California theater goes all-LED with ETC

Date Posted: 5/13/2014

California theater goes all-LED with ETC

Not every theater can go all LED, but Sunnyvale Theatre in Sunnyvale, California, made the bold choice to switch to an all-LED rig. Thanks to a lot of careful research, the right conditions and the advanced features of ETC's LED luminaires, Sunnyvale Theatre's new LED-only lighting system has been a major success.

The venue's previous lighting system was installed in 1992. Twenty years later, the theater had trouble with its console, transformers needed replacement, and the power supply in its 140 dimmers no longer worked and couldn't be serviced. The staff began looking at new solutions, and considered three different systems: conventional (tungsten) only, hybrid (both tungsten and LEDs), or all-LED. They worked with ETC dealer Musson Theatrical, got support from ETC representative Wunder Lighting and Controls, did cost analyses, tried out a lot of different equipment and assessed the needs of their theater, in order to weigh the three systems against each other. They took the first step toward a new system by purchasing an ETC Ion® lighting control console, knowing it could handle any fixtures they chose.

After being impressed by a Source Four LED™ demonstration run by Musson, Sunnyvale Theatre Technical Coordinator Bill Rupel convinced the city's management and purchasing office to release extra funds to buy five Source Four LED units so his staff could experiment with them in typical production situations. "We worked them hard," describes Rupel. "We used them as specials, for color and black-and-white patterns, and we were popping lenses in them." The staff had them set up side-by-side with conventional fixtures and saw that the ETC LED luminaires could be used all over the stage and in any position. "We wanted to show Sunnyvale Theatre that this technology was going to be bright enough and versatile enough, and that it had the kind of longevity they needed for this kind of investment," says Dinna Myers, Musson's director of sales and marketing.

In the end, the staff at Sunnyvale Theatre decided that the LED system was a viable option for their lighting upgrade, choosing to install Source Four LEDs and Selador® Desire®D60 Lustr+™ luminaires for front-of-house and on-stage lighting, and 40 Selador Classic™ LED striplights to illuminate the cyclorama from above and below. They also added ETC Sensor3™ power-control racks with ThruPower, which haver both dimmer modules and relay modules, so if a visiting lighting designer wanted to use the conventional Source Four® fixtures that the theater keeps in stock, they could power both the tungsten and LED luminaires. The previous connectors in the facility were swapped out for Edison connectors, to ensure that the fixtures would be plugged into the right circuits. Says Rupel: "The benefits have far outweighed any downside. With this system, the possibilities are huge."

The theater has two resident companies and many outside groups that use the space. Every day there are two children's shows in the morning, rehearsals throughout the day, and rehearsals and shows at night. That leaves Sunnyvale Theatre with very little time to prep for each performance. Designers are further challenged because Sunnyvale Theatre has a rep plot that is not allowed to be changed for different shows. With the LED-only rig, the lighting staff saves a lot of time and has much more simplified programming and setup between shows, because they don't have to swap out gels or hang and focus lamps. "No matter what the experience level is of the groups who come in, we can provide better customer service," says Rupel. "Our customers come in and want to do a show in a short amount of time and they want it to look really good. I feel like we can do that better now."

The new system has given a lot more color flexibility to the venue. All of the ETC LED luminaires feature the x7 Color System™, which provides a nearly limitless range of colored and white light by combining up to seven LED colors per luminaire, so lighting designers at Sunnyvale Theatre have been able to achieve looks they couldn't with their previous system. "When someone wants green, you can light up the whole stage in green," explains Rupel. "Once, our resident community theater LD Ed Hunter created a gray sky that I just kept staring at. It was this look of an overcast day from the frontlight, and it was just so gray. There was also a murder scene where we flooded the stage with red. You'd get this gasp when it hit, because you're not used to seeing that much saturation from every angle."

Despite the higher cost of the fixtures up front, Sunnyvale Theatre has calculated that installing only LED luminaires would save them a lot of money over time. The theater didn't have to purchase two new transformers at a cost of $80,000, or pay electrical contractors to run more conduit and install more copper throughout the building. The venue no longer has to pay for lamp replacements, which cuts down on costs and waste going into landfills. The fixtures' reduced maintenance saves them $1,000 per year. Sunnyvale Theatre also reduced risk, because technicians aren't up on ladders doing weekly fixture maintenance. And the biggest savings comes from the reduced power it takes to run the LEDs. The theater has cut its energy expenditures by 80 percent - a total of $16,780 per year. They also garnered an award of excellence from their California Parks and Recreation Society district, which recognized the move to an all-LED rig as a 'best practice' for municipal venues. Since the installation, electrical company PG&E has approved a wide variety of ETC LED fixtures on their rebate list to help offset costs when retrofitting traditional tungsten theatrical fixtures. "This is a landmark event, says Mike Wunder of Wunder Lighting and Controls, "because no theatrical fixture has ever been approved for a rebate and it's also the first color-changing LED to make the list."

Sunnyvale Theatre has been so pleased with how the ETC luminaires have performed, that on January 22nd, 2014, the theater held an open house to show them off. The presentation included sample performances of the types of shows that the theater hosts - a dance performance, a singer, a scene from a play, and a rock n' roll band - in order to demonstrate the luminaires' vast capabilities. After the show, the rig was lowered and guests were invited to go on stage and see the luminaires up close. They were even allowed to control the lighting themselves, using the ETC iRFR app on an iPad.

"We used the Sunnyvale installation to show the local entertainment-technology community what they can do with ETC LEDs," says Myers. "ETC LED fixtures really can dim like the traditional theatrical sources we're used to. Designers will be satisfied with the color shift, they won't sacrifice intensity, and their lights are not going to flicker. This technology works in this application, and it's time to embrace it."