Theatrical Jazz/Lighting


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Sharon Bridgforth is one of the most prominent voices in what has been described as the Theatrical Jazz movement - a blending of traditional theatrical storytelling with a mixture of African American jazz influences in terms of movement, musicality, and vocal harmonies.  Although not from the Minneapolis area, she has strong ties here with her work produced by both Penumbra and Pillsbury House theaters.  In her essay, she describes the role of lighting and other design elements in the creation of this work, and the way that improvisation, intuition, and ritual define and amplify her work.  I feel honored to be mentioned in that work. -Mike Wangen

All conversations about lighting - for me – start with Mike Wangen. I have had the privilege of working with Mike since 2002, thanks to my mentor, theatre legend Laurie Carlos. I call him ‘the Jazz Man’, which is my way of acknowledging his genius, his core beingness, and the fact that he is family. Mike served as lighting artist for 17 of the productions that Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones discusses in her book, Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Àse and the Power of the Present Moment. According to Dr. Jones, the theatrical jazz artists that she focuses on are extremely different in voice and approach but “share a blending of non-traditional narrative structures, transtemporality, porous space, and engagement with audience/witnesses” (Interview, June 22, 2018). In describing the elements of theatrical jazz, Dr. Jones says, “Mike Wangen is the lighting designer for theatrical jazz because he has a visual acuity that is attuned to the demands of improvisation” (Ibid). 

My work is blues in its core.  It gets activated as jazz in how time is constructed on the page – the past, the present, the future/the living, the dead, the unborn coexist - and through layers of decisions that collaborators make in bringing the piece to life.  The entire room (sometimes the entire building) is the performance space.  Gestural language offers grounded/abstract imagery that moves the bodies of the performers through the world of the piece. My approach, when working with lighting artists is to talk about moods, how the space will be used and color palettes, and then to release to the delight of journeying towards what the designer knows, sees and envisions. Because space is rarely one location or limited solely to a stage area, the lighting artist has to make the entire performance space work as a communal gathering place, or sites for individual vignettes, or a floating world near the bottom of the sea – and the design has to simultaneously present different time periods on stage. The “sets” are living altars. These altars must be lit as reverential sites as well as bluesy secular and carnal spaces. And, though the script is set, the performers improvise how and when the collective telling, the musicality of the language, the literal songs, and embodiment moves . . . which means the lighting has to be “played” rather than set. 

Lighting artists working in theatrical jazz aesthetic are collaborators. They must: root inside the process; rigorously practice embodied listening; be open to inspired discovery; make space for the unplanned thing to show itself; know how to apply one’s virtuosity to support the ensemble rather than relying on their singular intentions in building the design. The lighting, like the script, is both the structure that holds the world of the piece, and the conduit for improvisation. The first lighting cue serves as an indication of the fused realities that will follow, and as an invocation for the magic to begin.

Sharon Bridgforth is a writer and performing artist.  Learn more about her work by visiting