Soapbox: Thoughts On Design

Article by Mike Wangen, Lighting Designer

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the nature of my work as a lighting designer and just how art and design intersect with the art and craft of theater.  Several things prompted this, I recently had the privilege of designing a new production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean which used light, setting, and sound design in a highly abstract manner to emphasize the poetic nature of the work.  Since his plays are usually presented in a realistic setting, we expected some resistance to this and were pleasantly surprised by the generally positive reactions of the audience.  Some critics were not as kind, however, and one in particular felt that the lighting design spent too much time “brightening and dimming with the moods and emotions of the words and not telling us what time of day or night it was.”  

I also recently read a piece on Chagall’s work as a set designer for The Jewish Theatre of Moscow in the 1920s which mentioned that at one point he was highly criticized for creating designs that were too provocative for the stage.

In both cases, the critics were obviously writing from a preconceived point of view and felt that the designs should do nothing more than reinforce their rather rigid views of what the world should be.  They were not to be considered on the merits of the direct emotional impact they might have had in amplifying the words of the writer and actors.

Light has been a part of the theater since the beginning, when storytellers weaved in and out of the glow of the campfire while telling their tales.  The ancient Greek theaters were built into the sides of hills facing west to catch the last rays of the sun at its most dramatic moments.  Italian Renaissance theaters developed intricate pulley systems to drop glass filters over candelabras over the stage as well as elaborate mirror systems to direct candlelight as best they could.  We are all affected by light every day, it makes us feel good, or frightened, or humbled by the simple beauty of a golden sunset, a rainbow, a lightning storm.  It is visual poetry.  I’ve always felt that my job in the theater is to enhance the narrative and poetry within the playwright’s words with a visual narrative in support of those words.  It’s not just to “tell the audience the time of day.”  It is a collaborative process in which the audience members are also active participants.  This is what sets it apart from film.  It’s interesting to me that we often perceive movies as being real while we go to theater, which is real, and call it “playacting.”  So, how can we transcend that feeling  of “acting.”  The human mind is very flexible and adept at filling in the blanks.  We create the world in our minds, as a friend told me.  In the production of Gem of the Ocean which I worked on, there was a moment during a monologue about growing up in slavery and looking out over the sky at night to pick out individual stars and name them as lost friends and relatives.  Often, an actor would be placed in a spotlight during a moment like that, but we chose to fade the lights on her into silhouette while glowing many small lights over the audience.  The audience became participants in the moment.  We’ve all seen the stars at night and I’m sure everyone in that audience could imagine the beauty (and sadness) of that moment in their heads more fully than any literal projection of stars could have done.  This is the beauty and art of what we do.   

The danger in all of this, of course, is that the designs will overpower the words and actors and devolve into pure spectacle.  With today’s technology this is rather easily done.  Video projection has added another dimension to theater design today.  I have seen some highly effective use of video and also some egregious examples of projection which have only served to distract from the words.  It is, nonetheless, an exciting development.  

We must always try to serve the play and not let our egos control our decisions.  Perhaps I’m guilty of that myself and the man who criticized my work on Gem for not telling him the time of day had a valid point.  I think not, and I will always believe that freedom of expression will lead us in the right direction.  At least, I hope so.