THE FOLLOWING MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED
WITHOUT PERMISSION FROM RICHARD BONNER ©
In an Interview Format, Richard
Discusses his Ideas Regarding
the Lighting of the Stage
Let's get right into it: What is your philosophy
regarding lighting the stage?
I favour lighting and its instruments to be unobtrusive -- even in rock shows. I desire to have all the fixtures hidden and let the lighting be the show, preferably in a supporting role. I feel that lighting should complement (and compliment) the actors, dancers or musicians as opposed to it competing with those persons for the attention of the audience. That is, I want the lighting to strengthen a performance rather than have it be the performance.
This does not mean that I never do spectacular things with light at some point in some shows, but I do see it primarily as an enhancement for the sets, costumes and performers. This may not be the norm. I see too many shows today where the lighting is the entire show. That may be fine in some instances, but mostly for me, it is not. A show or performance should already be good enough to stand on its own without lighting or other adornments. When it is already good and the lighting complements it perfectly, it can achieve the pinnacle of performance artistry.
In addition, I see the true essence of good lighting as a means to reveal things to an audience as dictated by that lighting. Without lighting or with poorly done lighting, important things could slip past some of the audience because their attention is elsewhere. Lighting focuses that attention. It can also defocus it. The best example of the latter is a magic act where distraction may be required at times to draw attention away from secretive operations or manipulations executed by the magician or assistants.
Is it true that you never bother to read the
script when you do stage plays or musicals?
This is an exaggeration. I do sometimes first glance through a script, but my preference is to initially see actors on stage in costume with makeup and in front of full sets. This is as opposed to basing my lighting design on words and direction read from a page.
My reason is because no two productions of a given play or musical are exactly the same due to each of the different participants involved interpreting a script and stage directions in his or her own way. I like to find out what their interpretations are so that I can design directly for them as opposed to building my work on the original creators' visions. In these instances, I am not designing for those original creators, I am designing for the present participants. This is because it is they who are putting on the production; in the end, it is their show. So it's up to me to fulfil their visions on the live stage because eventually it must all be seen under lighting -- in this case, my lighting. Essentially, I am lighting their interpretations.
This relates directly with my ideal, as already stated, that I see lighting as playing a supporting role for the concepts of the producer, director, costume and set designers, and of the performers. In addition, I enter the sphere of the moods set by the music director and the choreographer to hone my lighting design.
Ultimately, I want to be the last person brought in so that I can immerse myself within the thoughts of all those already involved with a production. I draw upon their imaginations and expertise in their fields as the base concepts upon which I fashion my lighting design. (This does not usually happen though, because coming in that late often gives me too little time to conceive and execute a proper and complete design.)
I can tell you that this collaborative method is very pleasing to those involved; that is, they like the fact that I want to bring their creations and ideas forth, and in some cases, are pleased that a lighting guy even bothers to consider this. Why do I do it? Well, I am a nice person and I like to please others, but if the lighting presents all of the participants' work each at its best, I have done my job. Their work must be seen within mine. Without light, only the dialogue, music and sound effects survive. If it all looks great and an audience responds positively, I (and they) must have done a good job.
In relation to your question, I also rarely look at what other lighting persons have done. I'd rather be guided by the material while giving it my interpretation, and as just discussed, influenced by the artistry of those involved.
OK. Have you though, ever used ideas from a script or
outline, or even liked to see what another lighting
person before you had done for that production?
Sometimes, but it's rare. Usually it happens if a director specifically asks me to create a look based on how it's described in a script, or if I have no notion as to what the storyline is about or its settings, nor have a feel of the story's atmosphere. Then I might look at a script more deeply or view suggestions provided by its creators (including its lighting designer) so as to have some impression as to what is going on and what is required by those goings on. By "more deeply" I mean that I would look at the scene synopses to see what looks are required, but I rarely look at actors' staging details or dialogue as written in a script. Regardless of what I do read, I always impart my own interpretation upon a production.
This can be different (and in fact I prefer it to be different) whenever I get to light a production for a second, third, or more times under different producers, directors, costume and set designers, choreographers and actors. The reason, which I already said, is that each participant has his or her own ideas about how the production should look, feel and unfold; and I design the lighting with their interpretations in mind. Their variations allow me, and in fact compel me, to come up with a different design. I am only too happy to imagine how many different looks I can devise to light the same production.
Lighting can make, alter or destroy the visions of the previously-named participants. Since all their output must eventually be seen under my lighting, I believe it to be my job to bring forth and augment their creations for their viewers. This harmony certainly makes for congeniality among those with whom I work, but ultimately it makes for a happy audience -- and that audience is the true, final judge of all our work.
How do you handle being moulded by a director?
I used to not like it if he or she was too specific or would tell me what technique to use. Now, I find it really interesting to have a director request something different (or even the same thing but in a different way). I explore the path suggested (or demanded!) by the director to see where it leads me. I guess that I see this as a bit of an adventure, now.
This extends to other people involved with a production, as well. I once had a theatrical set designer, with whom I was working, ask me to portray a part of his set in a certain way. He had a vision in his mind of how that section should look -- at least for *one* scene in the play, if I could manage it. I looked at the set, took in his vision as I interpreted, and lighted it in a way that I might not done had I been doing this without input from another participant in the production. I like to bring forth others' concepts of their work and to portray them as they envision, but filtered through my lighting style.
So you have never forced your concepts onto the others involved?
I have, but it is not the norm. Occasionally if I feel very strongly, I will fight for a specific look should I have devised a lighting concept based on the participants' responses that differs from their positioning or movement of the characters, or from their ideas about the lighting itself.
In most of the cases where there has been disagreement, it has been a look I didn't want to use because it would have spoiled a mood, or it was a spectacular look that one or more of them wanted to reveal to the audience too soon. Regarding the latter, a premature reveal would leave the rest of the show as being anticlimactic lighting wise. I contest such proposals. I want an audience to see something it hasn't seen earlier and for it to be near the end of the show; in addition, I usually like it to be eye-catching so as to feel more as a finale or as a next-to-a-finale generally should.
