I teach at a community college. This semester I teach the rather grandly titled: Introduction to Stage Lighting. Community college is only the first two years of post-high school education, and at the end of the class, the goal is not to have a whole bunch of little Theron Mussers and Kenneth Posners running around Fresno. We do light plots (2 of them), we cue, we analyze, we think, we talk — but it is merely a first step on the road to becoming a designer.
Grading “art” is always a challenge (and maybe sometime I’ll write on my methodology), but before going into the class this semester (and this is the last time I’ll teach this version, next year it will be replaced by the state “C-ID” version — which doesn’t change much, but a bit), I want to think about what the steps are from barely acceptable lighting design to “Oh, wow, you are good.”
1. Visibility: The base line minimal acceptable level for something to go from a bunch of lights in the air to a design is visibility. This means even lighting on the face and hands that allows the audience to see and hear the play. (As one studies light one learns that when the director complains he can’t hear — if you turn up the lights, you may fix the problem — unless the cast mumbles)
2. Sculpture: The next level of lighting highlights the three-dimensional form. Classically, this is the warm and cool front light of the McCandles system, but may be achieved in many other ways. If we only have visibility, it is a lecture hall or sporting match, when we move to this step we start to reveal art.
3. Selective Visibility: At this step I feel like we move to actually theatrical lighting. The ability to see what everything is (brought about by our first two steps), is heightened when we begin to take away light where we don’t want it. Oddly enough, at this level of skill, things may actually be darker than they were at step one. Imagine a shadowy room where an unknown-to-the-audience murder is about to kill our leading lady, with selective visibility we can see the dark shape but not who it is.
**(And once we get to this point, I feel that students have achieved “C” level lighting design for an introduction class — Note to students reading this, I grade projects on much more than just your design skills, so design alone won’t earn you a “C” in the class)**
4. Sense of Place: The light inside a cubical farm is very different than the light just after sun rise on the beach. Visually re-enforcing the play as to location is the next step to great design. In rudimentary design, this is often expressed as the addition of a window or tree pattern, but in more advanced design is expressed through color choice, angle, and intensity (as well as patterns). This step also includes lighting (or not lighting) the set as appropriate.
5. Focus: The lighting designer in theatre is much like the editor in film The editor chooses the shots that force the audience to look at the important bits of the story. So does the lighting designer. It may be subtle compositional tricks that bring the audiences eye to the right place, it may be hard edged obnoxious follow spots, but either way the audience needs be aided in knowing where to look at any one moment.
6. A sense of time or change: Most environments are not static over the course of a play, or even a scene. Even the cubical farms lighting changes as people come and go, turn on and off computers, adjust task lighting etc. As designers conceive the lighting, they must understand and provide for the natural changes in light. These might be earth shatteringly obvious, or profoundly subtle.
**(And in my class, this is where I hope the “A” students will get.)**
7. An overall style: Too many designers seem to start with the feel or atmosphere of the show, and then try to do everything else, but really that overall style is a high level. Even as a show’s plot moves through many times, and locations — bright and dark, interior and exterior, etc. the design itself needs to have a unifying feel to it.
8. Storytelling: Beyond just telling the audience where and when we are, lighting designers (like all the other designers, director, and actors) are charged with helping tell the playwright’s story to the audience. When I’m working on a play, I try to run through all the cues, in order without any actors on stage. While doing this, I should be able to see the emotional journey of the play expressed in the lighting.
9. Commenting on the play: I dread even mentioning this as too many designers think this is their moment to mock the play they are doing. The term “commenting” is one from my time in school, but it is not the designer expressing his or her opinion. Instead, commenting is about punching up the greater themes in the play. This step involves tweaking the lighting that is right for the moment, so that the audience can be made aware of where the story is coming from or where the story is going. This is where a designer might try to light two moments in a similar manner to emphasize the emotional relationship between the two. This might also involve mimicking a famous piece of art, or moment from a film to make the audience consider the similarities (or differences) between the two.
10. Breaking the rules: Selective visibility often breaks the rule of visibility. Storytelling and commenting may break many of the rules about time and place. The great designers break the rules as they work to achieve the most clear communication to the audience about the production’s understanding of the play. Sometimes this means an un-unified style, sometimes this means general rather than specific focus… regardless of what it means it comes from a clear understanding of the script, the analysis, the director’s goals, and the audience’s expectations. It is always risky, but truly great design cannot be great without it. (And yes, I think that sometimes sticking to the rules is the most radical thing that can be done — if it supports the show).