The book, Stage Lighting In The Boondocks by James Hull Miller (Colorado Springs: Meriwether Publishing, Ltd., 1981), is widely considered a seminal handbook for lighting technicians, stagehands, directors, and others involved in theatre that find themselves on stages other than the best-equipped and most modern. Miller's book was published in 1981, and, although the theatrical lighting techniques of today are much more sophisticated, the basic concepts are the same — to illuminate a performance. The original concept, which serves as the basis for this article, is used with Miller's permission.
First, let's define exactly what we're discussing here. “Broadway,” as Jules Fisher reminds us, is just the name of a street in New York. Broadway lighting is what the audience sees in New York, Chicago, London, or Los Angeles, and other theatre-rich cities. However, Broadway lighting is also what you might see in some 99-seat, non-union theatres, 2500-seat union theatres, church sanctuaries and assembly halls, theatres in high schools, or black boxes in colleges.
Granted, Fisher has budgets to be envied, and he has assistants, custom-made filters, and the latest and most innovative equipment. If you study his work, and I mean study his work, I think you will find he has also accomplished highly sophisticated designs with relatively moderate budgets and limited equipment.
Jules Fisher is one of the designers that I study. I use every opportunity to learn from him whenever I can. If you study “how to,” instead of “with what gear,” you too can become accomplished at many different levels. Let me say that again: you must study “how to” instead of “with what gear.” What Fisher and most of our lighting leaders offer us are concepts, ideas, and inspiration to use what we have to create what we want. What we do “in the boondocks” is not something less; it is something different.
Ken Billington is another designer I study. He uses a philosophy that I adopted years ago and use to this day. It's quite simple, really: use area lights first. It accomplishes the objective of seeing the action on stage. Then, add whatever you have left. Billington reminds us that you can only make it better. So, you have a show to light with only a dozen PARs. Light your acting areas first, and use the rest for accent.
When I light a show, I often have limited instruments, but I seldom have limited workers or students or assistants. The few instruments I do have can be moved during scene changes as can color be changed. You are usually only limited to your own creativity.
Peggy Eisenhauer has often spoken at the Broadway Lighting Master Classes about cueing. She is a master at it, and she shares its importance and effectiveness. Her mastery was seen in Cabaret at the Henry Miller Theatre and, most recently, at Studio 54 and can presently be seen in Gypsy and Chicago, the movie.
Being a lighting designer on a certain project means learning the show as well as anyone else on the design team (or the cast, for that matter). That means learning the music and the choreography. You won't be expected to perform the dance numbers, but you'll certainly need to learn them. Learn the music. Listen to it over and over, and you will eventually be able to feel where a light change is needed. I have studied Peggy's work and share her passion for the importance of cueing. It can make the difference between an acceptable lighting design and a great lighting design “in the boondocks.” Again, when we are using a limited number of instruments, cueing them effectively can make a tremendous difference.
I also study Natasha Katz and her ability to create and mix color combinations. I have enjoyed her work in Aida and, most recently, Taboo. I often find myself trying to recreate those combinations in my work. Admittedly, some of my color combinations have been lucky accidents. I push up the wrong slider and, suddenly, I have created a very nice scene. The trick is to record it quickly before it is lost.
Paul Gallo's design for 42nd Street, in my opinion, is exemplary of how to light dance. During the opening production number and in the finale, the 54 figures on stage are sculpted out beautifully. Each light cue could be a picture postcard.
Don Holder (Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Ken Posner (Hairspray) use LEDs quite effectively. LEDs are something we should all take the time to learn more about. These designers are examples of the many artistic and creative professionals that we have at our disposal from which we can learn. We should take every opportunity to study their work.
OFF TO THE BOONDOCKS
I was asked to create a lighting design for a local high school some years ago that, for the previous ten years, had produced successful musical theatre. The theatre had a rather intimate 435-seat auditorium with a 16' high ceiling. The control booth was separated from the auditorium by the standard four projection holes found in most 30-year-old theatres. The dimming system consisted of two 12-channel Kliegl packs mounted on the wall, having hung there for the same 30 years.
Several of the 24 channels on the board were inoperable. Further, there was no fly loft; in fact, the ceiling over the stage was only 13' high. Mounted on that ceiling were tracks for the strip lights and the pipes to mount individual instruments. I complained daily that we had no fly loft, but, after realizing what I did have with a 13' fixed grid, I was able to lay in a little fog, which was effective the entire performance. After I circuited and focused my area lights, I only had about 20 circuits left, and I had already used 12 of the 18 working channels. The director and I were befuddled. So, we designed three 10' steel welded towers to be used on casters. They served several purposes for this production of The Wiz.
PAR56s were mounted on one side of the towers with portable dimmer packs; the other sides were used to mount scenery. Because they were on casters, it was possible to roll them in different configurations on the stage. Sometimes the PARs were used for backlight. Other times, they were used for sidelight for the production numbers. During scene changes, the students/assistants acted as human color changers by changing gels. The towers are still in use today. A parent generously donated the steel and the welding, so the bottom line on this project was the cost of 12 casters.
A few years later, for a production of Damn Yankees in the same theatre, we were in need of bright white stadium lights for the game at the end of the show. The actual game was rear-projected on a large screen mounted in the middle of the stage, so we needed a way to light the action downstage and keep the light off the screen. I sent one of the lighting crew out to the junkyard to bring back 50 matching headlights from wrecked cars. He did just that, and he built two racks to house 20 headlights each. He put ten 12V lamps into two 120V circuits, and, by using a portable dimmer pack, we were able to have control of both units. The lamps had to be focused before the racks were mounted onto the cinderblock walls. Once that was accomplished, the student artists in the school simply painted old wooden telephone poles on the walls from the rack to the floor to complete the project. This project cost us the price of 24' of zip cord and four plugs.
These are just two examples of many low-budget, creative techniques that can be used “in the boondocks.” I have been fortunate to work with students that are creative, energetic, loyal, and much better at math than I am. With a little “boondock creativity,” direction, and advice, they made the difference.
Studying and learning from our Broadway designers, coupled with our available resources, we can design professional looking lighting and become major players in the design world. A lot of gear is great, but it's all about the “how.”
Bill Sheehan has been a lighting designer for the past 20 years for dance, drama, and musical theatre. He is a former cameraman with Michael Landon Productions in Los Angeles, where he learned film lighting and has applied those techniques successfully to the theatre. He has a Ph.D. in communications. He resides in New York.