How to Work with a Lighting Designer

Jeffrey E. Salzberg


I sometimes ask friends and colleagues, "Is your job what you do or is it who you are?" Almost every dancer of whom I've asked this question has replied with some variation on "I'm a dancer. It controls every aspect of my being. It's who I am." Likewise, I am a lighting designer, specifically a dance lighting designer. I think in light the way musicians think in music and choreographers think in movement. Some choreographers do not seem to realize that effective dance lighting does not "just happen"; in order to do my work I must go through a specific design process. This is what led me to write this article.

Please realize that the following describes my personal approach to the process; other professional lighting designers may work in different ways. While other professionals may differ in practice, few will differ in principle.

Note: in various parts of this article i have referred to lighting designers using the masculine pronoun. this is not due to any assumption of gender, but rather comes from the fact that i am writing from my particular point of view -- and i happen to be a male.

The process:

The word "design" implies both planning and execution.

Many people think the lighting design is created in the technical rehearsal. This is not so. Others see the myriad pieces of arcane drawings and paperwork which surround the professional designer and think that they constitute the design. Again, not so. The lighting design is created in the designer's head over the course of several weeks before the production loads into the theater. The technical rehearsal is when the design is realized. The various pieces of paper serve as road maps to further us on our journey. This is why designers find it frustrating when choreographers turn to us during technical rehearsals and say things such as, "Oh, I wanted this section to be blue." The subtext of that (which the choreographer may not even realize but which the lighting designer most certainly does) is, "The time you've already spent working on this dance means nothing to me." The choreographer certainly has the right to have that particular section be blue, but it would have been more respectful of the designer's time -- and art -- for that information to have been shared earlier.

How much time have I already spent on the dance by that point? I've watched it, either live or on video at least three times -- usually 5-6 times. I've analyzed the movement in terms of focus, mood, and tempo. I've spent an hour or more (depending on the length, complexity, and overall nature of the dance) transcribing notes and writing cues. I've spent a total of 4-8 hours drafting the light plot and preparing the associated paperwork. The stagehands have spent 4-8 hours (sometimes much, much more) hanging the show and I've spent several hours working with them to focus each fixture

When I begin working on a dance, I first watch it one or two times to get the general "feel" of it. I rarely take any notes at this point; the idea is to get an overview of the work. After this, now that I have a frame of reference, I like to talk to the choreographer and get her or his ideas (more on this later). I then begin to take detailed notes on movement and music, watching the dance two or three more times.

In most cases, by this point I have not yet written a single light cue. I then watch the dance several more times, first taking general lighting notes and progressively getting more detailed. At this point, I have several pages of notes, none of which are in any form that a stage electrician could use to realize the design in the theater; in other words, I have a lighting design, but not in a usable format. After I've watched and made my decisions for each dance on the program, I must draft the light plot (the drawing which tells the stagehands which lights go where) and prepare the various documents which contain explanatory detail.

General communication:

By now, I've watched the dance anywhere from 3 to 8 times -- sometimes more. It's very helpful if at least one of those viewings can be in the studio, but generally it's more convenient to watch the piece on videotape. It is very important that the dance I'm watching be the dance I'm going to light. This means that:

A. I must see the entire, completed dance.

B. I must see an accurate version of the choreography. If you've made anything other than the most minute changes since the videotape was recorded, please make a new tape. Once, I was given a recording of a 2-minute dance. When I got to the theater, I discovered that the dance was 4 minutes long, with a completely different beginning and ending. This invalidated all the work I had already done on the dance; all I could do at that point was to build a general full-stage cue. This cheated me out of the chance to show the best work I could do and it cheated the choreographer out of having the best possible lighting.

C. The videotape should be recorded under bright white light. Please do not give me a video recorded during a performance. There are two reasons for this:

1. Performance videos are often very dim, making it difficult to see the movement. I was recently given a video which was so dark that I could only distinguish the first 20 seconds of movement. Choreographers seem sometimes to think that the purpose of providing a video is to give the designer a blank tape on which to tape Star Trek; they don't seem to realize that the purpose of the video is to provide the designer with an accurate version of the dance from which to work.

2. Just as you don't copy other people's dances, I'm not interested in copying another designer's work, nor do I wish to be influenced by it, even subliminally. If you already have a lighting design for your dance and wish to see it reproduced (I heartily recommend this, by the way -- you don't use totally different choreography in each theater, do you? So why use totally different lighting?), then give me the light plot and requisite paperwork and notes (you did contractually require your previous lighting designer to furnish these, didn't you?)

