The lighting designer and the master electrician

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        illuminators       The lighting designer and the master electrician
                                                          BY MIKE LAWLER

T    HE ACTORS MIGHT wear their own
                                          SCOTT SUCHMAN

clothes and put on a show in an ex-
isting space with no modification.
They might shout at the top of their
lungs without reinforcement or music
to set the mood. But before they be-
gin someone must turn on the lights.
In such a pared down production,
the person manning the light switch
on the wall would be considered the
light board operator; the person who
screwed the light bulb in is the mas-
ter electrician; and the one who told
him where to put the lamp is the de-
signer. Those are the basic elements
of any lighting team working in the-
atre. (Of course, with such a low-
budget production, the same person
is probably doing triple duty.) In the
world of professional theatre, there
are many talented and skilled men
and women turning this oversimpli-
fied production into a feast of illumi-
nated art. If you are putting on any
kind of performance—dance, play,
opera, concert—there is one thing
you simply cannot do without: illu-
                                                                                                                         SCOTT SUCHMAN

At left, lighting designer John Ambrosone   ing designer and associate professor of          Champa makes sure to keep in
confers with Arena Stage lighting fellow    theatre and design at Southern Method-       mind, however, that his primary re-
Xavier Pierce during a tech rehearsal for   ist University. Woods works extensively      sponsibility as a designer is finding a
the theatre’s production of Damn Yankees.   with many types of performing arts or-       way to help tell the story. He explains
Above, the 2003 Arena production of         ganizations, including the renowned          his role this way: “To help the audience
Camelot, with lighting by Ambrosone.                                                     focus on what we want them to focus
                                            Jose Limon Dance Company, an en-
    Illumination is only the beginning      semble he’s collaborated with for sev-       on. To not get in the way of the actors
of theatrical lighting. “Lighting is the    enteen years. “My responsibility is to       and their work. To make the space and
‘visual glue’ that holds up and en-         the director’s vision, the playwright,       the world visually exciting and make
hances all the other visual elements,”      and my artistry,” he says.                   everyone else look good until you want
explains lighting designer John                 Just as a sound designer must be         or need them to look bad.”
Ambrosone. As a freelancer and former       part engineer and part composer, the            Coordinating with the other design-
resident lighting designer (often           artistry of manipulating light is one that   ers and the director is the essential be-
known as the LD) for American Reper-        walks the line between keeping up            ginning for any designer, and LDs are
tory Theatre (ART) in Boston for thir-      with cutting edge technology and re-         no different. “The first thing is to under-
teen years, Ambrosone has been creat-       taining the ability to think like a          stand why the particular work is being
ing stunning and complicated light          painter. It’s a line that must be walked     done,” says Woods. “Being a designer
designs for theatre, dance, opera, and      carefully while concentrating on sup-        is a lot like being a detective. You con-
other forms for almost twenty years.        porting the vision of the production         nect the dots to find the answer to the
“Light is as accessible and expressive      (see the sidebar “Lighting the sky”).        question posed by the work.” In order
as an actor, but never should upstage       Russell Champa, a freelance designer         to connect the dots, the lighting de-
or pull focus from the unified contribu-    based in both San Francisco and New          signer will meet with the director or
tions of the whole,” he says.               York City, does his best to experiment       choreographer, the other designers, and
                                            as an artist at every opportunity. “I        sometimes even the playwright or
Shaping a visual environment                think that part of the job is to challenge   composer to hammer out a visual un-
“My role is to shape a visual environ-      oneself on every project to try some-        derstanding of the production.
ment for the play to take place in,” ex-    thing new—a new color, a new type of            “I always start with the script and
plains Steve Woods, a freelance light-      fixture, new technology, or a whole          then a big piece of paper and a pen-
                                            new process,” he explains.                                   JANUARY 2006 • DRAMATICS
cil,” says Champa. This is often a tough    about until you’re actually in the theatre   Rather than wait until the system is in
period for a lighting designer struggling   and turn off the work lights and turn on     the theatre and hung, Woods believes
to transform the production concept into    some of your lights. This is when the        that designers must make an active ef-
a functional light plot. “Translating a     real work begins.”                           fort to conceive a system of lighting
bunch of great ideas into a practical so-       Over time, Woods has grown to see        that limits what he calls “the unpleasant
lution can be very difficult, especially    the art of light design a bit differently.   surprises.” As a result, his design ap-
with lighting,” he admits. “Oftentimes      “Of course, the move from paper to re-       proach has evolved to more fully ac-
nobody knows what you’re talking            ality always brings surprises,” he says.     count for the realities of each instru-

