Let’s Talk About Tech, Baby…
Theater–well, any type of performing art, really–is a symbiotic environment. Yes, there are the pretty pretty actors who are emoting all over the place who tend to get most (if not all) of the credit for shows that go well. Behind them, though, are the oft unsung heroes of every show you ever see: the techies.
The techies are the people who literally build every show you see from the ground up. They build the sets. They paint the sets. They find and build the props. They construct the costumes. Every sound you hear that isn’t an actor speaking/singing or a band member playing an instrument is the result of a beleaguered sound artist’s hard work. They also light everything so that everybody and everything looks as good as possible. They get there first, leave last and work very hard to not be noticed at all. They are the magic that makes live performances so much fun.
This is true in every area of tech, but today we are going to talk about the “light guys” (who are just as likely to be female as male, fyi). Lighting is one of the most taken for granted areas of theater tech. People who have never done a show tend to assume that there are two phases of lighting design: turn them all on at the beginning and then turn them all off at the end. Viola! Done!
The reality is much different.
Light design is incredibly subtle and intricate. It is the lights that help the audience see what time of day it is, what sort of environment the actors are really standing in (indoors as opposed to outdoors) and how old they are (yes, you can literally change a person’s age by using different lighting effects).
For example, musical theater is best when it incorporates a live band or orchestra instead of just a single piano or, worse, a series of pre-recorded instrumental tracks. Those musicians need to be able to see their instruments and their sheet music, but they shouldn’t be so well lit that they steal focus from the performers on stage. Most light designers achieve this effect by employing individual lighting for each musician’s stand. Many lighting designers have found that a light designed for a grand piano works well here because it is built to be fixed to the thin stand that sits atop the piano. The piano lights are fixed with specifically hued bulbs so as not to grab attention from the audience but still provide the light needed to see properly.
A good light designer, to use another example, knows how to light a stage so that the techs moving set pieces around at intermission can see clearly on stage but are still nearly invisible to the audience.
Lighting designers use several different tools to create these effects. Most typically they use:
Fresnels are broad lights and provide the foundational level of most light designs. If you need to light a crowd of people, fresnels are the way to go.
Par cans offer focused light (designers can manually adjust the size and shape of the beam’s focus by turning a knob on the physical light) and are used to highlight aspects of a set. They are also often used to provide spots of color and other effects (for example, fitting a parcan with a metal stencil called a “gobo” can project shadows on the set, like spiderwebs, leafy trees, etc).
Ellipsoidals work as smaller and stationary spot lights. Their beams are very focused and are used to direct an audience’s attention to a single (or multiple like if you want to highlight two or three singers in a chorus) focal point.
In addition to understanding the physical lighting properties of the different types of lights, a light designer has to understand the physics and psychology of color. She has to know how to use “gels” (colored, heat resistant films that get placed in front of a light’s lamp) to create natural looking effects and how to engage but not alienate an audience.
There are a myriad of different effects that designers can create using just the lights and the various tools that go with them, like the aforementioned gels and gobos. Next time you see a show, whether it is a concert or a play, look up. Look at all of the different lights you see clamped up above the stage. Watch which ones turn on and off and when. You’ll be amazed at everything these things can do when they are in the hands of a talented designer.
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