In theater scene, few lighting enthusiasts

Laurel German ’15, a lighting designer in Yale’s undergraduate theater community, worked on tech weeks for six productions in February.

But, she noted, “there aren’t even six weeks in February.”

Students involved in lighting design have always been scarce in the theater scene at Yale College, nine students interviewed said. But with significantly more theater and dance productions this semester than in the fall, designers said the pressure on them is particularly high, and large numbers of shows are going up understaffed, without designers.
“You have an overabundance of actors and an underabundance of people who are really passionate about doing tech work … There’s a real sense of urgency, especially this semester,” said Amelia Urry ’13, a student lighting designer and vice president of the Yale Dramatic Association. Urry is a deputy editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine.

Urry added that this deficit of technicians is especially problematic for theater and dance productions funded by Creative and Performing Arts awards through the residential colleges, rather than Dramat shows, some of which hire outside designers.

This year, theatrical shows have been unusually skewed towards the spring calendar, with only 23 productions in the fall compared to 46 this semester, according to the online records of the Yale Drama Coalition. Andrew Freeburg ’13, who has been involved with lighting, set, sound and costume design and is a board member of the Dramat, said that the situation this semester has been a “perfect storm.”

“Everybody and their grandmother thought, ‘Oh, let’s do a show in the spring!’” Freeburg said. “But where will you find a designer with the time to do more than arts and crafts projects?”

But in the midst of a packed theater season, finding a lighting designer with the time to do more than a cursory job has created a competitive process for directors.

Zoe LaPalombara ’13, a lighting designer and the marketing director of the Dramat, said directors often try to convince lighting designers to help out for even half an hour, but that most designers know that is not realistic or the best decision artistically. Rather than contributing the bare minimum to a show, she added, designers want to put in their best effort, which requires their full devotion to only a few projects.

That level of devotion requires that lighting designers be involved with shows from their inception, said Kate Pitt ’12, an actor and a former president of the Yale Drama Coalition.

“Lighting, costumes, sets, acting, script; it’s all part of the entire process,” Pitt said. “But, unfortunately, because there are so few lighting designers and those we have are overcommitted, lighting often becomes a simple question of ‘Can you see actors on the stage?’, and it’s devalued as an art form, because people are simply content if they can see actors.”

Five designers interviewed said that directors who do not manage to find lighting experts for their shows often handle the basic lighting cues themselves.

Ryan Bowers ’14, who directed last weekend’s “Pokemon: the Mew-sical,” said he eventually did the lighting for the show himself, as he was unable to find a lighting designer available that week.

“It led to not only poor lighting, but also took away from the time a director would traditionally use to tweak moments in his or her actors’ performances,” Bowers said.

German said that she would like to help out with other shows, but after her experience this year, she plans to become more selective with the shows she chooses to light.

“Being a freshman, you don’t really understand commitments,” she said. “It looked like, ‘That show goes up this week, I can do another one next week.’ I learned that the process really starts a month and a half before the show, and you can’t do so many together.”

Urry and Freeburg, both juniors, said they would ideally commit to one show a semester and one each month, respectively. Urry added that she has tried to scale down her own commitment to lighting shows over the course of her three years at Yale.

“I’ve gotten better at saying no,” LaPalombara said. “It’s a tricky thing, especially in the theater community — you know most people emailing you and respect their work, but you can’t work on all of [their shows].”

Pitt, a theater studies major, said she asked LaPalombara to light her senior project a year before it was scheduled and before she even knew what the show would be. Bowers said booking known lighting designers has become a task directors and producers realistically need to undertake months before even beginning auditions.

“This semester was booked in November for me,” German said. “I got an email last week to do a show next week. I’ve started telling people that if they want me for next year, they need to tell me now.”

She added that she is currently booked through February 2013.

Still, Freeburg said, it can be very difficult to say no to productions, particularly those put up by friends or students who have put a great deal of effort into their show. He added that he believes designers on campus feel “a moral burden” to help the community, no matter how overstretched they might be.

“What are three hours of sleep to me when it’s someone else’s entire semester?” Freeburg said.

LaPalombara said the lack of available lighting technicians results from insufficient classroom training in technical design and an unwillingness among non-technicians to learn the skills necessary to design basic lighting schemes.

“The main reason is that there’s little focus on the design or tech aspects of shows in the theater studies program,” Lapolombara said. “If you don’t support that in the program, it really affects how design is viewed on campus.”

Pitt said she audited a lighting design class in the Theater Studies Department last semester — the first lighting design class offered in the program since the fall of 2008.

“People are nervous about electrical things,” she said, adding that the class increased her comfort level with and respect for lighting design equipment.

The Yale Drama Coalition has also attempted to boost the technically competent community by offering workshops on lighting and sound design, Pitt said. Urry added that the Office of Undergraduate Productions also hosted a workshop on lighting design in February.

LaPalombara said she believes creating an organized, supportive lighting designer community will attract new recruits to the field. As a veteran designer, Urry said she is attempting to establish a community of lighting designers who can support each other via email.

Currently, potential technicians may be deterred by low audience appreciation, Urry said.

“I just don’t think lighting has very glamorous connotation for most people,” she added. “Your friends will tell you the lights look nice if they know you did them.”

Six theatrical productions and dance shows will go up this weekend. Three have student lighting designers and one will be lit by an OUP employee.

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