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Minutes Till Midnight, 1983

The Lighting Designer as an Artist

Reading the Play

Point of View, Approach, and Execution

Music and the Rhythmic Structure of Lighting Design

Choosing the Equipment - Fixtures and Control

Transitions - Moments in Time

Cueing - Painting, Creating and Adjusting at the Table

Projecting Light

Great Quotes


The Lighting Designer as an Artist

Why do we create with light? Could it be the ability to paint in three dimensions and create atmospheres utilizing multiple palettes of color, light and shadow, movement, and texture? Support the dramatic action through creating and altering atmospheres? Change the space in time from finite to infinite? Maybe to be a part of the creative force of a production--to be a team member and collaborate with the other artists in the theatre.

One of the most exciting elements of theatre is the role that all the theatre artists play in the evolution of the production. There are many artists involved with the same goal in mind: to create the art of dramatic moments--to express ourselves as individual artists through the unified whole of the production. You must always think of yourself as a theatre artist. One of many who are collaborating to support the dramatic action.

We may only become theatre artists through the understanding all of theatre art. As lighting designers we must understand scenic design, as it is the scenery and the space that it occupies that we will be manipulating to create the atmospheres. The costumes will be reflecting the light back to the audience, therefore it is imperative that we understand fabric textures and colors and how light can enhance or degrade the costumes. The actors move through the atmosphere through the director's blocking, therefore we must understand patterns of spatial movement and be able to manipulate light and shadow to enhance specific moments of dramatic action.

We must also be able to talk with a director about the play, the characters, and describe atmospheric moments and transitions. And most important, we must be open and willing to see and explore new ideas and approaches so that our design evolves with the production.

As an artist you must learn how to "see". "Seeing" is the opening of your senses, taking in atmospheres in the natural world and storing them in your mind's eye. Seeing applies to all of your senses, and you need to see in all your senses to become an artist. Only through seeing will you be able to understand atmospheric and musical creation. As you live each moment of your life you must learn to use your senses and take in all of life's offerings. You should see and remember the atmospheres that you exist within. Take the time to realize all the different atmospheres that you experience daily. What is the essence of each atmosphere? How do they differ? The atmosphere may consist of a number of sensory items. How do they relate to one another? How do they affect you, physically and emotionally? How would you recreate the atmosphere on stage?

Constantly be aware of these atmospheres. Take photographs. Draw the light. Write descriptions in your journal. Learn how to verbally describe them. Develop your sensual memory. This will become useful when you have to describe atmospheres to a director. But don't limit yourself to your senses. Seeing is a way of life. It is learning how to become an "open" person. To listen to others, learn and share ideas. To take a proactive (not reactive) role in your life and art. As theatre artists we live and create art from our life experiences.

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Reading the Play

Learn how to read the play with a thorough knowledge of the literary, historical, social, artistic, and political background of the play itself and the time that it was written. Why did the playwright or composer write this piece? What was going on politically and socially that affected the piece? What were the playwright's influences? What music was being composed during the time? What psychological affects did literature and music have on the populous at the time? What was the mood of society? Were they aggressive or passive? How did the 60's influence "Hair"? What was happening socially and politically that may have influenced Mozart, Wagner, Dylan?

Be careful not to pay too much attention on literal director's notes during the initial reading. You should be able to discover the atmospheres and transitions during later readings, through the dramatic action. Read the play and discover the musical rhythms of the dramatic action. Feel the builds and climaxes along with the softer moments. Enjoy the flow of the dramatic action.

Allow your dramatic imagination and your mind's eye to see and feel this flow. I have found that writing an outline of the dramatic action helps in the understanding of the structure of the piece. I jot down notes to the side of the structure-indicating initial dynamic, texture, and transition ideas. This outline is usually the first step in the development of the lighting score and cue list.

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Point of View, Approach, and Execution

Through the study of the piece you should develop your "Point of View". The POV is your personal feeling about the piece. What does the piece mean to you? How does it affect you?

The POV should be short and to the point. For instance, one POV for Equus could be "Through unbridled passion we find our true souls". The most important thing to remember is that the POV is only a starting point in the process. It allows us to grasp a hold of an initial idea.

