A Semester in the Life of a Lighting Designer

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.

Of Scarlet Coats and Other things

Spend any period of time among Harvard undergraduates, and you start to notice quarter-zips,
sweatshirts, and the occasional jacket. These are no run-of-the-mill quarter-zips, sweatshirts, and
jackets to catch your attention like this. Alongside the labels of expensive brands, they bear the
most potent status marker of all: a club emblem. Model UN, the Krokodiloes, Harvard-Radcliffe
Crew, perhaps for the hyper-elite Harvard College Consulting Group—my first year found me a
sideline spectator viewing this ostentatious display of organizational belonging with bemused
interest, and, I must confess, at times a touch of envy.
Imagine my delight (accompanied by a Gilbertian laugh at my feeling of self-importance),
then, when our resident jack and master of all trades Sam Guillemette (in his role as the
merchandise committee) placed an HRG&SP board jacket in my hands. Harvard College Model
UN, I have absolutely nothing against you personally, but you could take your fashion cues from
us. On the front chest, HRG&SP’s wonderfully whimsical emblem stands out against a
background of crisp red that would suite a heavy dragoon from Patience capitally. On the back
of the collar are my three initials. Ever since we first put this uniform on, the new board
members, Ava, Mary, Clarissa and I, have been loath to let it out of our sights. I approach public
spaces with a new sense of confidence and self-esteem. I graciously answer the eager questions
of strangers smitten by the captivating arrangement of the Lord Chancellor, Sir Joseph Porter,
Yum Yum (?), and two treble clefs on scarlet. I stay surprisingly warm, especially given the
mildness of the recent Boston weather. And most of all, I feel that it is indeed a glorious thing to
be a G&S board member.
It is! Hurrah for HRG&SP. Starting off officially with my board duties at the end of January,
I didn’t quite know what to expect. As an ensemble member in Pinafore in the fall, I had seen a
remarkable show miraculously take shape over the course of eight weeks. I had gotten to know
the directors, producers, and fellow staff well. However, I had also noticed that at crucial points
(especially as we were building the set and throughout the performances) mysterious Other
People appeared at the Ag, laden with cookies and milk for matinees, posters to be signed, and
delectable assortments of cheeses. At the back of my mind I was also dimly aware that someone
was taking care of the countless irritating details that had to be attended to for everything to run
as planned.
This semester, I have not been allowed to pique the cast’s curiosity with a surprise visit to the
Ag to pinch hit during build and run. As the staff producer for our Spring production of Kiss
Me, Kate I have been in the trenches from the beginning—and enjoying myself immensely. I
have been given a privileged glimpse of how truly remarkable HRG&SP is: amidst the travails of
full-time student life we stage a full operetta every semester at a high level; we provide our
classmates with an opportunity to display their unique and extraordinary talents, whether as
actors, musicians, or technicians (I trust audiences were as impressed as the cast was by the
stunning set and lights for Pinafore); and most of all we keep alive the unique G&S tradition of
fostering a warm community that delights in elegant wit, superb music, good conversation and
good company.
There have been moments throughout the four weeks of the semester that have elapsed so far
when I have wished I could be attending to something other than my board and producer duties.
(There are at least two papers I could be writing now instead of this blog post, for example.) Yet
these spells of exhaustion are brief. Every time the brass crashes and the trumpet brays, and

every time I see a new example of the warmth of our community or the professionalism of our
members, my bosom swells with pride, and I snap my fingers at a foeman’s taunts. So, give
three cheers and one cheer more for HRG&SP…and do come see Kiss Me, Kate this spring, and
then Ruddigore in the fall!

The author’s Board jacket.

A reflection on the Horner Room

Hello, all!

As you may or may not know, Board Members are instructed to write their blog posts on 2 out of the 5 letters of HRG&SP. Today, I wanted to write about Harvard and Radcliffe. Specifically, I want to write about the Horner Room and the Agassiz Theater.

The Agassiz theater is named for Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the widow of Louis Agassiz. Louis left a very mixed legacy (he was a creationist and a white supremacist). Elizabeth, however, was known for establishing the Women’s Education Association of Boston, in 1872. She also fought to allow women to attend Harvard, although this wouldn’t come to be until 1920, when women were permitted to enroll at the Graduate School of Education. To enter the Ag, one must pass under Elizabeth’s name, in gold over the doors.

The Horner room is where we rehearse and hold Victorian Ball (save the date: April 4, 2020!). The room was named for Matina Souretis Horner. Matina was the sixth president of Radcliffe College, as well as an assistant professor in Harvard’s Psychology Department. Horner was famous for her theory that women had a “fear of success” – a fear that our ambition would be seen as unladylike and vulgar. (No way that could be relevant today.) Horner fought to maintain Radcliffe’s independence as its admissions slowly merged with Harvard’s. 

As much as I am glad to soon be in possession of a Harvard degree, I understand why Horner and many others wanted to keep the Radcliffe legacy alive. Merging the two schools really meant eliminating Radcliffe. And the college in recent years has repeated this history in the hopes of creating gender equality. It has been disheartening to watch as men are allowed into previously female-dominated spaces while women and nonbinary people are still excluded from many groups – regardless of these groups’ obligations to the college.