Another example where I will persuade others to adopt my concepts is regarding looks that are too popular, that have been done to death, and are being overused. BORING! Why copy the common, mundane, lowest-common-denominator examples? Why perpetuate them? I would rather present to an audience something they have not likely seen recently, if ever. I don't even care if it's original; only that people have not seen it before, or at the minimum, for some time. Stand aside from the crowd; do what they do not!
How do you go about the design process?
I generally show up at early rehearsals, but not so early in a production that the main concept of it has not been solidified. The farther in, the more likely it is that sets, costumes, makeup, and the attitude and placement of characters have been established. These will be the canvases on to which I will paint light. It's much harder (although not impossible) to properly light a blank or nearly blank canvas. As such, and as already discussed, I prefer to be the last one in so that I can build upon the concepts of others.
Once I get any ideas, on a blank page I draw an outline of the performance area for each set. Within that, I draw rectangles to represent lighting fixtures as necessary; then emanating from them, I draw lines to show what a given fixture is to light. After I get home, I place this into a computer file, print it off, and take the printout to the next rehearsal. where I pencil in changes and additions. Then this is updated in the computer that night or the next day while it's fresh in my mind. This process continues until the design reaches a stage where actual fixtures can be hung.
What about musical acts or bands?
What is your manner of designing for them?
This is a different situation. It helps if I have seen the band and know its songs, but it is not imperative. I love to compose on the spot for musical acts. As long as I have a set list with tempo, song structure and instrumental breaks, I can fake it very well. I consider it to be one of my fortes. To make this work, I design a selection of general looks that are placed on separate board faders. These include complete looks (front, back and special lighting) for slow, medium and fast songs, plus ones for dramatic or softer pieces or sections.
Along with these general lighting looks are individual key lights for every musician -- each on its own channel, and all the key light channels on their own preset or submaster. I can then follow a band's song list and quickly bring up a suitable look on the scene faders with one hand while having the fingers of my other hand on the individual key-light controls for vocalists and instrumentalists. Thus, I can quickly choose a look, and at the same time, highlight one or more musicians with minimal effort -- all at a moment's notice. In addition, I will also mix & match these looks, plus compose new ones as I become more confident with a given band or performer.
After that, it's just me following the music and essentially "jamming" with the band as might any musician sitting in with them. A competent player may not know the song but can follow along because he can play well and is able to harmonise his abilities with the other musicians. Plus, he is able to anticipate the next change point and its likely direction. I too, have enough experience to have developed the ability to harmonise the lighting with those musicians in real time. It also doesn't hurt that I played musical instruments early in my career.
Now, for very specific parts of a song, I will query the band ahead of time to see if there is something special they want, or don't want. Otherwise, I pretty much use my own interpretations within my personal criteria that the lighting is to augment a performance and highlight the principals as each becomes prominent within a given song.
Some bands have few lights because of low budgets.
What is your solution in those cases?
I will be more frugal with changes. I also tend to reserve some lights and/or colours for later usage in the band's set so that the audience isn't seeing the same looks over and over, every song for an entire show. In addition, I will use combinations that are less attractive just so the look is different from the previous song. For these smaller shows I try to spread the lights out over additional dimmer channels so that I have more mix & match combinations available.
In cases where the lights are very limited, I will re-gel some of them during breaks so that at least the colours are more varied. If possible, I will refocus, or even reposition, some lights depending on the amount of break time available and how accessible those fixtures are. This adds great variety to a small show. I also feel that it showcases my professionalism and capabilities in a positive light when I take the time to make a small production appear to be much larger and more varied.
As well, I simply love to do something with little or nothing. Such techniques give more bang for the buck for the clients (and their audiences), while forcing me to be more creative.
Isn't this awfully limiting given the level
and complexity of today's stage lighting?
Well, I actually prefer to be limited from time to time. It forces me to revert to methods I used at the dawn of my career when budgets, power, fixtures, and dimmer quantities and capacities were far below those with which I typically work today. It's good to be coerced into being creative after one has had it easy for a number of years. It keeps one grounded in basic lighting concepts. Having the basics renewed in my mind from time to time actually helps me when I design and operate larger shows.
I often find that simple looks stay the longest in the audiences's minds; that concept stems from basics.
Too many long-time professionals lose sight of those basics, and it shows in their work. I love to be reminded of them. It certainly comes in handy when budgets are low, but what is more important: These reminders allow me to relate to persons new to the art of lighting. Rarely are students initially well versed in basics; learning basics all over again with them keeps me grounded. It allows me to do a lot with little -- and sometimes provokes me into designing lighting that is simple, yet surprisingly effective. Thank you basics!
Well, since you brought them up,
tell me about some of those basics.
By what method do you choose colours?
Regarding theatrical productions, I listen to the director's take as to how he or she sees a scene. I also listen to the other principals and sometimes to the actors' opinions to hear how they feel about their characters and their interpretations of those characters in each moment. Regarding the actors, I will even confer with them from time to time as to how they might envision lighting for a particular scene or moment. They, not being lighting persons, will rarely give me specific directions, but I will hear from them their feelings of how they imagine their surroundings.
This last point is odd in the industry because most lighting designers seem to care little about how actors view their characters (as sadly do some directors). I don't see listening to others as a conflict with design at all, but as one more element in the picture of how a scene or moment plays out; after all, I am the one that has to light those moments. I often finalise a design (and certainly the directing of the lighting), based on the emotions of others. This includes the opinions and emotions of the actors and also of the musical performers and dancers. They can sometimes have stronger ideas of how they see the lighting for parts of their performances than do directors. To that end, I have read books and articles on the subject of acting methods, especially regarding improvisation. These have helped me to mould actors' ideas into actual lighting looks and feelings.
Digesting all the above, I then choose colours to fit the mood of the scene but with consideration as to how those colours interact with one another and with the objects or persons upon which they fall -- meaning costumes, sets, props and of course, the actors.
