Europeans always comment on how everything is bigger in America. Americans always comment on how everything is bigger in Texas. In Dallas, they like things really big. The ‘Dallas Christmas Festival’ at the 7,000-seat Prestonwood Worship Center is no exception. With a 500-person cast, a 70-piece orchestra and a 100-member crew, this three act spectacle includes seven angels that fly 70′ over the audience and stage, horse drawn sleighs, chariots, live animals and more production headaches than most professionals deal with in their entire careers.
Director for the ‘Dallas Christmas Festival’ (DCF) at Prestonwood is Michael Meece. Meece oversaw the major upgrading of the annual Christmas pageant in 2001 when the new 7,000 seat worship center opened. “The new sanctuary auditorium was almost twice the size of the previous one and needed a production of larger scope and magnitude to fill the space and match the grandeur of the venue,” says Meece. “The purpose behind everything the church does is to communicate a message of God’s saving grace to as many people as possible. Producing a spectacular Christmas event is one of the ways we believe we can draw large numbers of people to the church.”
The DCF is not just about scale; it is also about presentation. The worship center for 35 days every year is transformed into a lavish theatre – complete with a 85′ wide proscenium arch and a 15,000 sq. ft. stage. Everything you might find in a Broadway production goes into making the worship center at Prestonwood a nexus of staging excellence. Multiple flying pieces, automated drops and scenic pieces tracking on and off stage are some of the more visible elements. Of course, making the whole show work, and happen on schedule, is a bigger headache than it might first appear. Prestonwood is a worship center, not a theatre, and as such it throws up unique problems complicating an already complex show with multiple vendors and hundreds of elements not to mention hundreds of people.
For the 2002 pageant, Todd Bell, the show’s producer, discussed with Meece ways to increase the impact of production and in particular the lighting. “The church believes in executing all of its ministries with the utmost quality, and a theatrical production is no exception,” remarks Meece. “The goal for the Dallas Christmas Festival is to achieve the highest level of professionalism while not losing the heart of the message. State-of-the-art lighting design, as well as costumes, scenery and sound, is vital to the impact of the production. Therefore, the most experienced consultants in each area are called upon to help reach this goal.”
The decision to have lighting play more of a central role ultimately led to Meece and Bell talking with lighting designer Donnie Brawner, of Missouri-based Brawner & Associates. Brawner has been lighting the pageant ever since. “In my first meeting with the production staff, I discussed the need to make dramatic changes both artistically and practically,” says Brawner. “Changes needed to be made to the existing lighting plot, the equipment that was being used and in the lighting positions in the main worship space at Prestonwood.”
Brawner & Associates is a turnkey production firm specializing in lighting design and consultation services for theatres, churches, video productions, concerts, corporate meetings, attractions and special events. “We work on a wide variety of projects; however, DCF is unique in that you have the challenge of creating dramatic effects on an over-sized stage. For example, side light is powerful on a stage where its throw is 35′ to 50′. However, at Prestonwood, the throw is roughly 100′ to center stage from the apron sidelight position. This makes it a little more challenging when creating powerful, colored, textured side light.”
Every year the DCF show is separated into three acts. Act one is a large scale Christmas revue, act two is a choral concert with the 450 member choir and act three finishes the show off with the dramatic, theatrical story of Christ.”Act one has a very typical, traditional big-stage show feel – complete with lots of color and special effects,” remarks Brawner. “Act two, however, is all about trying to make the lighting as big as the orchestra. The 70-piece orchestra and 450-member choir is just awe inspiring to hear, and we try to make the lighting move with the music. We exaggerate everything in keeping with the music.”
Act three, for Brawner, however, is the real challenge. “The lighting has to be very theatrical to help create the mood, set the tone, sell the scene, push the energy level and put the finishing touches on the visual spectacle created with a cast of 500. Act three is all about texture, scenic properties and front-light management in keeping 500 people onstage in controlled light levels to keep the right feeling.”
