A Theatrical Retelling of Isaac Asimov’s “Runaround”

April 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

I am very involved in the theatre program, especially the technical/design side of theatre, so for my final project I decided to take the story of “Runaround” from the short story collection I, Robot by Isaac Asimov and stage it with lights and sound. I am calling this a “Theatrical Retelling” not because that’s an actual phrase that people use, but because I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. In this blog post I will detail the design process, including my reasoning for the artistic choices that I made as well as a more technical/educational explanation of how stage lighting works. You are also welcome to skip over all that and just watch the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXL4KNS_lfQ&feature=youtu.be


Reading “Runaround” I was able to break the action into five major “scenes”/settings: the radio room, the subbasement, the tunnels below the mining station, the shadowy area on the surface, and the “Sunside”. Below I have included a general explanation of my sound choices, my visual research for each scene, the rendering I created with Virtual Light Lab, and a photo of the finished product.


For this product I primarily focused on lighting design, but I did spend quite a lot of time on sound. I found sound to be difficult for this story in particular because it is mentioned several times how quiet it is (I just quickly ran a search on the story and the word “silence” is used at least seven times). So for my design I wanted to find songs that conveyed the sensation of an unsettling, tense silence. The songs I ended up using are “Legion (Aftermath)” by Zoe Keating, “Kanada’s Death, Pt.1” by John Murphy (from the movie Sunshine), “Escape Velocity” by Future Heroes, and “Wars of Faith” by Audiomachine. “Legion (Aftermath)” and “Kanada’s Death, Pt. 1” both heavily feature elongated notes—in the case of “Legion” played on string instruments, and in the case of “Kanada’s Death” played on a series of instruments that I am not qualified to identify, some of which are probably string instruments. I found this to be very effective in creating a tense mood. I choose the song “Escape Velocity” for the climax of the story as it had a bit more movement than the first two songs, but still matched the general tone that had been established. Lastly, I chose “Wars of Faith” to serve as a more calming song to close out the story, but not so calm that it would be a jarring transition from “Escape Velocity”.

A Brief Background in Lighting Design:

It would take quite a long time for me to cover all of the nuances of lighting design–I’ve worked on lighting with VUTheatre for four years now, am currently taking a lighting design class, and I still have a lot to learn—but here I will attempt to give you a general overview of the design process to help you understand the rest of this post.

The design process for lighting starts out just like any other area of theatrical design: research. This for both practical and artistic reasons. For example, since “Runaround” is set on Mercury, I had to do research into how lighting would look on the planet’s surface. I also looked to television representations of space-bases to give me an idea of what the interior of the mining station would look like.

From research I moved on to Virtual Light Lab, a lighting design program that is extremely helpful for figuring out gel colors and lighting positions. The renderings I created with VLL are all included below. (Note: gels are basically just little pieces of fabric you put into lights to change their color. I’ve also included photos of all the gels that I used. Brands of gels commonly used by VUTheatre are Roscolux (R), Lee (L), and GAM (G)).

From my renderings I moved on to the light lab. This is a little room in the basement of Buttrick that has a mini stage and mini lighting fixtures. It is very cute and very useful. I staged all of the scenes with real lights and photographed and filmed the final product.

Now that you have a very general idea of what is happening, let’s move onto specific scenes:

Scene 1: The Radio Room

I wanted the lighting in the radio room to mimic modern fluorescent lighting.


(Modern fluorescent lighting. http://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/e3/d6/f6/e3d6f658073597ebe64ebae8246570a4.jpg)

Here is a prime example of how Virtual Light Lab is not always a great representation of what you’re going to see in the actual light lab. The gel I used was L728, which appears very teal when just looking at it outside of a light. VLL emphasized this blue-ness in a way that didn’t accurately represent the final product.RRGel.jpg(Left: L728 gel; Right: Rendering for the radio room in VLL)

In the actual light lab, L728 appears to be a somewhat warm white light, very similar to fluorescent lights. I chose to go with top light because interior lights generally come from directly above. I used the front diagonals to light the face (I could also have used front light, but that tends to flatten out a figure and I prefer some dimension).Untitled.png(My design for the Radio Room)

Scene 2: The Subbasement

I imagined the subbasement to be a darker, less well-kept segment of the mining station. Reading this story I couldn’t help but visualize “The Impossible Planet”, an episode of Doctor Who set in a station on a planet orbiting a black hole.
Impossible_planet.jpg(“The Impossible Planet”; Season 2, episode 9 of Doctor Who)

I started off this scene with an industrial looking gobo (gobos are little metal disks with patterns cut into them. You put them in lights to create a textured pattern on stage) called “Les Mis Grill 8”, and some back and side light in the L728. I wanted to create the illusion of someone coming down the stairs and turning on a light, so after a few seconds of darkness I flickered R02 (a commonly used shade named “Bastard Amber”) on and off several times before settling it in the on position.