Yes, but how do you know which exact colours fit?
It comes from experience, but also from emotion. Some colours seem to suit naturally, such as using blue for slow, intimate songs on the bandstand or for night scenes in the theatre. The latter stems from the fact that the human eye uses its rods for low-light viewing (such as at night), and although the rods are not colour sensitive, the impression is that of dim blue to the brain.
As a colour example, for an outdoor look on a cloudy day, I will typically use pastel blues and greys to represent sky light and the sun filtered through clouds. Darker shades will be incorporated if the day is to be stormy. Artificial lights visible in other scenes might see colours selected to suit an antique gas streetlight (or modern high-pressure sodium or LED streetlights), a candle in a window, the glow from a fluorescent sign, the yellow-orange of a low-wattage, incandescent lamp, and so on.
I take many cues from nature and from humans' artificial spaces. It is not unusual for me to observe an everyday setting and to then think of how I might recreate it on a stage: the fixtures I might use, what the fixture angles might be and what gel colours I might choose.
This trait is so ingrained in me now, that I automatically do instant lighting designs almost wherever I go. No, they are not detailed, but I often get an immediate, almost unconscious impression of how a space might, or should, look if I were to light it the way I would want. These spaces might be a person's home, a retail store, an art gallery, a museum, an arena, a waiting room, and so on. The longer I am in that space, the more likely it is that I will envision lighting for it. I simply can't help it. (-:
Colour choices for other stage purposes can be easy. For dance numbers, I often select ones that complement the costumes. If dancers' clothing has red with blue highlights, I will use some shades of those colours -- if not directly on the performers, then on the floor or sets. This is of course, if those colours also fit the mood of the dance and its setting.
Some time ago I lighted a finale in a musical where the dancers wore black clothing which was highlighted with vests and hats sporting gold sequins. I lit the performers in a rich, warm gold colour using video colour-correction gel; then to contrast, I used green from behind and green uplighting on a black curtain with a deep purple angled on to the curtains' pleats to contrast the green. Because of the interaction of the three chosen colours as seen and interpreted by the human eye and brain, those combinations made the gold costumes just project off that stage! The look screamed GOLD!
Band lighting typically sees me using saturated colours in primary and secondary shades. Yet I will also often use pastels to add a theatrical feel to some songs. This mixes it up a bit for the audience and it differs my looks from typical musical act lighting designs. I will even incorporate pattern projection, sometimes directed on to the musicians themselves.
What is the most difficult thing you
find regarding designing lighting?
Very little at this point. That is because I have a great amount of experience, so not much fazes me any more. If I had to choose one example, I'd say that I might find it difficult if a person requests me to do something that I have never done, or at least with which I have had little experience, or asks me to incorporate a piece of equipment not familiar to me.
Other than that, I sometimes agonise over colour selection. It's similar to writer's block where I just can't seem to come up with the right (or any) inspiration to choose a colour for a certain look, or I can't get colours to harmonise in the way I want.
Speaking of colours, one of my favourite things to do is a graduated fill as might be seen in art or as an Internet webpage background. This is a gradual and regular transition of one colour to another. Such a look for the stage can take time to perfect. The toughest thing is getting the fixture angles right and then incorporating the graduated fill look within the other lighting without it being diluted.
All right then, can you think of a major
worst-case scenario where you'd get stuck
for ideas or have other troubles?
Hmm... well, I guess it might be if a hard-to-please director asked for something and kept rejecting my suggestions, or could not articulate into words his or her concept of a scene. The latter could also happen with an inexperienced director not knowing what he or she wants. This is actually easier for me because such a director is more likely to accept my suggestions and thus be swayed toward what I envision. Don't though, take this to mean that I would ignore that director's concept, or that I would allow the lighting to be unsuitable for a given scene or production. It just means that I could have more latitude with what I choose to do.
So regarding the hard-to-please,
what might you do?
I would ask these types of directors to close their eyes and tell me what the overall concept or individual scenes look like in their minds. Is it bright, dreary, or dark? What does the sky (if outdoors) or room (if indoors) look like? I'd strive to elicit a response from them; is it happy, sad, angry, loving, foreboding? ...and so on. Eventually, a vision of the production or given scene emerges from that person. Once that happens, it's easy: I need only light for that vision.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from total-concept directors, I have fairly often been told by a director or producer: "Do what you want; I have no idea about lighting." Even then, I refrain from completely using my own ideas. I love to please, so I answer: "Ahh, but you do know about lighting; you just don't know how to put it into words, and you don't know what equipment and settings are required. That is my purpose for being here." I then do as I have said above. I ask the person to imagine the various scenes behind closed eyes; I then light based on his or her visions of those scenes.
To further assist, for each scene I will present a variety of looks to a director and have him or her select the one(s) liked. I also will hang various lights and use them to visually suggest looks for a given scene until the director sees one that suits what is pictured by him or her. We then go with that.
Please realise that I am still doing the lighting design and the director is still directing. How so? ...because I have designed the lighting for each of those suggestions; the director is choosing what best fits his or her vision at that moment. Now that is not to say that directors (and others) have not also told to me the particulars of how to light a scene at one time or another; I have often gone with their suggestions, but they are still filtered by me through my style. In the end, I am the one making them a reality.
In addition, I will tweak and perfect each look beyond the typical capabilities of most directors so that the details are made tidy, and so as to raise the lighting to professional standards. This latter point is important when dealing with amateur and semi-professional directors because they are usually not aware of, or concerned with, such details. Yet, why should they? That is the job of the lighting designer.
It's very uncommon that a director and producer have no sensations about a show. I wring out their emotions, and I assure you with great enthusiasm that it is extremely satisfying to accurately design for them the lighting as designated by those emotions. It is even more satisfying to hear how pleased they are that a look in their heads has been translated into reality as they saw it! I can tell you that when this happens, it's rare that I don't get asked back to light again and again because of this ability.
