Deacons of Light

Dennis has an enlightening conversation with three of the city's best designers.

Sargent: The thing about lighting designers is that we always start from a blackout. That way everybody is on the same page, but working in any kind of black box, the intimacy calls for a different kind of vocabulary. Sometimes less is more in making your choices. The other challenge is to make sure that you can light the actors' faces without having instruments shining in the audience's eyes. When the viewers are wrapped around the stage, you're always looking at the geometry of how you're composing the picture. In the Studio theater we have a very interesting geometry. Because the ceiling is angled, there is no consistent lighting angle. Therefore the physics of lighting becomes very important. At New Jewish and most black boxes there's a level ceiling. But in the Studio, at one end the lighting positions are eight feet off the ground and at the other end they're seventeen feet.

Wylie: We refer to the Studio as a black box, but it's not black; it's brown. And it's not a box; it has eight or nine walls. The ceiling is sloped, and there are three beams that cut across the ceiling that we have to work around. Yet almost every lighting designer I know says, "I love working in the Studio." We love those challenges that Peter was enumerating.

You say that all plays start with bringing the lights up. But lights used to come up and then go down and then come up again. Now it feels as if more and more plays are trying to become like movies.

Lighting designers Peter E. Sargent, John Wylie and F. Mitchell Dana have lit more than 300 productions, collectively.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lighting designers Peter E. Sargent, John Wylie and F. Mitchell Dana have lit more than 300 productions, collectively.

Sargent: Yes, that's what playwrights are doing. To me, the blackout is the most dangerous thing to put into a play now, because the minds of our audiences need to be consistently engaged. You have to think through the process so lights never go out. It's reached the point where probably the only time you go to black is at the end of Act One and at the end of the show.

What should a Kevin Kline judge be looking for when he or she has to judge lighting?

Dana: I think it's how you critique almost anything: First of all, what is the designer trying to do? Second, has he done it? Third, is it appropriate? Does it work? Does it pay off? Set designers define space. Costume designers define character. But our job is to define emotion and focus. So ask if the emotion is generated.

Wylie: I would add this: Do you spend your evening looking around with your focus somewhere other than where it should be? Are you spending your time looking at other things onstage, or are you focused on that very moment?

Dana: I would agree, because if you're not focused on that moment, you're out of the play. And if you're out of the play, you're losing the overall effect. Good lighting is not a matter of flash and splash. In fact, lighting can pull your attention away from the play very easily. It's very possible for lighting to destroy a play. I don't think we can make a play, but we can certainly destroy one.

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