First and foremost, it is important to understand the goals of stage lighting in a theatrical production, which are as follows:
We will now discuss these goals in detail, in relation to a lighting designer’s responsibilities. I believe these responsibilities are to create an environment that supports the production as a whole and to control where the audience focuses their attention.
I begin with what might seem to be a simplistic statement: without light, we cannot see. The manipulation of this simple fact is one of the greatest tools a lighting designer has. It is our job to direct the audience as to where they should be looking and away from where they should not be looking.
I designed a production of “Bat Boy” in which the director had asked me to help hide characters who had died while they got off the stage. The real trick was that the exiting performers were only about two feet away from the performers who were singing downstage of them. We chose to put the downstage performers in an extremely thin lane of light that was stark white. Lighting the side of the stage, rather than the front, assured that no light would travel upstage to hit the “dead” people. It worked great! You really could not see the dead people moving because there was no light on them.
That moment on stage really reinforced the idea that contrast equals interest. Because I wanted the audience to concentrate on the singers downstage, I visually hid the “dead” people. The desired effect not only drew attention away from the “dead” people, but also increased interest in the singers by lighting and accentuating their movement. Using an extreme contrast of bright light and dark void helped to make the singers visually pop. This manipulation of light was compositionally pleasing and also helped the action move. So we began with the simple idea that we see that which is lit, but equally compelling is the notion that a lighting designer is in command of what cannot be seen.
Here are a couple of thoughts that will be helpful.
The next issue is the environment. Ask yourself the question: In what environment does the story take place? What does it look like? Is it a moonlit forest with a campfire? Is it a beach with a sunset? Is it a prison cell with the sun rising through the window? Is it a sewer where the only light comes from the grate above, and reflects in the pools of water below? It is our job to create and manipulate that environment. I do not believe it our job to be the emotion or the conflict. Emotion is the job of the performer. We create the environment in which that happens within.
This next goal is a little difficult to describe. It is an essence, a style. You can have the same environment done in many different styles. To show this, imagine a jail cell with the only light source being a single window at sunrise.
A realistic style would attempt to create the scene as real as possible. As far as scenery, in realism there must be real doors, real walls and certainly the real jail cell window. Realism must have tangible, physical things appropriate to the reality. The lighting aspect would stylistically support the realism, using color choices and direction of the light.
Assume you have selected the color for sunrise and have now placed it at an appropriate angle through the window to create the environment. Think ultra-simplistically. Sunrise ascends, or rises, moving from low to high. This movement is relative to the position of the light. If the scene has the time required for the sunrise to move, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the light created the movement?
Some people use the term “Directorial Need,” where I use the term “Theatrical Need.” I prefer the term theatrical need because a scene is a whole, and the lighting should be part of this whole. While people may have different views, both the director’s vision and a good lighting designer’s vision for that scene are probably the same. The director is (most likely) going to want that shaft of light to fall upon the performer, and so should the lighting designer. How else is the audience going to see what the performer is doing? Adversely, there are times when the performer is hiding from the sunrise – in the olden times, sunrise may very well have meant it was time for the morning execution. Here you need to have what I call the “shadow light”, where the shaft of light is present, but there is just enough light to see the performer in the shadows. There are ways of adding reflected and bounce lighting into an environment. It uses a very tight color palette, but the shadow is a shade of the directional light. Once you master this skill, which it is not an easy one, you will be a very popular lighting designer.
Now consider whether there should be one light moving very slowly, or a number of stationary lights that are cued in a sequence in order to simulate movement. Because the sun only creates one shadow, a single light (to keep from creating two shadows) would be most realistic when compared to multiple lights cross-fading because there will be a time when you have two shadows. Realism strives to re-create the most natural environment as possible.
So, now it gets a little more confusing. How real do you really need to go? There are some theatrical needs that may have to be fulfilled, even if to do so means to go against strict realism.
Therefore, within one style there are different degrees. Some people call strict realism “naturalism”, where if the lighting does not occur in reality, it is not created on the stage. I have seen many successful shows where the setting is a naturalistic living room, and the only light in the scene comes from realistic lighting sources such as table lamps, fireplaces and windows. In a small theatre, where the audience is close, these wonderfully designed shows worked perfectly. However, a 60-watt light bulb in an Ikea lamp is not going to cut it at the Metropolitan Opera.
In a realistic jail cell, at sunrise, another thing to consider is the location of the performer. Most probably, the theatrical need is for the sunrise light to hit the performer wherever he or she is. Take the concept of a low angle of sunrise and follow it through to make sure that the shaft of light then falls upon the performer. If the performer moves, the movement of the sunrise may very well want to follow, almost as if the sunrise is conveniently following the exact path of the performer. Of course, it must be done in an artistic way so that it does not look like a follow spot is following the performer. The shaft of light should gently move to make sure the performer is lit. The shaft may also widen as the performer starts to become more active.
Assume we are doing the jail cell in a stylistic way – venturing away from reality. There are no walls, doors or windows – only the actor, the costume and you, the lighting designer. Light can create the shape and shadows of jail bar windows. Light can create a box of light that makes the cage of the jail. Light can keep the scene very isolated. Here, I have described the same scene with the same script, but have it lit in two different styles. Both of them will work to tell the story. It is all a choice of the production team, from the director to all of the designers.
Here is another issue that is always up for interpretation. What is the piece about? Is it a piece in which the author has hidden meanings that you are trying to get across? Is it a rock concert that is simply about lighting that performer and making everything look cool? Is it a child’s character show about a big purple dinosaur where your job is just to keep the scene clear and colorful? You have to decide what your production as a whole is trying to tell an audience and then decide how you support that. This is where your decisions and the collaborative teams’ artistic decisions really take hold.
In achieving this goal as well as the style goal, I greatly consider what level of reality is the most appropriate. How realistic or abstract should my lighting be? Is it a very realistic box set? Are there real doors and windows? Are there places in which the light comes from? Does the light have to look like it is coming from the fireplace? Is this one of those productions that are simply based upon graphic shapes of light to shift location to location? See how many questions I’m asking? This simply shows how individualized every production is and how adaptive you must be in being able to support it.