SBGels(Left: Top—“Les Mis Grill 8” gobo, Middle—R02 gel, Bottom—L728 gel; Right: rendering for the subbasement in VLL)

SB.png(Left: Initial look with just back and side light; Right: Look once front diagonals have been added with R02)

Scene 3: The Tunnels

In “Runaround”, the character Powell describes the tunnels: “Notice that these tunnels are blazing with lights and that the temperature is Earth-normal.” Once again, I drew inspiration for this scene from Doctor Who. Another episode called “Under the Lake” has the Doctor visiting a research station deep underwater. Since the station is completely deprived of sunlight, the interior light is made to emulate natural light:

9304556-high-1(“Under the Lake”; Season 9, episode 3 of Doctor Who)

I used R62, “Booster Blue”, to create a cool white light that resembles sunlight on Earth.

TunnelGel(Left: Top—“Wide Louvre” gobo, Right—R62 gel; Right: Rendering of the tunnels in Virtual Light Lab.)

tunnelpic.png(Final design of the tunnels in the light lab)

Scene 4: The Surface

Donovan and Powell first emerge onto the surface of Mercury in the shadow of a cliff. I looked at images of mountain and cliff shadows and saw that they are generally pretty blue.

mountain.png(Mountain shadow. http://www.hotelroomsearch.net/im/hotels/middle-east/il/mountain-shadow-2.jpeg)

In this scene I wanted to create the illusion of standing in shadow, walking towards a light. To achieve this, I started off with a combination of R74 and R84 in the front diagonals and backlight. These are both very deep blues with a low-transmission (meaning the gels don’t let very much of the light from the fixture through). I added in R57, a purple-ish color, on a slow fade to help the transition into the “Sunside” scene.

ShadowGel(Left: Top—R57 gel, Middle—R74 gel, Bottom—R84 gel; Right: Rendering of the shadowy surface in Virtual Light Lab)

Surface(Left: The top of the scene with just the deep blue gels; Right: The end of the scene with the purple gel added)

Scene 5: The Sunside

Astronomy fun fact: Up until 1962, we (meaning humans) thought that Mercury was tidally-locked, which basically means that the orbit of a celestial object coincides with the orbit of its sun in such a way that one side of the object is eternally in sunlight, the other side in darkness. We have since learned that this is not true at all (Mercury just rotates super slowly on its axis), but “Runaround” was written in 1942, so Asimov didn’t know any better. This fact is actually pretty important to understanding the plot of “Runaround”, as it explains what “Sunside” means as well as the general layout of the mining station.

Designing the “Sunside” of Mercury had me doing quite a bit of research into the nature of Mercury’s atmosphere and environmental conditions. To sum up my findings, it is really really incredibly bright and hot on the surface of Mercury. This is for a couple of reasons: first of all, Mercury has effectively no atmosphere to shield the surface from UV rays (aka the Sun); and Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun (just over a third the distance of the Earth from the sun), so the Sun appears several times larger. With this information in mind, my design concept was basically “it needs to be really intensely bright onstage”.

5783baf41b00002600f6d2f2(Illustration of what the Sun probably looks like from the surface of Mercury. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-the-sun-looks-like-from-other-planets_us_577ec142e4b0344d514e9182)

For this scene, I wanted to include the effect of the light reflecting off the selenium pool, getting brighter and brighter as Powell gets closer.

Geology fun fact: While selenium is generally thought to be black or grey, it can also exist in a red form.


(The various colors of selenium. http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selenium#/media/File:SeBlackRed.jpg)

I choose to feature this red form in my design for two main reasons: It is very difficult to create the color grey with lighting and impossible to create black (that would be turning off the lights), and red looks way cooler anyways.

Gels: I used several different colors to create the look of a super-intense Sun. I used R07, which is a pretty standard amber to use for sunlight, and I used R96. R96 is actually this eerie lime green that, according to a website called mainstage.com, is handy for simulating unnatural sunlight like you would see after a storm. I combined these two colors at full intensity to create a harsh and somewhat unsettling tone. I used R60, a blue, to fill in the shadow from behind, and G245 at a low angle for the selenium pool.

SunsideGel(Left: Top—R07 gel, Middle Top—R96 gel, Middle Bottom—R60 gel, Bottom: G245 gel; Right: Rendering of the Sunside + selenium pool in Virtual Light Lab.)

The scene started off with the image on the left and slowly progressed to the image on the right as Powell neared the selenium pool.

Sunside(Left: Look at the top of the scene; Right: Look at the end of the scene when Powell approached the selenium pool)

Making the Video:

To make my “Theatrical Retelling”, I took my music and recordings of the above lighting design and put them all into iMovie. I read “Runaround” about fifty times and cut it down to the key sentences. I put these sentences, as well as a few of my own which were more concise than the source material for these purposes, and reconstructed the story.

Here’s the link again: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXL4KNS_lfQ&feature=youtu.be

I hope y’all enjoy!

By: Olivia Peel



Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. London: Dobson, 1950. Print.







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