As I’ve mentioned before, I am a Middle and High School Drama teacher in the Pacific Northwest, but that doesn’t really pay a lot, especially since I’m only a part-time teacher. So, on the side, I also work as a Theatrical Lighting Designer.
“What does a Theatrical Lighting Designer do, Lauren?”
I’m glad you asked.
Well, a Lighting Designer in a theatrical setting is responsible for, well, giving the show light in a way that is artistic, but doesn’t distract from the play; giving basic light to the show, but without making it boring or flat; trying to manage complementing all of the costumes, sets, and actors while also matching the tone of the script as well as the Director’s “vision”.
So, the first thing I do when I get a script, is read it three times. The first time, I read it to enjoy it. I just want to go through the story and read it. NEVER watch another production this early in the game because you don’t want to be influenced by another Lighting Designer’s design for a specific show.
The second time I read through a script, I read it for comprehension. I want to find out what is going on below the surface of the characters and the play itself. Something that is important is how characters relate to each other and how they feel about the environments they’re interacting with. Are they in a spooky forest with their lover? Is this character alone in their childhood home? What if that home just burned down? All of these things will inform your design.
The third time I read the script is my technical reading. I want to see where the scene changes are, where any blackouts should be. Pro Tip: Don’t use too many blackouts, because when the stage goes dark, it’s a really powerful statement. I also look at time of day, what kind of building they are in, what time of year we are set in, as well as time period. Why? Because a Denny’s in 1980’s New York City at 11:30pm is going to have different lighting that a cabin in the mid 1800’s at high noon. Dig, dog?
Well, all of this also has to match up with the Director’s “Vision”, which is their idea of how the play should look when presented opening night. This can either be very, very easy or absolute HELL to work with. It all depends on the Director. If you find a good Director, stick with them. If they like your work, or like working with you, you’ll always have a job and they’ll push to get you paid more if they can.
Why does this matter if YOU’RE the designer of the lights? Well, because you might be doing the classic Our Town, but your Director envisions it taking place in a world where humans evolved in caves. These would require two very different designs.
The nest thing you’ll do is find out what kind of lights you’re going to have, how many the theatre has, where the lights are located in the theatre, and what kind of board they have.
You need to know these things because you have to prepare to price, purchase, rent, design, focus, hang, and go into dress rehearsal. Producers and Directors will want you to go in and purchase exactly what you need so that when you get into the theatre you can use a team to move the lights where they need to be moved right away. This also includes adding gels. Gels are these very thin sheets of colored or textured plastic-y material that change the color of the light. You can also use these fun little things called gobos, which are these little metal or glass discs that are used to sculpt the light into a design that can be seen on stage.
The faster this is done, the faster you can move into writing cues. This just means you go onto the light board and tell the computer which lights it should turn on; how quickly they should rise and fall; how bright they should be; and, if you have LEDs, what color the light should be. LED lights allow for amazing color variety and this allows your design freedom that traditional lights don’t provide. Sometimes, like in the show I am currently working, you’ll have multiple light boards with no computer to write cues into.
After all of this, you’re ready for the cue to cue. This means that the actors put on their makeup and costumes and move from each scripted cue, such as entrances and exits, and technical cues, such as light, sound, and set cues. This is just a good way to make sure there aren’t any design issues in the show. It’s a good way to see how the light works with the final colors on stage; see any shadows or bright spots; and make sure your design fits with the Director’s vision.
If all of this goes smoothly, you give the cues you’ve written to your Stage Manager (Aka God of the Theatre) and then hang out until the end of Hell Week to make sure the Stage Manager is calling your cues correctly and they’re coming up at the right times. You’ll also be asked to train or manage the Spot Light Operators, telling them where you want them to focus their beams and, if you have multiple SPOs, who should take which character during scenes where they both need to have their lamps on.
Once the show opens, you’re done and can take a long break… sometimes. Other times, especially in small theatres, you’ll be asked to run the light board, too. This will be the case more often than not early on in a career. You won’t often get paid more, if you’re getting paid at all, but you’ll get a good reputation and that is far more valuable in the theatre world.
Well, there it is! I hope you have a wonderful day, Thespians!