  Two job descriptions
  A LIGHTING DESIGNER’S primary re-         amount of time researching and study-        and channel hookup, the ME com-
  sponsibility is to ensure that a          ing the script or piece for which they       piles all of the necessary equipment
  show’s lighting fulfills the director’s   are designing.                               and makes a plan for how to orga-
  production concept.                          Once the crew has hung, circuited,        nize the work that will need to be
     A good LD will strive to maintain      and patched the show, the LD will be-        done. (Many MEs will create informa-
  cohesion with other design aspects        gin working in the theatre, utilizing the    tive flash cards known as hang cards,
  of a production, including sound,         crew during the focus and troubleshoot-      so that electricians will have the in-
  choreography, and perhaps most im-        ing phase of the process. After the plot     formation they need to complete
  portantly, scenery and costumes. He       has been focused and all equipment is        their assigned tasks without having to
  or she begins this process during the     patched and operating correctly, the LD      return periodically to the usually cen-
  design stage by drafting a light plot     will write cues for the show. Some LDs       trally located light plot.) The ME is
  and creating an instrument schedule.      arrive with cues already written, which      also responsible for deciding how
  Another important tool provided to        they will then modify as necessary dur-      much time and labor will be needed
  the ME is the channel hookup (also        ing the tech process.                        for a given project in order to ensure
  known as a magic sheet). A channel                                                     that the work is done on schedule.
  hookup is a simple rundown of ev-                           •••                            Generally, the LD will arrive for
  ery channel the LD plans to use. It                                                    focus and preliminary notes once the
  will detail every aspect of that chan-    THE MASTER ELECTRICIAN is a theatre’s        electrics crew has fully hung, patched,
  nel, including its purpose, area of       charge electrician. The ME is respon-        programmed any equipment requiring
  focus, physical location, gel color or    sible for maintaining and operating the      it, and checked the entire system for
  template need, and what type of in-       theatre’s lighting equipment, managing       problems. During focus, the ME will
  strument is to be used.                   the lighting budget, and hiring the nec-     head up the crew, assisting the de-
     All of the paperwork allows the        essary crews to complete the tasks of        signer by making sure the proper
  master electrician and the lighting       hanging, focusing, running, and strik-       lights are on at any given time.
  crew lead time to assemble and pre-       ing individual productions. Between              Once the show has been focused,
  pare the lighting system before the       productions, the ME will ensure that         the ME will assist the LD in program-
  lighting designer is actually working     the electrics department and its equip-      ming cues. If the ME is not also to be
  on-site in the theatre. This will help    ment is organized and in proper work-        the light board operator, he or she
  the ME plan in advance for any nec-       ing condition, guaranteeing that spare       will at least be on hand throughout
  essary renting or purchasing of           parts and replacement lamps are in           the tech process in order to fix unex-
  equipment. “A good number of my           stock. The ME must also be sure that         pected issues and change things that
  shows go into empty theatres,” says       all of the proper gel (or color) is avail-   the LD has decided to adjust in order
  Steve Woods, “which require you to        able, and any other materials specified      to accommodate the design more
  rent or buy everything you need.”         by the designer, such as pattern tem-        fully, such as the focus of an instru-
     The lighting designer will also        plates (also known as gobos), irises,        ment.
  make decisions regarding the colors       and sidearms. If necessary, the ME will          Obviously, the work of an ME is
  to be used, and what type of instru-      oversee any rigging that may need to         never done. “You work late, you
  mentation to employ during the de-        be accomplished in order to success-         work often, and during the holidays,”
  sign phase. This is generally dictated    fully carry out the design.                  says Joe Hartnett. “My only day off is
  to some degree by the budget and              During the planning stages and tech      Monday—so, going out with your
  lighting inventory of the theatre they    process, the ME is the LD’s right hand,      wife, partner, or buddies on the
  are designing for. Like their counter-    responsible for putting the paperwork        weekends can get tough. But it can
  parts in the areas of sound, scenery,     of the designer into action. Supplied        be done.”
  and costuming, LDs will spend a fair      with a light plot, instrument schedule,                                       —M. L.

