Notes for the Lighting Crew

The Dream Stage (not available in stores)

A week ago, I worked on the High School Musical Preview at the Stanley Theater in Utica, NY. As we watched the student performers and crews rehearse their numbers, a few stagehands and I recalled our first days in the theater, which ranged from 25-35 years ago for our group.

None of us went to school for theater; the crews back then were mostly self-taught (at least they were at the Stanley.) We learned by the seat of our pants – terrified to do the wrong thing, we hung back until we thought we understood what was going on. Still, we made mistakes, were mocked and disparaged.

The first time I was assigned to a running crew, I ran follow spot on The Sound of Music. I’d never run a spot, so I asked if I could go up to the booth and practice ahead of time. The steward looked at me like I was crazy. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You’ll be fine.” Still, I asked again. “OK, but don’t let anyone see you going up – we don’t want them to think you don’t know what you’re doing.”

When I joined IATSE Local 337 (projectionists), two of the members refused to share information when I asked. They were the only two working members, and both thought I’d take their jobs if I learned what they knew. What they should have known, and what I’ve learned since, is that a program is better off with a deep bench. The benefits of knowledge exchange go both ways, and produce a stronger team.

This week, I’m preparing for my sixth musical at New Hartford High School, the third one entirely designed and run by a student crew. What follows is an abridged version of the letter I gave the crew, as they begin attending rehearsals.

* * * *

I. What is Lighting Design?

Lighting helps communicate an artist’s vision by optimizing the appearance of music/dance/oratory for the benefit of an audience.

When lighting is done well, most people won’t realize it – they’ll think their reaction is all about the performer. Conversely, when lighting is poor, it subtly distracts the audience and lessens their experience.

There are two components to lighting design:

  1. Selection, placement and focus of lighting instruments/colors
  2. Writing cues

The first part is analogous to cinematography in a movie – it affects how things look. The second is like editing – it contributes to flow and rhythm.

Designers help tell the story. We help sing the songs and dance the dances. Our work is visible the entire show. This is important (and fun) creative work.

II. How Do We Approach Lighting Design?

My artistic sensibility comes from observing the work of other lighting designers, and it also comes from observing the world around me. I read an interview once with a Broadway lighting designer who said something like, “There are no original ideas in lighting – everything we do on stage has already happened in the world, we’re just re-creating what we’ve seen.”

As designers, we are at the service of the author(s) of the material, the performers, and ultimately the audience. We are co-equal with set designers, sound designers, costumers and makeup artists, all working as a creative team under the guidance/authority of the director(s).

My personal preference is to watch at least one complete run-through (ideally several), and let the production tell me how it needs to be lit. This includes where performers are on stage, how many performers there are at any moment, and what the setting and mood of the scene are. I’ll also ask the director(s) for any specific ideas they might have, and make special note of those.

III. Practical Considerations

All productions have limitations that inform the decisions of lighting designers. Those include but are not limited to,

  1. What equipment is available
  2. Where can lights be placed
  3. What financial resources do we have
  4. How much time do we have
  5. What help (and skill set) is available

Other constraints might include temperament of the director/performers, prioritizing the requirements of a videographer, etc.

In my experience, time is usually the most limiting variable. We have to work around other groups using the stage, and also coordinate with rehearsals and sound/set needs. It takes a lot of time to set up and write cues, and my preference is to do our work in such a way that we don’t make anyone else wait. For example, I won’t ever make actors move around the stage while I write cues – we’re going to write in advance, watch how the cues work during rehearsal, then fix any issues later.

IV. The Process

Once we’ve watched the run-throughs and marked our scripts, we need to decide how to deploy our resources.

The lighting plot is a graphical representation of where lights are hung, what their dimmer number is (a.k.a. plug number, or address), what their channel number is (a.k.a. patch), and what each color is. Because time is our main constraint, we try to use lights where they already are, wherever possible. (We need to consider both setup and strike, or restore, time.)

Determining channels affects how the cues get written. If every light is on its own channel, that provide maximum flexibility, but it takes much longer to write cues (our time limitation, again!) So we group lights together, to make things easier later.

Colors are essential. I agonize over color more than anything else. Bright musical numbers might need vibrant pinks, oranges, lavenders, whereas night scenes often call for deep blues. A bright daylight scene might call for medium amber overheads and light pink front lights; a soul-crushing office scene will need mainly cool overhead lighting. And so on.

Every decision above is dictated by the limitations discussed earlier. Furthermore, each decision narrows future decisions. If we use 20 lighting instruments on a deep purple wash for a single number, we might not be able to also have a deep green wash for another scene – we set priorities and decide how best to use what we have available.

V. What About the Follow Spots?

With the exception of the stage manager and sound mixer, I think spot-op is the most demanding tech job in live theater. They must stay alert the entire show, contort their bodies into uncomfortable positions, and every mistake is completely obvious to the audience. And the spotlights are hot!

At NHHS, follow spots are very much a tool of the lighting designer – unlike other schools I’ve worked at, our spots are turned on and off remotely via cues. That allows us to precisely control fades and intensities, but it can be nerve-wracking for the operators, who just have to stay on their toes – the light is coming on, ready or not. Spot-ops never get enough credit for a job well done.

This is what follow spots provide us: a way to isolate attention on performers. Imagine two characters singing a love song, choreographed to move around the stage. If we light the entire stage to make sure those performers can be seen wherever they go, we lose intimacy. Follow spots allow us to zero in on them, and disregard everything else on stage. This greatly expands our visual palette.

So please, show your spot-ops some love.

VI. The Dream Stage

When I learned stage lighting, it was via trial and error. Unfortunately, stages tend to be occupied most of the time – we just don’t have the opportunity to try different color combinations, or to experiment with lights in different positions. The miniature “Barbie Dream Stage” Susan and I built is intended as a sandbox, to get used to how stage lights work, and try various ideas. I know it can be intimidating to jump in to something new, but this will truly allow you to “light like no one’s watching.”

VII. Priorities

Front lighting is generally most essential – it allows the audience to see faces.

Overhead lighting adds dimension. It should usually be a slightly different color from front lighting, for best effect. Also, overhead lighting on its own can be very dramatic.

Side lighting adds even more dimension, and allows you to reduce the intensity of front lighting, making the performers “pop” from the set/backdrop.

Footlights can be very dramatic – they cause big shadows on the backdrop. Use sparingly.

Specials are individual lights dedicated to one area on stage – they might be for a set piece, or a particular dramatic moment.

Except for scene changes, when the curtain is open in front of an audience we should be lighting the scene in some way. Don’t leave performers in the dark, even if they are frozen, unless you have a good reason for doing so. Also, if the curtain is open before the show, you should have some kind of preset on the stage.

Make each scene as beautiful as possible. If you use every light available in every scene, the entire show will look the same. (Boring.) Don’t be afraid to get dramatic. (Practice on the Dream Stage!)

VIII. Conclusion

It takes practice to become good at stage lighting. It takes trial and error. It takes work and rework. During tech week, we’ll have several rehearsals to refine lighting cues. Keep your scripts handy, and take notes! Every rehearsal and then every performance should be a little better than the last one.

I’m proud to be working with this great team. Let’s have fun.