We must not be afraid to let go and adapt or adjust the POV to the direction of the production. This is very important in the collaborative process, especially for lighting designers who by the nature of the inherently flexibility of the tools, are able to adjust easier than scenic or costume designers.

From the POV the designer develops what is called "The Approach". The approach is how the designer chooses to support the POV. Using the Equus example above the scenic designer has chosen to design a set that is a square deck with the audience surrounding the actors. The actors are dressed very conservatively in suits and ties except for Allen who is in jeans and more casual clothes. The lighting designer may approach the production by designing very intense colorless light with a clear texture defining the square deck during the hospital scenes and moving to a more saturated atmosphere with a broken texture and softening the space through distribution during Allen's passion flashbacks. This approach would support the POV above. The space definition and colorless atmosphere representing the rigidity of society's passion restricting influence. The atmospheres changing to vibrant colors and textures supporting the dramatic music of the play, Allen's passion filled existence. And Dysart struggling in a world of bridled passion. "The Execution" is how the designer executes the approach. In short, the actual design (systems and cueing) used to execute the approach.

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Music and the Rhythmic Structure of Lighting Design

The qualities of light that we manipulate as designers are not unlike the qualities of music in a composition. In fact, you could easily approach any series of atmospheres supporting dramatic moments as if they were movements in a score.

Color and texture in light relate to the color and texture of a musical instrument. A system of lighting fixtures could be a melody line played by a group of woodwinds; transitions in atmospheres could be the transitions between sections of music. Intensity relates directly to dynamics; builds and crescendos, take downs and retards. And most importantly, all of these qualities can move in time, like the orchestral composition. The only difference is that we use different senses.

You can break down a series of dramatic moments into compositions of musical rhythms and dynamics. In several class exercises this is demonstrated by studying a text and relating the musical flow of the text to a musical composition. In later exercises dramatic moments in opera are studied and explored. A fine study is the climax of Act I of La Boheme. Puccini's creation of the dramatic rhythms and his manipulation of light through music is quite evident. The moment that Mimi steps into the moonlight, and the moment that Rudolpho sees her bathed in the light of passion is one of the greatest moments in opera. You have to be made of stone not to feel the moment and be swept away in the passion of light and music.

Through the study of Puccini, Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart the lighting designer can appreciate the musical structure of the art form. There is music present in every play written. The music of dramatic action and composition. The rhythms and dynamics of the dramatic action composed by the playwright, conducted by the director, performed by the actors, and felt by the audience. The lighting designer must be able to feel this music. From the reading through rehearsals the designer must be sensitive to how the music is created, manipulated, and expressed by the dramatic action.

A cue list should be created with the dynamics of the play in mind. Transitions between atmospheres must support the dramatic action. Fade techniques and times must be chosen carefully for the transitions to be effective. Modern computerized controllers have helped enormously in the lighting designer's support of the music. It is not surprising that Tharon Musser insisted on computer control for A Chorus Line. Anyone who has seen that show with Tharon's brilliant lighting design can see the intricacies and perfection in its support of the music of the drama. Lighting designers must have a keen sense of music.

The designer must support this music by creating atmospheres to support the dynamics, texture to support the timbre, and movement to support the rhythms. Builds and take downs along with spatial manipulation and movement can emphasize dynamic changes. The intensity of the atmosphere can support the subtlest change in dramatic action. The key here is movement. For as in all the qualities of light, movement is relative. The amount of atmospheric change and how the change is manipulated can either support the moment or call attention to itself.

The designer must always be open and aware of this movement and how it is supporting the action. If the dynamics on stage change during rehearsal, than the designer must be able to adjust quickly.

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Choosing the Equipment - Fixtures and Control

The lighting industry has the fastest developing technology in the theatre. The integration of automated fixtures is becoming more common. Color changers, projectors, and new computer controllers with more power are being introduced.

It is vital for the lighting designer to keep up with the technology of the industry. The best way to become familiar with this technology is to use it on your productions. If that is not feasible, then assist a professional designer who uses this equipment. Another good method is to attend conferences and demonstrations. You should view other designers' work and ask them and the electricians about using these tools. Go to concerts, industrials, and other productions where this technology is being used.

