Light that Gets A-Round
by Leslie Simon
This spring season, the Arvada Center’s Black Box Theatre has undergone a significant change, converting to a brand new configuration that brings the audience inside the plays. A “theatre-in-the-round” configuration takes background scenery out of the equation, and places all the emphasis on the actors. However, when the audience surrounds the stage on all sides, unique challenges arise. This season’s productions of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Small Mouth Sounds have provided our lighting and scenic designers with interesting problems to solve.
“The greatest challenge in-the-round is lighting the actor from all directions so that all audience members see mostly the same stage picture, and have the same theatrical experience,” says Lighting Designer Shannon McKinney. “Front light for one section of the audience is back light for another section, so balancing these angles and directions of light is quite a challenge.”
To ensure that audience members have equal theatrical experiences, lighting, sound and set designers spend a lot of time collaborating and planning. “If my lighting choices are out of step with the scenic, costume, or even sound design, then you get a product that is incoherent and disorienting to the audience,” says Lighting Director Jon Olson. “The best designs are the ones that complement one another.”
Not only is it important to carefully plan out the lights in a good lighting setup, but you also have to factor in the shadows (or “modeling” as it’s called in Lighting Design). “It’s not where you put the light, but where you don’t,” says Olson. With light and shadow being equally important, a lot of careful consideration is required when working in-the-round. McKinney adds, “I will spend a great deal of time making sure I’m sculpting an interesting picture with highlights and shadows on all sides.”
One of the unique challenges they have faced when designing for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is how to turn the stage into a train car. “Scenic Designer Brian Mallgrave has masterfully designed a floor pattern that implies the train car’s composition, and I have brought in top lights from above with sharp edges to create the boundaries of the train cars,” says McKinney. “Hopefully, the combination of floor paint, lights, and furniture will help the audience feel like they see a train.”
Once the rehearsal process begins, new challenges and obstacles are discovered. “Creating the repertory lighting plan is like a painter picking a palette, and in this case, it’s two painters sharing a palette,” says Olson. “Once rehearsals start, we find moments where a show needs something very specific, and then those needed elements are layered on top of the plot. Shannon and I always try to leave ourselves room for adjustments as a production starts to take shape.”
During the rehearsal process, the designers are able to see the work they have created in action, and the addition of the actors provides a lot of new inspiration. “The actors always spark new ideas — there is always that magical moment when I see them doing something that sparks a new concept that I would never have imagined without them,” says McKinney. “I love those moments, so I try to be as nimble as possible in my planning to allow those inspirations to influence the design until the show is open.”
To see Jon and Shannon’s lighting-in-the-round designs in action, make sure to enjoy all three productions playing this spring during the Black Box Theatre’s repertory season.