As a sound and lighting designer, I've always envied scenic designers the ability to communicate their ideas with a scenic model. Likewise, costume designers' renderings leap off the page to describe the character and the costume so thoroughly. There is a quality to light that really can't be captured in a two-dimensional image, never mind representing the element of time, a critical part of every design. When I design sound, I can record work to CD and play it for the director. It's not the same as being in the theatre with directional sources, but it lets us talk about ideas and begin to discover where our concepts and interpretations converge or diverge.

But how is the lighting designer to depict the experience of seeing light in three dimensions, modeled against scenery and costumes and changing as a cue progresses. Sketches and storyboards can help, of course, but often, we have to wait until we get into the theatre with the plot hung, the set finished, and the actors on stage to be able to bring our art to life. Of course, that's exactly when we run smack into the time issue again, as there is never enough of it.

This is even more evident in the educational environment, and time is still the monster. In the Performance Production department here at Cornish College of the Arts, associate professor Roberta Russell, head of our lighting design program, has worked tirelessly to create effective learning spaces for lighting design students, from attempting to book adequate time in the real theatre, to carving out space to hang small grids in classrooms, to working with various small lighting instruments like 3-1/2" Fresnels and profile spots. None have been entirely successful. The theatre is always in use, the classrooms and other spaces with the grids are not really suitable, and the small lighting instruments are ornery, hot, and don't give a good representation of full-size instruments in a real space.

We had hoped the computer was going to solve this — software designed to show color mixing or to produce photo realistic images based on lighting layouts seemed like a potential solution. But, as good as these are getting, they don't really do the trick. We're still stuck with an image on a computer monitor or a printout on a flat sheet of paper. If you want to approach true photo-realism, you're looking at significant rendering time to produce an image. An experienced designer can mentally shift these images into a stage reality, but designers at the beginning of their learning curve usually lack the necessary experience to translate from the virtual world to the real world. That's not to say modeling software has no value, but I don't believe it can replace the experience of seeing multiple sources mixing in the air.

All of these methods lack immediacy, as well. In the theatre, one must take the time to hang and color the lights, focus them, and arrange something to focus upon. The small grid in the classroom is a little easier. We can use a scale scenic model, but that classroom is rarely dedicated solely to the purpose. It is fairly complicated to set up and reconfigure quickly to serve different individual designers. The apparatus still takes up a lot of room, and the lighting instruments are usually wildly out of scale with the model. Computer-based systems can be relatively quick for the experienced but can be confusing and intimidating to beginning designers and misleading due to inaccurate color rendition of monitors and printers. Sadly, learning the software often becomes the focus instead of learning about light and the way it works in the theatre, especially when the tool itself is as complex and seductive as a 3D CAD or photo-realistic imaging program.

So, at Cornish, we usually found ourselves spending classroom time and project time helping students hone their abilities in text analysis, communication with directors, color choices, graphical skills, and choice of angles and direction, either working on paper or on the computer. Then, we found additional time to book the space to do practical exercises with real instruments hung in a real theatre. But we had to find a way to connect these two halves of the process more directly, to be able to jump right from the drafting table to the theatre and try out ideas without needing a computer to schedule the activities or an additional work-call to hang and circuit the instruments.

Just about the time that we were at our wits' end trying to find a way to serve our growing number of lighting design students, professor Russell and I simultaneously stumbled across an intriguing article in Entertainment Design magazine. The article (“A Scaled Perspective,” November 2002) described a new way to empower students and designers to visualize lighting design. It seemed to combine the best parts of working in a real theatre with the best parts of the small model studio, all in a package that encouraged experimentation. It was the LIGHTBOX, created by Charles Kirby of Thematics Inc.

