“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

Farewell 2017

The beginning of each season at the Commonweal, and this one was my sixth, seems a daunting prospect for all of us involved. It means many hours in the theatre, many hours with our heads in scripts, many hours fielding box office phone calls and many days when it does not seem worthwhile. And then the season becomes a whirlwind and comes to a close before we know it. The final week of each season turns into a period of reflection as we realize just how many lives we’ve touched and the great memories made in that process. Without further ado, the highlights of Season 29 for CWL company members.

The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works                              of Henrik Ibsen

David Hennessey: Sending up 20 years of Ibsenfest with The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen, especially using a “death toll” chalk board; outstanding one-actor shows—Lewis Youngren in his apprentice capstone I Am my Own Wife and Brandt Roberts in The Art of the Entertainer at Lanesboro’s St. Mane Theatre; the pinheads lullaby to Merrick as he dies and watching him rise from his deathbed to cross over in The Elephant Man; M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown at the conclusion of Steel Magnolias; Christmas Past in The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge enjoying herself on the witness stand; winning the Nonprofit Excellence Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Ben Gorman: The whole production of The Elephant Man.

Adrienne Sweeney: The very best thing about this season, for me, is the new patrons I have met that have become friends. Perhaps because I was in 3 of the 5 shows, I feel like I met a lot more folks this year, be they first-timers, new season pass holders or people who attend regularly but I just haven’t had the chance to meet. The conversations I have had at Encore and opening night parties, in the lobby and sometimes even in restaurants and shops, have reminded me that what we do is vital and the human connection is so powerful.

I Am My Own Wife

Philip Muehe: As the director, seeing I Am My Own Wife come together so well. It was a long and intense process, and both Lewis and I were pushed to our limits. But watching that first audience respond so positively was an experience I won’t ever forget. Chatting with people about the show and what it meant to them was so humbling. The fact that opening night was Charlotte’s birthday made it all that much better. Very thankful for the support from our patrons and the entire company!

Hal Cropp: The amount of use that the typewriter exhibit got after every Ghost-Writer performance. It was terrific to see all the people engaging in real typewriting, especially younger people who didn’t even have a clue what a typewriter was! The four glorious weeks of fun in the rehearsal room getting The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge on its feet, from Philip Muehe’s mastering gibberish AND drywall stilts to Jeremy van Meter’s discoveries of how to irritate David Hennessey’s Judge to Elizabeth Dunn’s sheer joy as Christmas Past to Eric Lee’s very fey Marley to Ben Gorman’s poker face to Abbie Cathcart’s delightful flirt Harriet Dilber to Megan Hanks’ blithely unaware Bailiff—just a joy everyday!

The cast of When We Dead Awaken, 2017

When We Dead Awaken, 2017

Elizabeth Dunn: Enjoying (and having many successful) student matinees and workshops. Especially our When We Dead Awaken matinee for students from Mayo H.S. Best. Teens. Ever. Second is the ensemble in our production of The Elephant Man. And finally, being a part of the last Ibsen production within the annual commitment.

Megan Hanks:  One of my absolute favorite activities from this year was playing with theatrical masks at company class, or “Playground.” There is so much talent and creativity in this company! It was awesome to see everyone just let loose and go crazy behind the mask.  Although it seemed tedious at the time, looking back I warmly recall searching for the play we’d chose to be our apprentice capstone. I love cold reading scripts out loud, especially with talented and dedicated peers. I love the in-school workshop program offered by the Commonweal as part of education outreach. I had an awesome time visiting schools and work-shopping with hundreds of students! It is so important to keep children and young people excited about theatre, and it was such a joy to have been a part of that this year!

Stela Burdt: So many patrons moved to tears by The Elephant Man and Steel Magnolias.

Abbie Cathcart: I loved being in the rotating rep of Steel Magnolias and The Elephant Man. It was a total blast. Performing and directing in the Waterways 10-minute play fest. It was a bit of a blur, but also super fun. Finally, getting to do like 5 different accents/dialects in one season was challenging and great fun.

Amanda Pyfferoen: The highlight of my year was working on I Am My Own Wife. Having the privilege to tell Charlotte’s story of her strength, determination, humor, love, and zest for life is a memory I will cherish for the rest of my life. Charlotte was not afraid to live her life “as is” and that mentality has inspired me to do the same. Philip’s (Muehe) masterful direction of Lewis’ (Youngren) exquisite performance was a joy to watch each night. From the bottom of my heart, danke Charlotte.

Bailey Otto: Watching the many different versions of Steel Magnolias that came with having 3 regular understudies. And seeing Philip learn to be comfortable on stilts for his Ghost of Christmas Future in The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Megan Pence: Reuniting Brand & Gerd in The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. Directing The Elephant Man with an overwhelmingly talented group of actors + an incredible script + beautiful designs = an extraordinarily fulfilling project. Getting to play in Truvy’s beauty salon for a few performances of Steel Magnolias as both M’Lynn & Truvy – both extremely challenging roles in but in completely different ways.

Brandt Roberts and Jeremy van Meter as Merrick and Treves in The Elephant Man, 2017

Brandt Roberts and Jeremy van Meter as Merrick and Treves in “The Elephant Man,” 2017

Brandt Roberts: One of the most rewarding aspects of this season was the chance to portray Joseph “John” Merrick in The Elephant Man. It was a labor of love for me and it taught me so much about humanity and what is important in the vapor of a life. Next, serving as the props designer for The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge called for tools and expertise that were beyond what I could do at the Commonweal proper. As a result, I got to work with local artisans Don Bell and Anna Loney in their shop right here in Lanesboro. I learned a ton and forged deeper friendships. It was thanks to their help that a magic lantern projector came into existence on the stage. And then there was the spit-take into Jeremy’s face during The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. I always managed to release a lot more water than was needed!

