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  • 1. A FATE GUIDE TO STAGE LIGHTING DESIGN WHERE TO START Richard J. Gamble, USAA 829 gamble@fau.edu Florida Association for Theatre Education - 2008 Reproduction of all or any part of this book for educational non-profit use is granted without further written permission.
  • 2. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 1 LIGHTING DESIGN IN THE THEATRE In order determine how the lighting designer fits into the overall process of theatre production, it is first necessary to examine the essentials of the theatre art form. Once beginning this investigation it soon becomes apparent that a considerable amount of activity normally associated with theatrical production isn't exactly essential to its existence and one discovers that one can do theatre without scenery, costumes, directors, and many of the other details commonly associated with the artform. If we stripped away one by one the things we could do theatre without, we would find only two elements which are truly essential to theatre: the actor and the audience. It thus seems reasonable to believe that what happens between these two elements, the communication which happens between them, or, as Jerzy Growtowski would say, the communion which comes to exist between them in performance, is what the theatrical event is all about. The designer's responsibility, as a contributing artist to a theatre production, is to visually reinforce that communion which comes to exist between the actor and audience. In other words, the theatrical designer needs only to create that which is necessary to support the action of the production. It is wise to avoid adding extraneous elements which do not directly support the dramatic action and above all to remember that more is not better. While a good design cannot make an unsatisfactory production better, a bad design can certainly have a negative effect on a good production. Being one of many contributing artists in the theatre, the lighting designer does not work alone. Although he or she may function as a visual artist, the theatre designer is primarily a theatre artist and needs to first possess a deep understanding of the theatrical art. Theatre is more than a kit made up of an assemblage of various other art forms. Instead it is an independent art form which exists as a living entity in performance. Knowing what theatre is, what the people of the theatre do and how they do it, gives one a much better chance of completing a successful theatre production than the designer who sets out to merely produce pretty pictures for one's portfolio. Simply put, a designer who does not design for the theatre is not a theatre designer. THE DESIGN PROCESS Every designer uses different procedures when pursuing their work and will likely use different procedures depending upon the type of production they are working on. However, all designers of dramatic productions work in mutual response to the artistic efforts of the playwright and thus need the ability to examine and analyze a script not as a work of literature, but as a blueprint upon which a theatrical production can be built. Similarly a designer of a non-scripted work, such as a dance production, works in response to the music and movement of the performers and works to support their performance. First, one reads the script for overall concepts and impressions. Try to mentally visualize the play as it might be produced and then record your impressions and feelings about the play, the individual characters, the setting, etc. While visualizing isn't always easy or complete, sketches and doodles can often demonstrate visual impressions which can be expanded and built on later. The script is also read as an assessment of the technical requirements such as scene changes, time changes, costume changes, and various things such as specific properties or costumes which might be required by the action of the play.
