Picture it. A darkened theatre. A pitch-black cavern. The only sound you hear is that of your own heartbeat and breath. Seemingly out of nowhere, a dim beam of amber light appears, its edges crisp, illuminating a circular patch of vacant stage. As the light intensifies, it’s amber glow wanes pink. Through the silence, a disembodied voice cries out, “Down left… A little more…. Hold it there! Lock it and move on.” Suddenly the space is dark again. The shaft of pink light has faded away as quickly as it appeared, and you are, once again, in a darkened theatre.
In my line of work as a lighting designer, there is a saying I happen to find very poignant. “Walking through shadows. Painting with light.” I picture each beam of light. How it affects the costumes and the scenery, both in the radiance and shine of the materials used, and how the colors will play off of one another must be considered. But perhaps even more importantly than that, I must consider the emotional effect that each color, each shadow, will have on the audience. Lighting design is more than just illumination. It is an art form, cuing any array of emotions I deem appropriate for the audience to feel during a performance.
Back in the theatre, you decide to walk down the aisle to the mezzanine between two sections of seating. Lost in the awe and wonder of witnessing a process you didn’t know existed, you are suddenly grounded by a second shaft of light. Just as the first, this one gradually intensifies. This time, however, the light shifts from amber to a soft Robin’s egg blue. This shaft of light also terminates in a blurry oval on stage. A second disembodied voice pierces the air. “What’s the focus point? Bridge 2, unit 23.” The first voice replies, “Take it down center. And take the bottle across the pro’sc. It’s a soft bump for Helena, Act 1, Scene 1.” Suddenly, the shaft of light begins to move toward the edge of the stage. It’s soft blue glow revealing a rather convincing looking tree just off stage. Still baffled at the process you’ve found yourself in the middle of, you trace the beam of light back to its source. It’s hovering somewhere apparently in mid-air just behind you.
To design light is more than just point lights where people stand. To dictate the placement on stage, color, brightness, shape, sharpness, angle, and other qualities of each individual light fixture takes patience, time, and practice. I have spent countless hours reading about color theory – that is to say, how colors of light interact and why, as well as the emotions they evoke from the audience. I’ve also spent a lot of time considering the intensity of certain types of light bulb, which to me is a lamp, and the fixtures they go into, how the fixture works, and how it affects the qualities of the light.
“Lock that off. Let’s take ten,” the second voice calls out from the darkness. The blue beam of light suddenly disappears, and the room becomes instantly bright, as if the sun was suddenly turned on. You are still looking up at the point from which the blue light originated. It appears to be a black coffee can with a square sheet of blue plastic in front of it. How could anyone control that, you wonder to yourself. As your eyes drift around the space, there are countless other objects with the same shape. You notice others with a smaller diameter, but essentially the same piece of equipment, all with similar sheets of plastic covering their open end. Suddenly you hear the metallic sound of someone trotting down a spiral metal staircase. You turn to find three men in all black making their way from the staircase to the nearby rear exit of the space.
The majority of people that attend a performance do not realize the time that it takes to pull all of the components together. From the day that the actors are auditioned, there is a staff of scenic designers making the stage looks right, sound designers queuing up sound effects and setting up microphones, costume designers making decisions on what each performer should wear and when they should change. Each of these jobs is important. Each one helps effect the audiences’ emotions to deepen the reality of each scene. My job as the lighting designer is no different. I take into consideration the setting and time of day of each scene, who is on stage, what action is happening, and how realistic I want the scene to look. I consider the space I have to work with, where my power sources are, and consider where I want my lights to be to achieve the proper shadows and effects on stage.
The three men enter the theatre through the same door in the back of the theatre and proceed to climb the same spiral staircase to walkways suspended from the ceiling. You find a seat near the center of the theatre and make yourself comfortable. “Going dark!” booms the second voice over the space. You are suddenly plunged back into darkness. “Checking warm front 1. Sub 2 up. How’s it feel Charlie?” A new voice is responds, “Lookin’ good!” The activities of these three men continue for another hour or so as they fade in and out different colors of light and in different areas of the stage. The language they share is one that is foreign to you, but one they obviously have spent years speaking. You hear the second man call out that they are starting to build scenes. Beam by beam an intricate array of lights fade up to varying intensities, and as you watch the stage turn shades of pink and red, blue and purple. By the time the second man calls out to save each scene, the stage is ablaze with pools of vibrant colors of light. You feel as if you are inside a painting by Claude Monet.
Each time I sit down to design a show, it’s true. I do take into consideration all of the technical aspects of light. Power, position, and inventory, just to name a few. But the artwork comes much more naturally. To paint literally paint the stage in color takes the eye of a painter, the hand of an artist, and the possession of a skill that cannot be taught. Each time I sit down to design a show I take a moment to consider that quote. “Walking through shadows. Painting with light.” And each time I read it, it means a little more to me. As a lighting designer, I spend hour upon hour in the dark underworld above the audience, moving skillfully and carefully around the maze of doorways, cables, and carefully positioned lighting instruments. But it’s the time I spend positioning those lighting instruments that makes my job so rewarding. I paint with the colors of the light. I can turn the stage into whatever I want it to be. It’s my job to convince the audience that what they are seeing is real – to suspend their disbelief. And it’s all done by walking through shadows, and painting with light.
A week has passed. You find yourself back in the same theatre. This time, it’s brightly lit all around, the hustle and bustle of people trying to locate their assigned seat off their ticket, ushers running back and forth trying to assist as many patrons as they can. The lights dim, and again, you are thrust into darkness. The lights fade up on the stage to reveal several characters. Finally, you realize how all that work you observed has paid off. You feel every emotion and hang on each word they say. And as the theatre slowly rises back into light at the end of the play, you remember the three men. The three who walk in shadows and paint with light.