Patrick Vaughn: Listening from the lobby to the laughter of happily captive audiences during Steel Magnolias, The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge, and Myra and Franklin’s editing sessions in Ghost-Writer. Finding out how effective mirroring the behavior of certain animals can be in creating multiple separate and distinct personalities for a multi-character track in The Elephant Man. Not only doing it myself in the rehearsal process but getting to watch other cast members doing it—that was fascinating.

The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works
                             of Henrik Ibsen

Jeremy van Meter: Being sprayed with an avalanche of Silly String along with Megan Pence during the limited and hysterical run of The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. And every performance alongside my amazing colleagues in The Elephant Man.

If you have your own special Season 29 highlight, please add it to the comment section. Thanks for watching this space and following our artistic exploits from here. I’ll be back in the editorial seat of this page in 2018 and, of course, I’ll see you at the theatre!

A Living Theatre

by Brandt Roberts (Commonweal Resident Ensemble Member)

vaudevilleOnce upon a time, there were theatres and opera houses in nearly every small community in this wide country of ours. Vaudeville shows, symphonies, magic acts, acrobats, circuses and touring companies gave the teeming masses a balm to contend with life’s travails. Live entertainment was the rage and had been for centuries. These performances gave men and women an escape, an entrance into the world of their imagination where they could view humanity in its heightened form: distilled to its essence.

But those days came to an end. Thomas Edison invented a way to capture life in celluloid. No more would a performance exist solely on the stage. Now stories could be confined to film for the world to see at its leisure. It became cheaper to ship cans of celluloid than to ship train cars of actors. And so the live performance halls were converted into cinemas.

cansIt was the age of Hollywood. Movie stars graced the silver screen and millions of viewers across the country idolized these monochromatic giants. Edison’s little contraption had unwittingly changed the face of theatre. No more could plays be performed as naturally or realistically as the public demanded. Film was able to capture the real world far better than any stage set. The audience had become accustomed to their new viewfinder world.

So the stage was set for Avant-garde, Surrealism, Absurdism, and many other “isms.” Theatre became an experimental playground, more so than it had ever been in its three thousand year history. It had to reinvent itself.

Over the years, people have professed to me that theatre is dying—from within the profession and from without. With the advent of film, television, radio, YouTube, iPhones and the like, how does the modest theatrical performance stand a chance in our world of mass media? The answer—easily. Within the phrase “theatre is dying,” there is the implication that it is something that is alive, something that can die. Film, on the other hand, is already “lifeless.” Trapped within celluloid, the film La Voyage Dans La Lune will be the same today as when it was released in 1902; only the audience has changed. When people say that theatre is dying, they are referring to popularity and not vital signs. But is theatre truly out of fashion?

In the southern region of America, there does seem to be a decline. A few years ago, I toured the northern part of our country with a theatre company. Within these small towns in the north, old vaudeville houses and single screen cinemas, which were closed due to the onslaught of multiplex theatres, had been renovated into live performance spaces. So why not renovate old theatres in the south? Well, the demographic in the south has a hard time supporting a theatre because generally speaking, they are not live theatregoers. Some of this has to do with income. A lot of the areas in the north that have renovated theatres also have a wealthy demographic with a philanthropic soft spot for the arts.

A Commonweal audienceSo why do we need theatre? We have film, TV and the Internet. And besides, theatre isn’t financially practical. We need it for one very strong reason: human beings are social creatures. We thrive on human interaction. If a baby is raised in isolation it will develop severe social and mental disabilities. The same can be said of an isolated society. Besides the audience breathing together, you have the actors on stage breathing with each other, but also breathing with the audience. The audience affects the action on stage. They are active participants in the experience, not passive bystanders. They are not isolated but intimate.

When you have a conversation with someone, you want that person to respond to you. Think about live performances as a conversation. It is an organic experience. The performance you see will never be seen again! Differences in the actors, audience, temperature, weather, politics and region all have an effect on the product. It is alive. A performance is born and dies every single night.

So, why do we need theatre in a small town? Because the residents of an area know what stories need to be told to their community. No one else will tell the tales that need to be told. It is a theatre’s job to build worlds that are only open to a few. Isn’t it great to share a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with other people in your community?

Brandt Roberts

Brandt Roberts

Arts foster this in our children and our children’s children. Art is the foundation of a successful culture and as long as there are humans who will listen to a story, there will be theatre. Theatre doesn’t need a set or a stage, elaborate lighting or costumes. It doesn’t need a camera, electricity, a computer or a satellite. It just needs a storyteller and an audience. The only difference between a story and a play is when the storyteller becomes a character. It is odd to admit it, but we all act. Each and every day you play a different character: a wife/husband, a carpenter, a teacher, a father/mother, a child, a doctor, an athlete and a lawyer… the list is infinite. You may say these are just social roles, but do you not behave differently depending upon these roles? And are not the characters in a play called “roles” for a reason? As Sir Laurence Olivier said, “Surely we have always acted; it is an instinct inherent in all of us. Some of us are better at it than others, but we all do it.”

Theatre cannot die. It is a part of who we are.