The LIGHTBOX consists of an extruded aluminum framework designed to allow you to locate a scenic model beneath an accurate scale representation of the lighting grid of your theatre. The magic is in the grid, which is easily reconfigurable and contains a clever tracking system to mount “lighting instruments” — actually, lenses to which fiber optic light “pipes” are connected. The lens “instruments” provide control for the light and are available in 19°, 26°, and 50° versions. Each can be fitted with a color holder and can even take “gobos” as laser-printed copies of the gobo patterns on clear plastic. The lenses can be focused, and the beam can be softened or hardened by adjusting the position of the fiber optic cable with respect to the rear of the lens. The other end of the cable mates with an optical “patch bay” which can hold multiple cables and is positioned in front of a light source. That light source can be controlled by built-in multiple dimmer packages from Thematics, or you can use your own existing dimmers. Most systems also include several MR-11 fixtures to serve as wide area wash instruments. The lenses and the idea of using the fiber-optic delivery medium comes from the museum and exhibition trade, but the application is pure theatre.

We contacted Thematics to talk about a LIGHTBOX for Cornish, and at the 2004 USITT convention in Long Beach, CA, I was able to examine the system and talk at some length with Kirby. This was the solution we'd been looking for, and we soon began to work out how we could purchase a box. It took some doing — our annual equipment budget is not large, and there is no shortage of needs across the department. Kirby worked with us to come up with the best system we could possibly build for the amount we could raise (ultimately, over 10% of the total cost of our configuration came from donations from faculty, staff, and alumni) and using equipment funds from two consecutive years toward the cost, we were able to make our order. Our LIGHTBOX arrived the second week of the Fall 2004 semester.

We set up the LIGHTBOX in a small room on the same floor as our primary classroom space and also set up a dedicated printing/graphics computer with a high-quality color printer in the same room. Students have access any time the building is open, and it is becoming rare to walk by the room without seeing someone plugging away at it. The real proof came with the final presentations of our Intermediate Studio class in December. In this class, scenic, lighting, sound, and costume design students collaborate with technical direction students and directing and dramaturgy students on design assignments. Final design presentations are conducted more or less as if they were “show and tell” sessions for each team of directors and designers. Before using the LIGHTBOX, lighting designers presented research, sketches, magic sheets, color charts, and their light plots, sections, and paperwork. They could only describe cueing in words, supported by their best efforts at sketches showing angles and shadows.

Now, everything changed for both the lighting and scenic designers. For each team presentation, the scenic model was installed in the LIGHTBOX, and the class gathered around to actually see cues performed in real time. Even working with relatively unfinished models, the addition of lighting with color and beams of accurate scale size and angle, and the ability to record and perform cues using multiple instruments, took the discussion of the results to an entirely new level. Directors asked questions that would otherwise never have occurred until tech rehearsal (and thus never occurred at all in the classroom); scenic designers saw problems and solutions that only became apparent with the lighting; sound designers and lighting designers could perform cue changes together that changed the way everyone understood the collaboration. Because the lighting students had the chance to spend extended time building cues and trying out different angles and colors on the scenic models, they clearly were more comfortable with their designs. During the same sessions, scenic designers got to see how their sets looked under realistic lighting conditions, and they used that feedback to bring their designs (and their models) to a higher state of completion before presentation. Teams learned much more about collaboration because they spent more time in the room together experimenting with the LIGHTBOX.

Finally, it seems that lighting designers have a way to present designs that are as fully evocative as those of their colleagues. Professor Russell sums it up well: “What has been a lovely surprise has been the response of the other students and a few of the faculty. While the overhead lights are on, the LIGHTBOX is a cool toy, but when we are watching a cue sequence, there are questions about lighting: ‘Why that shade of red over the stage right portion of the stage?’ ‘When does that cue start in the script? Why?’ ‘It looks like this to me. Is that what you wanted to communicate?’ ‘The set looks great, but the people are in shadow/washed out by glare.’ And best of all, ‘What if we try this?’ from a costume or set designer. They are actively working on the production design of the show. The lighting students have a whole new type of question to answer at these presentations. How wonderful.”

Much more information about the LIGHTBOX and photos of work from several colleges is available online at www.seeLIGHTBOX.com.

A lighting and sound designer, Dave Tosti-Lane is professor and chair of the Performance Production Department at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA, and the associate editor for Sound for TD&T, the journal of USITT. He can be reached at dtostilane@cornish.edu.