For this year’s production Brawner used an eclectic range of equipment and in large numbers. With approximately 360 parcans, almost 200 scrollers and over 300 ETC Source Four Ellipsoidals, conventional fixtures obviously played a major role. However, automated lighting was equally important with 50 Martin Professional Mac 2000 Profile fixtures, 40 Mac 600NT Wash fixtures, 8 Martin Pal 1200s, 14 High End Systems Studio Color 575 fixtures and 6 Lithographic Cyberlights.
“The workhorses on this show are the Martin Mac 2000 Profile fixtures,” comments Brawner. “The front-light texture position is over 100′ away from the stage, but just like the units over the stage and on the floor, the MAC 2000s have the intensity to really make an impact. When you are dealing with 150′ by 100′ deep stage full of front light, it really takes something special to cut through all of that. The MAC 600s provide the show with 80 percent of its backlight, and we also do a lot of drop painting with them.”
Although the brightness of the MAC 2000s and the MAC 600s make them ideal for Brawner’s purposes, he does need to make several modifications. None of the gobos inside the MAC 2000 Profiles were suitable for the DCF show. This meant installing a completely custom gobo package into each fixture. In order to boost the brightness level on the MAC 600NT wash fixtures due to the 40′ trim height, Brawner removed an inside glass from the fixtures. This molding of equipment to make it more suitable to the task at hand is one of the benefits of using experienced professionals to make a system go that extra mile.
“The show running crew is made up primarily of volunteers,” says Brawner. “However, the load in and setup is handled by a professional staff of Dallas local labor. I have two electricians, Dave Loftin and Darren Yazill, who prepare, install and stay with the show for the whole run including the strike and reset. We are very fortunate to also have a very knowledgeable and helpful house lighting designer in the shape of Bryan Bailey.”
Brawner uses Prestonwood’s own MA Lighting grandMA console to control the immense lighting rig and brings in automated lighting programmer Cameron Yeary, a lighting designer in his own right, for the programming session.
“I sometimes drive Cameron nuts,” laughs Brawner. “I like to clean the show, play with timing and make little tweaks right up until the day I leave for the next job; however, he is a real professional, and I feel very fortunate to have him on staff for this project. I think this attention to detail is one of the reasons we get asked back every year. I feel we have proven to the client that we have their best interest at heart and have a genuine interest in the success of the show. Of course, we also deliver a good lighting product on opening night; answering the need for more dramatic, exciting and emotional lighting.”
Brawner feels this partnership with the church is where the job of the lighting consultant / lighting designer really comes into its own.” Video & theatrical lighting are elements that many churches depend on,” says Brawner. “They require two separate strategies; however, we have created a way of blending them together. This convergence of styles gives churches great video pictures, with a theatrical lighting style. We consult on some very large church projects, specifying and designing new systems for their worship centers. Getting the infrastructure at least in place from the beginning is crucial. For example, we do a lot of corporate production using High Definition (HD) systems with wide screen technology. HD requires extreme precision, planning and design execution for success and it’s far less forgiving than standard however we still design those shows using theatrical equipment. Our clients have found, bringing in professionals is not about losing control, but about making what you have work to its best ability.”
The technical rehearsal process for the DCF poses some extreme challenges and not just in the logistics of working with several hundred people. The production team doesn’t get a chance to see all the disparate elements come together until the night before the first performance. “Patience, patience and more patience really helps,” Brawner wryly comments. “We work off of a sea of video-taped rehearsals where we may see some of the scene and some of the cast involved but not all of it. It kind of gets piece-mealed together up until the last few days. It helps to understand the process and develop a method. It can be very trying, but you have to have faith that in the end, the overall picture will come to life.”
Ultimately, lighting is just one of the elements, that goes into creating Prestonwood’s Dallas Christmas Festival; however, in many ways, it is the glue that binds the entire production cohesively together. “Lighting’s role is to enhance the emotional responses of the audience, which are established by the music,” comments Meece. “Lighting also further strengthens the spirit of the message by supporting the director’s choices as he sets the focus and pace of the production. I’d worked with Donnie previously and had always found him to be in perfect sync with myself on all artistic decisions. He watches and listens as I set the tone for each scene with the cast and immediately ‘feels’ what is necessary for the desired result. The bottom line is that Dallas Christmas Festival uses lighting to gain a more powerful and inspirational performance.”