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SMC upgrades theatre lighting

Southwestern Michigan College has completed the first $34,000 phase of a theatre-lighting upgrade introducing more flexible, energy-efficient LEDs to the Dale A. Lyons Building on its Dowagiac campus. Niles’ TPC Technologies Inc., which specializes in theatre lighting and sound design, hung 14 ColorSource spotlights, Manager of Theatre Operations and Applied Performing Arts Marcus Roll said.

New LED “cyc” lights produce a broad wash of light on the cyclorama, the large white curtain at the rear of the stage that creates illusions of sky, open space or great distance.

 “We have seven (new spotlights over the stage) and seven in the catwalk,” Roll said. “Community events like the Cass County Spelling Bee, Math-a-Rama, our guest speaker series and recruiting events need only the front half of the stage, so the most-used part of the theatre now runs on the most efficient lights and will be brighter. That’s the first-phase goal.

“ColorSource LEDs are able to focus narrow or wide beams. Any color you can imagine on a palette can be blended by clicking my computer” rather than the old method of cutting and layering gels, which limited the light fixture to a single color for an entire show. “These can change color in the middle of a scene, instantaneously getting bright or darkening,” Roll said. “My goal is to be 100-percent LED in the next three years, saving the college money while expanding our special-effects capability way beyond conventional lights.”

Subsequent phases include mobile lights which can track actors, changing color in motion.

“This is another example of a smart investment to upgrade SMC’s facilities for the benefit of the whole community,” President Dr. David Mathews said. “The new lights are safer and easier to maintain, more flexible and, best of all, will more than pay for themselves in energy savings over the coming years.”

LEDs (light-emitting diodes) illuminate 90 percent more efficiently than old incandescent bulbs. Cooler LEDs typically do not “burn out” nor waste energy via heat.

“We used to rent cyc lights to shine on the curtain to make it glow with colors. But having them on the floor with cords and cables created a trip hazard,” Roll said. “Now they’re permanently installed. There are people running LED lights in theatres going on 10 to 12 years who have never had to replace them, whereas conventional lights need new bulbs every two to four months, at $15 to $50 apiece. Plus, because of the heat generated by the older lights, the stage was five to eight degrees warmer than the audience, which was tough on active performers.”

Roll, and his wife Beth, who directs St. Joseph High School’s choir, took her classes to Hamilton in Chicago last spring. “The thing that amazed me more than anything were the lights in that theatre,” he said. “To see what modern light systems are capable of inspired me. Some of the most moving moments in that musical are enhanced by the lights. With our new setup at SMC, we will be able to bring even more visual impact to our shows.”