In Jennifer Tipton's foreword to A Practical Guide to Stage Lighting by Steven Louis Shelley she states that this is "the book that we in the theatrical lighting world have been waiting for." She is half right--it is certainly one of the books we have been waiting for. (I am still waiting for her to write the other one--Wrinkles in the Sky is long overdue.) I must state here at the beginning that A Practical Guide is indeed wonderful, and anyone considering--or already deeply involved in--theatre lighting design should possess this book.
It is certainly destined to be a classic textbook. In my time as a teacher of lighting design I grew despondent over the paucity of written work that intelligently elucidated the process. I finally threw up my hands and did without. What is interesting about this book is that it is a valuable tool for the teacher of lighting design on both the beginning and advanced levels--a neat trick, since Shelley feels in his preface that it is not for the beginner.
I should state before I go further that this is not a book that hopes to aid the LD in developing conceptual approaches to lighting the stage. It is not meant to open the creative floodgates (that's the other book), but it is very much what its name implies: a practical guide that will, better than any other book on the subject, help the LD get his or her design realized in the most professional and efficient manner.
As I said earlier, this book is a wonderful tool for LDs both new and weary. In the first part of the book, Shelley (a 25-year veteran of the field) takes us through a whole encyclopedia worth of stage and lighting definitions in the most lucid and thoughtful fashion. I know I share with many teachers the experience of standing up in front of a class of beginning LDs, trying to explain some term or tool and wishing that I had a single sentence that was clear and concise to do so. In 30 pages Shelley shames us all, taking the reader through every facet of stage terminology and lighting technology simply and so clearly that anyone who reads them will understand everything from stage rigging to color theory to the step-by-step process of the tech rehearsal. Directors should read these first 30 pages!
After that the book quickly becomes the tool of the advanced student, outlining in a painstaking way every document involved in getting the lighting design into a physical reality. I say this is for the advanced student because the level of detail that Shelley goes into is daunting, and would only interest the young person who wants to be the most professional designer on Broadway. If I have a quibble with the book, it is that this section might cause a promising young designer to rethink his or her career choice--when faced with the prospect of all the trees that will be felled to make up the "complete" lighting paperwork package. It should be noted that it might be better to call this middle part of the book the bible for assistant LDs--with the amount of paperwork that seems to be involved, an LD would never have time to design at all!
The book then moves into a wonderful and meticulous analysis of how various systems of light might be focused. This is as close as I can imagine to actually standing onstage and going through the process myself. Philosophies of pointing, shuttering, and communication etiquette are so thoroughly illustrated that even neophytes could go through a focus call with fewer butterflies in their stomachs. And the "Slinky" method of focusing an even system of light is a delight to have so clearly presented. It's something we've all been doing for years--I just never gave it a name--and the simplicity of the argument is breathtaking.
The final quarter of the book is an in-depth look at the process of the tech rehearsal. All aspects of this period of a show's development are discussed, from the creation of the cues (down to a very clear outline of the creation of multi-part cues) to the philosophy of followspot use. Even such issues as headset etiquette and where to sit during previews fail to escape Shelley's interest. From level-setting through opening night and beyond--once again, with such knowledge under one's arm, a designer going through the process for the first time would appear to be a jet-setting veteran.
Throughout the book the author includes his more personal insights. He calls them, depending on his level of conviction, Shelley's Notes, Sneaky Tips, Shelley's Soapbox, and Golden Rules. They are all true in my experience as well, so you might just take them all seriously. Finally, his Tales from the Road, in which he adds his voice to my argument with my students that they are really learning from my mistakes, are just plain fun, especially the final tale from Italy. Read it for yourself--it will make the most jaded designer remember that it does, like in Shakespeare In Love, all somehow come together, as if by magic.
A Practical Guide to Stage Lighting is Focal Press title ISBN 0-240-80353-1. The 304-page paperback has 150 illustrations, and retails for $36.95.
Peter Maradudin is a freelance lighting designer, an educator, and a founding principal of Light and Truth, a theatrical and architectural lighting design consultancy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.