I think of myself as someone who plays well with others. I pride myself on my ability to collaborate. This quality hopefully makes me a good director, because the bedrock of theatre is sharing artistic ownership. With this in mind, I have found myself humbled by how collaborative and accommodating lighting designers have to be. I make outrageous demands, and more often than you’d think I get what I want. Lighting designers are lucky to get some of what they want, some of the time.
They have no real choice but to collaborate. They are constrained by so many other people’s work (the director, the designer, the actors). But in a way, this is crazy. Lighting designers are tasked with one of the most indispensable elements of theatre: light. Of course there needs to be light. It seems so mind-numbingly obvious, but the number of choices they make and the delicacy of their work are missed unless you fully appreciate what they’re doing.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say the following, even experienced theatre makers: “Well, of course we don’t need a lighting designer. It’s a simple show”. In these situations, I’m tempted to ask “are you going to decide which lights we need? Will you rig them so that all the scenes are covered, with the right texture and so that all the actors’ movements are covered? And obviously you know which gels will work best with the feeling of each moment, right?”
My Own Failure of Appreciation
Lest I become too sanctimonious, I am reminded that I did not always exist in my current state of open-armed celebration of creativity. Before I became a director, I had a very clear notion of how theatre got made. My youthful vision was this:
Step one: The director assembles brilliant actors.
Step two: The director spends a couple of days (thee, if everyone is lazy and works slowly) telling the actors where to stand, when to move, and offering wise and helpful comments like “more” or “say it this way”.
Step three: Opening night. Colossal success, never-ending applause, fame and accolades.
It is perhaps unsurprising, given this puff pastry dream, that I sought a life as a theatre director. Reality’s boot landed firmly on my rump though, and I quickly realized that everything about this image was wrong.
The reality is so much better, so much more exciting and dynamic. Having existed both in ignorance and knowledge of theatrical life, I came to a realization. People like lighting designers get undervalued because many people don’t know how shows are put together.
So I want let you in on the action. Since so few people experience the process first hand, it’s easy to undermine the multifarious crowd who contribute to the magic of theatre.
Meet the Lighting Designer
Matt Prentice, freelance lighting designer and head of lighting at RADA, chatted to me about what goes in to designing the lighting for theatre. Matt and I have actually worked on a show together: he was the lighting designer and I was an assistant director on Raft of the Medusa. Most of the pictures in this article are taken from that show.
Think of the last piece of theatre you saw (or the last concert you attended, if theatre isn’t your thing). What aspect the experience jumps out? I doubt it was the lighting. But do an experiment and tinker with the memory. Imagine that there was no fancy lighting. Imagine that there was just one lighting state: boring and glaringly white. Would the experience have been so good? All the behind-the-scenes machinery of the performance would be on display, like stage managers moving props and bits of set around. The magic is a little bit lost, right?
This is precisely because we take good lighting for granted. You’re not supposed to notice it. Good design infects you in ways you can’t explain. Have a look at the pictures from Raft of the Medusa in this article. I’m drawing your attention to the lighting, but can you identify why the lighting has changed the feeling? I can’t.
What does a Lighting Designer Actually do?
Even after I began in theatre, it took me a while to wrap my mind around the idea that someone designs the lights. I mean of course, there are people who design the fixtures, that’s different. I honestly had no idea what a lighting designer did until I started directing properly. As I barreled naively into my very first technical rehearsal, I was abruptly confronted with the fact that someone had to decide which lights go where. Someone had to tell them when to go on and off, by how much, and make all sorts of technical and artistic choices. That someone was not me, but I still wanted “good lighting”.
Matt describes the job of a lighting designer. This is, of course, a rough template and more of an ideal than a representative of any particular show. The actual living process is rougher, less clear and requires considerable adaptation on the fly. Nonetheless, Matt’s described ideal should give you an idea of what goes into the job.
- Get the script, read it a couple of times and see what immediate ideas emerge
Here already lies the first compromise. While a blank slate of infinite possibility would be fantastic (or terrifying, depending on your point of view), lighting designers have to begin with a set of limitations: the size and technical capability of the theatre where the play will be produced, the director’s vision, the set and costumes.
My absolute admiration comes from the fact that lighting designers are collaborators by necessity. Other people have made all sorts of decisions before they are even invited to the discussion, but which have an enormous impact on their work.
- They attend a production meeting where the see the model box
This is usually the first tangible encounter the lighting designer has with the show. They are abruptly confronted with all manner of constraint. The set, as demonstrated in the model box, will tell them what they need to light. In all likelihood, the director will explain their vision for the piece, and this needs to be incorporated. So it may well be that any initial ideas that came from reading the script have to be discarded, and the lighting designer will have to begin again from square one.
- Have a first meeting with the director to discuss early ideas
Matt says, with something of a twinkle in his eye, that this meeting is about teasing out from the director what they feel is particularly important about the lighting. He points out that even if the director says they don’t care about the lighting, when it comes to the dress rehearsal they will care a lot. This early meeting is about gently extracting how to serve needs the director doesn’t even know they have.
As a director, this particular point leaves me conflicted. I know what it’s like to be asked to make early decisions about things like lighting. I never feel able to commit to anything, precisely because I don’t want to be tied down to anything too early. I also don’t want to give the go ahead on things which I know might change. So here is a point of compromise. I know I can’t hold back the lighting designer and their work, but I want to keep things open as long as possible.
- Develop design, while attending rehearsals
My concerns are probably unwarranted, because the lighting designer takes a while to develop the final design. The process of development also has flexibility built in. Ideally (and this doesn’t always happen), the lighting designer attends a couple of rehearsals to see how the actors are moving and to get a feeling for the style of the piece.
- Watch a run-through of the whole piece
Matt says that this is perhaps the most useful moment for the lighting designer. They get a feeling for piece as a whole. They note down all the different scenes to make sure the whole show is lit, and get a rough sense of where the actors are moving at each moment. They can now begin to finalize the design, keeping in mind the technical limitations of the theatre. More compromise. More collaboration. More notes from the director.
- Tech and Dress rehearsals.
Both the busiest, and the most exciting time for the lighting designer. They’ve rigged all the lights, focused them where they want them on the stage. Now they have to see if it all works and looks good. Remember that this is the very first time anyone, the lighting designer included, sees what the show actually looks like. It may not be possible to fix major problems, and even minor problems may take a long time to fix.
Talk about remaining calm in the line of fire.
The Take Away
There are a lot of hidden parts in a theatrical production. More than even us who work in the business are always aware of. There is a basic method of approaching the work that I think would keep everyone happy. Compromise, be willing to change what you’ve done, and recognize that a lot of other people have put their work and creativity into the final product. As I think about all the compromises a lighting designer has to make, I am humbled, and I feel I should complain less about not getting various things I ask for as a director.