed how we could reduce rigging time. Our fit-up time model was showing that the rigging of generic lighting units was slowing us down. Emma suggested that we do something ambient and architectural. The team from Paines Plough was excited because although it meant that they would potentially have to programme and commission for the space with this in mind, it was also enormously liberating and would allow the writing to become the focus. This is a cornerstone of the company ethos, where writers and their work are at the centre of everything that they do. We wondered if it might feel like the whole space was ambiently lit, but of course, in reality we close down and focus much more than that . . .”


For lighting, the original concept was to have light boxes in the ceiling through which video graphics would be projected. However, Chapman, Osborne and Eaton agreed that this solution was unlikely to deliver the necessary light levels. Chapman says: “The turning point for me, having done a trial of a light box idea, was the lack of light getting into an actor’s eyes, which is vital for story- telling. Howard suggested we look at point sources and then I suggested angling the ceiling . . . this heralded the transformation from light boxes to a point source-packed ceiling.”


In the end, the solution was nine triangular roof panels, which surround a central panel. Each triangle is packed with 9 RGBW and 36 CW+WW (Cool White + Warm White); the centre circle carries 84 RGBW pixels and 108 CW+WW LED light sources. “We felt we needed lots of narrow bright beams that we could focus together to act as one big light, or which could combine to act as a few smaller fixtures or be used individually as lots of little ones,” explains Eaton. “We had hoped to buy the fittings off the shelf but at the time I could find nothing that was mechanically suitable or with anything like the dimming curve was needed or the RGBW configuration we needed. The only option was to design and make the fixtures ourselves.”


Taking such an unconventional route was nerve-wracking: “I was nervous about two things,” continues Chapman. “Firstly, what sort of output we could achieve from single LED pixels and secondly how many we would need to simulate a traditional generic lantern wash. I was also concerned about whether the colour temperature would be right; in particular the warmth of the LED.”


Ultimately, the aesthetic of the ceiling and the lighting panels are integral to the architecture of the space: “This concept came from a collaborative mix of Lucy, Howard and I,” explains Chapman. “Lucy suggested domes, I suggested triangulation. I was resolute that the lighting be part of the ceiling so as not to impose. I proposed a layout, which Howard then structurally ran with.”


Eaton and his team built fittings using Osram OStar LEDs and 13° lenses. “Originally we hoped to make them all RGBW, but we found that the white was the wrong colour temperature, so we also made a CW+WW tunable colour temperature version of the fitting. “Getting the software right for the dimming curve has been challenging given the timescale and there is still some work to do on that,” he says.


The next challenge was how to control so many sources. “We needed a system that could offer RGBW pixel-mapping and control CW+WW fixtures. We also needed 12 universes of DMX,” explains Chapman. “Howard was keen to go with Avolites, primarily because of the pixel-mapping ability.”  Both Chapman and Eaton felt this could offer a suitable control option in future. They worked closely with Avolites’ technical director, JB Toby, who provided support by developing software specifically for Paines Plough’s use and access to their existing control platforms.  “The Roundabout required a number of new software features that we’d been developing as part of our ongoing work with our Titan V9 software,” explains JB. “We initially supported Roundabout with an early version of Titan V9 to programme the new Howard Eaton Lighting fixtures and stage configuration. These features are now fully integrated into the software, which will be released in 2015.  Titan 9 enables us to fully support RGBW pixel-mapping but also fixtures with any colour channel makeup, including those that contain both cold and warm white LEDs by using the colour-picker and pixel-mapper.”


Avolites has also expanded tracking with ‘record cue only’ and ‘tracking forward’ and ‘tracking backwards’ along with additional enhancements to the theatre command line instructions like ‘Cue, Snap, Go’ and ‘Time, Value, Go’.


MIDI show control has been fully implemented to allow the show to be run by the stage manager using Q-lab: “The show was plotted on the Sapphire,” continues JB. “We added the attribute assignment to the Saturn wheel. Additional Group layout functionality includes new patterns, circles and triangles, rotate and fan selections, so the user can select a pre- determined shape in the pixel-mapper view.”


“We expect visualisation to become an important element in lighting programming in the future,” says Chapman. “We can already run cloud images across the system. We can also spell words out and import photos, which we can animate. It’s a completely different beast; it’s got very different potential from the traditional rig as it requires no focussing. Everything is controlled from the desk, which can then interface easily with plug-and-play technology.”


For audio, Tom Gibbons and Dom Kennedy took care of the sound design while Paul Gillieron advised on the system, which comprises six full-range EM Acoustics speakers overhead (stereo for each seating block) and three subwoofers (one under each block). The speakers are arrayed to reflect sound off the ceiling panels; this delivers a fantastic quality that although not surround sound, does feel like it’s not coming from any particular place.


“Roundabout is the epitome of Paines Plough and everything the company has striven to achieve in its 40-year history,” concludes Paines Plough’s artistic directors James Grieve and George Perrin. “Our beautiful pop-up theatre means we can now take outstanding new plays further and wider than ever before and give audiences everywhere a thrilling in-the-round experience on their doorstep.”


This venue has so clearly evolved from a focused collective of artists and designers that care deeply for how the performance works and how the audience receives it. It’s clever, it’s insightful and it delivers a collective experience that works brilliantly.