Converging architectural and theatre lighting: one designer argues for more education.
Everybody knows that theatrical designers can turn into pretty amazing architectural lighting designers. Maybe it’s because we get to mess around with light in the theatre or because we wear black, or because we impress people who think theatre must be really hard. But we all know of the mega-firms out there started by someone who still does theatre from time to time but makes thousands of dollars specifying recessed cans for hotel lobbies. Admit it; it’s pretty hard to pass up a day rate equal to the total paycheck from your last non-LORT gig. I used to tell people that I consulted to pay for my “theatre habit.”
We also know that, historically, exciting lighting technologies have started in the theatre or concert sector and moved to architecture. Remember when the world of architecture first realized that changing color was an option? Someone put color on a façade and subsequently won every major lighting design award on the planet. We’d been using it in theatre for decades.
Remember when someone first used an automated light in a museum exhibit? Again, awards abounded. I once won an IESNA section award for lighting a collection of clocks with a bunch of DJ fixtures. Never mind that those same lights had been used in clubs for years.
Since we know all of this, I’d better write about something else—about what an architectural lighting designer can bring to thetheatre, about how architectural training can make designs more real, make productions more dramatic, solve problems, and prevent burnout, about how architectural fixtures can make people see a show and go, “That designer is amazing!”
Seriously, I get those kinds of comments from directors who maybe haven’t seen a recessed can before. It’s like I’ve invented the things. I’m uniquely equipped to talk about this because I can’t decide what I want to be when I grow up. Never mind that I’ve been “doing light” for more than 15 years—even more, if you count the McCandless light plots I put above the community theatre stages I lit before graduate school, but let’s leave those out of the discussion.
In high school, I had to choose my college major. Since my mom cried when my older brother chose theatre, I went with architecture. I’d seen a lot of movies where the hero was an architect, because drafting tables and skyscraper models look great in loft apartments, which is where all romantic comedies are shot. And when you’re a serial dater, you see a lot of those.
So I packed my drafting tools and went merrily off to become an architect, reaching the pinnacle of design during a college internship: I took Jimmy John’s sandwich shops and shoved them into strip malls. Essentially, I took an equipment list and the previous store and rearranged things until they all worked, over and over again. It was more akin to playing Tetris with bread ovens and prep sinks than design.
I did learn a little about architecture, through classes and internships and such, but kept lighting shows as a hobby even when my hobby meant I skipped class, again. I got serious a few years after college and returned to school for an MFA, with the clearly stated goal of becoming an architectural lighting designer. This sounded cool and didn’t make my mom cry, so I thought I was on to something.
I succeeded in my quest, quickly learning the basics of architectural lighting under the tutelage of some great designers at CharterSills. I worked in museums, high-end housing, retail, and millions of square feet of office space. It was just before 9/11, the corporate world was in love with direct/indirect lighting, and every time I used a splash of color, the suits were impressed. And I made good money, and it could have been the end of my story.
Theatre, as many of you know, is kind of like cigarettes. It’s addictive. And you can quit for a while, but you’ll be back. And I was, time and again, until I found myself teaching and designing and loving it. I used to think of my architectural consulting as a “sell-out,” and therefore wasn’t quick to recognize the other, non-monetary benefits to working in the architectural field. My shows had more and more depth, my plays had more realism, and directors often thought I walked on water. In the last few years, I’ve begun to embrace my architectural background and can more readily share some ideas on how the convergence can really work in your favor.
Sarafina!, which I designed for the St. Louis Black Repertory, won the Kevin Kline Award for Best Production of a Musical (St. Louis loves Kevin Kline). Besides being an amazing show, mostly because the extraordinary cast and director Ron Himes knocked the audience dizzy every night, Sarafina! also showcases how practical advice can even extend to the outdoors and makes my first point: architectural lighting can help make the world more “real.”