Directors and producers love people that can bring their concepts to the stage. It's a pleasure to see them get accolades from an audience for a well-received show, and a great ego stroke for directors to gush compliments toward me regarding the lighting. (-:
I will temper this apparent personal adulation with the fact that almost any professional can do this if each would only probe to the extreme the imagination of the persons involved in a production:
In some cases the directors or producers have not thought about some of these things but did have unresolved impressions. Bringing those buried impressions forward and acting upon them lighting-wise, contributes to one more layer of the look and feel of which they are thinking. When I work for musical acts, I carry these methods over to that style of stage lighting. It's actually much easier than it may read in the words I have just said.
You make it all sound so effortless...
I guess it is for me, now. I think I have had stage lighting in my character from an early age and found it easy to come up with looks. This does not mean that I have always been good at it; it still took study, experiment and experience to arrive at this point.
Even so, it still does not mean that my designs today are flawless right off the drawing board or computer screen. I still go through trial and error once the lights are hung. I see something that does not work in the way I conceived, and so I might have to reposition one or more fixtures; I might need to add or subtract fixtures from the design; perhaps I will have to select one or more different gel colours because the ones first chosen do not give the exact look I envisioned, or they don't function properly with the sets and/or costumes. This tweaking is all part of the design process.
How did you learn all this?
Did you take a university-level lighting course?
No. The only formal training I have had outside of what I learned in grade school drama is a two-year electronics course at college. All else I learned on my own. By reading books and watching persons in the trades, I taught myself lighting for portraiture photography, stage, television and motion pictures. I also researched and studied how the eye/brain sees and interprets images, light and colour. I then incorporated elements from some or all of those into my lighting methods.
Oh... I did also attend a one-day lighting workshop at a local university about five years into my career. It was offered by their theatre department. There were about a dozen of us participating and it was a fun day.
You said that early in your career you
found it easy to come up with looks
but were not always good at it;
how do you feel about those early days?
I am very sentimental about them and would love to be able to remember
more detail about those times. It was great because it was all new then. I
and my school friends were having so much fun even though it was work --
sometimes a lot of work. I felt I was doing well because I usually received
nice compliments, despite the odd bad comment that came my way.
Can you remember any of those bad comments?
Well, one that has stayed with me for years happened at the Halifax Forum. I was operating the lighting at that venue for a group called "Beowulf". They were part of a larger show for which I was providing lights. Between two songs, a girl approached me whom I surmised was a fan of the band. She admonished me for changing the lighting as each song progressed and said the lights should remain static. At the time, my lighting style was very busy when it came to operation; I would change looks often during any non-slow song, and sometimes flashing the lights to the beat. I didn't listen to that girl then, but her comment stuck with me and it eventually made me become more tasteful. I actually see it now as the genesis of tastefulness in my working of lights. I would love to run into that fan today to tell her that she helped me improve as a lighting operator.
Conversely, a decade later I was being admonished for not changing the lighting enough. Not that I had gone completely the other way, but I had recognised that change for change's sake was not necessarily the best performance method for every purpose. Over the years since that girl's comment, I had begun to interpret the lighting for musical acts with a broader stroke. I started to use fewer looks in a song and save changes for the important and most noticeable musical variations. Essentially, my lighting technique was becoming more refined, more mature.
Also, around the time of those comments regarding my minimalism, I realised that I could not please everyone, so I learned to simply pursue what I liked and do what seemed superior to me. It may be the best guidance I have ever given myself: Those that like my way of expressing lighting, do; those that don't, do not. I now realise that my current techniques please a specific mind-set and I am fine with that. It actually allows me to do what I really prefer for the most part, and to realise that in doing so, I will be pleasing at least some segment of a given audience.
Keeping my style focused means I get hired by those who want that manner of lighting; those that don't, simply choose another designer/operator closer to what they prefer. This doesn't mean that I won't try to please (because I do like to please), but I keep it within my personal style boundary as opposed to allowing people to sway my lighting methods completely over to each of their specific wants. Now that I understand the idea of hiring different designers based on their styles, I am never bothered that another designer has been chosen -- unless it's for a show or event that I really want to light. (-:
OK, moving on: You often have unique ways of doing
things. From where do you get your inspirations?
Since early in my career, I have studied theatre from decades and
centuries past. I am fascinated how the people of those eras were able to
produce effects. When I discover writings that discuss their techniques,
I think of ways that I might use, recreate, or adapt them to the modern
stage. Because today's audiences (and often theatre people themselves) are
usually unfamiliar with those methods, they seem unique -- even *new*.
So with those feelings go positive responses toward me.
Have you a favourite type of
look you like to design?
Absolutely! I love to do night scenes. I like the contrast, the shadows, the opportunity to be very artistic. In particular, I enjoy doing outdoor, moonlit scenes. Thinking of recent productions, a number of years ago I had a chance to light a stage set of a ship's deck at sea at night. I used a combination of dark and steel blues, and since I like to contrast warm tones with cool ones, I used a number of small, 80mm fresnels in amber as downlights on the set walls to represent the bulkhead lights of the ship. The latter really set the scene off and dressed it for the audience's eyes. (See the exact picture A Night Scene at Sea, or all Anything Goes photos at the end of: Theatrical Archive, 2009-10.)
Before that, I once had to create the lighting for the set of a rooftop garden on a city office tower at night. I projected realistic stars onto a white curtain at the back of the stage, and then used colours to suggest night, the moon, and also the glow of office lights from adjacent skyscrapers.
I also remember from the past decade doing a fight scene set at night under a bridge with streetlights. That suggested that I use narrow downlights spaced around the acting area to produce pools of "streetlight" illumination surrounded by darker areas of deep blue through which the actors moved to great effect. Along with some pattern projection and other lighting, it produced a very powerful look. (See The Rumble picture, or all the West Side Story photos at: Theatrical Archive, 2006-07.)
Have you a favourite technique
that you like to use?
Well, I like to use "bad" looks that change to very appealing ones. What I mean by this is that I will choose a very basic, bland look that I can leave on for a time period so an audience gets used to it; then the next look will really wake up that audience to the lighting.
