By Matthew Mitra
Lighting designers must be able to work collaboratively with the entire creative team, which may include a director, choreographer, musical director and set, costume and sound designers. Like a scientist crossing specialties, it is critical that lighting designers learn to speak the “languages” of their fellow collaborators. They must learn how to communicate their ideas and visual images clearly and effectively, creating dialogue among the entire team.
Once the design has been fully developed, the intense dialogue period ends and the lighting designer works alone to create the actual lighting design. This means that lighting designers must also be trained to work independently and must develop their own individual, creative approach to lighting.
The process of lighting design can be separated into three parts:
I. Development of Design Ideas
Working with the creative team, the lighting designer formulates design ideas. Toward this end, the lighting designer must first analyze the play, understanding dramatic structure, historical period and references, character development and technical issues. The designer must talk with the director to understand the directorial approach to the production and how this approach would affect the designs of the costumes, set, lights, and sound. Then, the designer must discuss how lights can contribute to the whole, helping the design collaborators visualize how the lights will enhance the production, how the lights will illuminate the actors, sets, and costumes, how lights will set the mood(s), and how lights can establish the environment.
II. Developing the Technical Design
After the director approves the final design ideas, the lighting designer drafts a light plot – a drawing that indicates where all lighting instruments will hang over the stage and in the theatre. In addition, the designer generates support materials such as instrument schedules, channel hook- up schedules and focus charts. The lighting crew in the theatre uses these documents to hang the lights. Then, once the lights are hung, other documents are used to focus the lights. Focusing is the process of pointing each light at the correct area onstage to create the desired effects.
In order to generate this material, the lighting designer must have the necessary technical vocabulary to communicate with the lighting staff. The designer also must have the technical skills to supervise the hang and focus. This means that not only does the designer possess literary and analytic skills to work with the director and designers in pre-production, the designer need also to possess extensive technical knowledge of lighting equipment, dimming systems and electrical capacities.
III. Implementing the Design
The week or two before the play opens is called “Tech Week”, during which time rehearsals are devoted to adding the technical aspects to the production. Prior to this, the actors rehearse in a room without set, costumes, and lights. During Tech Week, all technical elements are added. Actors work on the set and in costumes for the first time. This is the time when lights are added. Adding light, which is called “level setting” is a slow and demanding process, and requires that the designer know how to achieve the effects discussed and where the cues, or light changes will occur. Level setting often takes up to two 12-hour days during which time rehearsals stop and start to accommodate the needs of all the designers. The lighting design is refined during dress rehearsals and previews, although these occur without stopping.
The light cues are programmed into a computerized control board called a “light board”. A light board operator runs this board. The cues are “called” by a stage manager who watches the play and tells the board operator when it is time to execute each cue. This is a critical job because cues can be intricate and difficult to execute at exactly the right time. It is the lighting designer’s responsibility to make sure the light cues are effectively timed and properly called before the production opens to the public.
Lighting Design Classes
The classes in Lighting Design will train the students to develop designs based on text analysis and genre research, historical and visual research, directorial point of view, production values, and theatre space restrictions. Students develop designs and then present and defend these designs in an organized, comprehensible, and professional manner.
Designs must fulfill the needs of the script, fit the production values agreed upon, be strongly backed by research, and be original. As they develop their design work, students are mentored in order to develop their own creative design process.
The hands-on experience is critical for a young designer who will learn the technical aspects most thoroughly by solving problems on-the-job. Crew work also teaches students to work effectively and efficiently together. Each young designer will have a full crew staffed by there classmates. An Assistant, Master Electrician, and programmer will be assigned to each production. It is Important for the young designers to experience every aspect of lighting.
I will meet regularly with students as they formulate designs for their productions and/or classroom projects. The goal of these mentoring sessions is to help them develop their own personal design style. While there are technical aspects that all designers must master, the creative process is different for each artist. The goal of mentoring is to guide each student toward their own process and help them embrace and nurture this style.
When students are designing their productions, I will require that they present and defend their design in-depth before drafting the final light plot. Once the light plot and all relevant paperwork are finished, there is another meeting to review the materials before they are turned over to the master electrician. I will have a final meeting before the light focus to make sure they are prepared for the upcoming focus and Tech Week. We will discuss where the lights will be focused and how they plan to set light levels. This last meeting becomes less relevant as the student gains experience.
During Tech Week, I will not interfere with the design process between the designer and director. I believe that a creative artist needs “elbow room” to create, particularly in the early phase. However, I will require the students to report daily on their progress. If they are progressing appropriately, I will wait until the light levels have been set and the show recorded in the computer board before I see their work. I will attend the first technical run through with lights and review the student designer’s design. We can talk through how the design has been actualized and what changes will strengthen their work.
I will also keep in touch daily with the director and production manager to make sure they are pleased with the student’s progress. Only when there are significant lighting problems, will I intervene and personal supervise the student designer during Tech Rehearsals.
After the production closes, I will hold a postmortem to critique the lighting design and the student’s overall performance. This is a group critique that includes all lighting design students and whenever possible the other members of the production team.
The following questions are asked:
1. Was the student designer successful in communicating with the director and the other designers during pre-production?
2. Did the student achieve the agreed upon design?
3. Did the student function effectively and efficiently during Tech Week?
4. What improvements could there be in the design itself?
5. In hindsight, are there other ways the student might approach the creative and technical processes that would strengthen the design?
The postmortem is a way for the entire creative community to look back on the production, embrace their successes and discuss how to improve areas of weakness. It is also a tool for the community to learn how to critique their own and each other’s work with integrity and respect, basing comments on well-considered and professional points of view.