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Humanities LibreTexts

6.5: The Design Process

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  • Theatrical design is a collaborative process. Each designer works in his or her own area while also communicating with the production team as a whole. All designers share certain parts of the design process, such as analysis, research, and production meetings. However, the work that each designer produces as a result of these steps in the process is vastly different.

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    Once a designer is hired for a production, he or she receives a copy of the script from which to work. If the show is a musical, he or she also receives the appropriate accompanying documentation such as a copy of the music, as well as the score if necessary. The first step in the design process is analysis. The designer must read through the script several times, looking for different elements each time. On the first reading, the designer is typically just reading the play through to get a sense of the plot, characters, themes, mood, and atmosphere while noting any mention of lighting in the script. On the second and third readings, the designer reads deeper and looks for the specific shape of the action that leads to the plays climax and ways in which lighting can enhance specific scenes. These readings often happen between meetings with the production team. In these initial meetings, ideas the production team would like to highlight are discussed.

    This textual analysis leads the lighting designer into the second step in the design process, the research phase, by doing both the visual and background research for the lighting of the production. For instance, a production of The Heiress by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which takes place in 1880, would require research into gas lighting, which was common for interior and exterior spaces. The lighting designer might look into what gas light fixtures look like, how gas light works, and what color of light it produces.

    The lighting designer will also look for visuals that support ideas he or she has about the mood, atmosphere, composition, and theme of a production. These images are used to help convey ideas between the lighting designer and other members of the production team. Visual images will help the lighting designer describe what he or she wants a particular scene or moment to look like. For example, images of light through trees might help the lighting designer describe the front yard for a production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, a play that takes place in the yard of the family home and mentions an apple tree.

    Once the production team agrees on certain images and ideas, the lighting designer can move on to creating specific visuals for scenes or moments in the play. Most lighting designers will do light sketches or create CAD (computer-aided design) renderings for specific moments such as the climax of the play or for special moments of visual interest. These sketches or renderings help to further the conversation with the director and the rest of the team. They communicate the “look” of the final design in these key moments. These drawings can be reworked until the production team is happy with how the show will look once it is lit.

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    The 2010 production of All My Sons, featuring Zoe Wanamaker, Daniel La paine, David Suchet, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Jemima Rooper; directed by Howard Davies, Apollo Theatre, London. Photo ® Robbie Jaek/Corbis.

    Throughout this whole process, the design and production team meets regularly, usually a couple of times a week, to communicate ideas and information about the production. Meetings can happen in the same room, if the production team is in one location. They can also happen virtually through the use of technologies such as Skype, e-mail, and file-sharing programs. It does not matter how the meetings happen as long as there is a free flow of communication and information is shared regularly.

    After the design ideas for a production are finalized, the lighting designer can move on to the production stage of the design process. This means producing a light plot in order for the master electrician to hang lights in the appropriate places to make the lighting designers vision happen on stage. The light plot will provide three important pieces of information about each instrument—on which part of the stage the light should be focused, what color it should have, and how it is controlled. Color is created by a gel, a colored plastic filter placed in front of a lighting instrument in order to change the color of the light it emits. Control is achieved by assigning each light a channel number.

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    A light plot. Photo by Ketu rah Stiekann.

    This number is assigned to a light or group of lights to help the designer identify the purpose of the instrument.

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    At this point, supporting paperwork is produced with lists of all of the lighting instruments and their channel numbers, the order in which they appear on the plot, and their gel colors. This paperwork is supplemental to the light plot and helps to provide more information for the master electrician to complete his or her work. Once the paperwork is in the hands of the master electrician, the physical implementation of the design begins. He or she makes sure the information conveyed in the plot is made into reality in the theatre space. The lights are hung, tested, gelled, and then focused so the lighting designer can complete his or her work.

    The final step of the design process is the cuing of the show. A cue is a change in the lighting on stage. Cuing a show is defining how and when the stage lighting will change. The lighting designer will watch several rehearsals in order to understand the action happening in each scene on stage. Once the designer has a good grasp on what is happening, he or she can begin using the lights that have been hung to shape the look of each scene. These cues take place in a sequence starting at the beginning and building on one another until the end of the show is reached. Each cue has a specific purpose and is used to make the functions of lighting a reality for a particular production. Cues are refined during each technical and dress rehearsal until everything meets the satisfaction of the lighting designer and the production team and is ready for an audience on opening night.

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