Now, I can't always do this because most productions are not suited for it, but when they are, the effect is pronounced. As an example, I lighted a Christmas musical that was set in a television studio where the theater audience was playing that television show's audience. The musical play starts before the actual produdction went out over the air, so the audience saw all that went on during prerehearsal, the rehearsal, and then the actual, live show.
The set had an interview area, a tree, staircase, fireplace, windows, and french-style double doors. Seen outside through the windows and doors were some outside scenes. So my initial lighting was all open white light confined strictly to the interior. Much of it was top light so it presented a bland, unchanging, worklight atmosphere. The audience saw this for about a quarter to a third of the show's running time.
Finally, the television show's director counted down from 10 to zero; at `zero', the show went live to an imaginary home audience. As the last four numbers were counted, there was a crossfade to a very three-dimensional, colourful look: The worklighting was gone, the set had shading and backlighting, the interview area was highlighted, lighting shone down the staircase from off stage, the tree, wreaths and fireplace all sparkled with little string lights, while the on-stage greenery had lights focused on it using a subtle green gel so as to make it pop under all the other lighting. Outside, the scenes were lighted in a nighttime winter look which really brought out the three-dimensionality of it all. The change was very spectacular, and more so because the audience had been looking at the same set and actors under worklights for about 25 to 35 minutes. I love doing that to people!
Later during the following months, I had a few unsolicited comments on that lighting change from persons who had attended one or more of the performances. It was nice to hear that people respond to such things enough for them to mention it to me.
Do you design at a drafting board, with
a computer, or by some other method?
Until a about two decades ago, I did designs on paper using a plastic template. However, one cannot deny the ease of making changes to a computer lighting plot versus a paper one. So I currently design only using a computer. Now, this does not include my initial impressions; as mentioned previously, I typically commit those by hand on to paper at the early rehearsals. I take the papers home and transfer the ideas to a computer file. Early on, I sometimes took a laptop to rehearsals and did designs and updates "live", but it wasn't the norm for me. I like to think about changes at home away from the venue before committing them to the design. As such, I don't bring a laptop anymore.
Regardless of how it is done, after each update is put into the computer, I print out the revised plot and use that paper copy at rehearsals to pencil in alterations, subtractions and/or additions. Then those changes are saved in the computer that night or the next day while they're fresh in my mind, and a new printout is taken to the next rehearsal. Eventually I arrive at a final, or close to final, plot that can be given to the crew for the hang. If need be, I type a file for a board and dimmer patch, and also print that out. Sometimes though, board and dimmer circuit numbers have sometimes been included on the plot next to each light. All these printouts give me a nice series of plots for my archives that show the evolution of that particular lighting design.
Are you using sophisticated computer software?
No, not at all. I don't think it's necessary. I don't care about seeing the plot from various angles and I rarely design to scale. I design to position. I guess I have been doing it long enough that I can easily envision what I create. So it's not necessary to have every aspect of my plot shown to me by a computer through various perspective renderings. I simply place fixtures in the locations required and usually need only know which fixture is next to what on the pipe or truss, and its rough position in relation to the stage and the set.
As such, I use a basic Paint program (NeoPaint for DOS) in which I have designed my own lighting symbols. (There are commercial symbols available, but I never liked them.) When working on a design I open two panes (windows), one with the plot and the other with the fixture symbols. I then copy & paste each symbol into the new plot as it is needed. This operation is done very quickly via keyboard shortcuts save for the selection of the required symbol. For banks of lights, I have representations of three, four, five and six fixtures in my symbol inventory so as to save copying & pasting each one individually. Also included are barndoors, floor bases, stands, followspots, special effects lighting and so on.
When I am working on a design that will be used at a venue where I have done one or more shows before, and if there exists a computer lighting plot for one of those shows, I might open three panes so as to have a previous plot as a reference. Usually though in that case, I will copy the file of a previous plot under a new name, and then alter that one as I compose the new design.
This latter method saves time and effort because the hang points have
already been established, as well as many of the symbols for the fixtures
I will likely be using in that venue.
Since you are not using mainstream software,
what happens if you need to e-mail or otherwise
share an electronic version of your plot?
I work in uncompressed, .pcx (24-bit) format, but will simply save
or convert to a .gif version when I send the plot to someone. I chose
.gif because most any computer system made in the past four decades
can view that file format. That is important for some amateur theater
groups or venues that don't have recent computer setups, and for those
that use alternative operating systems such as Linux/Unix or DOS. The
.gif format is pretty much universal; mainstream lighting software
formats are not.
Let's shift gears. You have been quoted as saying
that you don't like moving lights; why not?
Not quite. I'm not against any fixture type, but I am so tired of fog and moving beams, and also of visible truss and fixtures, that I don't care if I ever see them again -- unless everyone else stopped employing them; then I might incorporate that look. I don't like to do or use what others do. Since almost everyone seems to be into visible equipment and moving beams through fog, I don't presently want them. I am much more into looks than movement.
As well, there is a monetary concern. I often get requested to light low budget shows. Quality moving lights are expensive (and cheap ones are junk -- although improving); one can get a larger selection of PARs, fresnels and ellipsoidals for the cost of moving lights. In some cases, power is limited. Many moving-light lamps are on for an entire show, their light outputs being shuttered off when they are not needed. However, they still consume all that power and eat up all that lamp life; other types of fixtures do not. Yes, moving-beam fixtures with LED sources are now making up for that power consumption, but there are still plenty of the older ones in use.
Understand though, that I don't condemn the usage of visible fixtures and moving beams. Only because they are now so overused, I am bored of seeing them. As a respected colleague of mine recently said: Just because the lights can move does not mean they have to! I yearn for something original -- or at least, something unique on today's stage, even if it means reviving a technique and equipment from the distant past.
