Designer Grace Smart: Cherish your lighting designer – every little thing they do is magic
God said: ‘Let there be light’ and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good… but the colour wasn’t quite right on that bit of the earth. Plus you couldn’t see Eve’s face in her downstage position.
As a set and costume designer, I am beholden to the skill and expertise of the lighting designer. Our spaces and work are nothing without them. Design is a magic trick, one that gets you to believe painted flats are an entire world. It’s of the upmost importance that the lighting designer knows what the trick is attempting, the misdirection needed and the aim of the illusion.
This never feels more palpable than under ‘workers’. Have you seen a set under the theatre’s working light? Usually this is a series of fluorescent tubes up in the grid. Maybe some moving lights programmed to point directly down on to the stage. The house lights in the auditorium are on.
It. Looks. Bloody. Awful. Like turning all the lights on in the club at the end of the night, your stomach sinks – is this complete mess what I’ve been doing with my time? Buying into this completely dishonest world? Vulnerable and exposed, the set looks out into the auditorium like a big, blocky idiot. It’s up there, but instead of doing magic, it’s dropped the cards, killed the rabbit and looking out to the creative and technical team in need of help.
There’s a part of me that secretly believes this is a deliberate ploy from the lighting designer. At the start of each tech week they show us what life would be like without them. They remind us that we are nothing. Then, at kick off, they supernaturally resurrect the bunny.
There’s nothing more exciting than seeing something that came out of your head, lit sensitively, meaningfully and with great precision. The alchemy of skimming down a textured wall, the lack of spill on to masking, the using of every position, crack, slither to get into the space.
As a set designer who is partial to a nice, big ceiling, it means the world to me to see someone so artfully and gracefully get the light in. As someone partial to glass and shiny things, I love to see lighting designers deal with the challenge and avoid the bounce… I recently got to work again with the brilliant Jack Knowles, who used a light fitting to tactically block the light of the auditorium fire escape sign from hitting our glass French doors. Genius.
The point is, when your set is up there, trying to suspend the disbelief of all those people, you better be damn trusting of the person by your side, because now they’re your Debbie McGee. That design isn’t just a tiny model in the studio that you can single-handedly control. It’s out there naked and exposed and trying to do card tricks, so be grateful to those sleight of hand artists that are up there with it, holding the lighting plan.
Grace Smart is an award-winning theatre designer. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/grace-smart
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