One of my favorite moments comes from my experience working as the moving light programmer for 'The Tempest' with Patrick Stewart on Broadway. We were in tech, Patrick stops and asks, "This noise, it's because we are teching, right?" He was referring to the general hum of all the moving lights, scrollers, dimmer rack fans which were creating a wall of sound in which he could not hear himself. He had worked in this Theatre before and knew the acoustics of it and previously could hear his voice reflected back off the house walls, but with all the hum he could not. The Lighting Designer responded, "No, this is what it will be like for the show." Patrick said, "I think it will not." And he left the stage and called his manager. Now long story short we are in a meeting about it and the LD is going on and on about how he needs all the lights and it just is what it is. Then comes the best quote ever, Patrick tells him, "As you need darkness to begin, I need silence." BOOM. The LD cut two thirds of the movers and we baffled the heck out of what was left. There was no argument to that point. Lighting always starts off in the dark.
Now how does one start when designing a show?
First, you have to understand the directors' vision and over all concept for the production. Is this going to be a natural looking show or highly stylized. What is the time of day in which the scenes take place and what will the set look like. The beginning of the lighting design process is almost always technical initially. The planning and plotting out of the lighting fixtures to be used based on available inventory, where to hang them, how to power and control them. You have to make sure you are covering the basics; front light, back light, sides, set lighting, any practical fixtures like lamps or chandeliers, and finally any specials or gobo and texture needed for the production. In this planning stage is also the time to pick the color to be used in the show for the various systems, any gobos needed are decided prior to Tech rehearsal. Finally, figuring out how to make all that fit in within the dimmers and power available.
So where is the art?
Now that the light plot has been figured out, drafted, hung and focused the "Art" can begin. The Lighting Designer paints the stage, the actors, the set, the air itself with light. Like an artist with a brush the choice of color and saturation of light layers enhances the overall visual experience. Of all the parts that go into the tech of a show lighting is the last piece. From the actors learning their parts and blocking, the set, the props, the costumes are done and rehearsed with prior to Tech week. The lighting however, has to be done with all those elements in place. Tech week is the time the LD has to actually create their art and put it on canvas (into the lighting control console). The way a show is cued out and programmed is the real art of making a show look great. Subtle differences in light intensity make a big difference in creating the look of a scene, to supply just enough light to allow for the mood and feel of a scene and still see the actors face. How the show is programmed, from the timing of the cue in placement as well as the length of time the cue takes to complete, is the artistic side of lighting.
Great lighting should compliment and enhance the director's vision, the set and the actors. Lighting should not distract or draw attention from what is taking place on stage, unless intentionally part of the action. The best lighting is usually never noticed. During the performance it is just a natural part of the scene.