Regarding originality or uniqueness, currently, few seem to be using fabric or ultraviolet (at least in my geographic area of design work), so I am trying to convince the powers that be to incorporate them into some of their productions. If too many others were to then begin to use those elements, I would stop and change to something else. I don't care as much about originality as I do about uniqueness. Thus, I am not against reintroducing something from the past that is not currently being used so as to present it to a new audience.
In particular, I'd love to use Black Art in more of my show designs. A number of years ago I had a long conversation with an aging, American magician on the subject of Black Art. He was surprised at how much I knew about it, given that it was most popular almost a century ago. It happened to have been that early in my career I had read extensively on Black Art and remembered much about it.
For the uninitiated, Black Art is the technique
For Black Art to work properly and to its best effect, it takes highly light-absorbent fabric, appropriate and accurate lighting, plus strategic audience placement.
Here in Canada, its best known modern version is presented by The Famous PEOPLE Players. When they started in the 1970s, they updated the old method by incorporating blacklight (ultraviolet) as the light source. The Players still perform today.
What About LEDs?
When LED elements were first developed for stage lighting, I did not like them at all. They have improved greatly, and the lower-end LED fixtures have come down in price. However, quality units are very expensive, and as I mentioned regarding quality moving lights, not cost effective for much of the work that I do.
I could specify the cheaper fixtures in my designs, but their LED elements are often inconsistent from fixture to fixture, and even among individual LED elements within the same fixture! In addition, bargain LED elements vary colour with angle. So a red hue from straight on can morph into a magenta as one goes toward the sides. I have seen blue LED elements migrate toward turquoise as one moves from the front to viewing from the side. This is not the avenue of a quality-designed LED, nor are these the choices of those building quality fixtures.
Another issue is poor dimming curves, especially at the bottom ends. The cheap units drop out at the bottom instead of gradually fading to zero. As well, curves are inconsistent from unit to unit, so some fade faster than others. Mixing LED fixtures with those using other light sources is often a problem because they all don't have the same light curves, so some fixtures lag behind and don't reach full or zero intensity at the same time.
Then there is the poor shielding on most LED wash lights. One must suffer with light vomiting all over beyond the intended area, or resort to using barn doors or snoots -- if the fixtures even have accessory holders. Finally, there is the problem that LED light output is very pure. Thus colours appear very cartoon-like. The expensive fixtures can produce a nice range of pastels, but not the cheaper ones.
Don't get me wrong; I am not against LEDs for stage lighting -- I own LED fixtures. They have their uses, but for my style, for most purposes for which I am employed, and for most budgets, today's LEDs still fall short.
"LED" does not automatically mean "Quality".
Do you see any advantages to using LED Fixtures?
I do. LEDs can put out a lot of light for a low power consumption. Most LED fixtures also have the capability to produce a range of colours, so one need not hang individual lights for each required colour. They are often lighter in weight and do not produce the heat that is typical of most stage lighting fixtures.
Are there any areas of lighting unexplored
by yourself that you'd like to visit?
Sure, I would like to do something with fibre-optic tubing, and also with neon and fluorescent lamps; I can think of some looks that I would try for certain stage atmospheres I'd like to create.
Another would be to incorporate scrims into a rock show. These are seamless, transparent or translucent fabrics that I would place between the performers and an audience. Scrims can add a lot of dimension to smaller spaces and can be projected upon, or if lighted from oblique angles, produce the same effect as beams through fog. The latter would be important in venues where one cannot use fog.
I have read elsewhere that you prefer
to use older equipment anyway.
Sort of. I am not against equipment of recent vintage, but nor am I adverse to "antique" lighting gear either. I find too many equipment snobs in the lighting business today, although I don't entirely blame them. In my opinion, they have been persuaded to think and act that way by companies wanting to sell new equipment. It's too bad that some potential customers don't stop to realise that they are being manipulated, and to then consider that they might shy away from the bandwagon created by marketers.
Now don't take that to mean that people are stupid. It's just very easy to get caught up in the "New! Improved! Best!" ploys of advertisers. It's just as easy for those with little to no budgets to also get caught up in this and come to believe that their equipment is inadequate. I can't disagree more. A light is a light is a light. They can all illuminate a stage.
Of course, if a requirement dictates that a modern fixture is needed, then fine, but outside of that, true lighting designers should be able to use any lighting instrument. As long as it's working to the full extent of its capabilities, can fit into the required space and conform to the power consumption restraints, it should not matter how old it is as long as it can fulfil the lighting demands placed upon it.
Thus, one could take a 1940s plano spot, hang it, gel it and focus it, and this fixture should light as well as any modern one. Yes, it may not be as intense, but light is still falling upon a designated area, item or person. If more light is needed, use two fixtures, or move the plano spot closer if its throw angle can still cover what is required.
Because of this prevailing equipment snobbery, I choose to find and use older equipment just to prove its capability to modern designers, and to make the point that "It's how you use the lights that counts." In particular, I am presently looking for four, six-frame, semaphore colour changers. These use the subtractive method of placing gel in front of one another, so a couple dozen usable colours can be had, and more if one is willing to accept some really dark shades. This accessory can be almost, or even just, as useful as a gel scroller or dichroic colour wheel -- within its capabilities.
My point is that competent designers are rarely limited by the equipment at hand. A cardboard box of coloured, residential lawn floodlights can be made to do wonders in the minds of those with imagination to use them to create a spectacular look within the limits of those lights. Wishing that there were more, or better, or brighter lights does not get the job done. Lighting techs think that way -- lighting designers do not. Light is the thing, not the equipment.
To illustrate this point, I once did a small rockshow where the lighting gear was being provided by an opening act. The fixtures and dimming were primitive and the lighting guy apologised for this several times. This did not bother me at all. I saw what was available and, as a designer, I composed the lighting based on that availability -- not what I wished was available. We set up his lights to my specifications, using my gel colours that I had brought along; plus his input and suggestions were considered and some were employed. He was amazed at what his lights could do.
So as not to blow my own horn, I must temper this with the fact that some of his amazement was simply because his lights were set up by a different person with different ideas. Regardless, I took what he had and used it to light as closely to what I wanted as his equipment could provide. The looks were fine; that gig I re-accessed my lighting basics, and he learned that it's not what you have but how you use it.
