I've always been more interested in where the lights are, rather than what they do, trusting that if there is an interior logic to where they are, then what they do will also have its own logic.

Among lighting designers, Heather Carson is one of the great, idiosyncratic talents. Over 22 years, she has built a significant career, beginning in downtown theatre and dance, later working in classic theatre and opera (see “Three-Ring History Cycle,” ED August 2001). Her controversial ideas fly in the face of conventional notions about theatre lighting, but you have only to see one production designed by her, such as The Rape of Lucretia, produced this summer at Glimmerglass Opera, to know how effective her work can be. She has in the last decade begun careers as a light artist and teacher. Carson spoke to David Barbour about her work.

David Barbour: How did you find your aesthetic?

Heather Carson: As I assisted Arden [Fingerhut], I did my own shows. I worked with [choreographer Elizabeth] Streb. Streb's work was unlike most dance. The use of space in dance, and therefore dance lighting, has gotten so painfully predictable. Her use of space was so specific and rigorous — it used the vertical more than the horizontal — and it just demanded that I keep up. No music, no gender roles, no narrative — just pure action. That kind of work forced me to come up with other solutions.

DB: What about Richard Foreman?

Carson: I always say he saved me and he ruined me; after that, there was no going back. The thing I got from him was bringing your whole psychic and spiritual being to the moment. It wasn't about setting it, and moving on. What worked the day before was not going to work today — which drove most lighting designers crazy. He hates theatrical gels. That was a big thing with the downtown companies in the 80s, to not use gels. Color correction was okay, but no gels. To stretch that vocabulary, I came up with different ways of getting colors, by using different bulbs with different color temperatures.

DB: Then you got into opera.

Carson: I hadn't seen an opera until I lit one. I started working with [director] Christopher Alden and [production designer] Paul Steinberg in 1989; we did The Return of Ulysses at Long Beach Opera. Paul's work is all about architecture and scale — he makes walls that are often 30 or even 50' tall — so I investigated how walls were lit in the real world and started using industrial lights. Later, I used them in Streb's work, too. Also, because of this scale of work, I started using film equipment, like HMIs. In the mid/late-80s, I started crewing on independent films in New York, to explore the idea of becoming a director of photography. I even moved to LA again to check out the scene there. I ended up gaffing on some features; that's where I learned about HMIs and nine-lights. Later, I was able to incorporate them into my theatre work. So all these elements — placement, types of sources, scale — became critical components for me.

DB: In your work, you're more interested in lighting the volume of the stage space, rather than creating beautiful effects or highlighting the performers' faces.

Carson: What interests me about light is structure. Where the lights are placed is often more important than what they do. Most lighting is done from the inside out. I work from the outside in — where lights start, where they stop, and what is in their path is all carefully considered. Rather than light the performer in the space, I light the space to discover the performer within that.

DB: And yet you work in this unconventional way in theatres and opera houses that are generally equipped with rep plots.

Carson: With Measure for Measure at Royal Shakespeare Company, I worked around the rep plot in a way that let them rep the show. I did the whole show basically with seven mini-10s and 5K with a scroller. With the Henry VI trilogy [also for RSC], we took over the space; there were no other shows.

DB: I just saw The Rape of Lucretia. The look was totally in your style and the production was gripping.

Carson: You could do that same production, make the set look beautiful and put fuzzy, tight spots on all the principals — which is how a lot of opera is done. I find that immediately phony and distancing. In my way of working, the people inhabit the space; I'm not trying to capture them. It takes me a little longer to figure out — and that can confuse the crew. And little by little, it all starts to come together and make sense. You could call it a European aesthetic. I'm not the only one doing it.

DB: Can you describe some of your techniques?

Carson: I use floor lights as my face-area lighting, as it were. It's a kind of economy; it's kind of a signature thing for me, to put mini-10s in the footlights. You get a floodlight that goes all the way to the back of the set, and you get a shadow that goes from floor to ceiling. It's not apparent where the lighting starts and stops. It's just there, in the space. And it's more efficient; with one light, I can cover the whole set, versus who knows how many area lights.