ment he puts on a plot. By perfecting
his initial plot and design tactics,
Woods has been able to make his time
spent in tech rehearsals much more
flexible. “I was no longer seeing the
show in bits and pieces,” he comments.
“My research became better as did my
understanding of the script and the
arch of the play.” Woods now tries to
storyboard productions with the direc-
tor as well. “We need to be open to
approaching our work not in a tried
and true way but in a way that chal-

The electricians
Much the same way that a scene shop’s
carpenters and technical director are
responsible for building a set to the
specifications set forth by a scenic de-
signer, an electrics crew is responsible
for preparing the lighting for each pro-    ists. They happen to be some of the         Above, the American Conservatory
duction, as planned by the lighting de-     most gifted artists I know.”                Theatre’s 2003 production of Waiting for
signer. The crew, which may range in            Ambrosone makes a point of con-         Godot, with lighting by Russell Champa.
size from two to twenty, is generally       tacting the lead electrician as early in    Below, Natalie George, production electri-
led by a master electrician (other titles   the process as possible, so that they       cian for the State Theatre Company in
                                                                                        Austin, Texas.
include production or chief electrician,    are up to speed on the production and
lighting supervisor, or, for short, the     thoroughly understand the design con-
ME), who acts as the crew supervisor        cept. “Oftentimes they are better at
and is the contact point for the de-        problem solving and have more suc-
signer. “We always joke that we are the     cessful budgeting solutions than I do,”
people that make the magic happen,”         he explains.
says Joe Hartnett, the master electrician       “They do the heavy lifting,” says
for Pittsburgh Public Theatre. “As an       Champa, detailing the tasks of the ME.
ME, I enable the lighting design to         “They figure out the circuiting and
come to life.”                              dimming, place the shop orders, sched-
    For Hartnett and his counterparts       ule the crews and often figure out how
around the country, bringing a design       to achieve whatever crazy idea the de-
to life entails the proper reading and      signers come up with.”
interpretation of the designer’s light          Master electricians are forever ad-
plot, ensuring that the entire lighting     justing to a constantly changing range
system is operational and set up as the     of lighting designers. It can be a bit
LD has designed it, and keeping the         like having a new boss every month or
labor and equipment costs in line with      two, and because the working relation-
the budget. “The biggest challenge is       ship between an LD and an ME is very
being on top of your game and getting       close and frequently strained under in-
the job done,” says Hartnett.               tense deadline and artistic pressure, the
    Most designers understand that the      ME must learn how to get the work
collaboration between the designer          done regardless of how well he or she
and the technicians who hang, patch,        gets along with a designer.
focus, and run the production is of ut-         There are two types of designers, ac-
most importance. “There is no ‘going        cording to Natalie George, the produc-
it alone’ in theatre,” notes Ambrosone.     tion electrician for the State Theater
“A lot of what designers accomplish is      Company in Austin, Texas. “There are
due to technicians. It’s a common mis-      the designers who ask about the bud-
conception that they too are not art-       get, and those that don’t,” she says.
                                                                                                        JANUARY 2006 • DRAMATICS
                                              MICHAEL PETERSON
   Lighting the sky
   outdoor theatre in rural Spring
   Green, Wisconsin, that focuses on
   performing classic plays in rotating
   rep. They usually mount five pro-
   ductions per season—and they use
   one light plot to serve each show. If
   you can imagine the difficulty in
   lighting one show in an outdoor
   space, where the appearance of
   each show shifts as the sun sets,
   imagine creating five unique light
   designs with the same set of lights.
      Michael Peterson, the general
   manager of Willamette Repertory
   Theatre in Eugene, Oregon and a
   freelance lighting designer, spends a                   The outdoor production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Amercian Players
   great deal of his summers as the                        Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin, with lighting by Michael Peterson.
   resident lighting designer for APT
   trying to do just that.                                       At APT, the use of specials takes on a      after each tech to review the cues
      Fortunately, Peterson had plenty                           new meaning. “The back wall of the          that happen during the ‘dusk’ part of
   of experience working both in out-                            theatre is actually open to the woods,”     the show,” Peterson says. He must
   door venues and in rotating rep situ-                         Peterson points out. “So there are two      do this in order to ensure that as the
   ations. As the resident LD for PCPA                           additional washes that light the trees to   season begins to change and it be-
   Theatrefest in Santa Maria, California                        create different looks for the back-        comes dark earlier, the show retains
   for fifteen years, he gained invalu-                          grounds.”                                   its intended look. With his years of
   able insight that has helped him in                              Another consideration is how to use      experience, lighting the shows for
   his five seasons working with APT.                            color. For Peterson, this means in-         APT has become a bit less daunting
      “My first task at APT was to get                           structing his ME to change the color        for Peterson.
   the most from my rep plot design                              between each performance. “The color            “My job is made somewhat easier
   that I possibly could, while still leav-                      in the rep plot is actually changed over    by the fact that I have designed a
   ing me enough flexibility with spe-                           in all of the washes expect the back-       very flexible rep plot that gets
   cials to light all five shows,” he says.                      light and two front PAR washes for          supplemented by specials for each
   Specials are the lighting positions                           each production.                            show,” he says. “But it is still a chal-
   that LDs rely on to meet the unique                              “Since the shows actually begin be-      lenge to make sure that each show
   needs of individual shows that may                            fore the sun has set during the first       has its own signature look and feel.”
   not be covered by general lighting.                           part of the summer, I actually stay late
                                                                                                                                             —M. L.

