My Journey in Lighting Design

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington Columnist

After my first attempt at lighting design (read my post My Gateway To Lighting Design), I decided to learn everything I could about this new addiction…er…passion of mine. I read (and continue to read) several books and online articles on the subject, took a couple of workshops through The American Association of Community Theatres (AACT), and downloaded a free light plotting software program called LxBeams. When I am in the audience, I pay close attention to a show’s lighting design, sometimes at the expense of losing a bit of the story. I chat with my mentor (and often his mentor) about lighting…a lot. I assist with other lighting designers at every opportunity and light op whenever I can. (You can learn a lot about lighting by sitting in the light booth show after show.) But I learn the most just by doing. Some of the more technical aspects are still just beyond my reach, but they get closer all the time. 

Since that first show, I’ve designed lights for A Christmas Story: The Musical—where I tried too hard, shifting the lights several times during a number, and was never fully satisfied with the show; The Rabbit Hole—where I learned the beauty of subtly and still consider it one of my best; and Spamalot—where I threw everything I knew into the mix, was happy with most of it but struggled with a couple of scenes where I never quite got it right. Each show taught me something, helped me better grasp those technical aspects, and fueled my creativity. With these shows under my belt and my confidence at an all time high, I was eagerly looking forward to my next project, Anything Goes, which ended our 2015-2016 season.

The set was a white ship trimmed in red and blue against a cyc and lots of white sailor’s costumes. I love color and I thought that this set would be great to bounce a lot of color off. So I gelled my incandescents with Roscoe #51 Surprise Pink—a favorite for musicals because it is a happy color—and spent several days with the director working on my color pallet for the LEDs we use for color washes and the cyc. Man, those colors looked great bouncing off the ship and I was really happy…until the actors stepped on stage. To my (and the director’s) horror all of their complexions turned this sickly yellow green under the lights. In all the shows I had been involved with at our theatre, this had never happened before. So I dug in and tried to figure it out.

Noticing that some of the LED colors were casting green and yellow shadows, I reworked the color scheme, removing all green and yellow from my LED colors. It helped some but not a lot. If it wasn’t the LEDs than it must be the incandescents and my gel choice. I researched on line and found absolutely nothing. The Foster Sutton version of the play on Broadway also had a white ship but they used spot lights to light the actors. Since we only have one spotlight, that wasn’t an option. I talked to my mentor as well as the guy who mentored him and they had never experienced anything like it and didn’t have anything to suggest. So, in keeping with the happy theme of a musical, I re-gelled with a no color pink. That made everything worse. I was miserable, my director was unhappy, and we were getting very close to opening night.

My frustration was nearly beyond the limit and for the first time, I was really feeling my inexperience. Seeds of doubt crept in as to whether or not I should even be doing this lighting thing at all. But the show had to go on and I didn’t have the luxury of wallowing in self-doubt. I began to think that a no-color blue might be the answer but I wasn’t taking any chances. I called PNTA, our theatre supply store, and they recommended a color correction gel to take the temperature of the incandescents down to that of the LEDs. I used GamColor CineFilter 1529 1/2 Blue CTB. And it worked. The feel of the lighting was cooler than I wanted but the actors were no longer yellow, which of course was the whole point. Doesn’t matter how pretty the lights are if you’re actors look the living dead. For all the aggravation, Anything Goes ended up being my best show to date. It taught me a lot.

There are times when I wish I had a more formal training in lighting design then I realize I’m having way too much fun learning as I go. It’s an amazing thing, really, to think that four years ago, all I knew about lighting was how to flip the switch in my kitchen. I guess I’ve come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Yet with all there is to learn about light design, I know it will never become mundane.