The tools that we have at our disposal are amazing. We can change color, texture and intensity at will. When computerized control of dimming first became available, it was thought that the lighting designer finally had control over the final look of the show. The designer did not have to worry if the electrician who was running the manual board would be fast or slow, or not find a certain level on a dimmer. Now with automated fixtures the designer's palette has increased enormously.

However, with this flexibility comes the danger of becoming lost in the palette. It is not unlike the painter having too many colors on the palette. Always use the same basic approach in lighting, no matter what the tools you may have at your disposal.

When approaching the creation of an atmosphere, it is always preferable to use broad strokes of light. I have always believed that a single source of intense light was preferable to hundreds of ellipsoidal reflector spotlights. If I had my choice I would design productions using automated lights and Pani Projectors with intense single sources to create the atmospheres. Unfortunately, few theatres stock this equipment and the rental price is usually prohibitive. Therefore it is more practical to think of groups of fixtures as your strokes.

A group of fixtures could be a "System" of lights in your palette. There are almost an unlimited variety of fixtures to choose from. The development of architectural lighting, along with TV and film lighting have produced fixtures that can be incorporated for theatrical purposes--each with their own qualities of light. From MR 16's to Mercury Vapor and other arc sources, the tools that the lighting designer has at his/her disposal are countless and ever expanding.

It is important for the designer to keep a source book containing up to date fixture technical reference sheets. It is also wise to subscribe to magazines to keep up with the technology. (Along with Lighting Dimensions and TD&I, Architectural Lighting is a good source for fixtures not found in theatrical magazines.) But most important, "see" the quality of light produced by these fixtures in everyday life. You may be surprised that one sodium vapor street lamp may be all that's required for the atmosphere that you desire.

In choosing the fixture the designer must first consider what quality of light and control is required for the purpose. Is the texture soft or hard? Are shutters required? Will the fixture have to project a pattern or slide? Is minimal size and weight a requirement? Does the fixture have to change color and/or focus remotely? What are the circuit and dimmer limitations?

There are many lighting control boards available. The most popular computer controllers are the Strand and the ETC series controllers. The most important consideration in choosing control is dependability. I have seen some controllers self-destruct and drop memory on opening night. I have also seen controllers that you can drop off the back of a truck and still function. If you are designing a touring production you do not want a controller that arrives in each city with it's chips rattling around in the case. I suggest that you speak to designers and electricians who have used the controllers for advice. Let's just say that even the largest lighting companies produce lemons.

The designer must also consider the size of the lighting budget in choosing fixtures and control. It is unrealistic to plan on using Vari*Lites when the lighting budget is small. Although with the Series 300 fixtures from Vari*Lite, quiet, inexpensive automated lighting is now in the reach of theatres with even modest budgets. If purchasing equipment all I will say is that like all computer equipment, chances are the controller will be relatively obsolete soon after installation. My advice is to purchase a controller that is expandable from a reputable company. Also buy a controller that is designed to or can be adapted to control automated fixtures.

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Transitions - Moments in Time

The designer must realize that atmospheres created are just moments in time. Traveling from one moment to another is a transition. Transitions are powerful design statements used to support the dramatic action.

The process of designing transitions begins from reading the play, talking to the director and designers, watching rehearsals, and adjusting at the production table. To fully understand transitions, the designer must have a highly developed sense of movement and music. The designer must be able to imagine how one dramatic moment flows into another. The designer must be able to feel that flow as the dramatic action changes with the movement of the actor, the delivery of the text, and the punctuation of the end and beginning of the scenes.

Transitions are also means of establishing conventions. The designer has a powerful tool in subconsciously affecting the audience's mood and understanding of the play. By establishing conventions of cross-fades, blackouts, fade-to-blacks, and other dynamic changes, the director and design are able to manipulate the rhythm of the play and create powerful dramatic statements. Transition conventions can also be established, and then broken for dramatic effect.

The important issue to remember is that this should all be in support of the play. The minute the audience questions why the lights faded to black instead of cross-fading, you have distracted from your role as a supporter of the play. You are running this risk whenever you break conventions—but used with sensitivity, this can be a powerful tool for the designer and director.

