On the surface, Misalliance is not a hard show to light, but I am one of those folks who, for reasons still unknown after thousands of dollars spent on therapists, seems to unnecessarily complicate things. I carry around the label of Òpeople pleaser.Ó I suppose I donÕt just want to do a good job; I want people to notice that I did a good job and give me a gold star. There are probably cures for this, but I quit therapy a while back because $95 will buy a lot of candy for the tech table. With Misalliance, I first wanted to please my department head here in Theatre at Illinois, but then he got a better job in a warmer climate, so I transferred my psychosis to Kathleen Conlin, the highly qualified and astonishingly professional director. Like a puppy, I wanted to open the show with a pat on the head and a "good boy!"
When I first read Misalliance, I thought, "This will be easy." The entire play takes place over the course of one late-spring afternoon, inside the morning room and conservatory of an English country house in 1909. It is a bunch of people talking. And talking. And talking. They even talk about how much talking there is. The play is also a masterpiece by George Bernard Shaw, beautifully made and packed with the kind of thought-provoking text that keeps the audience in discussion for hours. All I needed to do was light the actors and make the morning room look relatively real. How hard can that be? I could not write-off the show that easily, however, in part because our production at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was stacked with great people. Conlin led a great group including Richard Isackes, returning to Illinois as a guest scene designer, and Alison Heryer on costumes. A. Brian Humphrey and Henson Keys headlined the actors. I am also a bit of a perfectionist, and "just lighting a show" is not really in my vocabulary. To top it off, Daniel Sullivan, another faculty member at Illinois, was likely coming to see the show, and I have to admit I am still star-struck by those with Tony Awards.
I started off with my usual research, looking into typical English country houses and the seemingly ubiquitous conservatories. I thought about borrowing from an older design I did for The Importance of Being Earnest, but this play takes place inside the conservatory, not outside. So I figured I would push some faux daylight in through the copious windows in the set, balance with some amorphous fill-light, turn them all on, and nap until the end of the act. I thought, "They actually need a designer for this?" And then I started to obsess about the darn thing. I wanted the daylight to be as real as possible. Who cares if none of the audience members would notice? There were not going to be any random fill-lights in my show. WhooshÑout the window went my easy gig, and in came a beastly, but wonderfully engaging, challenge. Flipping through the inventory of the theatre, I found ETC Source Four ellipsoidals , Source Four PARs, Kliegl Fresnels, striplights, the usual stuff. I found an odd 2kW Fresnel here and there, but there was something missing. I scoured the list but could not find listed anything for "sun and translucent atmosphere." I could handle the fill-light pretty easily, but getting the sun into the theatre without the use of dynamite and heavy equipment was going to be a challenge. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun! This was my journey down the proverbial rabbit hole and the enlightenment (pun intended) I found on the other side.
I started to think in concrete terms when I received scenic designer Isackes' lovely sketch showing a large expanse of light upstage and a plant-filled room downstage. I wanted to understand what it would look like under light and desired to share this vision with the director. I teach my students how to be "good designers." Then I go out and break my own rules. For Misalliance, I jumped straight to Adobe Photoshop sketches without really understanding what I was doing or why I was doing it. And the sketches were pretty bad. So I spent a few minutes in Photoshop, quickly making an approximation of how the show might look. The only clear idea expressed in the sketches was that of daylight coming through the windows, but I still did not know how to make it happen on stage or how to justify the fill-light necessary to see the actors. If I lit only through the windows, would the characters not simply be in silhouette for the entire show? That would not work for a play of words.
Vectors And Decoding Daylight
Dissatisfied with the sketches, I pulled out an ancient roll of tracing paper and laid it directly over Isackes' sketch. With a Sharpie, I drew a large arrow indicating the direction, or vector, of sunlight. The arrow came in through the windows and hit the floor. Now what? I added a second piece of tracing paper. If the light hit a glossy tile floor, much of it would bounce, in an equal angle, toward the wall, continuing the vector. Some of the light would scatter, bouncing off in other directions. I drew a second set of vectors emanating from the point where the original sunlight hit the floor. Next, I imagined the space with walls. The bounce light from the floor would be stopped by those walls and, if the walls were light and reflective, would bounce the light back into the center of the room. Aha! That meant my "key" light would be the sun, with a primary fill-light from the opposite direction. This primary fill would be colored and dimmed by its interactions with the floor and the walls, coming out as a much softer, cooler light. Secondary fills would come from the other walls, themselves reflecting lower intensities of light from the primary source. Yet the sun is not the only source of light on a clear day. The sky-earth's atmosphere-captures some of the sunlight and distributes it softly everywhere, like light through a silk or cyc. If I were to create a realistic approach on stage, I would need not only sunlight coming through the windows but softer skylight or daylight, as well.
