Friday, April 29, 2011

Lighting Design Simplified: Reading the Script

So, last week, I started my epic depiction of a lighting designer's process with a basic introduction of the goals that a good lighting design should satisfy. Now we're going to start in with how I proceed from Point A - the script - and end up at Point B - the finished lighting design.

And I would like to stress that this is how *I* proceed...usually. Every production is different and every designer is different. Other designers may go about this process differently, sometimes very differently. I go about it differently on some shows. This is not intended as an ironclad list of steps that I believe must be followed, but as an introduction to the craft intended for those who have little or no idea of how it's done.

As I said in the introduction, I'll be using a production of An Enemy of the People (by Henrik Ibsen, as adapted by Arthur Miller) that I recently worked on as an example. Reading the play isn't necessary; I'll be filling in necessary details as I go. So let's go.


The first thing I do when working on a play is read the script. If at all possible I try to read a play at least twice before the first production meeting. Exactly what I'm looking for in these reads depends on what the director expects the designers to have ready going into this meeting. If they want us to have research and preliminary ideas ready, more work will go into these reads, including some of the research that I'm going to be describing in a later post. Unless it's absolutely necessary, though, I prefer to go into the first meeting with a solid understanding of the play, but no particular plans or research begun.

The reason for this is simple: so much of my work depends on other people's work. I can't tell what angles I'm going to need to use or will have to go without until I know more about the set. Light colors will depend on how the colors of the set and costumes. And everything hinges on the ideas the director has. I've gone into first meetings too often over-prepared and have either had to throw out a lot of work or, worse, have wasted time trying to shoe-horn early ideas into an incompatible production concept. So, I prefer to go with simply a through understanding of the script.

The first time I read a script, I avoid thinking about technical issues as much as possible. I simply read it as a play, seeing if I enjoy the story and familiarizing myself as much as possible with the events and characters. I couldn't find a summary online of Arthur Miller's adaptation for those who are interested, but the summaries of Ibsen's original play are pretty close in terms of basic plot events and structure. The nickel-tour version is that Dr. Stockman discovers the water supply to the town's new spa resort is polluted; he tries to warn the authorities and the public, but is blocked first by those in power and then by the public themselves, who don't want him to ruin the town's chances at prosperity.

For the second read of the script, I focus on setting and theme. I try not to think too much about how I'll work these into a design, but that's inevitable to some degree. What I'm trying to narrow down during this read are the elements of the play that are likely to be important to the production concept, and thus, to my lighting design.

In this case, the play takes place in three different locations: the Stockman home, the newspaper office, and Captain Horster's house. Each of these three locations are very different in terms of how they are described and will need to be visually distinct. Also, the Stockman home is shown in three different scenes, at different times: late evening, midday, and morning. The final scene in the Stockman home is after several windows have been broken, and several characters mention how cold it is.

Thematically, the play has an overarching theme of the individual vs the majority and lesser themes of pollution and integrity. The essential question of the play is whether the individual has the right (or perhaps even the duty) to overrule the majority when he or she believes that the majority is wrong. Woven through the narrative are ideas of the corruptibility of both people and institutions, even those that claim to be "liberal" or "moderate." Also, none of the characters are presented as moral absolutes. While Dr. Stockman is trying to do what is right, his naivete and hubris both hinder his efforts. Those opposed to him do not try to silence him out of pure greed, but out of a desire to not see their town bankrupted.

While I'm not thinking right now about how the themes will affect my design, I know that the variety of settings will have a significant impact. Depending on what choices the set designer makes, I may wind up responsible for a lot of the distinction between these places. I file this fact away for future reference, but don't spend a lot of time worrying about it. Once I know more about the production concept and the set designer's ideas I'll be able to worry plenty.

Next time: the first production meeting and the beginning of the production concept.

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