By Angie Vicars. Photography by Shawn Poynter.
Cultural icons Barbie and Ken have been entertaining children for over fifty years. But recently the ultimate power couple of the toy world has stolen the spotlight in a new role on a stage built just for them.
The stage is the brainchild of Kenton Yeager, an associate professor of theatre at UT. Known as the Yeager Lab, it is a fully functional 1:6 scale portable model theater that can be outfitted with equipment for lighting, audio, projection, several types of draperies, and rigging.
Yeager created the lab so he could use “light to teach light instead of words to teach light.” Prior to his invention, the two most common ways to teach theater lighting design were using regular equipment in a large light lab or not using lights at all in a classroom. Neither of those options was particularly practical.
With a little ingenuity, Yeager was able to recreate a theater experience within a standard classroom and take advantage of the similarly scaled Barbie and Ken dolls to represent the actors. “Barbie is such a universal image that when you put her on the stage, everybody understands the 1:6 scale,” Yeager said.
Act I—Learning Curve
Although he had more than two decades of lighting design experience, Yeager had no idea how to create a mini lighting lab—something he imagined would work like an erector set. “There were a lot of trips to Home Depot,” he recalled. “I would cut pipe in my basement, then assemble the prototypes on the back porch to find out how to fit it together.”
In 2006, Yeager completed a 1:4 scale prototype. However, he says, that dimension “never quite fit the right size with people.” From there he decided to start over at a slightly reduced scale.
As he progressed, UT saw the potential and awarded him a $30,000 research grant in 2009. It provided a three-year funding line to buy material and miniature equipment to continue developing the lab.
During the design process, Yeager quickly realized the lab could be more than just a lighting setup. He was inspired to take it to the next level and model an entire theater. The current version can be configured to emulate different types such as proscenium, black box, thrust, or theater in the round.
Act II—Saving Time and Energy
Yeager’s research found that the smallest versions of some lighting instruments are excellent substitutes for their full-size counterparts. The lab can accommodate both “birdies,” which produce bright, punchy beams, and “inkies,” which produce wider, softer, and consistently intense beams. It also features micro LED floodlights, moving head spotlights, mini ellipsoidal portable lights, and a lighting console like those used in theaters.
“If you want to test several lights or a particular effect, you can hang the instruments in the lab in about four minutes,” Yeager explained. “With regular instruments in a larger setting, it might take you forty minutes.”
Thanks to the advent of LED technology, Yeager was able to reduce the total electrical usage of the lab so it can plug into a single outlet. “You can literally unplug your coffee pot and plug in this entire system,” he said.
The lab is a better production tool that provides a “faster and smarter” alternative to designing a show on paper or computer, according to Yeager. Designers can start in discovery mode and go all the way through the technical rehearsals in which lighting, costumes, sets, sound, and effects become part of a production.
Act III—Reluctant Entrepreneur
Yeager always saw the lab as a teaching tool, so he originally created a website with directions for building one. He envisioned other schools taking advantage of the fruits of his labor and making their own. Instead, he got calls from schools that wanted to buy one.
To maintain his focus on teaching, Yeager struck an agreement with a lighting sales company to handle the marketing and sales aspects of the project.
However, Yeager does offer potential customers help with pursuing grants to cover the purchase price, which can range from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on the equipment they select. A majority of the grant-seeking attempts have been successful.
Yeager added that designers and students are “amazed when they start to play with the lab. In five minutes, they decide they want one. They bring their instructors to have a look. Sometimes they bring deans to see it and convince them they need funding.”
So far, more than a dozen higher education institutions have purchased labs, along with multiple high schools and even a middle school.
Since UT is home to this premier teaching tool, Yeager has the luxury of handpicking his graduate students while building one of the country’s top lighting design programs. But he’s not resting on his laurels. Yeager is currently working with a company to create a rigging system that will give the lab options for flying scenery.
Superstars like Barbie and Ken would expect nothing less.
For more information, visit yeagerlabs.com.