My first memory of the Horner Room was attending a mixer during my Opening Days as a freshman. I remember being awed by the gracious space. That was the first place where I felt comfortable at Harvard. And over the course of the past four years, it has become my home base. I’ve written before about the way building smells and buzzes with energy.

I have been so privileged to be involved with HRG&SP for the entirety of my college career, and we are extremely fortunate to live in the Agassiz. While we are scattered from the SOCH to Lowell Lecture Hall to the Smith Center for rehearsals, we perform and build in the Agassiz. 

The Ag is one of the few spaces on campus where all but one of the portraits hanging on the wall are of women. It means a lot to me to have Matina Horner, Elizabeth Agassiz, and many others watching over me. I have been blessed to have role models in these women the women of Radcliffe who passed through the Ag. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about women at Harvard and in the arts. It matters that we have women to look up to. So I hope all of you, dear readers, remember the legacy of HRG&SP’s home.

Welcome back!

The semester is back in full force this week. Classes have been picked, sections have been distributed, books have been bought, and auditions have been held! It’s been a busy past couple of weeks for us here at Harvard, but we have some important announcements to make. 

I am happy to announce officially that our spring show will be Kiss Me, Kate, the Cole Porter classic. Kiss Me, Kate is a witty and beautiful musical that is clearly in the tradition of Gilbert and Sullivan. I know that even the G&S diehards among you will enjoy seeing it. 

While it is unusual for us to perform a non-G&S show, this isn’t the first time our organization has done so. This is, in fact, the fourth time. In our 64 year history we have performed Die Fledermaus, The Threepenny Opera, and Of Thee I Sing. Below you will find pictures of various paraphernalia related to these shows from the Harvard Theater Archives.  The most recent of these was Of Thee I Sing which was performed in April of 1999, more than two decades ago. 

Kiss Me, Kate will run in the Agassiz from March 27 through April 5. Tickets will go on sale at the Harvard box office on March 1st. If you want to buy tickets before the general public, you can do so by becoming a patron! We will be mailing a special order form to our patrons this Monday, so be sure to join our mailing list soon to get the patron letter and order form! You can find it under the “Patron” tab of this website. 

Finally, as a reassurance to our dedicated G&S fans and HRG&SP patrons, I am glad to say that we are returning to the canon in Fall 2020 with the classic Ruddigore; or, The Witch’s Curse!

Thank you to everyone who helps keep our organization up and running. We couldn’t do it without you. 

Dutifully yours, 
Ross Simmons ‘21
HRG&SP President

The program from our 1999 production of Of Thee I Sing.
A review of our 1965 production of Three Penny Opera.

December Announcements!

As everything for Pinafore sails to a halt and finals and final projects start ramping up, the HRG&SP board has been busy with our duties. First of all, in the words of Gilbert, “after much debate internal” (and some concerns with rights) we decided on our show for next semester- we will be presenting Kiss Me, Kate! This will be the first non-Gilbert and Sullivan show that HRG&SP will have done in over a decade and we are excited to have a show from the golden age of Broadway musicals, one in the style of G&S shows. While we will by no means be replacing the G&S canon we perform with non-G&S shows, this will be a fun opportunity for our organization to branch out, and a chance for people who might not be familiar with Gilbert and Sullivan but are enthusiastic about musical theater to join us by becoming involved in our organization or seeing our shows. We are looking forward to this venture next semester, and then to getting back to G&S as usual next fall and the spring after that.

Now give three cheers and one cheer more- we also recently welcomed Ava, Ben, Clarissa, and Mary onto our board of directors! We are so excited to have them join us and are really looking forward to seeing the perspectives and ideas that they bring to HRG&SP, and where they help lead the organization from here. The board of directors is getting ready to elect a new team of executive officers, so this is my last blog post as president, and I must say I am honored to have served as the leader of such a great organization, full of so many talented, funny, and kind people. And though before my fall I was captain of it all, I will again be a member of the crew- in the meantime, however, I will be working on my final projects and continuing to get ready for the exciting semester ahead!

Sitzprobe is in the air!

Hello friends!

It’s getting colder and windier here in Cambridge, so I hope everyone is enjoying the transition into fall. Harvard is never quite so beautiful as it is in the fall. This semester, I am extremely excited to be orchestra producing HMS Pinafore. I am usually in the cast of HRG&SP shows, but I am glad to have this opportunity to learn about another part of the process. 

The first orchestra rehearsal was a bit sparse, but even though we were missing a few instruments, the first few notes of the overture blew me away. I recognized the jaunty tune and knew that we were going to have a good show. As the orchestra has grown week to week, I can do nothing but smile. 

Last weekend, we had our Sitzprobe where the cast and orchestra performed together for the first time. It was elysian. Mary Reynolds (Tufts ‘21) has done such a good job as music director! The rehearsal went smoothly and we got through the whole show with minimal hiccups. Janiah Lockett ‘20 (the stage director), Sam Guillemette ‘20 (Cast Producer), and I were bobbing our heads, tapping our feet, and humming along to the famous and unforgettable tunes of this classic operetta. 

I hope that you all can come to see our show!