DB: You're teaching a lot these days.

Carson: I'm teaching undergrads at Bard College. The course is called Visual Imagination for the Stage; Joanne Akalaitis invited me to do it. At NYU, I teach third-year grad students and advise on theses.

DB: With your way of working, how do you teach grad students?

Carson: I introduced the idea of lighting the model — a three-dimensional space. To me, it's logical — how do you teach a subject without using that subject? How do you talk about lighting if you're just looking at a light plot? We light the models, photograph them with a digital camera, then they lay them out in Photoshop. We use the computer as a presentational tool — I'm not interested in digital lighting. We do it as a form of sketching, so it's about process, not presentation.

DB: Even as you teach, your own ideas seem to be evolving.

Carson: In the last 10 years, I've become increasingly interested in equipment that you can't control, that you can't dim or gel, specifically gymnasium and parking lot lights. Again, I've always been more interested in where the lights are, rather than what they do, trusting that if there is an interior logic to where they are, then what they do will also have its own logic. After all, isn't the sun's relationship to the earth made up of an intensely intricate logic? And it's just one light! Why should lighting positions in theatres relate to the architecture of the theatre and not to the architecture of the set?

DB: Such ideas can't make your work life any easier.

Carson: Jim Ingalls says lighting is a service industry. The conundrum of being a lighting designer is that you're the vehicle by which other people see their work, so they have lots of ideas about that. I've gotten stronger in my convictions. I don't feel my primary goal is to make the director happy [laughs.]. But you know, the same light cue, explained differently, will stay in the show. I try and impress that on my students.

At NYU, I started something called the Light List. When writing out their ideas [the students] would jump from analyzing the text to describing the lighting. I want them to talk about the place in between — light in terms of concepts and ideas. A 4k is not an idea, blue is not an idea. What is the lighting idea that led you to those choices? It's really hard. So I tried to break it down into very tight, specific nuggets of information through a series of 20 or so questions — analyze the title, what is the play about in one sentence, what is the energy of the set, through whose eyes, quotes from play, quotes from research, lighting adjectives, lighting verbs, energy of the set, lighting structure, structure of the lights themselves, cueing structure, etc. The idea was to use it as a kind of touchstone from which ideas would splinter off. And from that you could construct a page of writing indicating your approach that didn't read like a book report or wasn't cliche-ridden. I did it myself for the RSC Shakespeare history cycle and kept a copy on the lighting table. I found it helpful to keep an overview while I was working on this massive project. And from that I was able to construct two pages for the educational workshops held during our Michigan residency.

DB: So talking about it helps to get your point across.

Carson: Or to figure it out together. On Lucretia, we had extremely productive lighting session on the days off, just talking about the lighting. Part of the struggle is, people want the light to make things beautiful. I'm not interested in beauty. For some people, lighting is about control. I'm not interested in control. It's even crossed over into my teaching: I don't need to be loved by the students. I want them to be better designers. I want to provoke their thinking.

By the time they get to me in their third year, they've been well grounded in all the components of design. So what I try to do is just push it that much further and bring everything they've learned up to then together in a very thorough, rigorous way.

DB: But still, it's important that they see many points of view.

Carson: That's why I'm working on my lighting manifesto, Shooting Up With Light: An Alternative Method of Lighting the Stage. The title comes from a comment composer Stewart Wallace made when we were working on the opera Hopper's Wife. Christopher Alden said, half-facetiously, to ‘just do that painting with light thing you do.’ Stewart laughed and said ‘Paint with light? It's more like you shoot up with light.’ I loved that metaphor, both for the hypnotic, druggy connotation, and for the implication of it getting under your skin.

Two or three things you may not know about Heather Carson: She has created a number of light installations, including black/light/night/white/garden at the American Academy in Rome; she was the first woman to light an opera at Sydney Opera House (Tales of Hoffmann); she's worked at opera companies all over the US and Europe, but never listens to music in her free time.