“Silent Sky”: A Most Heavenly Lighting Design

Lighting Design, My Creative Process

by Paul Epton

Paul is a professional, live theatre lighting designer and the creator of the design for our version of “Silent Sky” by Lauren Gunderson. In this post, Paul provides a behind the scenes glimpse into his creative process.

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, 2018“If you can’t see the actors, it’s my fault” is my usual response when I’m introduced as the lighting designer, but of course my job is so much more.  I start with the script. Always the script. Not just the basics—time of day, interior or exterior, season, locale, reality vs. memory vs. dream—but also meaning, emotion, message. I am constantly thinking of the audience and what I can I do to help you feel and understand what the director, creative team, and performers want to share. Ideally, you won’t notice the lighting design as a separate element (at least most of the time) as it enhances the story we’re all trying to tell you.

After reading the script, it’s time to talk with the director and other designers to get their perspectives. That’s when a whole list of questions must be answered. How realistic will the scenery be? How much work will lighting and props do to define time and place? What will be at the back of the stage: black masking, the sky, a projection surface, or an abstract scenic element? How will video and lighting interact to complement rather than interfere with each other? As the design takes shape, I’ll be thinking about specific cues in terms of how each scene, or moments within scenes, should look. Does the director plan staging that calls for light cues beyond what the script or design concepts require? What about transitions between scenes? Precisely when do the changes start, and how long do they take? Watching rehearsal further informs these choices as I come to a deeper understanding of the play as well as see how the actors use the stage.

Only then will I move on to technical decisions such as which instruments to use, the direction they will point along with what color filter or other effects to utilize. Once the lights are all in place—a 2-3 day process at the start of the 2 weeks leading up to opening—I’ll begin to create the cues for each look of the show. It is through these technical rehearsals that the world is truly created and the further decisions are made. As the actors and director move from rehearsal room to actual set, what needs to change? Should the rate of each change be what I thought, or does it look too fast? Should it start a second later? Do I need to change or move some of the lights? Add others? Add or remove cues? And what do we learn from you, the audience—do we need to hold the action, or the lighting changes, for your reactions? Or give you a moment to absorb what you’ve just heard or seen?

Steel Magnolias set showing fan shadow, 2017Last season, one of the dramatic lighting touches I created was the ceiling fan in Steel Magnolias. If it hadn’t been there, nobody would have missed it. A real fan, at a realistic height, would have cast multiple distracting shadows on the actors. Could I do it with lights—the shadow of the fan blades, lazily turning (just how fast?). Just enough to emphasize that it’s a hot summer day, or not turning when it was Christmas.

For Silent Sky, a small moment that changed once we moved into the theatre was at the end of Henrietta’s introductory scene, as she transitions into the scene with her sister Margie. Questions raised in this moment ranged from how the lights should shift at the end of the introductory monologue or wait for Henrietta to move, sit and watch the night sky for a bit, then slowly change to daytime as Margie breaks in. Should I include the sky, which necessarily silhouettes scenery that has nothing to do with the yard in Wisconsin, or leave the backdrop dark since the scene is completely downstage? Through trial and error and feedback from the entire team, those questions are answered.

Final moments of Silent Sky with starsOne of the big moments in Silent Sky was director Adrienne Sweeney’s early vision for the end of the play, the moment when Henrietta finally looks through the Great Refractor telescope that she was never allowed to use during her time at Harvard. The image Adrienne started with hearkened back to the swags of lights used in The Elephant Man last season and whether or not we could we extend those points of light beyond the confines of the stage to encompass the audience. We tossed around several ideas during early meetings, then I did an experiment at the start of rehearsals. It eventually led to the final result, but even that changed just a day or two before the first preview. We decided to adjust the sequence and timing, but I said “wait a moment” and programmed a slightly different cue sequence than we had just settled on. When I ran my version, the response from the team was “Right! That’s it.” You’ll have to decide if it works for you, too.

Experiencing Paul’s brilliant lighting design in Silent Sky is just one of the many great things to do in Lanesboro, MN. What’s another? Commonweal resident ensemble member Hal Cropp suggests a kayaking trip along the Root River. Bring your own or call on one of Lanesboro’s great outfitters for all river and trail equipment needs. 
Silent Sky closes within the month with the closing performance coming soon on June 23. GET TICKETS —> HERE
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre—Jeremy

Take it from our Patrons

Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson

photo by Peterson Creative Photography & Design

Take it from our Patrons…

Ollie Lepper & her daughter Sawyer recently attended the play Silent Sky together. I was curious about their experience. Here is a little bit about what they thought about this show.

Ollie, what was your impression of this show?

It was visually stunning, extremely informative about an amazing piece of history that I knew nothing about, and it was also quite funny!

What was your favorite part of this play?

I actually really loved the sequences that were effectively showing the passage of time! The women working round the clock in the lab interspersed with the “letters” home to Henrietta’s sister. The dedication these women had to their career was unbelievable. 

Did you have a favorite character?

