Thursday, June 13, 2024

Welcome to the Grand Cathedral

One of the nice things about having Maria visit is that she is a theater person. I spent a significant percentage of my life backstage, and if there is anything a theater person loves it is another theater person with whom to trade stories.

Because there are always stories, especially if both theater people are techies. The audience sees the stuff that happens onstage but the best stories happen behind the scenes and are often invisible to the audience thanks to the strenuous efforts of the tired, stressed, black-clad crew who are the line between total failure and a good story.

It is, admittedly, sometimes a very thin and porous line.

The audience never catches the good stuff, and if you ever look over and see the lighting board operator trying to stifle a laugh or – worse – rapidly paging through the script in search of something that seems deeply concerning to them you will understand that this is a tale the crew is going to be telling for at least the run of the show and possibly the rest of their lives.

Not all of these stories involve mishaps.

Most of them. But not all of them.

Somewhere in our conversations a story that I hadn’t thought about in years resurfaced, one that taught me what theatrical lighting could be and made me understand why people do this sort of thing to themselves, and that is something worth putting down here.

I got started backstage in high school when my buddy Art, sensing that there was little future for either of us on the track team, shanghaied me into the theater and handed me over to the set construction crew, and that’s pretty much where I stayed until I graduated. There are a few stories that I still tell from that time – the fabled Laurie’s House Debacle being my favorite – but when I got to college I switched over to lighting.

Lighting is more intense because unless you’re the designer you don’t really have to do anything until load-in (when everything gets set up) but once that happens that’s pretty much all you do until strike (when everything gets taken down). You’re there for the duration, but then you get to go.

I ended up working on dozens of shows in college to one degree or another, maybe 30 or so all told. Maybe more depending on how you counted – sometimes the full crew experience, sometimes just pitching in for load-in or strike or something in between. I learned to keep an adjustable wrench in my backpack because you never knew who would catch you coming back from class and drag you onto some catwalk to hang and focus lighting instruments. I forgot the wrench was there the first time I tried to fly internationally with that backpack as my carryon but in a pre-9/11 age the security guys let me through anyway. What was I going to do, unbolt the wings?

There was no Theater Department at Penn at the time – you couldn’t major in it except as a text-based concentration within the English Department – so they left the theater to the student groups, of which there were usually anywhere from 6-10 big ones putting on a show each semester plus assorted one-offs. We were largely unsupervised and free to learn from each other and our mistakes. There were maybe a dozen of us who did lighting, and we moved from show to show feeding on cast parties like locusts. Each show took a solid week from load-in to strike (unless there was a second weekend, which was rare) and my record was six in a semester, which it turned out was a) one more than I really could handle, and b) the impetus for the only A+ I ever received for a course in college.

I didn’t even know they gave those out.

Early on in my college career, one of the groups put on King of Hearts – an “inmates take over the asylum” sort of comedy based on an anti-war film from the 1960s. I didn’t work on the crew for this one – I just saw it and helped with strike.

They put this on in Houston Hall, which was the old student union building. The theater was upstairs on the second floor and had originally been designed as a chapel. It seated about 120 people, as I recall. There was a small thrust stage at one end and a few windows at the back that we’d cover over during shows to keep stray light out, and it had the high peaked ceiling that you’d expect in a chapel.

The lighting designer was a guy named Jess or Jamie or something like that. He was a couple of years ahead of me and I never really got to know him but he was an acknowledged master among us techies. He was a phenomenal lighting designer. He was the best set designer we had. He could do sound. The running joke was that if you threw him onstage he’d probably turn out to be an excellent actor and then one day someone did and he was. Some people are just like that.

You use theatrical lighting to create three things.

First, you create visibility. This is the most basic thing about lighting – it lets you see things. You point the lights where you want people to be able to see what’s happening, and if that’s all you do then at least you’ve got the fundamentals covered. Sometimes you’re lucky to be able to get that far.

Second, you create mood. Somewhere in a science class you took in middle school you probably learned that light comes in colors. Back in the Jurassic period where this story is set we had halogen lamps inside each of the lighting instruments so if you wanted color you had to put gels – thin translucent plastic sheets in various colors – in front of the lens to shade the light how you wanted. These days you just program the LEDs inside the instrument and it does it on its own. LEDs are also a lot less hot than halogens, so win all around. The thing is, though, that color creates mood. The most basic is the difference between cold lighting (blues, whites) and warm lighting (yellows, reds), and you can have a lot of fun playing with that. If you have a long scene, for example, and it starts out warmly lit and then you slowly transition it over to cold lighting, even if nothing else changes the audience will notice – not consciously, perhaps, unless you’ve got lighting techs in the crowd, but the mood will shift.

And third, you create space. Sometimes this is as simple as bringing up light over here and bringing it down over there, so the audience knows that the action has shifted from one part of the stage to another, but sometimes it gets more artistic than that. Just by varying the light you can turn a single space from one thing into another even the light never moves from that location. You can add a light from a new direction, change a color, or just rearrange the levels, and suddenly it’s a different place. Also, there are gobos, which are used to cast shadows. When I was in college these were sheets of high-quality steel that could withstand being an inch away from a 750-watt halogen lamp for an hour at a time without melting, and they had cutouts where the light could get through. The patterns of the shadows could make a bare stage into a forest or a subway or whatever space you wanted it to be.

The set for King of Hearts had a long platform that came off the thrust stage, level with it, that bisected the house all the way to the back. The audience sat facing inward on either side of the platform.

At one point in the play there is a character who is convinced that he is a bishop and the scene called for him to walk down that platform about a quarter of the way and then give a brief sermon.

The lighting designer had taken maybe half a dozen 3” lekos – small lighting instruments with a fairly narrow and intense beam – and put rose window gobos in them, and then pointed them not at the actor but at the outside walls. When the bishop started his sermon those came up and all the other lights except one focused on the bishop himself went dark, and suddenly the entire theater with its peaked ceiling and its rose windowed walls was a cathedral and we, the audience, were not on the outside of the fourth wall but instead were right there in the middle of it all.

It was breathtaking.

I’d never before seen an entire space created so quickly and so immersively out of nothing but light, and forty years and however many shows later, from community theater up to Broadway, I don’t think I have since.

For one brief moment – a three-minute monologue on a grey night in Philadelphia – there was a bishop in a cathedral and we were inside of that world and all it took to make that happen was light.

Theater is an art form where things often go wrong and those are the stories we love to tell because they’re fun. But sometimes in the midst of it all something goes grandly, gloriously right and all you can do is sit there and take it all in.


James A. Brown said...

I've been acting in Community Theater for about five years.

And I love your theater stories.

David said...

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoy them!

Although at this point I suspect you have a few of your own as well.

We will have to share them someday!