  • 3. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 2 The true miracle of theatrical creativity lies in the collaborative relationship a designer helps create and enters into with the director and other designers since it is out of this action that the artform flourishes. Conferences, appropriately informal, are held with the director and other designers on the production in order to coordinate and exchange concepts and ideas which will result in determining the visual approach the lighting will take. In order to better express his or her visual ideas, the designer generally uses rough sketches, thumbnail sketches, or whatever else might be necessary to put conceptual ideas into a more tangible form. It is wise to go into these conferences with an open mind and with a minimum of preset ideas so as not to unduly inhibit your collaborative creativity with your fellow artists. At some point before construction on the production begins, final drawings are done. Lighting designers complete a light plot including floorplans and schedules and sometimes sketches and renderings. Depending upon the production organization, the designer generally plays an active role in the supervision of building and assembling the designed product. Within the week before opening, technical and dress rehearsals are held. These rehearsals give the actor the opportunity to work with the finished scenery, lighting and costumes, and just as important they give the designers a chance to see their work in a finished form and allow opportunity for fine tuning the visual aspects of the production. In addition, technical rehearsals also allow the technicians adequate practice in handling the technical units and in running the production. WHAT YOU WANT A commonly followed process of design can be summed up in the formula: What you want X What you have = What you get. While this formula seems rather simplistic it is really quite universal in that it applies to all sorts of things in life from shopping for a used car to finding a suitable marriage partner. We will, however, only examine its application to theatrical design. Although it may seem more rational for a designer to begin by first considering the resources which are already available, it is far wiser to first consider "what you want" as an outcome of your lighting design. Of course, even the same person will "want" different things from one production to the next, but essentially those wants can be classified into a few major categories. When creating a design, a designer thinks primarily of creating not merely a backdrop for the action of the play, but an environment within which the action of the play occurs, and one which also supports that action. The audience as well as the performer share in this created atmosphere. Remember that every visual choice that a designer might conceive will make a visual statement. The path to effective design is to ensure that the statement you are making is the same as the one you intended. Because the lighting designer is a visual artist, you will be dealing with the same principles of design such as line, form, color, mass, and rules of composition as do all other visual artists. Often a designer can create bold visual statements on the action of a play but equally important are the subtle visual statements made through simple choices of texture, color, line, etc., which can and do effect the way the audience perceives a character, the action, and the environment of the production.
  • 4. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 3 Coordination of the production's visual statements is particularly important so that if conflicts are to occur between various elements of the production, they are done intentionally and in support of the overall dramatic action. Ensuring coordination or unity of design entails closely working with the director of the production from the very beginning in order to establish the conceptual direction of the production's design. Once establishing a visual concept for the design, the designer need only to make decisions based upon the relationship each element needs to have with the directed overall concept of the production. A production which exhibits a visual unity of design, unity within the design, with the other designers, and with the action and environment of the production as a whole, projects a clear, meaningful and supportive image which lends maximum support to the communion between the actor and the audience. WHAT YOU HAVE Once "what you want" in the design is established, the next task of the designer is to assess the physical realities of theatre production by investigating "what you have". Only by taking into account that which is possible to accomplish can the theatre designer be ultimately successful. Designers who have mental access to the wealth of techniques utilized in the technical production of scenery, lighting, costumes, and properties are much better equipped to work themselves out of design problems, to create new design solutions and in general to make themselves more marketable. A brilliant but unfinished or unworkable design just does not make good theatre. One aspect of working in the theatre which is different from the other visual arts is the opportunity to work creatively with other artists, collaborating and cooperating with one another in order to produce a finished single artistic product. The designer who masters the art of working with other artists has become accomplished at the most difficult and most rewarding portion of the theatre business. The skill one needs to succeed in this venture is simply the ability to trust and to inspire trust in one's fellow artists. Artistic trust is given to the extent that once the production is completed, the quality of one's work will not be compromised. When artists are unable to trust one another, they will also be unable to share creatively, to inspire one another, and to truly work together. The second thing a designer needs to consider is the physical realities of the space he or she is designing for. Every theatre has certain advantages and certain disadvantages which should be taken into account when designing. Proscenium theatre, characterized as a picture frame stage where the action of the play is observed through a transparent "fourth wall", is the most traditional form in contemporary theatre. While the proscenium stage provides the greatest separation between the actor and audience physically and psychologically, all audience members receive nearly the same visual picture. Thrust staging has audience on three sides and in arena the audience surrounds the acting area. In both these forms scenic elements are limited to small pieces, furnishings, and the floor while audience and actors work much more closely together than in proscenium. However, audience members on opposite sides of a thrust or arena performance space will inevitably experience the performers and the environment of that space differently. A design which exploits the advantages of a particular performance space usually results in a more satisfactory product, both artistically and financially. Even if a designer sets out to make significant alterations to the theatre in order to realize the originally conceived design, as happens in a flexible or "black box" theatre, consideration needs to be given to how the
  • 5. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 4 space is to be treated in order to accommodate the production. The lighting designer will most often discover that a great number of artistic decisions have already been made by the relationship of the acting areas to the placement of the theatre's lighting positions, the number of lighting instruments available, the type and condition of the lighting control system and layout of the building's stage circuitry and the capacity of available electrical service. Resources are the third item to be considered in the assessment of things you might have as a designer. Of course, the first resource which comes to mind is financial in that what you lack in equipment can always be rented. Another resource not to be overlooked in design is that of available skills, particularly the skills of those who are doing the execution of the completed design, as well as your own skills and ability to find solutions to design problems. WHAT YOU GET The final result to this equation is "what you get". Being able to honestly evaluate your own work in terms of what goals you have set for yourself as an artist, what you know you are capable of, and what you perceive theatrical design at its best can be, is also the way to allow and to encourage your own growth as a theatre artist.