Henrietta was such a modern woman! She knew what she wanted to do with her life and she made it happen. The measures she took to attain that life were extremely radical for the time period. I really loved all the women in the lab and thought the play did a great job of letting us grasp what they were up against in this time period but also let us see them as not just these serious, incredibly smart people. They were fun and funny too!

Now, Sawyer, you went to this play with your mom, so what about you, who was your favorite character?

Henrietta, because she’s funny and really smart and spoke out about what she wanted to do, which was not sit in a stuffy room and work for men!

This was your first time at the theatre, right? What did you think about going to a show there?

I was kind of nervous, but it’s a really cool place!

What part of the play did you like the best?

I liked the parts where they communicated in letters! It was really interesting but kinda funny at the same time!

What would you tell other kids your age about this play or about the theatre?

I actually did this! I told my friend Jentrey about the play and the theatre, and we made a plan for me and my dad to go with her and her dad to see Silent Sky!

Ollie, did any part of this play hit you in particular?

I am continually amazed by people who are obsessed with space. I personally find it overwhelming and kind of terrifying, haha! These women had a quest to discover and understand these stars that are an impossible distance away and they gave years of dedicated study, it’s just, WOW. 

Why did you want to bring your daughter to this play?

I thought it would be a great history lesson about a piece of history that we previously knew nothing about! I wasn’t expecting it to also be so funny and tender. The light show with the stars was truly a special treat! We loved it!

What do you hope she got out of it?

I think it is hard for kids to grasp life before any real technology existed. I hope she picked up on the dedication these women had to what amounts to truly monotonous and tedious work. Nothing about Henrietta’s discovery was easy! I also think it is important for us to keep our daughters informed about how far women have come. I think it’s confusing for them to understand that women were actually NOT ALLOWED to use a telescope?! To vote?! These things seem insane today but it really wasn’t that long ago. 

Would you recommend this play to other parents with their kids?

Yes! It is a great history lesson with enough laughs and light show effects to keep kids attention.

Spending time with your family at the Commonweal is one of the great things to do in Lanesboro, MN. Need another idea? Commonweal resident ensemble member Elizabeth Dunn thinks that breakfast at Gordy and Val’s Diner Car Cafe is not to be missed when in town. Honestly, best waffle for miles!
Silent Sky plays for another six weeks with the closing set for June 23rd. I’d love to know how it inspires you.
Get your tickets today by viewing the full performance calendar.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre—Jeremy

Women In Stem: On the Shoulders of Giants

Henrietta Leavitt, along with her team of female scientists profiled in Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson, made amazing discoveries about the universe and our place in it. If you’ve never heard of Henrietta, you are not alone. You’ve probably never heard of Carolyn Porco either but her career and accomplishments in the world of astronomy are no less groundbreaking than those of Ms. Leavitt and her colleagues. Last year, the Cassini spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere of Saturn after 20 years in space. Dr. Porco was the team leader of Cassini Imaging. This edition of Drama Unfolds provides an introduction to Carolyn Porco and her career of looking at the “promised land beyond the sun.”


One of the Top 25 US Women in Stem

Carolyn Porco

September 15, 2017 — The end is now upon us. Within hours of the posting of this entry, Cassini will burn up in the atmosphere of Saturn … a kiloton explosion spread out against the sky in a meteoric display of light and fire, a dazzling flash to signal the dying essence of a lone emissary from another world. As if the myths of old had foretold the future, the great patriarch will consume his child. At that point, that golden machine, so dutiful and strong, will enter the realm of history, and the toils and triumphs of this long march will be done.

For those of us appointed long ago to embark on this journey, it has been a taxing 3 decades, requiring a level of dedication that I could not have predicted, and breathless times when we sprinted for the duration of a marathon. But in return, we were blessed to spend our lives working and playing in that promised land beyond the Sun.

My imaging team members and I were especially blessed to serve as the documentarians of this historic epoch and return a stirring visual record of our travels around Saturn and the glories we found there. This is our gift to the citizens of planet Earth. So, it is with both wistful, sentimental reflection and a boundless sense of pride, in a commitment met and a job well done, that I now turn to face this looming, abrupt finality. It is doubtful we will soon see a mission as richly suited as Cassini return to this ringed world and shoulder a task as colossal as we have borne over the last 27 years. 

To have served on this mission has been to live the rewarding life of an explorer of our time, a surveyor of distant worlds. We wrote our names across the sky. We could not have asked for more. I sign off now, grateful for knowing that Cassini’s legacy, and ours, will include our mutual roles as authors of a tale that humanity will tell for a very long time to come. — reprinted from CICLOPS.org, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations.

Dr. Porco was the Imaging Team Leader on the Nasa/Esa/Asi Cassini mission. She was also instrumental in helping frame the Earth for its famous Pale Blue Dot portrait by Voyager. You can follow Dr. Porco on Twitter and read more about her work and that of her imaging team on the CICLOPS website.
Were it not for Henrietta Leavitt, there may be no Carolyn Porco. There is no better way to learn more about Henrietta Leavitt than by seeing the Commonweal version of Silent Sky opening Saturday, April 7. For more information, visit the show page on this website.
Thanks for reading and I’ll see you at the theatre — Jeremy