You know the expression “I know enough ____ to be dangerous”? That’s me and lighting design. I took a couple courses in undergrad, specifically on concert dance lighting design. Arguably, though, the most valuable thing that my professor, Shawn Paul Evans, taught me was how to see light. This sounds ridiculous if you’ve never thought about light or lighting design, but for those of us who have, it makes perfect sense. There’s a distinct shift in your brain when you understand how to see light. Again, I’m not claiming to be an expert, but you start distinguishing color, shadow, intensity, direction, and the strangest thing happens: Things become uglier. The nipple light in your tiny square bedroom emitting warm ‘white’ light casts deeper shadows on your grad school under-eye bags and your burgeoning tummy fat. The vaguely green fluorescent kitchen light seeps into the living room while you’re eating and disrupts your dinner. The shower light makes bathing a task even though you love luxuriating in the warm water running down your aching body.
(Only two exemptions come to mind. One, my bathroom, where the walls and light are the exact same temperature of white and everything glows, almost shadowless. Two, my sisters bathroom, where there is just enough green undertone in the grey walls to catch the green flecks in my hazel eyes and my skin looks like an unpainted marble statue. Bathrooms are a lie.)
In truth, I’d prefer to do most things in the dark than with the ambient light set up. In practicality, I tend to jury rig my own lighting set up. In my room, I have a red lamp, a blue lamp, and a green lamp so that roughly everything equates to white-ish, but the shadows are sculpted in magentas from the side and filled with blues from the bottom. No harsh high light, no nipple light (on the ceiling, you perv). My bathroom has two blue safety lights and a candle for the days when I have time and energy to (shower) turn them on. My living room is flanked by two sets of Christmas lights: one colorful, one a warm white. They illuminate the living room just enough with the help of the night time kitchen island light for me to sit and eat my pasta and canned sauce in peace.
Light is so powerful. Light is visual perception. Without light, there would be nothing except sound and touch, and in this culture of oculocentrism, that can’t be enough. Day-to-day lighting designers (contractors, electricians, interior designers) shape how we see ourselves and our environments. Theatrical lighting designers do the same—with stage subjects and their environments. The design I was taught was taught to be in service of the choreography. “The best kind of lighting is lighting you don’t notice,” the old aphorism goes.
What if the lighting design is the choreography? Or at least what if it is the key, the central unifying or obstructing element to the work? If light is the only way we can actually perceive the work in the first place, it makes sense to me that its critical, inexorable importance be acknowledged.
Make my eyes work to understand who is on stage. Remind me that I am taking for granted the ease of my visual perception.
Steep me in red. Cover me in green. Drown me in blue. Blind me with white.