Oct 26

Let there be light, part 1

A Streetcar Named Desire is nearing the end of its run at Raleigh Little Theatre. Since this it the second play for which I’ve served on the light crew, I should probably write something about what I’ve been doing.
Before I got involved at RLT, I had never given much thought to the importance of lighting. I certainly had never thought that they might be more important in live theater than in television or film. I just assumed that the role of lights was simply to illuminate the cast and set to make them clearly visible. But even in TV and movies, lights do more than that — they are used to create a mood or tone for each scene. One example that stands out in my mind is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” in which we see an alternate-universe version of Enterprise that has been fighting a war against the Klingons for two decades. This Enterprise is superfically the same as the one we know, but it’s a warship rather than a vessel of exploration and diplomacy, and one way you can see the difference is in the lighting. On the familiar Enterprise, the bridge is a brightly-lit workplace, while Ten Forward has subdued lighting that gives it a nightclub atmosphere — fitting for the place where the crewmembers go to relax and socialize. On the warship Enterprise, those lighting choices are reversed: Ten Forward is a brightly-lit military commissary, bustling with activity, and the bridge is a dimly-lit command post with glowing displays at each station, like an air traffic control center. The sets are the same, but the lighting changes their character entirely.
In live theater, lighting is much more important because there is no camera. TV and movie directors can use camera angles and depth of field to channel the viewer’s attention and emphasize some characters or objects over everything else in the picture. For an example of this, watch the first scene of The Matrix and notice the shot in which the pay phone rings. The emphasis shifts from the phone (in the extreme foreground) to Trinity (in the background) without any movement of the camera, just by changing which object is in sharp focus. Closeups, cuts, pans, tracking . . . you can’t do any of that on stage. The audience can see the entire set all the time.
So it’s up to lighting to not only establish mood, but also indicate emphasis. This is done by shifting which areas of the set are brightly lit and which ones are dim. To emphasize a single character, you use a spotlight. Mood and tone are created mostly through the use of gels to add color, and sometimes with masks called gobos that create patterns of light and shadow (to suggest moonlight through a window, for example). All of this has to be set up ahead of time. Cinematographers can pan, tilt, track, and zoom their cameras as they shoot a scene, and rearrange their lighting between shots. On stage, the lights are static, and only their levels can be manipulated in real time. This means that for each lighting effect used in the play, a group of lights has to be hung and focused specifically to achieve that effect.
By the time I (and the rest of the light crew) get involved with a play, the lighting designer has already worked out the details of this. When we show up for the first light hang session, the designer has a light plan for the show — a kind of blueprint that shows what lights (or “instruments,” as the tech crew refers to them) go where. Specifically, it indicates the number of each type of instrument, where it is to be mounted, what circuit it should be connected to, the direction in which it should be pointed, how wide a beam it will cast, how sharp or fuzzy the edges of that beam should be, and what sort of gels or gobos are to be used. The light crew follows this plan to hang the lights in their assigned places and adjust them appropriately.
Once the instruments are hung and focused, they have to be turned on and off in groups at appropriate points in the play. This could theoretically be done by switching the various lighting circuits on and off, but you would have to know what groups of instruments are connected to each one, what their dramatic effect is, and when those effects begin and end. Lighting people used to do this sort of thing manually, but nowadays it’s all run with a computerized light board. The lighting designer programs the board with a series of lighting cues that switch circuits on and off in groups as needed to achieve the desired lighting effects. (Actually, the instruments in question are usually brightened and dimmed gradually, rather than switched abruptly on and off.) When the board is fully programmed, the lighting cues for each scene (and the transitions between them) are fully specified in the proper sequence, and you can advance from one to the next just by pressing a button. That’s where I, as light board operator, come in.
To be continued . . .

Aug 23

Opening night

I’ve mentioned that I’m working on the light crew for the Raleigh Little Theater’s production of Once Upon a Mattress. Up until now, that hasn’t required me to do very much. I helped to hang the lights a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve attended several rehearsals of the show. Last night’s rehearsal was actually what they call a preview performance; it was a full-scale staging of the play, with costumes, props, lights, orchestra, and audience, but the audience was almost all friends and family of the cast and crew, and they didn’t pay to see the show. Tonight is the real thing: the first performance for a paying audience. And I’m running the light board. The curtain goes up in two hours.
Wish me luck. I’ll post more about this later.