Thursday, July 20, 2006


Lighting As An Interpretive Art

Chris Akerlind: Lighting Designer

Lighting this show is a lot like doing a contemporary dance piece. The set is essentially an open space that has to be carved up into different story-telling zones by the lighting. It has to be done in a way that not only creates an atmosphere, but also has a nice series of contrasting looks as the story moves from place to place. There is something very effortless and very theatrical about an empty space with human beings and their problems in it. I would much rather do this slightly abstract kind of work than a completely literal depiction of the space. There are people in the theater world who still don’t grasp the concept of lighting design as an interpretive art. You’re not included in the process and you are asked to come in at the end and provide what the director requires.

David Schweizer (director), who is much smarter than that, is interested in everyone’s input from the very beginning. I’ve been meeting with David, Mark Wendland (set designer), and David Zinn (costume designer) since sometime in the winter. At that point the set design had still not been finalized. David Schweizer finds it important to get the lighting designer’s input very early on. In the case of this production the question was: How far can we take the idea of darkness? This idea plays out in two very different images in this piece, both a white space and a black space. It is a lovely project for a lighting designer because it goes to an intrinsic series of qualities of light. It illustrates the arc between bright and dark. This is very interesting to me because it becomes an exercise in composing those ideas of darkness and light rather than recreating something that we see naturally every day.

Hearing the music came very late in the game for me. I got a CD in the mail three weeks ago! This was fine, because I have a kind of loose philosophy about how to approach things. There is something interesting about adding a creative ingredient into the process when that person doesn’t have all of the information. In this case that would be me. My ideas were not, initially, wound around the music. This gave a collision of fresh ideas during the stage rehearsals. I only hear the full orchestration of this piece twice before opening night. This can be kind of frightening, but the results are often very interesting. I’ve listened to some of Stephen’s other music, so I had a pretty clear idea of what his sound was. There’s a simplicity and directness to it that I think is reflected in the set and also in the lighting.

The timetable that a lighting designer works on is very different from that of the rest of the team. It all happens at the last minute, during the rehearsals that take place onstage. I use the expression a lot, but there is a quality of improvisation to the process. I like to have some lights in air that I’m allowed to think creatively about. Some lights have to have a clear intention, filling the space in a way that clearly articulates the figure, for example. However, there is a wonderful creative element added when some of lights are assigned an intention a week before the show opens as opposed to a month before. It helps to keep the visual ideas fresh. I think that is what gives my work a kind of liveliness. I refuse to decide what it is going to be until I’m in the thick of the moment. Then you have to work fast but also have a conception of what the whole is. Otherwise you run the risk of an eclectic series of images rather than a solid composition. Glimmerglass is a great place for that kind of work. John Conklin (Associate Artistic Director) makes sure that we are able to keep exploring until the very end.

Photos (from left to right):
1. John David DeHaan sings his Act II aria.
2. Chris Akerlind speaking at the production seminar for
The Greater Good.

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