ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Lighting

Ask Playbill.com   ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Lighting Playbill.com answers your (and sometimes our own) theatre-related questions.
Kevin Adams
Kevin Adams Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.

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This week's question comes from Robbie of Providence, RI.

Question: I often help out community theatre productions and local high schools with their lighting design, but often I'm brought in at the last minute, when all the sets, costumes and staging have been completed. I was wondering how lighting designers on Broadway handle their craft? Answer: To answer this question, AskPlaybill.com spoke with Brian MacDevitt and Kevin Adams, two prolific, Tony-winning lighting designers.

Like many designers, lighting designers often work with directors they've worked with before. It's "kind of 50-50 between people I've worked with and people who have [only] seen my work," Adams says.

Sometimes they pick shows based on scheduling. And while major lighting designers' diversity of credits makes it seem as if any of them could do any type of show, Adams says he'll often turn down shows he doesn't think he's right for. He says, "There are shows that are realistic types of lighting, like sunrises and sunsets and candlelight. That's not me. I just don't have the patience to re-create all that. I like abstracted space, and I like event type of shows — heavier on the event than the realistic storytelling."

Is the set designer typically hired first? "That's typical of a commercial production, because people will open the purse strings slowly," MacDevitt says. It takes longer to build sets than it does to create the lighting. So if a producer is planning to open a show on Broadway this fall, for instance, even if the production isn't a done deal, you need to hire a set designer as soon as possible. Since you can wait a bit on the lighting designer, you might as well do so. Then, in case the show falls through, you've been spared the cost of the lighting designer's initial payment. At non-profit theatres, where productions are slotted into a theatre ahead of time, everyone tends to be hired at once, MacDevitt says.

Adams has had a slightly different experience. "Often I'm hired after the set designer," he says, but "the last few years I've been hired before the set designer." That's perhaps because — or why — the lighting in his shows Passing Strange and Spring Awakening, with their walls of light, is so prominent.

The designer starts the process by reading the script many times. While reading, MacDevitt says, he's "trying to respond to the show emotionally, and, with that emotional response, think of how you can contribute to it personally," he says. "Is it a happy place? A sad place?" For instance, he says, for A Catered Affair, he felt that "lighting should be warm and inviting, and we should kind of want to be in the room with the performers. That really has as lot to do with the color — having a warmer color, a softness to it."

MacDevitt says this conceptualizing is not unlike trying to alter the lighting in your home. "People are all lighting designers when they turn off the fluorescent lights in the kitchen and put the candles on the table. They're designing the lighting in the room to make it feel a certain way."

After initial conceptual discussions with the director and other designers, the lighting designer has to create a light plot. This is a map of all the lights in the show — how they're arranged on each pipe above the stage and in the house, where they point and what colors they are. "I often work from background to foreground, laying in layers of light," Adams says.

The designers have to decide how to circuit the lights together — the equivalent of deciding which lighting fixtures will be on which switches and dimmers in your house. And they also decide on lights with special effects. In Adams' design for The 39 Steps, for instance, he has a light with a moving cloud loop, to create the effect of clouds moving along a blue background.

MacDevitt says A Catered Affair, a small musical, has around 400 stationary lights and 30 robotic lights that move around. A big musical could have 1,000 stationary and 100 moving.

During this process, in addition to underscoring the emotions, a designer also thinks about how to frame what's happening onstage. This proved especially difficult, for instance, when Adams did Peter and Jerry at Second Stage. The director wanted the lighting to stay exactly the same for the entire show, throughout both one-acts. "At times the staging was very tight, just on a bench, and at times it covered a 25-foot wide space, so to make a look that could cover both of those was hard," he says.

The lighting plot gets turned in right before rehearsals start, or very early on in rehearsals, Adams says, "which I found very difficult to do when I first stated this. You don't really know what the staging is. You put in room to wiggle around." Does the plot have to change? "Sometimes very little changes and sometimes a lot changes — and a lot is like 30 percent," he says. "It's rare that an entire plot is overhauled."

MacDevitt mentions that after the designer turns in his light plot, there's usually a back-and-forth with the producers over costs. You're mainly trying to keep rental costs down, which on a play could be about $3,000 a week, while on a musical could be $15,000 a week and upwards, he says.

After the light plot is set, you go into the theatre and "focus" the lights — meaning you hang them up and point them at the right place on stage. Then you create each light cue in the show by setting exactly how intense each light or set of lights will be in each cue, and recording them on a computer. A big part of this process, MacDevitt says, is the "transition from scene to scene: Do they black out quickly or do they cross fade from one part of the stage to another like in a musical segue, or is the curtain coming down and you're taking all the light off the stage?"

Is lighting supposed to be noticed? Or is it like a film score, where, as the cliché goes, it's better if you don't notice it? Adams says, "There are times when the lighting is part of the spectacle, and should be very 'muscular,' I call it, should be doing a lot of the work. But there are times that l should sit back and let other elements push the storytelling along. A show can be all of one or all of the other or be combinations of those things." For instance, in Spring Awakening, "in the book parts of the show, the lighting sits back, and when you go into the songs, the lighting gets a little more muscular." In general, the effect should never be too obvious. "Someone's murdered — red light! After you do that a bunch of times when you're 25, you don't do that any more," Adams says.

How do these designers design a half-dozen shows at once? Typically, they're all at different stages, though not always: "In January I was working on three different shows, and I was in three different theatres some days," Adams says. And they hire a staff. MacDevitt, for instance, employs an associate designer to help him with a play, and one associate and one or two assistants for every musical (each helper is only on one show at a time).

Adams employs a unique philosophy for handling the workload. He explains, "I was a waiter when I was younger, at Bennigan's, and they taught us to think of your tables not as five separate tables but as one table. And that's helped me so much in my work. It's like one big show that you have to move forward every day instead of lots of little shows."