Select Page


Profiles in Wireless | Theatre

For those on the American side of the Atlantic, the National Theatre in London, UK is THE most prestigious theatrical venue. Founded by the legendary Sir Lawrence Olivier in 1963, it comprises several venues: the Olivier Theatre, the Lyttleton Theatre, and the smallest venue, the Dorfman Theatre. They are also home to Lighting Technician Alex Varlow, who happens to have a fondness for wireless dimming and specifically RC4 Wireless. “I first started working with RC4 in 2014, when I began as a freelancer at the National Theatre,” Varlow explains. “Since then, I have worked on countless shows and can only think of a handful which didn’t use RC4. The flexibility, size and reliability make it a powerful tool to be rolled out on almost every show I have worked on here.”

Varlow gave his RC4 Wireless gear a workout on two recent shows: ‘Hex’, based on Sleeping Beauty and a modern version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. Varlow notes, “‘Hex’ was our post-COVID Christmas musical in the Olivier Theatre. My role as Floor Electrician was to design, build and run the set, costume and hand-held practical lighting elements. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ has recently opened in the Lyttelton Theatre. For this production, I was Assistant Lighting Supervisor. Similarly to ‘Hex’, the set had a large amount of practical lighting, which I designed and built with our brilliant inhouse props team. ”

First, the wireless aspects of ‘Hex’. “Being based around Sleeping Beauty, we knew early in the design process that there was going to be a castle,” Varlow notes. “As the show and design concept grew, we found out that the castle was going to be a flown element, housing a performer that would both track up and down stage and rotate 360 degrees. This meant we couldn’t safely get power or data cables run to it; the castle would have to be wireless. We also had a very strict weight limit, so multiple drivers and excessive cabling was not an option.”

Paul Anderson, the Lighting Designer for ‘Hex’, had another requirement as well: the castle had to be able to change color; Varlow had a solution: the RC4Magic S3 DMXpix Dual Pixel String Driver. “We chose pixel tape to give us added control but being a large set piece, it required over ten metres of product,” reports Varlow. There was only one slight problem. “This would quickly eat up addresses on the Olivier’s dedicated wireless universe.”

As Varlow and many others in the lighting world have discovered, RC4 equipment is not only reliable, but versatile. Varlow continues: “We used RC4s powerful keyframe tool to allow us to control the ten metres of tape in one universe. This gave us the ability to add texture and other interesting color effects to the castle without requiring multiple universes of data.” As for the rest of the production, “The ‘Hex’ castle featured twenty-five channels of fairy lights, Gantom spots and other LED tape hidden inside, all receiving data via an RC4Magic DMXio and functioning without a hitch; in total, we had another fifteen DIM2s controlling various lanterns, costume lighting and smoke effects, running multiple universes on separate IDs simultaneously,” he notes.

When technical issues came up during ‘Hex’, Varlow turned to RC4 customer support. He continues: “We were using a new string of pixel tape which was controlled by a protocol not yet implemented into RC4. James [James D. Smith, CEO and chief product developer] was eager to get his hands on a segment, so we FedExed a segment of the tape to him across the pond. Within a few days, James had mapped out the framework for a TM1814 protocol and sent us a firmware update allowing us to light the ‘Hex’ castle. James’ communication and commitment to solving any issues are second to none. No matter how time consuming or complex, I’ve not managed to stump him just yet.”

While Varlow had to deal with the castle in ‘Hex’, he had a different issue in the modern version of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. He explains, “Our biggest challenge on Much Ado, from a practical standpoint, was a pair of Art Deco elevator floor indicators, present in the fictional hotel the show takes place within. In early meetings, our Lighting Designer, Lucy Carter, asked for each segment of a floor number light box to illuminate, indicating which floor the elevator was on.  She also requested a motorized arrow, which followed the lift’s journey through the numbered floors. The prop was quite small in size and attached to a ceiling inside a revolve. This meant it would not be possible to get data, decoders and cabling to these practicals.”

Once again, Varlow turned to RC4 Wireless products for a solution. “We chose to use a RC4 DMXpix to control pixel tape for the lit floor numbers. Using the keystone tool again, I was able to group the pixels together to make each floor number an individual four-channel RGBW lightbox. To control the arrow, we used a DIM2 running in servo controller mode. This allowed our programmer to accurately select a floor controlling the 180-degree movement as an intensity control,” Varlow explains. 

The RC4 Wireless DMXpix and DMXio aren’t the only wireless products from the firm at the National Theatre. Varlow notes, ”We have over seventy RC4 products here at the National, and we are always looking to grow our stock and test their new products. James and his team have offered outstanding support, helping us with any issues we run into; they have the outside-the-box thinking vital for creating products that we find so useful.”

“Flexibility is key to RC4’s success in a theatrical environment,” Varlow states. “Being able to be powered over a wide range of voltages makes them adaptable to many low voltage electrical systems. They are compact and so easily hidden in smaller props, such as lanterns and costumes. Their many different curves and control modes give us the chance to create some really special effects. We’ve hidden IO receivers in large LED walls, installed DIM4s in delicate LED-filled costumes and used DIM2s set as a relay to fire smoke effects. I’m sure we haven’t found all their useful applications… yet,” he concludes. 

RC4 Wireless is pleased to support the National Theatre through our UK Partner, Lamp and Pencil. They can be reached at http://lampandpencil.com/contact/.

A new musical based on Sleeping Beauty : book by Tanya Ronder, music by Jim Fortune and lyrics by Rufus Norris

Director : Rufus Norris
Set and Costume Designer : Katrina Lindsay
Choreographer : Jade Hackett
Music Supervision & Vocal Arrangements : Marc Tritschler
Orchestrations : Simon Hale
Music Director : Tarek Merchant
Lighting Designer : Paul Anderson
Sound Designer : Simon Baker
Consultant Choreographer : Bill Deamer
Associate Choreographer : Bradley Charles
Associate Music Director : Cat Beveridge
Staff Director : Seimi Campbell
Ensemble : Christopher Akrill
Bruiser Thorn : Delroy Atkinson
Ensemble : Esme Bacalla-Hayes
Queenie : Tamsin Carroll
Ensemble : Madeline Charlemagne
Ensemble : Ebony Clarke
Fairy : Rosalie Craig
Ensemble : Sonya Cullingford
Ensemble : Hanna Dimtsu
Ensemble : Tamsin Dowsett
Bert : Michael Elcock
Ensemble : Joe Foster
Ensemble : Ben Goffe
Prince : Eleanor Kane
Queen Regina : Daisy Maywood
Ensemble : Kody Mortimer
Ensemble : Joseph Prouse
Rose : Kat Ronney
King/Prince : Shaq Taylor
Smith : Sargon Yelda