Critical Playbook #3: Studying Light Design @ The Theatre Practice

Use of a gobo at the Light Design workshop at The Theatre Practice

The light design workshop at The Theatre Practice threw me back to the days of my Theatre Studies and Drama ‘A’ Level course in Junior College. To enhance my set design, though elementary, I had rigged multiple lights and crafted a series of lighting cues that also included projections (though some may argue that projections are part of set design instead). I was glad to have had the opportunity to rediscover this art once again.

Merissa Tang’s introduction of light design through the use of a simple torchlight easily illustrated majority of the respective functions and the techniques used in a theatrical production. I was most impressed by the torchlight’s ability to sculpt a miniature that previously had unnoticeable features, especially when viewed by audiences in the backrows. Upon analyzing a moment, whereby a front light was used, the juxtaposition between the sculpturally lit miniature and the emptiness of the stage conjured a dramatic atmosphere of mystique and stirred a mood of forebode. I also likened the set-up to the moment of an accusation. A scene was therefore established, even without a concrete script, due to both the staging of the miniature and the casted lighting. This demonstration re-convinced me of the power that light design has, to the point that it can manipulate the audiences’ imaginations to creating unique narratives.

However, I also started to consider the extent of a light design’s impact as it is also dependent on each audience member’s sensitivity, both in their physical optics of light, and their artistic, aesthetic, emotional empathy (Dunham, 2015). I would think that in terms of relationships, an audience member’s conscious intake of the light cues is more dependent on their physical optics, while their unconscious intake is more dependent on the above empathies mentioned. These intakes are not just limited to light design within the theatre sphere. During our session at the REFUSE exhibition, the light design that made use of dispersed spotlights, that somehow looked like the natural light casted in mushroom habitats, against the otherwise dark hall drew our eyes to specific parts of the exhibits while brewing a solemn atmosphere.

As showcased by Merissa, audiences will attach different strong emotional associations to colours, such as how red may signify sensuality for some and violence for others due to their own personal baggage. Furthermore, on the D-Day itself, the extent of audiences’ physical optics is limited by their seat category, which was an experience I had during the workshop when I sat in the backrow. While I had the flexibility to stand up and adjust my line of sight to an ideal, not every audience member will be given this opportunity.

Considering how audiences may leave the theatre with vast differences in experiences, especially from locations such as a proscenium theatre whereby there are multiple categories, it is concerning to think of the possible erosion of the quality of their experiences. Even though some may argue that the quality of an audience’s experience is dependent on how much they paid for the ticket, I believe that the virtuosity of a performance cannot only be spoken for unless every audience member had the chance to experience all of its theatrics to a certain standard.

There may not be a one-size-fits-all answer to help these audiences to truly grasp the symbolic value of the production in spite of the physical challenges faced, which is why it is important for light designers to put themselves in the shoes of their audiences: ‘the wise lighting designer will use dress rehearsals to try seats in all parts of the house’ (Reid, 2002). Furthermore, this is where the arts manager comes in with an analysis of the projected audience pool and synchronize the lighting cues with the directorial vision. Lighting design has been described to be one of the more efficient types of design:

“Directors, often using several levels, group the actors to emphasis stage depth. But lighting designs can kill all such effort with one tiny wave of their magic wand.” (Reid, 2002)

But the most efficient may also not be the most effective. There are other components to theatre production, aside from the lighting design, such as the set and costume designs, that can be meshed together and lead to a more inclusive experience.

This was the understanding that I took away from the exercise that required us to group up and create a light design that would stage the object we brought to class. While we misunderstood the task and created a light design video instead of the intended object, we managed to get back on our feet and present ourselves as performers at the focal point of the lighting. However, it became quickly apparent that the lack of preparation and a concrete script meant that the ideating process had little cohesiveness, especially when there were no defined roles within our group of four. We were ultimately four light designers trying to project our own ideas, though we eventually did settle on a concept as our leading inspiration out of necessity.

Light falling onto the audience, rather than the stage.

When we went to Merissa to cue the lights, I realised how different reality was from our expectations. I noticed that much of the light fell onto the audience due to the rigging angles, which could interfere with the audiences’ optics, and some of the colours we used did not blend well together. We had to improvise and choose a new design that would follow our vision. It was this experience that reminded me of the amount of preparation needed even before stepping on stage, where multiple drafts of designs must be created so that the rehearsal time would be used wisely. In respect to the roles in the team, I also became more aware of the importance of having different levels of authority so that the responsibilities of the production can be better distributed. A line from the Stage Lighting Handbook highlights this process well.

“In these cases, I’ve witnessed the director creating cues while the designer became nothing more than a translator converting the luminaries into control channels.” (Dunham, 2015)

After hearing that Merissa occupied both the role of a light designer and an arts manager, I was impressed by her ability to juggle so many responsibilities. It would be interesting to watch how she tackles those roles during an actual production with the rest of her team.

Overall, I had a great experience at The Theatre Practice and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn from Merissa and get a hands-on experience with light design. If I get the chance to cue lights again, I would definitely make use of the lessons from the class and readings.

Dunham, Richard E. Stage Lighting : Fundamentals and Applications, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/smu/detail.action?docID=4185876.

Reid, Francis. Stage Lighting Handbook, Taylor & Francis Group, 2002. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/smu/detail.action?docID=1486789.

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