Plays almost always begin in darkness. Then the lights come up.
It took me five years of working on shows, and more than that spent watching them, before I realized what is happening in that moment of darkness, as your eyes adjust and you feel yourself about to disappear. When you can no longer be seen, or see anyone else around you, your mind becomes still. The play in your head, your life as staged for some unobservable spectator, pauses. Reality starts over as the lights come up somewhere else.
I have a special interest in light. It was mostly an accident, something to do with knowing the right people at the right time. What a weird hobby, to be a lighting designer. There are a handful of us here at Yale, more than you might expect actually, considering that no one knows where we come from. Who decides to be a lighting designer? What little kid, twirling in a tutu or contemplating the nature of art with fingerpainted concentration, decides to learn the difference between a Source Four and an Altman? Probably fewer than contemplate becoming divorce lawyers or tax attorneys.
As a kid, I was, as many kids are, an insufferable show-off. My cousins and I staged labored skits for our patient parents on vacations, or performed dance cycles to the entire Riverdance CD. The last time I stood on stage, under lights so bright I could not pick out the faces in the crowd of the dark auditorium, I was about seven and wearing the pink frilled uniform of a dancing munchkin. I don’t remember being nervous as I pranced around my parasol with all the other munchkins. Afterwards, all the parents gave their children bouquets bought in the lobby during intermission. I held mine in two arms, the way starlets are supposed to clutch their plaudits, like something careful and precious and, yet, expected.
I still am a closet show-off, but now I limit myself to the things I know I am good at. The first moment I doubted my ability to perform on stage was at day camp during one of those long summers between grades in elementary school. Everyone auditioned for the musical, because that was our activity for the next two weeks and there was nothing else to do. In the room, the man behind the table asked me to sing something. Anything. I felt something plummet abruptly from the back of my throat to somewhere in my lower abdomen. How stupid not to have expected that question. Never mind! I hurried to say. I’ll be stage crew this year. I smiled, as if that’s what I wanted in the first place. And I was the best goddamn stage crew the camp had ever seen.
I don’t think I ever intended to stay behind the scenes, but that is the last time I stood on the receiving side of an audition table. I figured I would get a feel for the process, get comfortable, and try again next year. Or maybe the one after that. By the time I was neck deep in the social morass of high school, I was less likely than ever to risk an audience. But by then theater was mostly about people who came together over shared work. It didn’t much matter what that work was. I stage-managed when I could, directed one show and wrote another, built sets and climbed ladders, everything but stand on the stage itself. My role models at the time were all writers; theater was a diversion, I told myself, something to keep me busy on the weekends. If I kept doing theater, I knew, I would have to find some more crucial role to play. I thought I might end up as a playwright. Or a director. In some unspoken part of me, there was still a dwindling hope that I might discover a deeply, deeply hidden talent for acting, one that had simply been quashed all this time by an unrelenting fear of being on stage.
Instead, I became a lighting designer. I became a lighting designer, basically, by not knowing what I was doing, but doing it often enough that I began to learn some tricks. Sometimes I stand on chairs, or move randomly from different seats in different parts of the audience as I watch a rehearsal. Sometimes I call out strings of numbers to someone standing on the other side of the theater. As I wait, something changes on stage, and I call out more numbers.
And then there is that feeling of expertise, when I am clinging to a ladder, reaching up with a crescent wrench to adjust something no one else can see from the ground. The mechanics of something so ephemeral as light are surprisingly gritty. The sheets of colored gel cut and jammed before the lights. The long loops of cable that do not want to coil neatly, which must be wrestled with and tied down. The trick of a sticky shutter, and how to weave the beams of a plot together so that there is no irregularity in the light, no darkness between the separate shafts and no spots that glare more brightly than the rest. Through all of this, the only time I stand on the stage is when it’s empty, and I can stare into the hot center of one light at a time, assessing its angle, its glow, how it fits into the puzzle of the stage.
To a layman, the role of the lighting designer must be one of the most obscure titles on the playbill, somewhere up there with “dramaturge.” The rest of it is much easier to get a handle on: the actors act, the director directs them, and the set designer builds something for them to stand in. The lighting designer—well, the lighting designer moves the play along.
When the lights come up, the world under the lights is revealed as being qualitatively different from the world outside it. Outside, the audience sits in the semi-darkness, their legs crossed, still and staring ahead at the people who begin to move under the lights. Inside the world of the play, held in a seamless net of light, a story starts to unfold that must end in the next hours. So time operates differently inside the stage world from outside. It speeds up or slows down, it jumps, or stops, or turns around. Identity is malleable, change is accelerated. Things that happen on the inside of characters’ lives are revealed on the outside. That’s what light can do, at its best. It turns people inside out.
That voice deep down never stopped wanting to be an actor, but it is so easy to want to be an actor. Look at them! They stand there and look beautiful and live out whole lives in front of everyone like it’s the most natural thing. Who doesn’t want to be that admired? But there is a certain appeal to lighting design. You are wanted, at least by desperate producers who know how to flatter. You know your work is important, even if no one ever says as much to you. “Don’t do it for the glory,” an older designer told me a few years ago. “It will never be glorious.”
Recently, I turned to some friends while we were sitting in the theater. “Do you know that I’m a poet?” I asked. I don’t think I’d ever said that out loud, I’m a poet, except as a kind of challenge. I am much more used to saying, “I’m a lighting designer,” for those occasions when I have to explain how I spend so much time in theaters where I am neither acting nor directing.
They both paused to figure out how to answer. “I knew you were an English major,” one friend said tentatively. In fact, I am writing my senior thesis as a collection of poetry. There is nothing glorious about poetry either, except that it is widely acknowledged as being difficult. I rarely think of the two forms of myself as separate; they are both informed by the same sensibility in the end. They can both be controlled, to a point, though both must contend with the messiness that comes from anything as spontaneous as life. Light is the medium of theater the way text is the medium of poetry. It interacts with every single moment and object of a play, which means it is invisible in the way ubiquitous things always are. It is the consciousness behind the play; it moves with and without the sound; it shapes the set and its shadows; it calls actors to the stage and sends them away again with inscrutable authority.
As a commonly-held belief among techies has it, the best lighting design is the kind the audience doesn’t notice. No one in the audience notices it. But that’s not right. The best lighting doesn’t hide, but moves with a logic so natural to the play that its effect cannot be disentangled from the whole. That’s the job of the storyteller, too, not to be the actor, within the moment, but to be the watcher without, among, around it all.