My Gateway to Lighting Design

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington Columnist

The way in which lighting helps tell the story on stage has captivated me from the moment I stepped into the light booth as a light board operator (light op) when I first started volunteering at my community theatre. Night after night as I ran the light board, I was fascinated by the subtleties of timing, particularly when the cue was on an action; the way light told the time, and set the mood.  I loved it so much that I light op’d all but one show that season. 

The Crucible @ Henderson State University Stage Lighting Design by Douglas Gilpin

The Crucible @ Henderson State University Stage Lighting Design by Douglas Gilpin

Being a light op was my gateway drug into lighting design. There is something visceral for me as I help shape the story through lights. When I get it right, I can actually feel it with my entire being. My training for light design has been entirely “on the job,” thanks to a wonderful mentor who is generous with his time, supportive, and encouraging.  Now, heading into my fourth year designing lights, I’ve learned so much, but I also understand that I have only scratched the surface. Getting it right takes a lot of work and is not without trial and error.

My first light design was for The Women of Lockerbie by Deborah Brevoort, a fabulous, poetic drama that takes place during the course of one night and ends with a slow sunrise. Up until the end of the play the design was relatively simple—deep blue on the cyclorama, alternating dark blue gels and bastard amber gels for the face light so I could have the amber dimmed lower for night and the blue dimmed during the sunrise. I began the play with the lights very dim at about 40% and had a slow 6 minute fade up to about 80% so the audience got the sense that it was nighttime but by the time fade was complete, they still had the sense of night without having the actors on a dark stage for 70 minutes. The sunrise needed to slowly rise for about 10 minutes at the end of the play and took me a very long time to design. I spent days looking at photos of sunrises and scouring the web for images of what others had done with the play. Then I spent untold hours in the light booth working on that sunrise: getting the LED colors just right from my night blue transitioning through purples into the lovely orange, coral and pink color of a sunrise and finally to a bright cheerful morning. In the end I was very happy with the result. But it was my first show and so I was a little nervous…or a lot depending on the day. As we were going through tech rehearsals, some of the actresses told me they could actually feel the warmth of that sunrise against the cyc when they were on stage and that it helped them get through the heavy emotions of the play. I was thrilled! When the play opened I was almost afraid to sit in the audience and watch it. Of course I did and I was very proud of that show. I received a lot of compliments and was riding pretty high.

But not everyone liked it. An online local theatre blog sent a reviewer who skewered my design. It was the first show where we used LED par 64 fixtures for cyc lights because our old incandescent bays were huge monstrosities that took up a lot of circuit space and sucked power. While the pars weren’t ideal, they allowed a lot of flexibility with color. It seems this reviewer sat in the one seat in the house where that blue cyc was, in his words, “blinding.” And that was the kindest thing he said. I allowed myself a couple of hours to be totally crushed. I talked to my mentor who told me not to worry about it as it was only one person’s opinion and reminded me of all the reasons the design was solid. Women of Lockerbie went on to win several of our theatre’s annual awards, including “Best Lighting Design.”

Since then I have branched off into other areas of technical theatre but lighting is something I always come back too. Whether it’s designing a show, assisting another designer, or just being part of the light crew, I am never away too long—you might even say I’m addicted.