In Let There Be Light Donald Oenslager considers lighting the scene circa 1947, challenging current trends in lighting and calling for innovations in artistry and craftsmanship. He suggests:
Bring back the interpretative power and the abstract beauty of light with you. Summon it forth onto the scene with the artist's sensitivity. Adopt the bold, visionary approach of the painter, the sculptor, and the architect. Handle light with the brush or the chisel or the rule. Conspire with the lighting engineer. Release and set light in motion. Draw light patterns from the empty air like cloud forms. Allow light to clothe the bare stage with visible light, blacklight, warm light. Never forget that magic is legitimate in the theatre and that the theatre is a laboratory for the imagination. Reveal to the playwright new forces, new concepts, new directions. On your stage defy space and time. Fire the beacon in the actor's eye. Sensitize the scene.
Considering the lighting advancements in the last 50 years, in what ways has the act of lighting the scene advanced? With an immense horizon of lighting references available, what new paths are being forged in lighting and visualization? How do lighting education programs best send students onto these paths? With Oenslager's words as a framework, I wish to make some observations on nearly 10 years of “new” lighting technology in a classroom setting.
In 1994, I established a moving lights lab situated in Ohio State University's Theatre Department. The first of its kind situated in a university setting, the lab is dedicated to experimentation and research projects explored through class projects, production collaborations, and/or whatever else may come along. Unlike a science model, the moving lights lab is not “installed” into a specific classroom, laboratory space, or theatre, but rather is configured as needed to support various projects. Venues are typically traditional performance spaces but the equipment has also been used to illuminate several architectural facades on campus as well.
My goal of establishing moving lights training and equipment in a university theatre department required positioning it as a laboratory with a wide range of research questions to address:
How do moving lights enable theatrical lighting designers opportunities to reveal the production design in new, dynamic, flexible configurations? Do applications truly extend beyond rock and roll?
Through moving lights, how does the designer streamline the lighting process? Will the technology enable fewer conventional fixtures since the moving lights can function as move-able specials? Will they suffice as an independent lighting system (i.e., backlight or sidelight)?
In what ways is the collaborative process of theatre altered due to the use of moving lights? How does the designer-director process evolve? What of the lighting programmer whose job has expanded well beyond patching, recording cues and effects, and playback responsibilities? How does the programmer fit into the creative process as well as the increasingly complex technology involved with lighting?
What are the financial implications of rapidly advancing lighting technology? What are reasonable strategies for purchase/lease/upgrades with evolving fixtures, consoles, and data distribution?
Many of the questions posed have been fully answered in the ongoing success of moving lights as seen in Broadway productions, themed entertainment, architecture, clubs, and upscale shopping malls. In 1993 I decided that it was essential to bring this technology to the educational scene, where one has abundant time and labor resources that are ready to be trained, but where one has to struggle to find the financial means and technological expertise for its implementation.
At its inception, the lab consisted of an inventory of High End Systems Intellabeams and Cyberlights, a DF-50 Diffusion hazer, data and power cables, dedicated power distribution for each of the anticipated venues, and funding for control consoles (at the time of the grant awards, I was still shopping consoles). In the end, an Electronic Theatre Controls Obsession II and a Strand 520 were purchased.
In 2000, Ohio State signed an agreement with Vari-Lite to begin a unique collaborative venture. Referred to as an Automated Lighting Education Assistance Pilot Program, five distinctive use areas were identified: production; curriculum; workshops; training, and ongoing lecture series. Regular workshops and training sessions are crucial to our understanding of the equipment, as well as an opportunity to acquire tips and techniques from lighting experts working on tours and in commercial and corporate theatre situations. University productions and projects associated with lighting courses provide many collaborative configurations among design and tech students, actors, and directors, as well as with students in related arts areas such as sculpture, animation, music, dance, and architecture.
Ohio State's relationship with Vari-Lite began in the 1990s with the creation of the Kirby Kennedy Wyatt II Scholarship Fund in Theatre Technology and Design. Established to honor the memory of Kirby Wyatt, a 1968 graduate of Ohio State and an accomplished drum major, vice president of Showco Creative Services, and a central part of the vision that grew to become Vari-Lite, Inc., this fund provides generous financial support in the way of travel, internships, and conference participation to design and technology students.
The Pilot Project expanded the moving lights lab inventory considerably, to include not only High End equipment, but also Vari-Lite Series 200 and Series 300 fixtures, (VL2C, VL5, and VL6 luminaires), C3 and APS Mod Rack, Smart Repeaters, Truss Repeaters, cable (Series 200 and 300, trunk runs, Socapex, console cable), disconnects, Artisan and Mini-Artisan consoles.
Concurrent with the lab's establishment was the creation of a New Works MFA degree program. Established in the acting program, graduate students may apply for consideration of a Master of Fine Arts degree with emphasis on the creation of new movement-theatre work, referred to as New Works. It is a natural fit to combine New Works with the moving lights lab, enabling collaborators opportunities to create and develop projects together from its inception. Therefore, New Works projects have increasingly become moving lights projects, although in the beginning it seemed prudent to start with completed scripts as we tackled the road boxes stuffed with technology and the promise for astonishing artistry.
The New Works production of The Trial was the first to have moving lights support; in it scenes were often composed in light and movement phrases and blocking simultaneously. The director envisioned light as the lead design element, carving scenes from blackness to suggest Joseph K's engulfing, chaotic world. In the early days of pan and tilt, admittedly some moments were perhaps handled with a sledgehammer rather than a brush. But as a designer, it was a thrill to interpret a scene and compose and shape it for actors to explore. Early and ongoing lighting collaboration greatly assisted the actors to not only gain an understanding of the planned intrusive aspect lighting would contribute to this production, but quickly learn that the precision of the lighting must be met with precision in their movement.
