Atlantic Illumination Entertainment Lighting

Lighting Essays


The Invisible Lighting Designer

Too often, the lighting designer is unsung, pushed
in to the background, or even forgotten entirely.

Harry Lane and Allan Watts have something to say about that.

Canadian Theatre Review
Issue 107, Summer 2001

The Paradox of Stage Lighting in Canada;
Sometimes So Transparent that It's Invisible.

by Harry Lane and Allan Watts

    As theatre historians tell us, our word "theatre" is rooted in performance as a visual experience, deriving from the Greek "theatron," literally "a place where you see or behold." And that emphasis is continued in our only English word for a single member of an audience: "spectator." Since most of our theatre is performed in the dark (either indoors or outdoors after nightfall), most of it would be invisible without stage lighting, and yet stage lighting in Canada suffers from a strange kind of disregard.

    The Canadian Opera Company's (COC) 2001-2002 subscription brochure provides a case in point. The opening paragraphs, by General Director Richard Bradshaw, emphasize the increasingly visual importance of contemporary opera:

Increasingly, opera is exploring our heightened sense of visual
acuity. What I'm interested in ... is work that engages you to
the point where you see with your ears and hear with your eyes.

    As if to emphasize his point, almost every page of the brochure is dominated by the image (or partial image) of a face sculpted by dramatic key lighting.

    Paradoxically, however, as the brochure lists its seven impressive-sounding productions for 2001-2002, it follows a very Canadian (and perhaps international) pattern of listing the composer, conductor, stage director, set and costume designers and then the major singers. There is, of course, no mention of lighting designers; their work is visible everywhere in this brochure, but they remain unnamed and in the wings (or on the grid).

    The COC is not alone in this regard. In the 2001 Stratford Festival Visitors Guide, Artistic Director Richard Monette places no such emphasis on the visual, though the brochure depends heavily on visual images that naturally depend partly on lighting for their effectiveness. It too lists authors, composers, directors, designers (for sets and costumes) and leading actors but never mentions light, the overwhelming power of which is evident on every page and which is clearly fundamental in selling the theatre tickets, packages, meals, accommodations and material goods that are advertised. Lighting "illuminates" the various products that Stratford has to offer but remains "silent" or -- when it is effective -- invisible.

    As several writers and interviewees suggest in this issue, lighting designers are always in danger of being displaced in the hierarchies of production. Not only are they usually invisible in the promotional materials of theatres, they are omitted from the parts of the process where major artistic decisions are taken. Because, generally speaking, they command lower fees than are paid to set and costume designers, they tend to design many more productions a year (some of the numbers cited in this issue are staggering), and they therefore tend to arrive on the scene quite late, like hired guns, as Marsha Sibthorpe puts it.

    Lighting calls often happen late in the evening or at night, when the stage isn't "needed" for acting rehearsals. And all too often the work of lighting is ignored by reviewers. Furthermore, as we have discovered in the struggle to illustrate this issue, lighting is one of the elements in production that remains notoriously difficult to record. Too often the technology of photography cannot deal adequately with stage lighting, and the lighting design is compromised so that actors, costumes and sets may be photographed more efficiently.

    As Michael Whitfield observes in an interview with Allan Watts:

When a production is over, most of the other areas have something
tangible that they can hold onto, a costume, a prop, a sketch, a
model.... I move through a production but leave no footprints.

    Fortunately, most of the photographs that do appear in this issue are exceptions to that trend, and it may be significant that many were taken by the lighting designers themselves.

    While one of the basic functions of lighting is to merely illuminate performers, sets and costumes, it is of course rarely, if ever, neutral. It helps to control where and how we look, sculpting the space and its contents. It affects how we perceive a performance, both synchronically (how a stage looks at a particular moment) and diachronically (how that changes from moment to moment). It contributes to the "meanings" we attach to what we see. And as Brecht argued in his poem The Lighting, it affects the relationship between a show and its audience:

Give us light on our stage.
How can we disclose
We playwrights and actors
Images to the world in semi-darkness?
The sleepy twilight sends to sleep.
Yet we need our watchers wide awake.
Indeed we need them vigilant.
(Brecht 14)

    Editing this issue has been an informative process. We began selecting potential contents with a fairly firm emphasis on the aesthetics of stage lighting, but the process and the individuals we have worked with (and whose experiences and opinions are recorded in these pages) have themselves moved us much more towards an emphasis on lighting as a material practice that occurs within a material context, in which budgets, rehearsal time and equipment figure as importantly as aesthetic decisions.

    We did plan to focus very clearly on the work of individual designers, in a small way to make the reality of their work more visible. We planned to have more designers writing about their own work but found that the realities of working as a successful lighting designer in Canada leave little time for writing. We have resorted to more interviews than we had originally planned for this issue, in order to ensure that their views become part of the issue.

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