Deacons of Light

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

Deacons of Light

To most of us they are the invisible men, yet lighting designers F. Mitchell Dana, Peter E. Sargent and John Wylie have lit more than 300 plays in nearly every venue in town. Dana regularly works at the Muny, while Sargent has been with the St. Louis Rep since its first season and Wylie is a regular contributor to the Black Rep and Metro Theater Company. I pulled them together for a crash course in lighting.

Dennis Brown: Let's begin at the beginning. What do you do?

Peter E. Sargent: I think the fundamental goal of lighting design is not to be noticed. The great director George Abbott once said to me, "Our primary function is to make sure the audience sees the funny words." Lighting designers have to help tell a story and make the audience know who's speaking.

F. Mitchell Dana: Many years ago [director] Bill Ball said to me that the job of the lighting designer was to make the actor look larger than life, because otherwise why would people pay money to go see a play? That is an important challenge: How do we give the actor a certain élan that is appropriate to what is happening onstage? Because they are the mouthpiece of the playwright. But as a theatergoer, you should not be aware of what we're doing at all.

When you get assigned to a play, what is the first thing you do?

Sargent, Dana, John Wyle: [Together] Read the script.

And as you're reading it, what are you doing?

Dana: I want to read it for my enjoyment. I don't want to analyze it. I want to take it all in, and then I want to let it percolate. It's important to get a first impression.

Wylie: Those first reactions to the script are so important, because ultimately some time down the road you're going to have to remember how you envisioned it through an audience's eyes in that early reading, and then try to bring that to fruition as we get into the tech process.

Dana: Somewhere along the line we are an audience. And we're trying to make the audience member feel what we felt when we first read it.

Are you suggesting that you look on yourselves as the first audience of the play?

Sargent: We're an early audience. I think the first audience is the director. But we're all in isolation as we read the play that first time. We are our first audience.

Do you ever collide with the director over your point of view?

Sargent: Occasionally that's going to happen, and the director wins.

But at least you've verbalized what you feel.

Sargent: Right. I'd feel terrible if I didn't verbalize it. But we're in a collaborative process here, and the director is the arbiter.

Wylie: The best time comes in the early production meetings when the director solicits ideas, and there's give-and-take, and we all know we're on the same path. Hopefully by the time the play opens, we haven't strayed very far off that path.

Do a lot of directors understand lighting?

Dana: Not as many as I would like, but some.

Wylie: I've done so many shows with [Black Rep producing director] Ron Himes. Talk about a director who "gets" light. Last season in Crossing Over we had a scene in a slave ship. The actress was in the bowels of the ship. I had all these lighting patterns over her, and Ron said, "Get rid of those. I want to see her trying to find the light." I said, "You're sure you don't want to see her face?" He said, "Absolutely not." It became a frightening moment. It's nice to work with directors who get it on that level.

Mitch, what are the unique problems of lighting in a theater as large as the Muny?

Dana: You're looking at a very large expanse that needs to be lit, so the amount of control we have is relatively simplistic. Everything is side light. Probably two-thirds of the light plot comes in from the side. But because we work so quickly at the Muny, you do in fact discover how much you can do quickly. You go for the heart of the event. There's a certain raw energy about just getting it on that is really valuable. It's quite possible to refine something out of all existence.

John, you lit Much Ado About Nothing in Forest Park this summer. What was that experience like?

Wylie: I had never done outdoor lighting before, and I learned a lot. I lit the show from about 40 feet away and thought it was beautiful. And my director kept tapping my shoulder and saying, "At some point you might want to walk back." So then I moved back 150 feet, where audience members would be sitting on the grass. At that distance I couldn't tell who was speaking. I realized that I had a lot of work left to do.

By contrast, what are the challenges of lighting a show in a constricted space like the Rep Studio or at New Jewish?

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.

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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