What It Takes to Light an Off-Broadway Play

Outside the Theatre   What It Takes to Light an Off-Broadway Play
 
Eric Southern, lighting designer at Lincoln Center Theater, studied acting and directing before falling in love with the bright lights.
Eric Southern
Eric Southern Monica Simoes
Eric Southern
Eric Southern Monica Simoes

Who: Eric Southern, Lighting Designer for the LCT3 production of The Harvest
Outside: The Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center Theater

How did you first get into set and lighting designing?
Eric Southern: I studied as an actor and director in my undergrad, and slowly, I realized that once the show had opened, I didn’t want to be working on it anymore. I was performing in a lot of the shows that I first started lighting, and then began lighting my friends’ shows—later I realized that I didn’t want to act and direct anymore. I was also very visual, and came at things from a visual standpoint, but I didn’t know that lighting design was a full-time job and sort of morphed into it.

So you mostly stick to lighting design more than set design these days?
ES: I’m mostly a lighting designer. If I do scenery, it’s more abstract objects or installation scenery. I work on a lot of shows with 600 Highway Men, for example, and the scenery for our last show was just a big square of carpet. I do scenery that likes to be lit.

Can you break down the lighting design process for me in your own words?
ES: I think lighting design has two parts: the prep and the tech. The prep is all about figuring out the aesthetic of the piece you’re working on. [This process] is very dramaturgical; you might think, for example, “We need light coming through the window that helps us understand something about the play... .” The second part, the tech process, is really about opening yourself up emotionally to what’s happening onstage and reacting like another performer—a silent performer. It’s about trying to ensure that the visual is as deep emotionally as the text or what the performers are doing. You’re shaping how the audience sees it, so that they can feel what the text intends.

How closely do you work with the director?
ES: So closely. In the best collaborations, we’re almost like one mind sorting through the play at the same time. I always think of the designers as the legs of a director, we’re like a machine moving through [together]. We all have different functions, but we want to be in harmony.

Do you find yourself working with the same directors repeatedly?
ES: I do, but I’m also going through a phase right now of working with a lot of new directors, which I’m enjoying.

Do you feel autonomous in a lot of your collaborations with directors?
ES: I bring a director a lot of information and it’s his or her job to then sift through it. Most of the time, if I bring 50 ideas, five of them might end up being the foundation of [the show’s] visual landscape.

For someone who is looking to get into lighting design, what advice would you give them?
ES: I would say: See as much as you can. Go to a lot of museums and try to understand what lighting is, not just in theatre, but from a broader perspective—and what can you bring into the theatre that’s new. Just to try and absorb as much as you can from as many different sources.

What have been your most rewarding projects to work on?
ES: I always love working on Samuel D. Hunter’s plays. I think his plays speak to a part of America—the heart of rural America—that we don’t get to know very often. He has a very unique voice. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season at LCT3 also, which I’ll be working on. I’ve worked on some dance pieces with choreographer Susan Marshall that I’ve found very rewarding because she treats me like one of the dancers—you couldn’t do the piece without the lighting, it’s all so enmeshed. And I love working with 600 Highwaymen.

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Harvest, Davis McCallum, about a group of young American missionaries preparing to go to the Middle East, is playing at the Claire Tow Theatre through November 20. For tickets and information visit LCT.org.

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