“You really have to learn how to handle                    Woods agrees that the master electri-             “Many—not all—men in the business
the designers who don’t, because they                   cian and the electrics crew are a critical           are not used to taking direction from a
will push you and push you as far as                    element for realizing a great design. He             young woman.” But, Palma has found
they can to get everything they can—                    also believes that a crew with a vested              ways to deal with such problems. “I’ve
even things that they may never use.”                   interest in the design will naturally be             learned that it’s always better to be
    “If you do your job,” Hartnett says,                more inclined to do their best work. “I              sweet than demanding—you get your
“you will have very few problems—                       want them to take ownership of the                   own way with sugar much more easily
besides a conflict of personalities.”                   work and contribute,” he says. How-                  than with spice.”
When differences in personality crop                    ever, for Kim Palma, a freelance de-
up between a designer and ME, he em-                    signer based in California, the notion of            A road to the lighting life
phasizes, the work must still get done                  working with electrics crews sometimes               Many MEs are either aspiring or work-
properly. “There is nothing you can do                  takes on a slightly different spin. “Being           ing lighting designers themselves.
but have your job done to the best of                   a woman in the profession, it’s been a               George uses her steady gig as a staff
your abilities.”                                        different kind of challenge,” she says.              electrician to keep her design work fi-
nancially feasible. Her position as both    tor and playwright, and how to man-          overcome the inherent disadvantages of
the master electrician of a mid-size re-    age their career and life in the theatre     bypassing college in a business that re-
gional theatre and as a freelance de-       as a business person and artist.”            lies heavily on creating and maintaining
signer give her a unique perspective        Woods believes that learning how to          professional relationships. “The biggest
on the industry, as well as the oppor-      make it as a freelancer is perhaps the       challenge for me is marketing myself
tunity to network with designers from       most critical skill. “For someone just       and my work,” he says. In college and
around the country.                         starting in the business, the challenge      graduate school, students of theatrical
    Champa, who also spent many             is making enough money to survive            design are able to connect with many
years working as an electrician before      each month. Graduate school gives            working and aspiring theatre profes-
being able to make the financial leap       [designers] a chance to fail without di-     sionals, a clear advantage when at-
to full time design work, acknowl-          saster,” he says, explaining why gradu-      tempting to enter the workforce pool.
edges that meeting and working with         ate study may be a good idea for                The bottom line: there is no single
established designers is crucial for be-    many young designers. “They can’t do         path to achieving success as a lighting
coming one yourself. He finds the per-      that at a commercial theatre and ex-         designer or master electrician. One way
sistent need to network a struggle,         pect to move forward.”                       or another, you have to get the training
however, and said that the ongoing              “Intern, intern, intern!” says Palma.    and experience, and learn the intan-
need to develop new potential work-         “There are millions of opportunities         gibles to master the technology and the