Here is a second example of not being disappointed with what is provided: Decades ago, a band for whom I often worked was playing a high school not far from my community. Their audio tech called me to ask if I wanted to attend the band's gig since they were playing in town only about 20 minutes from where I lived; I agreed. Be aware that when I was not doing lighting for this band, they had some lights of their own that consisted of three dozen or so, coloured, 100-watt, 120-volt, PAR 38 outdoor floodlights on small, plastic floor bases. Since the band had no controller at that point in its career, those floods were simply set up and plugged into wall outlets as a static look.
When I got to the setup about two hours before the doors opened to the public, I asked the audio tech if I could help. I assisted him to stack the PA cabinets and do other audio chores. After the heavy work had been completed, he suggested that I might set up the lights. I enthusiastically said "sure!"
I rummaged through their boxes of floods and tested a number to be sure they worked. I then selected four red floodlights for a front wash which I placed on to the band's front-of-house PA cabinets and focused back toward the band. I placed two blue lights on the floor under the drum kit to light the side toms from below. For back lighting, I put blue lights on the amplifier speaker cabinets on either side of the kit and aimed them at the musicians in the front line so as to hit their backs. Two more, but in red, also placed on the amps illuminated the drummer from behind. In addition, I used four yellows as uplighting on the rear wall. I chose that colour because the wall was made from concrete blocks that had been painted a light yellow colour. In total I used fewer than half of the lights that they had available.
When I indicated that I had finished, the audio tech said: "...but you haven't used all our lights." I responded: "They were not part of my design." He was silent. Yes that seems arrogant, but I meant it in a light-hearted, yet serious way. I perused what was available, imagined a look, and proceeded to set up that look. It wasn't about using all that was available; it was about selecting some of what was at hand so as to create a cohesive visual scene. Later on during the night he commented favourably that the band looked great.
My point is that it does not necessarily matter what fixtures one has, what colours one has, nor about any limitations; it's about creativity using what is at hand. Never complain about what is not available -- use what you have and be imaginative. Light is light is light!
Much of your recent work is on smaller stages;
are they easier to light than big stages?
I light a lot of smaller stages because they are currently the majority of performance area sizes in my geographic area. Regardless, I have lighted stages of all sizes during my career, with the largest that I can recall as being over 40 metres wide, and the narrowest at around 3 or 4 metres. Nevertheless, I don't ever lament being restricted to a smaller canvas -- I simply paint smaller! (-:
Regarding ease, a little stage is actually harder to light properly because performers are closer to one another and to the stage boundaries. There are usually too few hang points, the ceiling is often low, and power is typically limited. This environment causes separation issues, fixture angle and height problems, while the available power restricts the number of fixtures able to be on at full intensity during a given time.
Despite those obstacles, I now tend to prefer to light these types of stages because I like the challenge of coaxing lighting to work under confining conditions and with limited equipment and resources. Choosing suitable fixtures, beam angles and lamp wattages, and focusing them in the most appropriate way makes the difference in these situations.
Another story: One summer after attending a local busker festival and viewing many outdoor performances, I was heading to catch a ferry to go home at the end of the night. Walking within a few blocks of the terminal I came upon an open-air tent where a band was packing up. They had eight PAR 64s divided equally between two stands for stage lighting, but at that point were using only two of them to shine on to the tear-down area because no work lights had been provided.
As I approached, I observed that the musicians were struggling to see whenever they faced toward either of the downstage corners because the light stands could not be put up very high in the low-ceilinged tent and the light was right in their faces. Being brazen (as I usually am), without asking, I popped the gel from one fixture on each stand and refocused the then-white lights on to the canvas over the stage. The result was that the whole tear-down area was illuminated in a soft, but bright, overhead white glow.
The band had been too tired to much notice some unknown guy fiddling with their lights, so I was pretty much finished before they could object. I remember how delighted and gratified they were because their pack-up was made far less tedious when the direct, coloured light in their eyes was transformed into a soft, even, white work light. This was much more suitable under which to pack up because it came from above and it reduced or eliminated glare and dark shadows.
A lighting designer had seen what was required and did it without prompting. Yes, it was wrong to touch equipment that was not mine, but I knew in my mind what was needed and that the band would appreciate the result. I remember thinking (and may have voiced to them) that they should consider incorporating a lighting designer to assist them in all their tear-downs. (-:
Designers should be able to light almost any space
Do you often go back stage at other productions?
If so, what is noticed by you the most?
I go to many shows and events outside my own in the run of a season, but don't get back stage as often as I would like. When I do, I look for organisation. I look to see how the Road Manager or Stage Manager has things laid out for the techs and crew. Are there spare items readily accessible? Are there power outlets where they might be necessary? Does each stage crew person have a flashlight? Is it suitable for backstage work, or is it (shudder) a cell phone in `flashlight' mode?
I also look to see if there is proper work and task lighting. This is an area where many productions are weak. The best backstage areas have walking paths clearly illuminated without glare into the eyes of persons moving along those paths. Each station such as the stage manager's desk, the script lectern, the props table, the guitar corral, the fast-repair location or whatever, is out of the way but close to the action. Each has its own electrical outlets along with adjustable, well-shielded lights shining only onto the task area of each.
Speaking about this type of lighting reminds me of the fact that I
dislike the cliche and ubiquitous blue lighting back stage. It's harder
to see under blue colour than white. Plus, blue ink on white paper becomes
difficult (if not impossible) to read when the page surrounding the blue
words is also blue. Then there is the fact that many stage managers now
use coloured, sticky flags as script bookmarks. Blue lighting can make it
harder to differentiae among the various colours.
Since you are critiquing other productions,
what, in your opinion, is the worst mistake
lighting designers make today?
