CPM Article: Dealing With Change
by: David Martin Jacques

Copyright © 2007 by David Jacques

Published in the June, 2007, issue of Church Production Magazine
By: David Martin Jacques
For: Church Production Magazine

The ability to deal with change is one of the most essential skills in becoming a successful lighting designer. Change usually occurs when a decision is made or a problem is encountered. Believe me, in my experience as a lighting designer changes are constantly happening.

Imagine the following scenarios:

You are in the middle of a technical rehearsal for your Christmas Pageant and the Music Minister decides to change the order of the songs, affecting the overall lighting composition of the show. In order to accomplish this you will not only have to juggle the light cues already in the board, you may have to re-think the atmospheres that make up the design… and you have to do it fast!

During your Sunday service you discover that the worship singer’s lavender dress suddenly turns gray. The lighting gels you chose have turned her dress into a different color! The fact is the singer decided to change the dress she was going to wear without notifying you.

Later on in the service you notice that the light you had previously focused on the Baptistery has been “mysteriously” refocused into the congregation, lighting the blue-haired lady in the fourth row. You have to immediately come up with a way to light the Pastor without the congregation realizing that something has gone amiss.

Although these examples may seem absurd, I mention them only because they all actually happened to me. Changes like these are just a few of the crazy things that could occur when lighting in your house of worship.

Preparing yourself to handle these unexpected challenging situations is pretty straight-forward. The most important thing you should do is to prepare as much as possible before-hand for any possible changes. No one can predict the future, but the steps I outline below can certainly help.

First you must “do your homework”. What I mean is that you should learn as much as possible long before you step into the church. This includes studying and asking questions regarding the design of the service (or pageant). I have known designers who skip over the possible trouble spots thinking that they could solve them in the sanctuary. Why wait for the predictable problems to present themselves? You will be wasting all that valuable time solving them instead of using that time to create your art. Address these challenges from the start with the creative team and technical staff so that you may go into the church with one less thing to worry about.

If you are designing a rehearsed performance (like a Christmas or Easter Pageant), a good way of doing your homework is to spend as much time as possible in rehearsals. Some designers only show up for the read-through and final run-through. The long time between these rehearsals can be effectively used to understand what is going on. You may also discover potential problems that could be solved before you enter the church.

Once you have prepared beforehand, the next thing is to learn how to handle yourself during the load-in, hang, focus, and cueing. One instance still sends shivers up my spine… For one of my professional theatre gigs the set designer sent me the renderings of the scenery and the walls were to be painted a beautiful light blue. I chose my gels carefully so that the color of the light complimented the hues of the set. When the stagehands started to unload the scenery from the truck I was shocked to see the walls painted a soft pink! I quickly called the set designer and he informed me that the shop made a terrible mistake. There was no time to re-paint the set, so I adjusted by changing the color of the lights.

Focusing presents more opportunities for the unexpected. I remember one instance while working on a Christmas Pageant when one of the walls of the set was four feet taller than what was indicated on the plans. This meant that the lighting angles had to be changed to shoot over the walls. I quickly adjusted the height of the lighting pipe and re-assigned the lights to create the proper angles.

Sometimes the change required will take too much time and you have to “bite the bullet” and make some cuts. There was an instance when the music minister decided to move the location of a worship song from the choir area to the center aisle of the church. When this change occurred I had to cut some of my lights because the original lighting angle was going to be too steep. I adjusted by re-assigning and utilizing some lights from the front to cover for the lights I had to cut.

One thing I always do is hang spare fixtures and circuits on the lighting pipes. My former mentor, Gilbert Hemsley, called them “GMOOT’s” (get me out of trouble) lights. I thank Gilbert every time I use one.

Nowadays moving lights come in very handy to cover possible surprises. In my opinion, they are almost indispensable for precisely this reason. With a moving light you can almost instantaneously change the focus, color, and texture of the light from the lighting console (enabling you to “dial-in” the hue so that the worship singer’s dress does not turn gray).

Once you finish focusing the next area of the design process awaits: The cueing sessions at the production table. This is where all the creative energy of the production is generated. Unfortunately many talented designers do not succeed in the profession because they cannot handle the stress there.

The production table is usually placed in the center of the theatre (or church). There you will find the lighting designer, the assistant lighting designer, director, set designer, stage manager, and choreographer. As this is the central place for most of the communication amongst the creative team, all problems naturally pass through this point.

So how do you prepare yourself to approach these problems calmly and effectively? Being aware of the situation is a good start. I know of many lighting designers who light their shows with “blinders on”. They are so focused on their job that they do not see the production as a whole.

The lighting designer needs to see more than the light. You cannot concentrate so much on the lighting that you are unable to see other important problems that you may be able to solve. For instance, there may be a difficult transition from one scene to another where props or scenery must be struck from the stage to clear space for the next scene. There are many ways to manipulate focus with light to solve this problem. It is up to the lighting designer to visualize these transitions and come up solutions.

The best laid plans can go awry. You may have thought that you had a great idea, but once you see it in the church you realize that it does not work. This is when you have to think fast and find a solution.

Sometimes the best strategy is to pause, take a breath, and discuss the problem with your colleagues. Also, other members of the production team could be of assistance. For instance, if flying or moving scenery is involved, the technical director and stage manager are good people to include in this conversation.

If you do not have the time for discussion, then you must make a quick change. This can be accomplished if the adjustment will not cause physical harm or distract the performers. (For example, you would never black-out the stage unexpectedly on the performers or technicians.) It is also wise to inform the director that you are working on the problem. I always tell a director that I am returning to a previous cue to work on it while the performers continue with the show. This communication is critical as the director must know when the lighting is correct for that particular moment on stage.

Adjusting to change can be challenging and fun. It can also be un-nerving. In all cases my best advice is to stay cool and don’t get rattled. Remember, your fellow worshipers are very supportive, and there is no need to panic. You will feel wonderful when everyone around you realizes that your ability to efficiently cope with change has just saved the show.

David Martin Jacques is a professional lighting designer and consultant. He has designed hundreds of productions in the US and throughout the world. David also consults on new worship facilities and renovations. He serves as Head of Stage Design for California State University Long Beach. He can be contacted at djacques@csulb.edu.