January 2010 Field Letter
Written on January 3, 2010
Happy New Year! As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we at TCG hope to offer insights into the field of theatre from a variety of perspectives. Last year, you heard from several members of TCG’s staff about the wide range of program activity here, including publishing, public and international relations, and audience development. This year, I am asking TCG board members to pen a few Field Letters so that you can get a sense of who serves on the board and how they see our profession developing.
We are excited about the changes in our environment—some
of them technologically driven—that are providing theatres
with so many new opportunities for engaging audiences and colleagues.
In recent years, the tech revolution has been centered on new social
media. But about 125 year ago, the major technological revolution
for the theatre was the introduction of the electric light. First
used in London in the 1880s, theatrical stage lighting has evolved
considerably since that time. This month, I’ve asked TCG vice
president, Dawn Chiang, to compose a Field Letter with
some perspectives from the world of a lighting designer.
SNAPSHOTS FROM A LIGHTING DESIGNER
By Dawn Chiang, lighting designer
The Most Public Exhibition of Creative Thinking in the World
“…lighting rehearsal begins. These sessions are without doubt the most public exhibitions of creative thinking in the world….At this time the theoretical design is stated in intensities. It is the time when, if one has absorbed and analyzed the play truly, the ideas and impressions that could not be articulated are suddenly there before you. This session has a rhythm which…crystallizes these concepts rapidly and definitely so that the underlying mood comes clear.”
This means that, at the outset, hiring a lighting designer is basically a leap of faith. In design meetings, the lighting designer participates in the discussion about the script, analysis of the scenes and the development of the physical environment for the production. However, none of the lighting is truly portrayed or rendered as part of the emotional whole until we are in the theatre. Even I do not know exactly how it will turn out until we start turning on the lights.
I do have ideas and impressions for each scene that drives the creation of the light plot—the blueprint used for hanging the lighting equipment prior to tech. Still, planned ideas for the lighting bump up against happy accidents. That light fixture intended for Scene 4 actually looks great in Scene 2 in a completely unexpected way. Excellent, let’s use that—and how can I elaborate on this happy accident to even a more complete idea?
I light the moment as the scene unfolds onstage in real time. The light cues are shaped by the actors’ movements in space, their sense of the scene. This is the visual equivalent of getting a scene up on its feet for the first time in the rehearsal room—interacting with and responding to the performances onstage and supporting it with light.
In some ways, teching a show in the initial days of production is like playing a giant video game. With computer monitors surrounding the lighting designer, it is about working against the clock, making micro-decisions on a second by second basis: we need a little more blue here; I need to see that actor’s face more; how stark do we want to go for the end of the scene; how can I pop the actors out from the background more?
Finally, when we are in tech, with the actors onstage and the production moving forward scene by scene, all the elements finally combine. The visual image as sculpted in light gradually comes together with everyone and everything else to complete the collective dramatic moment. And when it all works, it’s a great, deeply satisfying feeling.
Technical Means Toward an Aesthetic End
Another part of the pleasure of lighting design is combining a host of technical disciplines in service of an aesthetic end. The technology continues to improve and there is the continuous drove for better tools to expand the visual vocabulary and design possibilities, and make the process faster and easier, as well.
The entertainment lighting industry is international in scope and spans users in the performing arts, rock and roll, themed entertainment, television and media-savvy churches. One is constantly exposed to a broad array of users, design applications, technical solutions and innovative approaches. So, if you are so inclined, you can seriously geek out on all the latest technology. But in the end, the focus is still about telling the story onstage.
In choosing to be a designer in professional theatre, with fex exceptions, you are choosing to work freelance. You serve at the pleasure of the directors and artistic directors with whom you work. Who you worked with in the last year or two may or may not be who you are working with this year. Freelancing requires a fair amount of energy to continually look for work, ensure that you can pay your bills and build a nest egg for the future, all of which incudes a certain level of background stress.
The fun parts include developing new working relationships with
different directors, design teams and production staffs, and learning
the infrastructure of each new theatre. It is a great privilege
and luxury to work with directors on an ongoing basis and develop
long-standing relationships with a theatre. The communication and
trust between parties becomes deeper, familiarity with the theatre
space becomes more nuanced, and as a result, the work can become
richer and stronger. It is the design version of the benefits of
a resident acting company. There is a sense of confidence, relaxing,
gaining more traction in the creative work and continuing to deepen
Freelancing also engenders another dynamic. In a 2002 keynote speech to USITT, artistic director Kent Thompson said, “When I become cynical, I think that we have created institutions made up of full-time administrators and artistic directors and our heart and soul—the art we put on the stage—is left to itinerant workers—the artists and craftspeople whom we bring in for short-term employment.”
Being a guest designer can be like a sort of visiting aunt—I arrive for a couple of weeks, have a wonderful time working with everyone and then leave. I am relatively disconnected from the larger life, values and priorities of the host theatre. I am not always aware about how this production we are working on connects to the larger story of this institution.
My job is to light the show. My connection to a theatre is centered
on the production department, in service of getting the show at
hand successfully up and running. My contact with the artistic director
(unless s/he is directing the production) or managing director is
limited—often just a few minutes.
Serving on the TCG Board
Though I have always strived to view the world and my work life from a thirty thousand foot view, serving on the TCG board has significantly informed my understanding of and perspective on theatre. It enriches my interaction with each theatre in which I work and sparks new conversations with those who lead, manage and work at these not-for-profit theatres.
Within the TCG board, I enjoy the opportunity to look at the bigger picture of theatre nationwide, on a regular basis, in a room full of peers. Listening to the concerns of theatre leaders and artists is illuminating and thought provoking. Working side by side with a variety of talented, experienced professionals allows me to appreciate what each individual artistic director, manager, artist, funder and locak theatre board member brings to the table.
I find it fulfilling to be actively engaged in the bigger conversations about theatre. I wonder about how we might invite everyone—itinerant theatre workers included—into deeper ongoing explorations, thinking and action focused on the theatre. My hope is that one of the by-products of such fuller engagement would be a deeper sense of community and shared purpose for the entire team—to better tell our stories.
Back to Top