HMS Pinafore runs in the historic Agassiz theater from November 8th through November 17th. Tickets are available at the Harvard Box Office website. 

Thanks again for your support of HRG&SP and our shows!

Ross Simmons ‘21
HRG&SP Historian
HMS Pinafore Orchestra Producer


Announcing H.M.S. Pinafore!

As the semester kicks into gear and G&S events begin to start, the rest of the board and I have been busy preparing for this semester, and we are thrilled to announce this semester’s show: a traditional staging of HMS Pinafore! We are excited to have Pinafore set in the 1800s on a British ship and are looking forward to the captain and his daughter, sailors, the bumboat woman, the monarch of the sea, sisters, cousins, and aunts all gracing the stage of the Agassiz theatre once again.

We have a fabulous crew, cast, and orchestra made of many inveterate and quite a few new G&S players, and I can’t wait to see all of their creativity, visions, and talents come to life. The first cast and orchestra rehearsals and the first few production meetings have happened and are off to a great start, and we are looking forward to “sailing the ocean blue” with you in the Agassiz Theatre in November- “in the meantime, farewell!”

Spring Updates!

Hello Friends!

Non-G&S show

The HRG&SP would like to hear your thoughts about an idea we’ve had. We are considering producing a non-G&S show in Spring 2020. The kind of show we have in mind is a musical from the “Golden Age of Broadway” era, shows like My Fair Lady, The Music Man, The Man of La Mancha, Kiss me Kate, etc.

We think that producing a non-G&S show could bring in a wider swath of the Harvard Community, increase student interest in our organization, and build a larger community that can then make better G&S shows in following semesters.

It’s a risk we’re willing to take if our patron base is on board. We will not make this leap if our patron base doesn’t think it is a good idea.

To give us your input, please fill out this form.

New Board member and Visitas Fair

In other news, we would like to introduce you all to the newest member of the HRG&SP Board, Edward J. Athaide ’22. We inducted him a couple of weeks ago, and he has been doing a great job ever since. He plays the violin and he orchestra managed The Gondoliers! Give him a big Schwenck welcome!

One of Edward’s first duties was to greet admitted students at the Visitas activities fair and convince them that the HRG&SP is the organization for them. Below is a photo of this auspicious occasion.


A Magic Lozenge?

Even W.S. Gilbert fought against one of many writers’ most dreaded adversaries: writer’s block. Following the conclusion of Princess Ida at the Savoy Theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan were at a standstill with regards to what form their next operetta should take. It was at this point, Gilbert suggested a plot regarding a “magic lozenge” that would introduce conflict into the plot. Sullivan was not keen on this idea, calling the idea lacking in “human interest and probability”, and it was also reminiscent of one of their first productions The Sorcerer where everyone falls in love with the wrong person as a result of a love potion. This resulted in production of a new Savoy opera being stalled until Gilbert came up with the idea for The Mikado, which went on to become the most successful of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations.

However, do not fear, for the “magic lozenge” idea was not lost completely to history. In fact, Gilbert collaborated with two other composers, Alfred Cellier, who died in the process of creating the comic opera, and Ivan Caryll, who finished in Cellier’s place, to write The Mountebanks, which was a comic opera in which a magical potion is administered which transforms people into what they pretend to be. However, this was not a huge success, and it was on par with the moderate success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia, Limited, running for 229 performances. Critics praised Gilbert’s libretto at the time, but reviews of the score were mixed.

One can only wonder what might have happened should this plot have been used as the plot in Gilbert and Sullivan’s next collaboration and if it would have caused them to stop collaborating earlier or been a rollicking success, but alas, we must be satisfied with Gilbert and Sullivan’s six final collaborations: The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited, and The Grand Duke that were still to come.

Sitzprobe and Load-in!

Hello HRG&SP Community!

The past couple of days have been busy for us here. We’ve been working on bringing The Gondoliers; or The King of Barataria to life! Sunday evening we had our sitzprobe led by our immeasurably wonderful music director Mary Reynolds. The cast, orchestra, and board joined her in the Lowell Lecture hall to run through all of the music in the show. I daresay it’s coming along swimmingly. It was one of the best sitzprobes we’ve had in recent memory. We enjoyed singing some of the most fun music Gilbert and Sullivan ever wrote (“Dance a Cachucha” anyone?). We are eager for you to hear it!

After Sunday night’s run through the aural experience of the show, Monday and Tuesday night were spent constructing the visual experience. We have officially started our residency in the Agassiz Theater! We got everything moved into the Horner Room (future site of the Victorian Ball; stay tuned for more information on that) and started getting platforms and flats painted. While construction was ongoing upstairs, cast members had initial costume fittings downstairs in the costume shop. Let me just say that the costumes will blow you all away. They are simply fantastic. Jamie Paterno Ostmann, our costume designer, has simply outdone herself. You’ll have to come see the show to get a glimpse of these killer ensembles.

We’re so excited to have you join us to see The Gondoliers; or The King of Barataria! We’re less than a month away from opening night, and we’re excited to share our hard work and our artistic vision with all of you.

Dutifully yours,
Ross Simmons
HRG&SP Historian