Waltzing Mechanics

Chicago's Home for Documentary Theatre

Line One - Lighting Design

Continuing on, here is some insight on the particular lighting challenges Line One poses, from out very talented lighting designer, Eric Van Tassell: How do you light a play that is different every night? That's the main challenge as I work on the lighting design for Line One.

First, let’s take a step back. If you aren’t familiar with normal theatrical lighting design, the way it works is that every time you, the audience, see the lights change that is a pre-recorded cue in a computer. While a typical show is in rehearsals, the director and actors finalize the movement that will happen on stage—when each person moves and says what where on stage. The lighting designer watches those rehearsals, then aims lights at the necessary locations, and records cues in a computer that tells the system when to turn each light on and off. This coordinates with the pre-set movements of the actors on stage resulting in there being light on an important actor in a given scene and less light elsewhere on stage. That’s how lighting a typical show works.

This is not a typical show. The actors don’t know what their lines will be each night. They don’t know where they will go on stage. They don’t know how long they will stay wherever they walk. And they should feel free to use the space in a way that fits with whatever dialogue comes their way over the phone each night. My lighting should not limit their movement.

At the same time, I’m not interested in lighting this like an improv show. Improv performances give actors complete freedom of movement by putting absolutely no emphasis on lighting. The lights are on at the top of the show and they stay on, all at the same intensity, over the entire stage, until the scene is over and the lights all turn off. This works, but it also discards lighting as a tool in a theatre’s box of tricks.

So we don’t want lights that turn on and off randomly and aren’t coordinated with the actors, but we also don’t want boring lighting that comes on and stays on and doesn’t support the action on stage in any active way. This is the puzzle for this project. How to theatrically light a play in an interesting way without ever knowing what the play will be.

My plan at this point is to program a series of cues for the beginning of the show and a series of cues for the end of the show. Those cues will be the same each night and, along with the actors and directors, we will make those moments at least somewhat pre-planned. Everything between those opening and closing cues, will be improvised by our very talented stage manager, Amy Hopkins. I’ve worked with Amy many times before at Oracle Theatre, where we both often work, and I have complete confidence in her. She is very good at seeing my work, understanding the intention, and then executing it appropriately. Plus, she’s done some lighting design of her own in the past, so this world is not foreign to her.

In an effort to set Amy up for success, I will be programming the lights that I hang in such a way that they can quickly and easily be manipulated in groups. This will make it easy for her to bring lights up and down "on the fly." During our tech rehearsals, when the process for a normal show we would be finalizing each cue down to the fraction of a second when it will happen each night, instead we will be experimenting. I will be running the lights for the first few rehearsals. I’ll find what works and what doesn’t. I’ll make changes accordingly. Then, when I’ve gotten the system figured out, I will get to teach Amy how it works. She will have a variety of lighting “toys” to play with to make these actors look fantastic and support what they are doing on stage.I'll turn it all over to her and she'll get to navigate the rest of the performances.

How do you light a play that is different every night? You give yourself options and then play along with the actors.