Like most lighting designers, I am not a dancer (exceptions exist; some very fine designers are former dancers) and in most cases I am lighting several dances in an extremely short period of time; I simply do not have time to memorize every finite nuance of your movement. Even though I am lighting movement rather than music, musical references are often clearer than choreographic ones; i.e., "an arabesque followed by a tour jeté" may be less communicative than "a cymbal crash followed by a long silence".

Please be specific. Saying, "Hanya grabs Twyla from behind," may be of limited value if I do not personally know Hanya and Twyla, or if Hanya grabs Twyla several times during the course of your dance. A more communicative manner of expression might be "The woman in the red unitard grabs the woman wearing the tan jumpsuit after they spin downstage from up center."

Communications concerning your dance are best done in writing. Please remember that I am juggling the needs of several different pieces of choreography; information given verbally while I am performing other tasks may well be lost in the shuffle.

Preliminary communications:

The following should be furnished to your lighting designer well before the first technical rehearsal (You and the designer should work out the exact deadline):

A. A script, if your dance involves the spoken word.

B. A description of your costumes. This should include information on color, type of material, and basic line. Fabric swatches, if available, are always helpful; different fabrics reflect light in different ways. It is always helpful if, in addition to this description, the dancers are in costume on the videotape.

C. A description of any lighting cues which you feel are essential to your dance. If this is to be a new lighting design, please remember that, as you are undoubtedly more familiar with the choreographic vocabulary than is the lighting designer, so he is probably more familiar with the dance lighting vocabulary than are you; best results are usually obtained by telling the designer the effect which you are trying to achieve rather than by telling him/her how to achieve it (for example, "I would like to isolate Mischa and Rudy down left" is preferable to "Mischa and Rudy should be in a special down left". The word "special" really communicates little; there are so many varieties and possibilities that the word is almost meaningless - and the same effect might well be possible without hanging a separate light which might have qualities which clash stylistically with those of the lighting being used for the rest of the dance). Again, please remember that things that seem obvious to you might seem less obvious to a non-dancer watching a video tape of your dance. Unless a particular cue is essential to your concept of the dance, you might do well to trust the designer's talent and experience.

Note: the purpose of the above is not to get choreographers to merely substitute the word "isolate" for "special" -- that would be pointless. the purpose is to get choreographers to articulate their visions -- to describe the effects they want -- so that the lighting designer can use his or her skills to realize them. in other words, the choreographers should do their jobs and let the lighting designer do his.

If you would like the designer to recreate an existing design from your repertoire, please send a plot, cue sheets and detailed descriptions.

D. A description of the location of any internal sound cues.

Technical rehearsals:

There are three different types of technical rehearsals:

A. The Cuing or Lighting rehearsal: In this rehearsal, the lighting designer and the choreographer sit in the house while a stagehand or other person walks the stage holding costumes from the dance. Dancers are not required (nor particularly helpful) at this rehearsal; its purpose is to allow the designer to refine and present each cue for the choreographer's approval. If there are major props or set pieces, these must be present and in finished form so that the designer and choreographer can see what they look like under stage lights.

B. The Technical Run-Through: Although this is not, strictly speaking, a dress rehearsal, it is helpful to have the dancers in costume. If this is impossible, dancers should at least avoid wearing extremely dark or extremely light-colored clothing, unless they will be wearing similar colors in performance. It is essential that all dancers be present at these rehearsals; this is when we work out any technical difficulties which may adversely affect their performance and the designer must see the dancers in the light in order to fine-tune his design.

C. The Dress Rehearsal: This is the final step. By this time, only minute adjustments should be made to any part of the performance. No major technical changes will be made after the last dress rehearsal. This includes the addition of new lighting and sound cues as well as any major changes to the existing cues. Nothing other than the most insignificant details may be changed after this rehearsal unless another rehearsal is scheduled; we do not "try things out" on paying audiences. Note: some productions have "previews" which are attended by paying audiences and are held after final dress rehearsal and before opening night. For purposes of this article, these are considered to be dress rehearsals. The dress rehearsal must be treated as if it were a performance; all dancers, props, costumes, and sets must be present and in finished form.

The choreographer and the lighting designer both want the production to be as good as possible. When they work together, each cognizant of the other's needs and concerns, great art can happen.