  • 6. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 5 A GUIDE TO STAGE LIGHTING This is a guide to the process which a designer might follow in designing stage lighting for a theatre production. 1. The first thing a designer does is to read and analyze the script. This can be for a number of times and a for a number of reasons. First, the script is read for overall concepts and impressions and visualized as it might be produced. The script is also read as an assessment of what you want and what you have. Analysis is made of various technical requirements such as time of day, scene changes, time changes, etc. and various things which might be required by the action of the play such as curtains, doors, practicals, and other things. 2. Obtain a floorplan of the set which includes its exact location relative to the structure of the theatre building and with center and proscenium lines clearly indicated. Also obtain a floorplan and section of the theatre showing the location of all permanent lighting positions and an indication of things such as free line sets where additional lights might be hung. Check with the designer and technical director on the anticipated location of masking borders, flown units, and other scenic elements so that you can eliminate those line sets as potential light hanging positions. The plan should also show location and numbering of all available circuits. On a section of the set, check ceiling slot/beam positions, balcony rail and side slot/box boom positions relative to the set. On this drawing you can also plot location and trim of lighting positions relative to the onstage masking. 3. Confer with the director and other designers on the production in order to coordinate and exchange concepts and ideas and to determine what direction the visual approach will take. Discuss the general concepts of the show with the director and note any special effects or special moments he or she might have in mind. Consult with the scenic designer on any aspects of the setting which are either not clear on the floorplan or which you feel might pose problems to lighting such as ceilings, maskings or backings. Also confer with the scenic and costume designers on matters of color, textures, etc. Note any aspects of design which might influence your lighting. Talk to the makeup designer about the relationship between the makeup and lights. 4. Try to see some early blocking rehearsals of the show or at least obtain from the stage manager or director a pretty solid indication of how the blocking is arranged. A series of small scale floorplans will be of help here in order to note blocking by unit or by scene. 5. On a floorplan of the set, roughly indicate the lighting areas you feel you will require. Decide on these areas with the following points in mind: a) areas dictated by furniture grouping, entrances, major scenic elements, etc. b) areas dictated by platform configuration. c) areas needed to ensure compositional control over the performance space. Keep in mind that you are lighting mainly the actor's upper body and face, not his or her feet or knees. However, check to see whether scenes will be played on the floor or in odd places that would not normally receive much light.
