Fading glory: the black art of stage lighting

by Gautam Raja

In spite of the fact that I don’t enjoy talking, and often don’t enjoy people, I really like teaching. For the last month, I’ve been conducting a Saturday morning stage lighting course for sixteen fresh-faced people, and have managed to get through it without boring anyone to serious injury or death.

The participants are from all areas—there were two magicians, a dancer, a photographer, many theatre people, and a few IT professionals who just wanted to learn something new. (We are seeing a lot of the latter category walk into the theatre and say, “Give me something to do that’s different from my regular job; I’ll do anything.”)

Teaching stage lighting has reminded me what a subtle and black art it can be. The thing though is that theatre people like to think they know a lot about lighting, and lighting designers are frequently caught in simplistic conversations they just can’t break out of. Designers in Bangalore are so thin on the ground that when they meet, they almost hug with relief at finding someone who can talk about Rosco colour filters for an hour without actually ending up catatonic or raving.

My course included a bonus session with two visiting lighting designers from Mumbai, and that turned out to be inspiring for me as well (though I think the students were bludgeoned with a little too much information). Both my guest teachers are full-time theatre people, one of them a leading professional lighting designer in the country. It was a joy to hear of and see the focus with which they approached their work (though, as I do so often with theatre people, I wished they’d lighten up now and then).

It was particularly inspiring for me to hear how they approached design with the idea that everything had to have meaning. Let’s take the preset, the light on stage that the audience sees as it walks into the auditorium. It stays on until the houselights go off, and then fades out before the play begins.

I’ve been guilty of using a preset just because it looks pretty. A little low light on a crate there, a splash of colour on the bench here… looks good, save it. (We use a programmable lighting board, so all the cues can be saved and run at the push of a button.) But at my bonus session, I learned how carefully the designers planned even their preset. “What does it say about the play? What part of the play should we highlight?”

With a spate of devised performances being developed in the city, these are lessons Bangalore theatre people could do well to remember. As we get caught up in the importance or beauty or meaningfulness of what we’re doing, it’s easy to forget that embellishment for embellishment’s sake starts to get fruity and tiring. Some of the lighting designers most brilliant choices involve doing nothing, or at least very little. The swooping fades and complex cues are all very well, but if they aren’t supporting the text and the directorial vision, and—most importantly–trusting the intelligence of the audience, then they have no place in the cue stack.

Once people are shown these differences and told that they matter, it’s amazing how sensitive they become. (In truth, they were always that sensitive, they simply saw but didn’t perceive.) After discussing light levels and placement, my students started to dissect even the tiniest changes in levels or shadow. As some of them said, “ You’ve now spoiled theatre for us, because we’ll spend the whole time analysing the lighting.” I couldn’t have asked for more.

First published in Gulf News, April 2, 2013