Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The best performance venue on a summer evening in the Pacific Northwest is the one outside, under a setting sun, among friends, watching your favorite artists. But because there has been no way to produce these events in a simple, safe and socially distant way, live performance is among the heaviest sacrifices to 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Exhale first. Then think about this big idea: Dustin Jablonski and his team at Broadway To Go have made it as easy as possible to light and produce outdoor gatherings, whether a musical performance or a theater production or even stand-up comedy.
“Broadway to Go is a small-scale wireless professional stage lighting system designed for small- and medium-sized venues,” Jablonksi said. “One of our really big things we wanted to push for was the outdoor venues. It dovetails really nicely into the sort of considerations we're all having to make now.”
The idea of filing into a tightly enclosed space is one of those considerations, and because of public health and safety, it isn’t particularly enticing. Outdoor venues, on the other hand, are not only safer, but they can be more enjoyable than a summer evening indoors.
Until now, that has been a logistical nightmare for small-scale productions, which are forced to choose from the costly and unwieldy lighting systems that are available on the market. “With a traditional system, the lights are a third of the system,” Jablonksi said. Otherwise, there are dimmers and cables and a power supply to manage and then the actual control surface for the whole thing, which is a beast to set up at a remote location and requires specialized knowledge to do so.
“Our system, you could literally just walk up with a little suitcase and just rubber-band some of these suckers to trees, pull out a laptop and you're off to the races,” Jablonski said.
Broadway To Go was never conceived as a response to the pandemic. Its seeds were sown 10 years ago, when Jablonski designed props and sound support for a production of The Music Man at a black box theater in Olympia, Washington.
“They literally had to do fundraising to raise the height of their theater—like, to raise the roof—so they'd have enough space to hide the lights and increase the amount of air conditioning they had in the room because the lights kicked off so much heat,” Jablonksi said. “But the thing is, you don't actually need high-powered theater lights to light a smaller space like that.”
A relatively new form of production space, black box theaters are flexible, minimalist, pop-up theater spaces. They’re dark, they have seats, and they have something akin to a stage. At the time, Jablonski’s theater in Olympia was a converted auto repair garage.
“A traditional theater, you think of stadium seating, and then you've got a proscenium and the stage behind it, and then a rigging system for curtains,” Jablonski said. A black box theater is a much smaller venue. It's designed to seat 50 to 60 people. Rather than a proscenium, set design differentiates between stage and backstage.
“But beyond that, it's literally just what it says on the tin. It's a black room.”
In other words, you can turn almost any room in Oregon into a theater with a few curtains and a spotlight. Or, as public health would require, an improvised stage outside under the cover of twilight—the safest space to maintain appropriate social distance while still dark enough to direct audience attention, which is the purpose of stage lighting to begin with.
Think of Washington Park’s amphitheater, where Portlanders have been gathering during the pandemic to safely share space and impromptu performance. Think of bluegrass music at Solera in Parkdale, a little brewery whose outdoor stage is framed by golden pastures and the spectacle of Mount Hood.
Broadway To Go has several specific advantages that make it preferable to traditional lighting systems. It uses LEDs, which require a fraction of the power. It is also specifically designed for smaller applications, so the amount of equipment it entails is matched for the venue it seeks to accommodate.
“LEDs have come a long enough way at this point that, rather than doing a full-sized setup, a smaller setup is much easier to mount. Much easier to hide. Doesn't kick off as much heat. Makes lighting or at least setting up a space like that or an outdoor space significantly easier,” Jablonski said. “You wouldn't be able to use one of these to, like, light up a stadium. But lighting up a bar for a rock band or lighting up a park for Shakespeare in the Park, they would be very good at doing.”
That sounds nice right about now. Summers in the Pacific Northwest make the dreary, wet winters worth the wait. Perhaps live performance will be smaller in scale. Perhaps they will be outdoors. The pandemic may have changed the nature of live performance permanently, but Jablonski suggests that might actually be a good thing.
The dynamism of a black box theater allows it to be something that a traditional theater can’t be. “You can do very audience-interactive things,” Jablonski said. “The way you design your set, you can really draw the audience into the show much easier than a traditional set.”
Black box theaters are intimate. They build a sense of community, and community is what we miss right now. “There's definitely a sense of community and camaraderie that comes out of that that you just miss with, you know, even with going to a movie theater. You kind of miss out on that,” Jablonski said.
Broadway To Go, perhaps, will help us rebuild what’s lost.