The Star Wars burlesque parody show The Empire Strips Back has been packing out Australian theatres since 2011, when it opened in Sydney at the Vanguard in Newtown and swiftly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, nowadays it packs out 2000 seat theatres across Australia every year and now overseas with its’ first full USA tour coming up in April / May. The show has just finished another Australian run of nine shows across six cities and are about to head off on a five week American run.
The show is as much about the Star Wars universe as it is Burlesque right down to the details in the set and costumes and some of the original craftspeople who worked on the later Star Wars films have been involved in their creation. There are many full body costumes including the alien creatures, a fully automated remote controlled R2D2 and a life size Jabba the Hutt manned by four puppeteers.
Peter Rubie has been touring with the show for the last four years since taking over from the original lighting designer, Ross Graham. It’s been a work in progress over the years and the show has undergone many changes including several brand new acts, new songs and complete refresh of the lighting rig last year.
The original design concept from Ross was a set of staggered bars filled with Martin MAC101s to create a big powerful wall of beam lights that could create large amounts of colour and movement.
“This gave us lots of rock and roll beamy looks and powerful backlighting, but didn’t quite cater for a number of the theatrical elements that have developed in the show so last year we swapped out the 101s for the 30 Spiider units from Robe,” explained Peter. “We also added a floor package of six GLP impression X4 Bar 20s. Eight Martin MAC Auras act as sidelight to keep the performers lit throughout the show, with a FOH wash from the local venue used sparingly. Haze is very important to the show so two DF50s keep a nice level throughout the show. The show is programmed on an MA Lighting MA2 and fully triggered from QLAB via MIDI timecode and MSC messages. The show tours with my MA2 command wing setup.”
Peter comments that the Spiider has a beautiful quality of light, at the right brightness. For this show the 30 units deliver some great saturates throughout but at times he can achieve more theatrical pastels with ease. Upgrading from single angle beam light to these has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities in lighting this show.
“We can easily recreate the ‘101’ look (minus the LED smarties!) by turning off the outer ring and zooming them right down to a tight four degree beam which is great for a lot of the more rock and roll pop numbers but we can also now do a complete stage wash (even though our most upstage bar is just above head height!) for the more scene setting moments,” added Peter. “There are plenty of trashy fun moments in the show too, like the mashup dance off between Han Solo and Chewbacca where the Spiiders really shine. I use a lot of the inbuilt tricks of the pixel macros of the front lens to create some fun here. Then there is the flower effect; it’s like having another light in the rig. I built a custom profile for the Spiider on my grandMA console so that I even treat the flower effect as a separate instance of the fixture. At its simplest, it’s like someone put a classic shimmer effect light inside the centre lens chip, gave it some steroids and added the ability to colour mix it and control its rotation direction and speed and focus. On paper it sounds tacky, but it’s not till you use it in anger that you really realise what it’s capable of.
"Combined with the other LED’s around it you, you can create a nice gentle breakup gobo from overhead over a scene whilst still washing the scene in a colour. It looks great through haze too. There’s a moment in the show where the audience first sees C3PO and the flower effect pops on glistening through the gold highly reflective suit warn by the dancer and you can actually hear the ooo’s from the crowd. The individual LED chips can focus to a nice hard edge as well, so you can use the centre chip in standard mode focused tight and it gives you a profile type edge. We even had some industry professionals come to our show who know the Spiider well and told me afterwards they could have sworn they saw some moving spots in the rig!”
Another thing Peter really likes about the Spiider is the finish to the lens, saying it has a certain glossiness to the eye but leaves behind the massive glare that you get from wash lights of the same brightness. That means the disc of LEDs isn’t constantly catching his eye up on the truss or on the sides so your focus can stay on the talent.
For the new rig, Peter also added the six X4 Bar 20s which is a continuation of the Spiider grid from above. The Spiiders are in a five high by six wide configuration so it made sense to continue this on the ground.
“The GLP Bars seem to be the flavour of the month at the moment on all the tours going around and it makes sense why,” said Peter. “They look great as a source especially when you shine them out at the crowd, but they are also just a nice wash light with a great zoom range. They have some nice thin blade air cutting moments in the show but they also work great for us as a floor backlight and some great silhouette moments in the show like Leia storing her message in R2D2. I have them in full pixel map mode which is almost two whole universes for only 6 lights but it’s worth it to be able to run the patterns, effects and chases across it.”
The MAC Auras are the one fixture Peter hasn’t changed in the new rig. He added an additional two to cover the larger venues they are now playing in and he tends to prefer the XB versions now, but with only four per side, the dancers are fully covered at all times.
“For me they just work, have great pastels and can mix to a perfectly acceptable tungsten colour,” he remarked. “For this show, we don’t need the output of something brighter for the sidelight and so it’s likely we’ll stick with them. They’ve also never missed a beat and I don’t think I’ve swapped a single one out in the four years this show has been touring.”
Peter commented that the biggest challenge in lighting this show is definitely designing all the completely different looks that each act calls for. It can go from the sublime to the ridiculous many times during the show. For example, Leia performs a gentle contemporary ballet-esque number to a Lana Del Rey ballad, before she segues into a routine that sees her pumping to a pop rock Christina Aguilera track. Some acts have no setting and have to rely completely on the lighting to set the scene and bring the energy and others are filled with set and props, like the Catina with our life size Jabba the Hutt.
“Chameleon were great in giving us the right rig for the right price for the duration of the tour,” Peter commented. “Thanks also to Tony for pulling some strings to get the Spiiders available for us. They are in hot demand at the moment so to get that many out on the road for a tour was a challenge in itself!”