The moving lights rig consisted of eight High End fixtures and took approximately eight hours to install, 36 hours to program, and another 13 hours to clean up. The lighting team consisted of an assistant designer/programmer, one production electrician, one assistant electrician, and one console operator. All lighting assignments, with the exception of the designer, were held by undergraduate students, and supervised by several graduate students.
The director for The Trial and subsequent directors have been uniformly eager to work on moving lights projects, with an understanding that many lighting decisions must be considered earlier in the process to coordinate with other designs, particularly the scenery. Lighting designers, rather than responding to initial renderings or white models, contribute to the early conceptualizations of the production design. Sometimes the challenge of expressing what a moving light's “moment” might look like is best achieved by setting up a laboratory demonstration in one of the theatres to convey the shape, tone, and composition of the lighting moment.
An important lesson learned from The Trial is that the programmer position is a unique role, falling between technology expert and interpreter of design vision. The combination of assistant designer and programmer made for a smooth working relationship, since as designer I had lead time working with this individual to develop a common language to communicate the style and the shape of the lighting design and moving light compositions.
Orpheus Descending was the first project associated with the Pilot Project and the addition of Vari-Lite equipment to the moving lights lab. Project manager Jim Waits and product specialist Sarah Clausen conducted intensive training sessions for students and staff; both in technical training and a crash course in programming the formidable Artisan desk. Graduate student Nan Zhang created the lighting design, and utilized two programmers: one for the Vari-Lite automated fixtures on the Artisan (a Mini-Artisan was used for playback during performances) and another for color scrollers, and conventional fixtures on the Strand 520 console. Artisan programmer Drew Ward, also a graduate student, combined this expertise with skills as assistant designer. Other lighting support included a staff lighting supervisor, production electrician, and two assistant electricians. Beyond the conventional fixtures, this project used 10 VL5s, eight VL2Cs, and 12 Wybron Forerunner color scrollers.
One important lesson we learned was to make sure the tech table geography is sorted out before technical rehearsals begin! The Artisan's footprint necessitated removal of a number of theatre seats, and then there were monitors, the Strand console, sound designer, and stage management to accommodate. But beyond the mass of technology in the auditorium, it was essential to establish seating “arrangements” to facilitate crucial director/designer conversations through technical and dress rehearsals. A well-conceived layout allows the designer to emerge from the technology to discuss and confirm the art on the stage.
To strengthen the vision of a moving lights lab, it is crucial to enhance our journey with the experience and wisdom of others. Providing academic enrichment to the Theatre department and university community, a guest artist series supports visits from lighting specialists to enhance the educational experience. In late spring 2002, veteran designer, producer, consultant, and production supervisor Jules Fisher conducted a master class for students, describing his work, his philosophy, and detailing selected projects over his illustrious career. In the presentation, he conveyed his sense of light:
“In the theatre, a single shaft of white light introduced into a black void carries unobvious but potent ritualistic power,” Fisher said. “Not just the power of the object it illuminates, but its symbolic content. The quality of light is its own meaning. It is becoming an emotional language that will usher in new human spirits.”
On the Horizon
Exciting projects and opportunities will continue to draw talented, dedicated, energized students to innovative programs. Students bring a vast amount of computer savvy and enthusiasm to the table (desk, workstation, control console, etc.). As the role of the professor evolves, the notion of parallel learning expands. The hierarchy of learning is shifting to incorporate collective expertise as it addresses new projects, research, and solutions. As Ohio State University's moving lights lab continues to grow, expanding relationships with manufacturers and industry professionals will provide stronger access to current technologies and valuable experiences for the future programmers, technicians, software and hardware developers, designers, and consultants.
I envision several goals for future development of the lab. The first idea is to establish a summer institute (think Moving Lights Chautauqua). The program would offer a wide range of discussions, demonstrations, workshops, certification opportunities and performances, enhanced by guest speakers; develop themes in relation to current lighting events, products, or new methodologies; and offer a series of in-depth specialized sessions, such as themed entertainment, ceremonies and award shows, commercial theatre, corporate theatre, and concert tours.
Another goal is to configure the moving lights lab so that it may function as a regional moving lights site. Create experimentation opportunities in various venues, including theatres and television studios as well as non-traditional performance spaces. The regional site would be configured for various lighting specialists to interact with numerous products. The venues would provide a broader timeframe for individuals to test equipment anticipated for purchase beyond the precious few days at a trade show or visit to a manufacturer's studio.
Lastly, establish a digital arts visualization studio, connected to the various mini-labs on campus. Digital representation for the lighting specialist is about the immense growth of control technologies available to the individual, enabling them to reveal the world in a flexible set of environments and atmospheres for the various projects they envision. Incorporate technologies such as video, digital animation, visualization, and motion capture, for which resources are already in place.
I suspect Oenslager would find that the theatre continues to inspire a new wave of theatrical alchemist, finding ways to summon the source, create bold visions, and discover the magic. He might find delight in theatre lighting's influence on so many other forms of entertainment — complete with new visions, experiments, and discoveries — and following the odyssey, lighting influences that have returned to the realm of the theatre.
The moving lights lab was facilitated through generous corporate support as well as various research and development grant awards. For the lab to persevere, it must continue to invite and cultivate partnerships, expand existing ones, and function as the setting for development of mutual project initiatives. This serves a vital role in helping students navigate an increasingly intricate lighting world as they enter the profession.
Mary Tarantino is the resident lighting designer at Ohio State University. She received her MFA degree in scenography from the University of Massachusetts.