Overproduction! Too many think more is better. Yes, the looks are spectacular -- but that is all. There is little contrast within each scene or look, and few scenes differ from that style. With some productions, there are so many lights on at once, that subtlety sinks into the background. Too much illumination lessens the impact that light and dark provides. Since most shadows are filled in from the spill that each fixture contributes, contrast goes out the window along with the distinction between areas. Controlling what one doesn't light is very important because the areas not lit are the contrast areas; that is, they provide dark along side of the light and give the eye a place to rest. Black is one of my favourite `colours' with which to light. (-:
What do you believe is the worst
mistake producers make today?
Hands down, it's not scheduling enough technical rehearsals. The reason
is typically budgetary. Since I prefer to see one cue-to-cue(*) and at
least four tech rehearsals with full cast, costumes and makeup, it means
an extra two to three days in a venue. This adds expense to a production.
However, it results in tighter, smoother, more confident performances. The
cast gets to rehearse their parts for weeks, if not months, but often the
technical crew has only one or two rehearsals including the cue-to-cue --
which is not really a rehearsal as that time is used to set the lighting,
and audio and video, as necessary. I see too many tech-weak shows these days.
What is this about you staying with a production
until it opens even though you only do design work?
Isn't your job finished when the techs do the hang?
No way! If I let that happen, the focus would too often be inaccurate. For myself, I am too picky about focusing to allow someone else to do it. I want centimetre accuracy. As touched upon above, quality lighting is not just illuminating what you want; it is at least as much (if not more), about not lighting what you don't want. After the lights are adjusted for the performers and sets, I then tweak those adjustments to remove light from, or at least reduce light in, areas not required.
I am so fussy about this that I have been known to dust off barndoor flaps and to also repaint them a flatter black because reflected light has gone somewhere I didn't want. I have also done this to interior barrels of PAR fixtures for the same reason. Controlling spill and reflected light makes for a much cleaner, precise look. I see too little concern for this aspect of lighting today -- both by lighting personnel and fixture manufacturers. As a result, potentially excellent looks are too often muddied and diluted, lessening their impact. Control of light is everything!
Some fixtures spill so much light that no matter what a lighting person does, the looks are muddied and diluted. (I find too many LED fixtures are guilty of this.) Others sport barn doors that are too small or too reflective; annoyingly, some retail track lights even have barn doors that are painted white! Of what use is that?! It's hard to get subtlety and contrast when shadows are filled with reflected or spilled light. Precise light control is of the utmost importance to a sincere lighting designer.
Returning to the point of staying with a production, rather than leaving it up to a board operator or production director, I want to be the person to set each scene's individual fixture levels. This is so that the lights are in harmony with one another and so as to not have one or more stand out so much as to unbalance a scene. Too often other participants are not as exacting as I regarding this point, so I want to remain with a production to refine this aspect as opening night approaches. That is, I want to direct the lighting, not to allow others with less of an exacting vision to do so. Precision is paramount! I don't want my lighting to be perceived by an audience as inadequate, unsuitable or boring. At the same time, I don't want it to be distracting or excessive.
A lighting design is only as good as the
Further regarding the point of leaving a production early, what happens if after a few rehearsals the director decides to change things? This happens more often that one might think. Perhaps too, actors stray from designated placements because it is more comfortable for the portrayal of their characters, or for other reasons. Then too often what happens is that the board operator or another adjusts the lights for these changes in a manner that conflicts with my design or is simply not precise enough. Worse is when no one adjusts the lights at all for the new situation -- and my name is in the program. )-:
If a designer wants his or her looks to be executed as imagined, then he or she must be there to roll with any such changes -- or even due to personal reconsiderations of thought later on as a production becomes more familiar. Re-positioning, refocusing and/or recolouring are part and parcel to these revisions, and it can happen right up to, and sometimes even after, opening night.
I also linger because I want to be sure that board operators exhibit finesse in their technique. I see the transitions from scene to scene as also being part of the design. As I view it, looks and operations should be in absolute harmony. So I stay on to direct a board person in this aspect of the production. (In the case of automated boards, I stay around to adjust the fade times.)
Remaining from conception through to opening night contributes a consolidation, definition and a refined result to the total lighting concept of design, hang, colouring, focus, intensity balance, and scene composition and direction. I believe it to be an indication of a meticulous and complete designer, a genuine professional, a true artist. I perceive my profession as art and I take my art seriously.
To wrap up, could you briefly describe your
best traits regarding stage lighting design?
I would say that my biggest forte is that I can design very quickly on the fly. I see what equipment is available and then envision looks using that equipment -- even if I am restricted to leaving the fixtures where they are. I have always been a hands-on guy. That is, once I have set up the looks I want or think will be suitable, I can quickly change to them as an act progresses -- and with a synchronisation that suits that act at a given moment.
In addition, my energy and enthusiasm are bonuses; plus I have the ability to make a stage, person or object look good with very little equipment and under difficult circumstances. I have already expounded on the latter; as far as enthusiasm goes, I love doing lighting and easily get excited about any project no matter how small or large. That usually transfers to those around me. Attitude really makes a big difference when it is one of fun, giving, and excitement (as opposed to just being a job for which one has been hired). *That* is artistry!
Might you conclude with one of your
stage lighting techniques that you
would like to share with the readers?
I won't give away any major, personal lighting secrets, but I will reiterate that I like to think in the negative; I will concentrate on black (shadows) rather than what is being lit. So there might be times when the principals might be allowed to stand in shadow or, at least, in less-lit areas. If this couples with an aside in the scene or dialogue, it works well. I like dim, shadowed and unlit areas within at least one scene in most productions; it promotes contrast in the narrative because the lighting itself contrasts. In fact, I will go to great lengths to achieve this contrast. I will often spend almost as much time un-lighting certain things or areas as I do lighting the scene in which they appear. This means careful focusing and/or usage of barndoors, flags or blackfoil to mask light from these objects or areas.
I think this may be one of the unique things that sets my lighting apart from others. Not that this technique is necessarily better; only that it is somewhat different, and that it arouses emotion from at least some of its viewers.
Thank you, Richard, for an en*light*ening interview. JT (-:
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