It truly takes an army to create a theatrical production, and at Harvard this is no different. In addition to its many talented actors and actresses, Harvard’s campus is home to dozens of musicians, directors, producers, writers, technicians, and designers. Today, I thought I would write about my experience within a subsection of these roles — my experience as a lighting designer.
Lighting is an aspect of stagecraft that is both obvious and invisible. Its design occupies a space between art and practicality; one of the challenges of the lighting designer is to make sure everyone on stage is visible, yet lit in a way that supports the show as a whole. To the average theater-goer, great lighting is unnoticeable because it fits seamlessly into the world of the performance. But how does one create a design that is both artistic and subtle, that adds to the message of the show without drawing attention to itself?
The first step in the process, as always, is to read the script. When I was the lighting designer for H.M.S. Pinafore in the fall, I read Gilbert’s libretto several times, keeping notes on the time of day, the ambience of each scene, and the number of people on stage. At the same time, I listened to Sullivan’s music to get a better idea of how the characters — and by association, the audience — were intended to feel.
Next, I considered the properties of light. Color, angle, intensity, and shape all influence the effect light has on stage. I knew I wanted warmer colors for Act I, set in daytime, and cooler colors for Act II, set at night. I knew Act II would have more light coming from the sides of the stage, which creates extra shadows for a secretive feeling. The more jubilant songs in the show needed brighter lighting to fit the intensity of their emotional impact, while dialogue and slower songs worked better under dimmer lights. Through considerations such as these, the outline of my design took shape.
To translate this design from my head onto the stage (or rather, above it), I first needed to look at our set. Sabrina designed a fantastic ship for our set, and looking at her skillfully-created model allowed me to picture where the physical lights could fit into the space. It was at this point that I got the idea to create an illusion of shadows cast by the ship’s rigging using a gobo — a special template, usually made out metal, with a design cut into it that changes the shape of a light.
Next came the paperwork. I managed to get away with only creating a light plot (a map of what lights are hung where in the theater), but usually a lighting designer generates many different documents to help communicate the lighting design to other members of the technical team. This can include a list of all the lights to be hung, diagrams of where the lights are to be pointed (or “focused”), and views of the theater from different directions to show the exact placement of each light. Needless to say, being a lighting designer is not a job for those who dislike paperwork!
Finally, the last steps in the process: hang, focus, and cuing. During load-in, when our show finally moved into the theater, I enlisted the help of my fantastic assistant, Emma Kay ‘23, and some members of the cast and crew to help me hang up and secure all the lights I wanted. Then, once the lights were hung, we set the exact position, shape, and color of every light — by hand! As you can imagine, light hang and focus is a tedious and tiring process, and I’m very grateful to the cast, the theater staff, and my fellow crew members for their help. Without them, our lights wouldn’t have been ready for the most important day in the lighting design process: cue to cue.
Cue to cue, also called Q2Q, is a process where the show is run in stops and starts as the lighting team creates and records all the specific lighting “looks”. Using the lighting console, which is connected to all the lights that have been carefully hung and focused, the lighting team (which can include the designer, one or more assistants, and sometimes a special lighting console programmer) adjusts which lights are on at what brightness and save those settings in what is called a “cue”. During full runs of the show, all the lighting operator needs to do is cycle through the pre-recorded cues as they line up with what the actors on stage are saying, singing, and doing, although that in itself is a job of no little finesse. Once the cues are recorded and any problems are noticed and fixed, the lighting designer’s job is officially done. (Or at least, done until strike, when all the lights must be taken back down again!)
I hope my rather long-winded jaunt down the journey of a lighting designer illuminates some of the mysterious work that happens behind the curtain for our shows. If you’re interested in watching a show with fresh eyes to see if you can pick out elements of the lighting design, I highly recommend coming to see Kiss Me, Kate! this semester. Emma Kay ‘23, my assistant for Pinafore, is our wonderful lighting designer, and she has put together a design that will awe and amaze you — if, of course, you can spot its influence.