This is the area most familiar to traditionally trained theatrical lighting designers, because we’ve been using “practicals” on scenery for many years. When scenic designer Regina Garcia first shared her ideas with me, I started marking them up. This may be a bit unusual for a theatrical lighting designer, but it’s what I get paid to do in consulting. An architect sends me drawings and sketches, and I start marking them up. A new cove here, uplights in the floor there, decorative pendants over there, and so on. So I didn’t think twice about it and sent back a sketch showing where I thought we should add an industrial wall sconce and post lights to the Soweto-inspired ghetto onstage. Garcia, who has since become a collaborator, was gracious enough to let me run with the ideas.
In one scene, an industrial “wall-pack” fixture fitted with an amber lamp added a hint of realism to the jail and brightened the effect of a very dark atmosphere. In another scene, I used a “barn light” on a streetlight pole. As most of you know, it is often necessary to marry both the light from the practical and another support source—in this case a PAR above—to achieve the desired effect. Practicals can give off a great sense of “reality,” even when you’re not trying to create realism on stage. They are the best source of what I call “visual brightness,” a critical element of nearly every architectural job I do and especially important for nighttime scenes.
Jeff Hoenig, a member of the design staff at Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design in New York, points out another architectural lesson he would have loved in his theatrical training. Architectural designers, according to Hoenig, have an incredibly strong working knowledge of what he calls “the staggering number of variations of white light.” Architectural designers often deal with far greater subtleties than what’s onstage and consequently make careful use of color temperature (and color rendering) in projects. This in-depth understanding of white light could only benefit theatrical designers, enriching designs. If the theatre “brought color” to the architecture world, then architecture can certainly bring white—and not just halogen white—to the theatre.
After a rather one-sided beginning in a community theatre that only did musicals, I have more recently designed plays with single-set interiors. Here, too, can architectural training make selection of practicals more intelligent. Broadway, designed for the University of Illinois’ Summer Studio season and directed by Sue Lawless, featured the backstage area of a 1920s speakeasy. I received the scenic design sketch from Martin Marchitto and immediately fired back suggestions for practicals. A hallmark of my interiors, I managed to cram in a picture light, a wall sconce, a floor lamp, and several pendants into the tiny set. Adding the practicals essentially gave me a half-dozen “keylights” that I could use to sculpt the stage picture and motivate the rest of my lighting. Broadway is an example of my second tenet: careful inclusion of architectural techniques can make your production more dramatic.
Another argument for convergent study—I’ll call it “blowout prevention” in reference to our country’s oil catastrophe—was pointed out by an alumnus of our program. Jared Theiss, now an architectural LD in San Francisco with JS Nolan and Associates, told me that his experience in both areas “helps prevent burnout and inspires creativity,” and that his early exposure to architectural lighting in graduate school was “something exciting that renewed my interest in lighting all over again.” If you have a short attention span, or like to be continually creatively challenged, practice in architecture can keep your mind sharp for when you return to the stage.
Finally, there is another justification for studying architecture, and I’m not talking about health insurance and 401Ks. It can forge a better understanding of the “architectural environment.” When I first received Brenda Sabatka’s scenic design for the Chicago Equity Premier of The Lady from Dubuque, I nearly panicked. The set was pushed tight to the proscenium and featured a huge balcony. Although nearly all the action took place “downstairs,” traditional electrics, booms, and ladders were virtually obliterated by the scenery.
Here’s where architectural training can save your proverbial backside. I simply applied techniques and technology I use on residential interiors to design a base of light for Dubuque. With the scenic designer’s permission—that is critical—I added a pair of wall sconces, two pendants, three stretches of track lighting, a floor lamp, and several recessed “can” lights.
Replacing the standard A-lamp with tiny PAR lamps, I was able to solve problem spots almost entirely with architectural techniques. This may have come about as a compromise but actually made the show much more realistic as a result. It might be as close to a win-win as you can get.
There are exceptions to every design “rule,” and it is possible to get in a rut. So when David Harwell said his set for the premier of Mark Robert’s Parasite Drag didn’t need practicals, I nearly choked. The interior of a living room in modern day, with nopracticals? Of course, Harwell was right. The scenery was skewed in perspective and amplified, almost operatic, and practicals would have been too grounding and “real” for the set. My background, however, left me with architectural techniques handled by theatrical technology. In other words, the set has an overhead light, a television, a night light, a porch light, a hallway light, and a street light. And you don’t see any of them onstage, just the effects of the light.
