Theatre Lighting: Calibrating The Technical Perspective
“I am told, that the art of lighting a stage consists of putting light where you want it and taking it away where you don’t want it.” — Max Reinhardt
I first read this quote in Robert Edmund Jones’ The Dramatic Imagination over 30 years ago, 40 years after the book was first published. I still have that faded mandarin-red hardcover book, which arrived to me, as a gift, with a peeling binding and a brown stain on the cover, coffee, maybe. The Dramatic Imagination is a book to which I return occasionally and consistently, and for good reason.
In my line of work, as the Head of Lighting for a large-scale production, I am constantly challenged by the technical aspects of the job.
How many fixtures can I fit on a circuit? What’s the best way to move information from console to equipment? And sometimes even, “you want to hang that fixture where!?” The work can be demanding, and it can be rewarding, but oftentimes the details of making it work distract me from the reason I’m doing the work in the first place.
I recently taught a roomful of high-school teachers about lighting for the USITT eSet standard. We discussed various technical topics including programming, patching, bench focusing, and the operation of dimmers, gobos, and more.
What tied the lesson together was the section dedicated to design. We studied and discussed a scene from Romeo and Juliet.
During the moments that we talked about why we were lighting something, the how we were lighting that something became relevant.
The discussion moved from the physical aspects of the setting, a courtyard and balcony at night, to the emotional core of the scene. We stopped talking about fixture types and gels and explored what we hoped to convey, the energy between the characters.
We stopped seeing lighting as technical equipment, and started to view the stage as a canvas, the fixtures as brush strokes, and the gel as pigment.
In my own work, I need these reminders. I need to step away from the “how” we do this to the “why” we do this, and Robert Edmond Jones’ The Dramatic Imagination is the reminder that calls to me from my bookshelf. Jones discusses the “livingness” of light in his book, and when I calibrate my perspective, the work becomes more joyful, and more meaningful, too. We transcend the mechanics of making it work to the art that it has the potential to be.
Although I studied design, I’m a full-time technician. I love the nuts-and-bolts of the rig. My father was an engineer, and I am my father’s son.
I sometimes lose sight of the art of what we do, but I know that adjusting lighting with my electrician eye only will lead to the mediocre. Often times, the better lighting decision results in more difficult — sometimes much more difficult — technical placement and execution. In the end, though, it’s worth it.
The struggles are why I keep Robert Edmond Jones’ book handy, a beacon from my bookshelf, a constant reminder of the figurative light.
The late Jones writes, are we “to carry images of poetry and vision and high passion in our minds while we are shouting out orders to electricians on ladders in light-rehearsals?” He answers himself with a “Yes,” which has echoed in my mind for decades.
Also by Michael Cassera: