I look at myself as an artist; I paint with light, and shadow. My medium is very fluid and relies heavily on surfaces. If there wasn’t a surface to reflect the light then no one would see my work. A surface can be as small as a drop of water; such as created by a haze machine so that you see the beams of light. Color also plays a significant role in creating art; and again the surface texture and color must be looked at as part of the whole. A good scenic artist knows that the lighting designer can make the painted scenery either beautiful and show off all of the work that the artist put into the design, or make that same painting look like mud.
So how does all of that relate to a lighting script? Well, just as a writer not only writes out the words for the actors to speak, they also detail the setting and the action that they see the actors taking as they say the words. When we read the playwrights script, it is the job of the lighting designer to figure out how to bring the scene to life. So where do you start in this process? I always tell my classes that the first thing to do when you are given the script is to just read it for pleasure. During the first reading, don’t worry about taking notes, try to get a view of the play as a whole entity. This will not be the first time you read this script, so take the time to enjoy the play.
After a period of digesting the play, go back and start an in-depth reading of the script for specific lighting information. In order to provide plenty of room for notes, I like to copy the script onto 8 1/2” x 11” paper centered in the middle. This gives me writing room on the right for notes and leaves the left side for the cue information.
In the second and subsequent readings, I develop a series of notes on the right that describe the setting, and I begin to develop the lighting concepts for each scene.
At this point you should develop a concept, or “hook”, to define the whole play in a few sentences. In the musical illustrated in the diagrams throughout this article, the concept was fairly basic to the Christian existence. I based my lighting design on the concept of times of light and darkness, and that in the end if we choose, we too can see the light. Based on this concept I made choices as to when to create a well-lit scene or when to make the darkness oppressive.
All of that sounds wonderful on paper, but how will a script help me to realize my concept? As I read through the script, I detail the points where the concept applies. Now also at this point in the development of your script you need input from outside sources. As a lighting designer, you are not the star of the show; lighting is an ancillary art. We are subordinate to the main focus, our job is to enhance and help deliver the message. So at this point, you need to get input from the director, scene designer, and costume designer. Up until this point you have been working only in the world of the playwright, and now you need to find out how the director is going to interpret the playwright’s ideas.
As an example of this, I was doing a play that was being performed in a black box theatre. The script called for a very realistic set of two stories on a turntable. When I met with the director, I was told that the set would be very minimalistic, consisting of one large platform and several flats set up in a disconnected fashion. He was relying on me to help establish the different locations. While this didn’t change my concept of the play, it added a new dimension to how I would approach the lighting. Other bits of information you need to get which are of importance to developing your script are the colors, and not just the colors of the scenery but also of the costumes. Remember, we light surfaces, and the people provide the most important surfaces we have to light.
One of the most important roles we have as lighting designers is to provide adequate face light, which helps with speech intelligibility. So the people provide the most important surfaces we deal with, and what they will be wearing impacts what colors we choose and how much illumination is needed. Also, the skin color of the actors is important in deciding how much illumination is needed. The darker the skin the more lumens are required to properly light the face, and the wrong costume or background lighting can sometimes make it nearly impossible to see the face.
So back to the script. With this additional information, we can go back through the script again. In this reading we can incorporate the information from these other sources and add detail that will flesh out our ideas on what will happen in each scene lighting wise. Now that we have a solid understanding of the requirements for lighting in the script, we can move from the conceptual stage to the physical design. The information in the script will provide us with a starting point to lay out the lighting plot and hook up the actual fixtures. We can calculate the number of areas and color washes required, and most importantly the number of specials we will need.
While you have been doing your work the actors have been rehearsing. Even though you met with the director and he told you how he was going to direct the play, it is always good to go visit a rehearsal or two, preferably when they are near the end of the rehearsal period and are doing run thru’s. At this point you can begin to see the play come to life, and see if the director has deviated from what he told you weeks before. Also, you begin to see the movement of the actors in the space. While watching the rehearsal you can begin to place cues. The notes on the right side of the page will guide you as to when you think a lighting change needs to occur, but wait until you are in a run thru to actually begin to make notes on the left side of the page. I recommend that you only write a “Q” at each location in pencil. Later you can add numbers, but for now this is just the first crack at cue placement.
After seeing a run thru, try to schedule a meeting with the director and the stage manager to go through the script page by page and talk through the cue sequence and what the lighting will be for each moment. You will find it better to have this meeting before you are in the theatre while you still have time to make changes to the plot, rather then waiting to find out that a special needs to be cut or added. By taking this time you can get a good handle on the cues and what the lighting will look like. In this meeting take the time to add to your notes so that when you are in the theatre programming the cues, you will have a detailed script of your own to follow.
As I said in the beginning I am an artist that works in light. I find that by spending time on a solid script and good paperwork, the work becomes very freeing. I can concentrate on the pictures I am painting and not worry about what channel that fixture is connected to or worry about remembering what was happening in this scene. (did Joe go right or left? How did the director want that sequence of storm cues to go?) If i deal with the little details that distract me from the creative process in advance, then I am free to unleash all of my creative energies.
Programming time in the theatre is precious. Typically we are programming at odd hours or under tight time constraints. The more work I can do away form the theatre to prepare, the more I free myself, and the less stress I have to work under. We only get a short time to create art and I would prefer to make the most of my time. Typically the duration of time available to appreciate the work is also short. Before you know it the play has ended it’s run and your creation is gone. Lighting is such a transitory art form that the more we can free ourselves to just sit back and enjoy, the better.
So to review; read the script multiple times, each time adding more and more to your note to flesh out the concept of the design. Get plenty of input from the other designers and the director. Go see the rehearsals and get as much detail from the stage manager as possible. The stage manager is your friend and in the end controls the execution of the timing of the show. Lastly, the more you do away from the theatre in the comfort of your bathrobe and a cup of coffee, the more time you will have to be creative.