Keys And Model
In anticipation of a presentation to the entire cast and production team, I returned to Photoshop for a much simpler, and sexier, method of sharing these vector-driven thoughts. Starting with a blank stage, I walked the audience through each layer of light, from the primary sunlight through the primary fill through the secondary fill. I was still frustrated by the graphics available. A key is nice but not as helpful as a sketch with perspective. Then I received another gift from the scene designer: a white model. I carried the model across the street to our graduate studios and the model light lab equipped with fiber optics, miniature instruments, and other toys that I am quite lucky to have. I placed the model on the table and began to add light. First, I added the sun, a small ellipsoidal approximating the look from a large single source like a 5kW Fresnel or HMI unit. Then I counteracted with a primary bounce light in a softer and cooler color. The model looked lovely, but something was not right. It looked "theatrical."
As I studied the model under light, I realized that a 5kW does not make a sun. Instead, it makes a really bright light just offstage of the windows. In other words, the shadows from window structures clearly fan out from a central location and simple geometry will tell you where the source is. It is then quite clear that the source is artificial. The sun, by virtue of its incredible distance, appears to make parallel shadows on the floor, not convergent ones: no fan, just lines. How could I do that on stage? After ruling out my first tries, somehow inspiration struck. To make the windows appear correctly on the stage floor, I needed to counteract the keystoning that would occur with standard window gobos and shutters. In essence, I needed to reverse-engineer the window gobos and shoot through them. If I adjusted the instrument to be in sharp focus at the gate where the gobo sits, then it would be out of focus when it hit the real mullions, allowing me to use a combination of several effects. If you are still paying attention, you are probably thinking "this guy is chasing his tail," and you would be right. I was working very hard to understand something that should have been very simple. And yet, after sketches, Photoshop keys, and time in a light lab, I still did not have an image of what the show would look like. So I gave up chasing the perfect photograph, packed up the model, and trudged across the snow toward Conlin's office. It was a beautiful, late-winter day, and the sun was shining.
Eureka! (In Snow)
As I crossed the bank of snow separating the street from the sidewalk, I stopped in my tracks. Both feet deep in slush, straddling several feet of piled snow, I stared at the model. Real sunlight streamed in through the tiny windows. Cool blue skylight filled in the rest of the stage. Slowly, I rotated the model until the windows looked as I had hoped. I stood for a moment, transfixed and likely looking like an idiot, seeing the show unfold right in front of me. With one hand balancing the precious model, I reached into my pocket for the trusty iPhone, snapped a picture, and returned the model to the director. After hours of work, a single moment outdoors gave me a stunning inspirational view of my show. Finally (On Stage) Have you ever tried to figure out, just with drafting, how a gobo will look exactly on the stage? And then, do it in reverse, making the pattern on the stage first and computing the geometry for a skewed gobo? I banged my head against the computer screen. I called Lara Wilder, an awesome designer who seems to delight in work-sheeting and sections. We both beat our heads against the screen. In time, I realized that I was again chasing my tail. The outside edges of each window could simply be shaped with shutters. I could "cheat" by leaving the windows wider than necessary and fine-tuning in the space. And so I ordered a rash of custom gobos, provided by a friend in a local metal shop who happens to have access to a laser cutter (I really do lead an easy life). Placed in 11 750W Source Fours and focused by electricians with no small degree of effort, the light on the floor finally looked the way I intended. There were, naturally, dozens of other units in the plot, and many tasked to make the conservatory look sunny. Light slashed across the walls, grazed the plants, snuck in from beam-benders and tail-downs, and otherwise turned the space into a microwave. I would not have been surprised if the actors ended up wearing sunscreen, but they were good sports (especially considering the full "weekend" English dress, beautifully designed by Heryer and crafted by the Krannert Center costume shop under Anne de Velder's watchful eye).
After all that explanation, I suppose I should neatly summarize the lessons contained within and hopefully leave you with a memorable quote or line. So here are a few: Take the model outside. I spent hours in a lovely light lab with thousands of dollars worth of equipment, but got the best results from an iPhone and a sunny sidewalk. Always carry a camera. Even a cell-phone shot can help, if it is the right shot. Try, try, and try again. And then return to the model. Sometimes you have to give up and go back to the drawing board to get it right. Opening night finally arrived. Did I please people? Did I get it right? I got a nod from the director that either meant "good job" or "I need to remember to pick up the dry cleaning tomorrow."
Daniel Sullivan said something to me on the way out. It might have been "needs work," but I heard it as "nice work." I'll stick with that, and, if I can kick the candy habit, I'll use the savings for some more therapy. David K. Warfel practices convergence of theatrical lighting, architectural lighting, and digital media. His work includes projects on the Las Vegas strip, in Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, and productions for St. Louis Black Rep, American Blues Theatre, Dance Chicago, and the Organic Theatre Company.