From the very beginning of the design process the designer must think about transitions. When reading the script the designer should be able to feel the rhythms of the play's text. As the overall composition of the play reveals itself in the text, the design feels the transitions between scenes. Do they abruptly break the rhythm, or do they flow from one moment to another? Would a slow fade-to-black support the lingering dramatic moment better than a fast fade-out?

Listing the transitions on a preliminary cue sheet assists greatly in your preliminary discussions with the director. Through the use of storyboards and your list of transitions, the director and designer may begin their discussions on the movement of the atmospheres.

This exploration always results in discoveries for the director and designer. Watching the rehearsals is another discovery point for your approach. You should “see” the actors moving through your atmospheres… and feel the transitions from scene to scene. That is why I always view as many rehearsals as possible before I get into the theatre. If something does not feel right, then approach the director to discuss it. The evolution of a production is critical during this process. You will both make additional discoveries at this time. Don't be afraid to adjust.

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Cueing - Painting, Creating and Adjusting at the Table

The cueing process is the time that the lighting design process begins to take shape. It is the time in which the designer creates the atmospheres by painting with the lighting palette--the time in which transitions between the atmospheres are created.

Before beginning the designer should individually take each channel to full to see what paint strokes are available. Sometimes nice accidents happen when a fixture focused for one scene falls interestingly into another. The designer should note down on the magic sheet these channels. Also, focus touchups should be noted.

When beginning on an atmosphere the designer should paint in bold strokes. Never loose touch of the atmospheres in your mind's eye. This is the time to transfer these atmospheres and transitions to the stage. I find it best to begin with the strongest key to the atmosphere. A group command works well, adjusting individual fixtures after the command. Create the space and mix to the desired color and texture. Then shaping the space through distribution (if necessary) and finally adding visibility light.

You should always strive for a "clear" atmosphere. Not in color, but in intent. I find that if the designer turns on too many systems the atmosphere suffers by turning into mud. Sometimes it is best to start again from black after working on an atmosphere for too long. Close your eyes, relax, visualize the atmosphere, and start again. It is best to add light later if necessary. Keep a clear mind and clear atmospheres.

The designer should also be able to adjust the atmospheres to the needs of the production. I feel that what separates the great designers from the good is the ability to see what is happening on the stage and being able to quickly adjust the atmosphere or transition. The designer should also be open to ideas from the other members of the creative team. I have worked with many great Directors and Designers who I value greatly as artistic collaborators. This does not mean that I appreciate the Director who starts dictating channel numbers and levels. I do appreciate the Director or Designer who may introduce an idea for an atmosphere or transition. It is vital for the lighting designer to keep an open mind and eye to the creative process. But at the same time always staying in control of the process.

The production table should be "designer friendly". Items placed on the table should be organized specifically for the designer's comfort. Each designer has different needs and preferences on the organization of the table. My own needs stem from one of my mentors, Gilbert Helmsley. Gilbert believed that the table should be an inviting place for all of the creative collaborators involved in the production. He would insist that the paperwork was neatly organized with colorful magic sheets and descriptive cue synopsis sheets. Fresh flowers would be placed on the table along with carefully chosen snack foods. I remember one of his favorite food items would be white pistachio nuts. The nuts would give the Director something to do during slower moments of the process without turning the Director's fingers red. The monitors should be placed so that the designer may easily view the channel levels and cue list but not have to look over them. The designer should have a clear view of the stage. The assistant should not sit between the designer and director. It is best for the assistant to sit next to the designer with a clear path to the stage in case the assistant needs to run up on the stage for information. The magic sheet(s) should be placed in front of the designer with the cue sheet to the side. Both should be placed in a clear plastic cover to protect them from spills. The designer's headset should be a single muff type with the open ear to the Director. The assistant's should be the same with the open ear to the Designer.

A typical trap that I see young designers fall into is assigning separate channels for each fixture and not group the fixtures into systems. When the designer is at the table and is only dealing with individual channels the designer pages through three or four pages of channel numbers and gets lost in the monitor. This is certain disaster. The designer must spend 90 percent of the time looking at the stage, not the monitor. This is the most crucial time in the process of lighting design, for this is when the designer must be able to fine tune and adjust the design to the dramatic action on stage. There are times in which I will make a student sit in the row in front of the lighting table to make the designer look at the stage. Personally I prefer to call out groups of channels and fine-tune the atmosphere with individual channel numbers.