ing relationships is difficult. “The big-   available,” she says. “Look for an artist    artistry. And, as Ambrosone noted, the
gest challenge though,” Champa ad-          whose work you admire and volunteer          learning never stops, even for someone
mits, “was transitioning from the           services while you can afford to do it!”     with twenty years of lighting experi-
electrics and assisting work to be able     Finding opportunities to get your hands      ence. Whether you’re planning to serve
to make a living and survive as a de-       dirty and work as an electrician in the      as an apprentice in a community or
signer.”                                    theatre—even if you’d rather be a de-        professional theatre, hang lights in your
    Gaining experience and training in      signer—comes highly recommended              college program, or just begin the long
theatrical lighting shouldn’t be hard to    from designers and electricians alike.       road of freelancing, be prepared to
come by for anybody truly interested            “I find that students coming out of      work hard. But remember, without illu-
in the craft. However, Woods believes       grad design programs may be great on         mination, no one could see the show,
that prospective undergraduate college      paper, but they often don’t understand       no matter how wonderful the acting,
students need to be careful about           the basics of an electrician’s work,”        sets, and sound are. Bear that in mind
choosing where to study if they are se-     says George. She encourages students         and all the work might seem a bit less
rious about pursuing a career in light-     to take time to learn the basics before      daunting. Good luck.
ing design (see the sidebar on page         attempting to step into the big leagues
28). “I have to say that a lot of pro-      of design.                                   Mike Lawler writes frequently about
grams use their students as a cheap            On-the-job training is also a major       backstage specialties for this magazine.
labor force, pretending that these same     part of learning the craft of lighting. “I   A ten-year veteran of professional tech-
kids are being trained by this exploita-    am proud of the fact that I’m still see-     nical theatre work, he lives in Austin,
tion while the faculty designers design     ing and learning new things about            Texas.
the shows,” he says, advising young         what I do,” says Ambrosone. “Never
theatre students to be more particular      think for one second that learning
about where they decide to attend uni-      stops at the end of school, college, or
versity and pursue their theatre futures.   your first Broadway show.”
“The most important thing,” says               For Champa, it has always been
Woods, “is to attend a great school         about learning by doing. “Not having a
where your education will permit you        degree, or any grad school experience
to be employable upon graduation.”          has meant that I came into design
     Ambrosone has similar advice, em-      through the back door,” he comments.
phasizing the need for going to a school    “I spent a long time assisting and do-
where you will get plenty of one-on-        ing electrics work to supplement and
one attention from your professors.         finance my design career.” Champa is
    At Southern Methodist University,       now a successful theatrical designer
Woods focuses on teaching graduate          who works regularly around the coun-
students the skills they need to suc-       try—including at American Conserva-
ceed in the professional design world.      tory Theatre in San Francisco, Trinity
“I think designers need to learn how        Rep in Providence, Rhode Island, and
to read a play with understanding,          various theatres in New York City.
how to discuss the play with the direc-     He’s a good example of how one can
                                                                                                        JANUARY 2006 • DRAMATICS

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