As a lighting designer, one often strives for the lighting not to be noticed: that is, to not get in the way of the essential action of a play, to help tell the story without being too flashy.
As a scenic designer, one often aims to create a beautiful environment that is spatially elegant, with just the right amount of detail, but feels incomplete without the presence of actors.
In service of these ends there’s often a heck of a lot of work.
Take for example, our recent production of Skin Tight.
The set was very simple: Some boards, a floor, a backdrop.
Here’s how some reviewers saw it:
“Roughhewn boards suggest a barn…” – Rick Pender, City Beat
“The simple scenery keeps the focus where it belongs on the characters and their actions. Rough, weathered boards in the back add a feeling of rusticity.” – Jill Siekman, Broadway World.
I feel like those reviews say we accomplished exactly what we were after.
Here’s what went into creating that stage space:
First, because of the movement in the piece we needed a surface that would be safe and comfortable for the actors. After much searching, we found some wrestling mats which would work perfectly.
Except that they were bright green.
In order to control the look of the mats, we covered them with muslin that was stretched tight over the surface. And to get the muslin to have the color of a field drying at the end of summer, the fabric spent some time in a giant garbage can full of tea. Once the fabric was stretched over the mats, scenic artist (and stage manager) Becky Heldt used watered down dye to paint the muslin to match the original scenic rendering.
So there’s the playing surface.
Then we had those rough hewn boards. We did indeed want the boards to suggest the barn on Tom and Elizabeth’s farm, the place that lingers most strongly in their collective memory. But we also wanted it to suggest something more of the larger landscape… so the cut out of the boards was designed to roughly match the countours of the Southern Alps, a mountain range that plays prominently in the play’s sense of place. The boards that hung from above were cut to suggest a bank of clouds. And the boards themselves were reclaimed lumber, possibly coming from a demolished barn in our own area. It’s wood with its own sense of history.
Behind the wooden frame we had our sky drop. Rather than providing a traditional theatrical “cyclorama” that pretended to be the actual sky, we wanted a canvas tarp that looked as though it came from the farm but could be transformed into a sky through lighting. So we got a big old canvas tarp, Becky treated it to match the floor, and our set was complete.
Except for the rain. Which was done through magic.
And then we come to the lighting. One of the challenges here was that we were performing the play in a full thrust, with an audience on three sides of the stage. In large part this was to bring the audience close in to the intimate story we had to tell.
Thrusts are wonderfully intimate, but do provide a bit of a challenge in terms of lighting with limited equipment: they demand that the lighting designer create a fully lit, dimensional space in which the actors can live. And the show may look different from each angle, but it always has to look good. All of this was factored in to the layout of the lighting plot, the drawing that dictates which lighting instruments are hung where.
Then came the process of cueing the lighting, that is, setting the individual lighting states and changes that happen throughout the show. In many ways the lighting for Skin Tight was incredibly complicated: once the show began, the lighting rarely stopped moving. A cue would be called, and over the course of the next 2 minutes the lights would subtly shift in color and angle; as soon as a shift was complete another would begin.
There were times in the show when these changes were quite dramatic and the audience clearly marked them. But more often they were conceived as subtle, almost imperceptible, movements that reflected the changing emotional landscape of the story.
And I think these final two quotations from reviews sum it all up:
“”The sets and lighting are simple yet effective, drawing the viewer into rural farmland without distracting from the action.” – Jenny Kessler, UrbanCincy
“Subtle design elements – the occasional sound of birds, changing light and weathered boards suggest a hardscrabble life and miles of emptiness.” – Jackie Demaline, Cincinnati Enquirer
Sometimes achieving simple and effective is far more complicated than bright and flashy… and even more satisfying.