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Projecting Light

When one talks about projecting light a scene machine or Pani projector immediately comes to mind. However, I believe that the lighting designer is constantly projecting images from all of the fixtures in the palette.

Light is projected from the fixture, travels through space, and is reflected off of an object, whether it is an actor, scenery, or the floor. Projections may be a literal design or creation of atmospheric texture. From a painted slide placed in a Pani projector to a template placed in an ERS the designer must treat the quality of light emitting from the fixture as a projection into the space.

Often I find myself focusing fixtures from the tenth row of the orchestra in order to see how the light is hitting the scenery. In many instances, the perspective offered from this position is superior to being on stage. I feel that this is a vital part of the process in composing the space.

Templates placed in ERS's are quite useful in projecting and texturing the space. There are many methods used to focus templates. In most cases, designers overlap multiple images from various fixtures for depth and color variation. Split gels may be used in a single fixture to create depth in the image. One of my favorite methods is to use a foliage breakup pattern and run the focus slightly in from sharp. It is also preferable to use a pattern without a round edge.

Personally I love to see texture in light. I have designed productions that incorporated hundreds of templates focused slightly out of focus to create broken light that actors walk through. I have templated different systems depending of the needs of the design. On a limited budget I usually choose a single system for broken light. Sometimes it may be the high sidelight, sometimes the backlight. I prefer to design different templated systems in different colors for depth and flexibility in atmospheric creation.

Because of the optical limitations of ERS's, these fixtures cannot be used successfully to project complex images. A more eloquent fixture to use in projecting light is the Pani projector. With a Pani the designer can paint a slide to project into the space. The cooling mechanism is so good that photographs of images can be made into transparencies and sandwiched between plastic slides. Painting may modify these transparencies over the plastic with colored inks. The optics of the Pani are so fine that some designers actually project photographs of their design drawings into the space. Again these images can be modified through inks or in some cases by simply taping a piece of color media to the slide. Multiple ink colors can add depth to the image.

I prefer to incorporate Pani's into designs that demand more complex images. I love to paint my own slides and experiment projecting images into the space. I also scan images into Photoshop and digitally manipulating them--printing them onto Pani slide sized transparencies. The beauty of this fixture is the ability of the designer to be able to change the design of the slide quickly without having to order a new template from a manufacturer. But Pani's are also quite useful as a single source. When incorporating a color and slide changer the flexibility of these fixtures is quite amazing. Whether projecting onto scenery with a literal image or projecting onto the deck with an abstract breakup for texture, the Pani is an extremely versatile tool in the designer's palette.

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Great Quotes

"Stage Design is not a private means of self-expression. Our job is to help the play to communicate. I get cross with designers who are mainly concerned with their own contribution, rather than the writer's point of view. Designers who worry about posterity and their position in the American theatre and are not able to make compromises are just plain self-indulgent, like writers who don't think they need editing." Jean Eckart, stage designer

"The sole aim of the arts of scene-designing, costuming, and lighting, is to enhance the natural powers of the actor." Robert Edmund Jones, stage director, producer, and designer

"One light bulb in the right place is worth 100 Varilites going off at the wrong time." Greg Lake, bassist and vocalist for King Crimson and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

"It is not about the design, its about the event." John Lee Beatty, stage designer

During a technical rehearsal of a particularly "unfortunate" production, a stagehand runs up to the conference room where the artistic team is discussing what to do with the show. When the stagehand breathlessly announces that he smells smoke in the theatre, Bill Eckart in his brilliantly dry wit declares: "Quick! Fan the flames!"

The art of lighting a stage consists of putting light where you want it and taking it away from where you don’t want it. Max Reinhardt, stage designer

"That's It!... I go back to Vienna!" Gunther Schneider Siemmson, stage designer

"Duck's Off! ... Sorry" Basil Fawlty, Incompetent hotel owner/manager

“Lighting a scene consists not only in throwing light upon objects but in throwing light upon a subject.” Robert Edmund Jones, stage director, producer, and designer

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!" President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove

"There is a fine line between clever... and stupid." Nigel Tuffnel, guitarist of Spinal Tap

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