  • 7. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 6 6. Make a list of any special lights or lighting effects you will need to keep in mind when plotting your instrument layout such as the sun, moon, fireplaces, table lamps, window patterns, etc. Motivating sources are things such as lamps, fireplaces, or windows from which the lighting in a scene is supposed to be coming. If a light source really operates, if it is practical, it should be kept relatively dim or it may become distracting. Motivated lights are instruments which provide the actual light that appears to be furnished by motivating sources. Try to position such lighting instruments so as not to throw the shadow of the apparent source, keeping in mind the directions in which the motivating sources would radiate light, and position the motivated lights accordingly. 7. Begin drawing your lighting floorplan by transferring to it the outline of set. Indicate in some way the location of lighting areas you have decided on. Often Roman numerals are used in order to avoid confusion with circuit numbers, instrument numbers and other graphic symbols. 8. Decide on the general lighting pattern you want to use. For example, for a certain area you might use two front lights plus a back light; or one front light, a diagonal plus two side lights. Give some thought to motivated lights such as light from a window which may require more lighting from one side than another in a specific area, and how one area might relate to an adjacent area. The general lighting pattern you adopt will be determined by several factors: a) the specific requirements of the show and the design concepts with which you are working, b) the physical layout of the theatre with regard to hanging positions, c) location of the set relative to the center line and proscenium line. 9. If you are working with a box set, keep in mind the problem of too much light piling up on the walls, and the problems of hard lines of light appearing from ellipsoidals. a) For areas immediately against walls, keeping the vertical angles fairly steep will reflect less light directly back into the audience. b) As much as possible, arrange lights to throw parallel to the walls rather than directing them head-on into the walls. c) Use fresnels from on stage positions to light against walls since they will tend to blend and not produce sharp cutoffs of light. 10. If you are working with a multi-level setting, keep in mind the following: a) A given level or platform frequently may function as an isolated playing space, therefore plot areas with close attention to levels. b) In trying to anticipate the hanging positions of the instruments for a given platform, consider where the light will go after it has lit the actor on the platform. Try to hang instruments so that the spill will not prove distracting.
  • 8. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 7 11. Work out the gelling pattern you feel will best realize your design concept. A rough sketch using arrows to show the direction of a wash of warm or cool light will often help you work out the general color scheme you want to use. When deciding on gel colors, keep in mind that the more saturated the gel color, the less intense will be the light. In choosing colors for specials or back light, keep in mind the amount of light you want from these sources as well as the color. An overall shift of color from perhaps a warm to a cool tone can best be achieved by using a series of lights specifically designed to give a wash of color. These could be border lights, a group of flood lights, or a series of fresnels or ellipsoidals. When choosing these wash colors, keep in mind the effect of additive mixing of color. Enter gel numbers on the instrument schedule when you have worked out your gelling pattern. 12. Begin plotting the location of the instruments for each area. Work lightly in pencil until you are sure that the locations will work. Start with the front lighting. Draw the symbols for the lighting instruments you want to use. You might want to note the focus at the front of the instrument. As you work, make sure that each instrument can be plugged into a nearby circuit. You might make a working list of circuits down one side of the plot and jot down the probable instrument that will go into each circuit. You may choose to gang two or more instruments into a single circuit using a twofer or threefer but as you do so make sure you are not overloading circuits or cables. After you have worked through the front lighting, plot the location of specials you have listed as required for the show. If you are using the cyc, show location of cyc overhead and floor lighting units. As you proceed, decide on the lighting positions you will require in addition to those already offered in the theatre. These positions include additional onstage electrical pipes, ladders, booms, trees, etc. Mark these on your floorplan in the appropriate locations. 13. After you have drawn the symbols for all the lighting instruments you intend to use, number them with reference numbers. Use some consistent numbering pattern throughout the entire plot, such as top to bottom or stage left to stage right. Place the reference number either inside the instrument symbol or just beside it. 14. On the light plot be sure to include an information block in one corner. In this block show: a) play title b) theatre or producer name c) label as "light plot" d) scale of plan such as - 0' 1/2" = 1' 0" e) date of plot f) your name as lighting designer Also include any special coded information such as the symbol for a pattern holder or iris type instrument. You might include a key to the various lighting symbols and instrument reference numbers used on the plot. If you are using gobos in the show, make a small scaled down drawing for each gobo pattern and assign it a reference letter or number. These references can appear on your instrument schedule under "remarks".
  • 9. FATE 2008 - Lighting Design for the Theatre Page 8 15. Assign all lights to circuits and controllers. Check your circuit and dimmer capacity so that you are sure not to create overloads. Assign controllers on the basis of control flexibility, potential grouping of lights, and ease of operation. It is usually best to have each area under separate control and each special under separate control, but color washes can usually be ganged together.