I bring up Parasite Drag as an illustration that you cannot do a show using only architectural techniques, but you can often blend the two and come up with something very interesting that serves the story.
At this point, if you’re still reading merrily along, you might be thinking, “Okay, Dave, but I already use practicals in my shows. What’s the big idea?” Well, I’m willing to bet that a traditionally trained theatrical LD would be even better if she also studied architectural lighting. We already know that an LD is stronger if she knows how a director works. A scenic designer studies period and style of architecture as a foundation for her career. So why shouldn’t the theatrical designer study architectural lighting?
I’m not advocating that every theatrical LD go back to school for another degree, but there are some very real ways you can expand your horizons and potentially increase the tools in your stage lighting kit of “magic.” A few suggestions, perhaps, are in order.
Get educated: Okay, if you’re young and still in school, or considering graduate school, make architectural lighting a part of your training. Take electives in the architecture program, or find a school that offers both at the Masters level. Taking courses in architectural lighting can be a great way to lay the foundation for further exploration. If there aren’t any courses in architectural lighting—and there aren’t that many out there—take an architectural design course or art history course.
Meet the gear: For years, there were three or four basic kinds of theatrical lighting fixtures. There are hundreds of thousands of architectural fixtures. Just try to find the right recessed adjustable pinhole downlight, and you’ll stumble on thousands of options. Check out lighting manufacturers online, or, better yet, see it in person. Visit your local lighting showrooms (Lightology in Chicago even has training seminars), meander through, and look at what is available. I’m not talking about big retailers with basic options but someplace with a higher degree of design and inclusiveness. If the showroom isn’t busy, ask a salesperson to tell you how each light is used. You can also attend LDI or its architectural cousin,Lightfair, to see what’s hot and what’s new.
Get experience: There are many levels of experience available. Go build a Habitat for Humanity house, and you’ll have a better understanding of how to light certain interiors. Better yet, intern for a lighting sales representative, and see how the field works from that angle. And, if you can draft in AutoCAD, you might score a summer gig with an architectural consulting firm, where you’ll learn more in six months than two years of school (don’t tell my department head that I said that).
Open your eyes: Mark Sills, one of the most knowledgeable architectural designers I’ve met, would literally take apart the wall sconce in a hotel room to see how it was made. I’m not advocating vandalism, but keen observation, especially by someone who already knows a bit about light, can reveal many secrets! Go to Las Vegas and spend some serious extra time working the strip. Every architectural highlight technique known is used right there, and you can learn if you’re not too busy checking out the slot machines.
I am fascinated by the ever-growing breadth of knowledge required to be a lighting designer in today’s world. Admittedly, no single designer can learn everything there is to know about our field and the convergent fields that overlap. I do know one thing for sure: If you’ve got it all figured out, you’re kidding yourself. So, if you’re interested in one more very big bag of tricks for your roadcase, if you’re interested in adding tools and techniques to your repertoire, stepping outside the theatre and into the world of architecture might be a great next step. Directors, scenic designers, and critics will thank you for the added value you bring to productions, whether or not they realize your expertise comes from studying architectural lighting. And, hey, if things don’t work out, you can always start designing residential kitchen lighting for hundreds of bucks an hour.
David K. Warfel brings digital media and architectural techniques to live performance lighting designs. His work includes the sold-out performance of Nathan and Julie Gunn at Carnegie Hall/Zankel Hall; the premiers of Mark Roberts’ plays Rantoul & Die andParasite Drag at the Station Theatre; and the Chicago Equity premier of Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque with the Organic Theatre Company. Architectural projects include Time at the Museum of Science and Industry, CatHouse at the Luxor, andSkyloft Lobby at the MGM Grand. As co-director of LEVEL21 at Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, he recently launched a new incandescent-free lighting upgrade to the Armory Theatre in Champaign, IL.