An empty stage thrills me. The silence, the smells, the possibilities. A stage should only be empty in the early morning or very late at night; at all other times the emptiness is oppressive, as a manifestation of neglect, or even worse, indifference. Show business can be wonderfully satisfying for those who need completion in their work – that empty stage is gradually filled and shaped, the seats that face it are (hopefully) filled, something happens, and afterward everything is put back as it was.
My love of theater began as a performer in middle school. I was a 13 year-old Bill Sykes in Oliver – if not the terror of London then certainly of our tiny stage. I’d grown my hair long, as I figured old Bill might have done, and I didn’t wash it for a week before the performance. My inspired take on the character was to shout all of my lines, raging and spitting at my fellow actors and at the audience. On opening night I experienced a double shock that would shape much of my subsequent experience, for better and for worse. The first surprise came when I re-entered the stage for my bow, fresh with some fake blood I’d smeared on my temple to show the audience where my fatal blow had been received in the penultimate scene. Stepping out from the curtains into blinding light, I was entirely unprepared for the erupting sound of cheers (and a few boos, suited to the villain) from the crowd. Cheers, and also… the sound of girls shrieking? It was a sound I’d heard once before in a documentary about the Beatles. For me? I remember thinking even in the moment: This is one of life’s highlights, and there probably won’t be many better than this one. So far, so true.
I had friends who migrated to New York City after high school, where they worked in theater. I ended up in the foothills of the Adirondacks, awkwardly married into a family that needed an extra hand with their decrepit lighting business. To call that business decrepit is perhaps more generous than it deserves. The family’s delusions brooked no argument, which led to countless trips to rent equipment in NYC, and to endless evasions about the size and capabilities of the firm, which seldom profited from pretending to be greater than it was. This tiny company had the decided advantage of forming in me the bedrock capability to make do with practically nothing, which has proven time and again to be a greater asset on the stage than formal coursework in technical theater.
My initial education was brief and terrifying. On a union stage, as an electrician’s assistant, I was asked to fetch and plug and patch all manner of equipment and devices I’d never seen before (at least not up close, apart from their function). My future wife had presented me as someone with theatrical background, so asking for help was out of the question. In college I might have been taught wavelengths and beam spreads; on the stage during my first week I learned that there are lights which plug into cables that are connected to dimmers which are controlled by a lighting board. That constitutes the technical basics of lighting the stage – there’s not much more to it. The conceptual basis came later, but it’s practically as simple: using the world itself as a template, make the production look the way life feels.
Lighting in the world is instructive but it’s not always attractive. The romantic parts exist alongside uglier stuff, and we filter that out in our emotional response. Sun dappling through a shade tree onto a picnic scene is concurrent with the same over-bright, overhead sun on a parched expanse of dirt and grass. To light a similar picnic on stage, we’d keep the dappled pattern and highlight the amber and freshness, and we’d leave the parched look out completely. It might come into play elsewhere in a post-apocalyptic wasteland setting, but we choose to focus the emotional response of the viewer.
What follows is not a technical manual – there isn’t much how-to and it won’t replace any classroom texts. In some respects it’s a professional memoir: stories about what has worked (and what hasn’t) with attendant commentary and observation. I don’t see a fundamental distinction between performing on the stage and designing/operating the lights for a production. Lighting in many ways is more significant: it’s used throughout the performance and it impacts how the audience perceives every other performance. It’s an under-appreciated art, though – while most people can recognize good costumes or sets, few comment on lighting (or sound) unless it is obviously bad (or obviously whiz-bang, which holds little interest for me.) Often, good lighting is attributed by the audience to a performer’s skill, to a set designer’s facility, or to a director’s inspired blocking. These are indicators of our success, often the only external ones.
So check your ego at the door, and let’s begin.