What I Talk About When I Talk About Lighting

Drowsy Chaperone - RCT
Drowsy Chaperone - RCT
The Drowsy Chaperone – Rome Community Theater

Sarah Ann, known for hyperbole, recently said “I really hate it when people say, ‘It’s OK if I don’t get a part [in the musical]. I can always work tech.’ Those people shouldn’t even be in theater.” Although Sarah’s backstage odyssey started in performance, she’s not wrong.

The 2015 SALT (Syracuse Area Live Theater) Award nominations were announced last week, and as I glanced down the list, I realized I’d seen four of the five professional lighting design nominees. As usual, I agreed with some and wondered “what were they thinking?” about others. It also struck me that four of the five honored work at Syracuse Stage.

If there’s a given in stage work, it’s that performers and directors get most of the attention (and the credit). Many of my theatergoing friends say, “I don’t really think about lighting.” I recently designed lights for The Drowsy Chaperone, Rome Community Theater’s season opener. I took the job because 1) they asked, and 2) it had been more than 20 years since I’d worked in the space. As I worked out my design, executed the setup, and wrote the cues, I also attended performances of other shows at Redhouse Arts Center and Players of Utica. Through it all, I thought about lighting, a LOT.

More than many artistic endeavors, theatrical stage lighting is constrained, even defined, by limitations: time, budget, equipment, power, staging, not to mention everything that goes wrong after you think you’ve got the rest figured out. Redhouse competes against Syracuse Stage for SALT nominations, but it’s much more difficult to execute a design in the Redhouse space – the lights are right on top of the performers, and there aren’t as many options for positioning. I wonder if judges take that into account?

RCT’s Drowsy Chaperone was adjudicated by TANYS (Theatre Association of New York State). Scanning the group’s awards given over the previous 12 months, only one production out of 60 received a lighting mention, for Meritorious Achievement (“some advanced theatrical skill noted”). According to my Drowsy Chaperone director, the TANYS adjudicator indicated he would have preferred more backlighting in my work (so would I!), and asked if there were there any difficulties in executing a lighting design in the space?

The Rome set featured a thrust stage which effectively doubled the overall acting area (performers also used the floor around the thrust.) Audience was seated on three sides of the playing area – I had to avoid blinding them, while making the action visible to everyone. Most of the hanging positions were just five feet over the heads of the actors. I had 24 dimmers to work with. We rented 9 additional lighting instruments and then borrowed 8 more. I ran out of patch cables, extension cords, and bulbs – essentially used everything in the space and wished I had twice that. So, yeah. Difficulties.

Musicals tend to require a greater assortment of looks than plays. Directors, choreographers, and scenic designers I’ve worked with rarely consult to see if what they’re doing can be lit effectively – they trust the designer will make it happen. Lighting design, especially at the amateur level, is an often painful process of setting priorities and then crossing off what’s less essential. Designers learn how to work best in a space over time – every show is a learning experience which contributes to the next show. In hindsight, I could have squeezed some more backlight into my Drowsy Chaperone setup, by moving ten lights – that would have required about 8 hours to reset equipment and then edit 120 cues. Of course, I’d be introducing potential dead spots by moving the lights. Every decision has a price.

So we compromise. I was satisfied with my work on Drowsy Chaperone, if not happy. I enjoyed working with four sharp high school students who took my cue sheets and made them happen (in addition to 120 cues for the lighting board, I’d written 4 pages of followspot instructions that had to be read by the operators because there was no stage manager to call them.) The kids did great work, and deserved recognition that neither TANYS nor SALT offers – excellence in board- and spot-operation. (It’s too bad, because board- and spot-ops are essentially editing the stage picture by their actions. There’s a huge difference between a 5-second fade and a bump, and clean pickups and steady tracking are increasingly rare, even at the professional level.)

The lighting designer Redhouse hired for Big Fish was a first-timer in the space, but the lighting was so… off… that I wondered if the designer hadn’t ever watched an actual run-through of the production. When I was informed he’d spent two weeks in town, I was doubly puzzled. Certainly the space seems difficult to work in, but I’ve seen exceptional lighting there on other productions.

Big Fish is a fantastical musical tale about a man who spins larger-than-life stories. It calls for storybook touches – deep colors and distinct playing areas. The songs suggest numerous lighting changes as they develop. Instead, the songs were often just one look, and the front lighting was uniformly bland (there were no followspots used, which would have helped.) Dramatic moments that cried out for isolation were performed in a full-stage wash.

So why does it matter? After all, most audience members (as well as many critics and adjudicators) don’t pay much attention to stage lighting. Here’s an illustration. Do you remember the old flashlight trick, where you turn off the lights and make a scary face, holding the flashlight under your chin? Try the same expression with the room lights on. It’s a completely different effect. Good stage lighting helps tell the story – it can make a good performance great or at the opposite extreme take away its impact, depending.

If Redhouse’s lighting for Big Fish was disappointing in a complex way (choices that lessened the impact of the story being told), then Players of Utica’s lighting for Promises, Promises failed in the most uncomplicated way possible – most of the action took place at the edges of pools of light, or out of the light entirely. I’ve never seen a production where the performers spent so much time in the dark.

Players’ primary limitation has been its tiny stock of lighting equipment for so many years now, it shouldn’t qualify as an excuse anymore. Like many shows in their black box space for the past several years, Promises, Promises used just 8 or 10 lights from the front, nothing overhead or anywhere else. With three or four main acting areas, the designer’s only real option is to cover each area with two lights – interesting isn’t possible, let alone artistry. In a full stage musical, the minimum expectation is that the entire playing area should be covered when required (call it “Finale”, or “Bow Lights.”) Subsets of the full stage wash can be used to isolate playing areas, but the director, choreographer and actors must all cooperate and stay in those areas. Somewhere along the line for Promises, Promises, those elements either didn’t come together or they fell apart.

And again, why does it make a difference? I don’t know how it CAN’T make a difference. Everyone in the audience can tell something’s different when the house lights go down and the stage lights come up. Again – lights focus attention, and they impact how the audience (and even the performer) “feels” a moment.

None of the newspaper reviews, for Big Fish, Drowsy Chaperone or Promises, Promises, mentioned lighting. (Although the reviewer for RCT’s show complained that the set’s metallic silver refrigerator blinded her when the spots reflected off it. She was right. I had the same complaint when I saw Lend Me a Tenor at Unity Hall a few years ago, and a dressing table mirror reflected one of the lights directly at my seat. That’s why it’s usually a good idea to remove glass from picture frames on sets, too.) I’ve designed lights for hundreds of show and have received exactly two comments in print: “The band was bathed in a deep red light.” And, “Chris Bond’s lighting clearly showed the differences between outdoor, TV-studio, and penitentiary illumination.” Ah, well. This stuff matters – and I’ll probably keep talking about it. Thanks for reading.