Sitting in the dark: the importance of light in theatre

theatre-light-design
I’ve spent a lot of the past year sitting in the dark – literally. For people who work in theatre, this may come as no surprise. In the eight years I spent working full-time as a lighting assistant/production electrician, I could quite easily go for three or four days in a row without seeing any sunlight. I’ve often thought it odd that the people who “create” light for live performance, people who use light as their primary creative medium, spend so much time in the dark. If you’re unfamiliar with the theatre production process, here’s a (very brief and very simplified!) rundown:
In most regional and London producing theatres, work on a production begins about four to six months prior to the first preview. This can be significantly longer on larger shows, particularly those in the West End. About a week before the first preview, the cast, director, and design team move into the theatre space itself to start technical rehearsals. By this stage, the set has been built, costumes made, lights and speakers rigged, etc. The technical rehearsal is the start of what is called the production week (also known as “hell week” in some American theatres on account of the long days). Technical rehearsals are the only time the entire company is together in the performance space, and they are – as the name suggests – focused primarily on the technical and design elements of a production. Technical rehearsals are often very “stop and start” as cues, scene changes, costume changes, etc. are run multiple times until all parties are comfortable. Once the whole production is worked through in this manner, this is followed by a dress rehearsal (often two or three, plus notes sessions) before the first public performance.

The lighting designer

For a lighting designer, the first day of technical rehearsals is often the most difficult. All of the lighting designer’s pre-production research, the conversations they have had with the designer, director and theatre’s head of lighting, and the plans they have drawn and had implemented by the theatre’s lighting department converge on this day, and there is enormous pressure on the lighting designer to “get it right” – funding situations in most UK theatres are such that time, money and resources are at a premium and at this point there is not enough of any of those to start over or make significant changes. This pressure is compounded by the fact that lighting is the sole visual design element that can only be created in the performance space. During the pre-production period, set designers produce a scale modelbox, alongside technical drawings, sketches and storyboards, and costume designers may use artistic drawings in conjunction with fabric swatches, for example, to help articulate their process and creative ideas. For both set and costume design, the actual product is built over several weeks and can be seen as a work-in-progress during this time. Moreover, the materials of set and costume design are tangible and the work can be observed, commented on, tweaked and refined outside and, crucially, before entering the actual performance space. Similar comparisons and tools do not exist for lighting designers. Computer visualisation software may be used; however, these programs rarely provide the detail needed to fully explain, describe or develop the potential of light outside a performance space.
In addition, these days tend to involve the most negotiation and adjustment as creative teams (especially the lighting designer) learn to navigate the “language” and “grammar” of a production, while also refining the spoken language and grammar they use to articulate it. It is this process that my research focuses on. How do lighting designers use language to articulate ideas about light and lighting, a material and a process that is largely intangible? How do they additionally use language to exercise agency and exert influence in situations of creative collaboration?

My research

To answer these questions, I sit in the dark, behind the lighting designer, armed with two recording devices. One of these records the ambient conversation, usually between the director or designer and the lighting designer. The other records the conversation on “cans” (UK theatre slang for the headsets worn by all members of the design and technical teams to facilitate conversation without having to resort to shouting backstage!).
The darkness provides an ideal environment for conducting my fieldwork. Even though I am acting as an “overt insider” (Merton, 1972; Greene, 2014), the darkness makes it possible for me to fade into the background and remain largely unnoticed by the people I am observing – which is simultaneously useful and disconcerting. There is something anonymising about the dark, but it can also be quite liberating. There’s plenty of interesting research on audience behaviour and fascinating studies on people’s behaviour generally in the dark — but for now, I’ll just say what an illuminating (see what I did there?) experience sitting in the dark has been!
References:
Greene, M.J. 2014. On the inside looking in: methodological insights and challenges in conducting qualitative insider research. The Qualitative Report. 19(How To Article 15), pp.1–13.
Merton, R.K. 1972. Insiders and outsiders: a chapter in the sociology of knowledge.American Journal of Sociology. 78(1), pp.9–47.
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