A Scaffold for Light

by Natalie Robin

Lighting and the Design Idea (Third Edition) by Linda Essig and Jennifer Setlow
Lighting and the Design Idea (Third Edition) by Linda Essig and Jennifer Setlow
Reviewing the book and talking to the authors of Lighting and The Design Idea (Third Edition)

My conversations with author Linda Essig—lighting designer and founding director of Arizona State University's School of Theatre and Film and co-author of Lighting and the Design Idea (Third Edition)—for this article didn’t start in person at a conference like USITT, or even over the phone or through email. They started over Twitter, where both of us have engaged in an international dialogue with several theatrical lighting designers. As head of ASU’s new arts entrepreneurship program, p.a.v.e., Essig knows the inherent benefits of networking for moving a career forward, so of course she engages with as many people as possible through Twitter. She even talks about the effects social media and networking can have on a career in Chapter 15 of the new edition of Lighting and the Design Idea—and the fact that she does so in a lighting design textbook is a great example of the strength of Essig’s approach, which places an emphasis on the thinking behind, and approaches to, good lighting design, as opposed to focusing solely on technical matters.

In the mid-‘90s, Linda Essig, then teaching at University of Wisconsin, wrote and published the first edition of Lighting and the Design Idea. The textbook was revolutionary for situating lighting design as primarily an artistic endeavor and de-emphasizing the technical aspects of lighting. Since Stanley McCandless’s 1932 A Method of Lighting the Stage, lighting design textbooks had depended on the teaching of the technical aspects of design (equipment, angle, drafting, implementation) rather than the dramaturgical backbone. Unlike the majority of other texts and teaching methods, Essig didn’t put gear and technology first. Instead, she focused on the idea behind the design implementation.

Linda Essig
Linda Essig
As a part of the lighting design lineage stretching from Jean Rosenthal and continuing through Tharon Musser, Jennifer Tipton and Arden Fingerhut (Essig’s mentor), Essig emphasizes the emotional impact of design over the gear. This question of framing the conversation let me to the stark realization that all of the other lighting design textbooks I have seen have been written by men. I think that the focus on dramaturgy and process is related to the fact that it is written by women. Essig argues that the book is not a consciously feminist textbook: “I don’t think we consciously said ‘Let’s write a feminist textbook.’ There is research that shows that women talk about process in a way that is different than how men talk about process. It has to do with communication. As people, Jen and I tend to be inclusive and fair-minded. Sometimes that comes across as being somewhat socially conscious.”

The book is divided into 15 chapters, the genesis of which were lectures from Essig’s semester-long University of Wisconsin Introduction to Lighting Design class. The intention of the text, according to Essig and her collaborator, fellow Arizona Stage University lighting design professor Jennifer Setlow, is to help students develop a process of their own, by presenting the “process on display as a kind of scaffold” upon which individual designers can build.

As both a designer and an educator, I am most thankful for the chapter on “Conceptual Framework.” With all of the new technology and the physics and the tactile details of lighting design, the art and the storytelling and the dramaturgy can get lost in the teaching. Essig and Setlow are successful at keeping the balance on both. I also appreciated the use of excerpts from various plays to support Essig’s arguments, including plays by Shakespeare, Suzan-Lori Parks and Sam Shepard. There is a strong emphasis on reading the play, developing a point of view and collaborating with the other artists involved to create a lighting design. For Setlow, who was drawn to teach at ASU by their emphasis on new work and the emphasis  on “creating artists, not people who just have a skill,” the attraction of Essig’s mode of pedagogy was clear. And both Setlow and Essig agree that teaching has made them better designers.

Essig acknowledges that this is where “the book in the past has come up against the harshest criticism … ‘Oh we have to teach them about the equipment first and the equipment has to come first in the book.’ I have never felt that to be the case.” Essig and Setlow do, of course, cover the nuts and bolts of lighting design. There is an emphasis on the new equipment that has been developed and come into more active theatrical use since the second edition. Essig and Setlow have expanded the information on non-traditional light sources (like fluorescents) and spent a lot of time on LED technology.

Jennifer Setlow
Jennifer Setlow
Even before teaching with Essig, Setlow had used previous editions of Lighting and the Design Idea in her classrooms. She has found that approaching the teaching of lighting through a series of modules designed to guide through a process has been very successful with college students because “the average college student who is coming to a book like this with no knowledge of lighting design whatsoever does better if they have a chance to take a bite, and then come to class, explore the idea, work with it hands on, really explore it and then move on to the next thing. Some of my frustration with a lot of the more gear-oriented textbooks is that it is all about understanding the technology and it has nothing to do with the art form that is lighting design.” But the material is also flexible. Essig explains, “One thing we did make a conscious effort to do this time is that even though the chapters are designed sequentially, they are also designed to be eaten on their own. In other words, you could do the chapters out of order and each chapter exists on its own.”

Design is a hard process to describe without being patronizing, but Essig and Setlow excel at it. They approach complicated ideas and technology with grace and ease. In the new edition, I was struck again by its simple and straightforward readability. While high schools, colleges and graduate programs have used the previous editions in the classroom, Essig and Setlow aimed the current edition primarily aimed at college students.

“In 1996, the audience of the first edition was in some ways broader than it is now, because it included not just students but also other designers who hadn’t given a lot of thought to process beyond what was in all the McCandless clone books,” says Essig. As her book was read and studied its ideas permeated the professional design community, which meant that Essig and Setlow could target the new edition more closely to college student. “It’s a more educational book now,” says Essig.

When I asked Essig and Setlow “Why now?” Essig’s answer was clear: “Because it is time.” She went on to say that a lot had developed in the field in the six to seven years since the second edition of the book. The third edition places an emphasis on the new equipment that has been developed and come into more active theatrical use since the second edition. Essig and Setlow have expanded the information on non-traditional light sources (like fluorescents) and spent a lot of time on LED technology.

Essig and Setlow made it a priority to include up-to-date examples, especially around drafting and implementation of design, which have really elevated the usability of this as a textbook. I particularly appreciated the presence of such varied examples of contemporary work by designers working on Broadway and beyond, in regional theatre, dance and opera. The text includes hundreds of images (I didn’t count) of productions in both black and white and color, which illustrate the ideas of each chapter.

The new Chapter 15 deals with the various opportunities available in the lighting field, self-promotion (social media, portfolios, websites, resumes), interviewing, internships and professional organizations. This book finally addresses something which few colleges, professional training programs or even graduate programs deal with: Now that we know lighting design, how can we make a living doing it? Which brings me back to my original point about Twitter. Essig said, “I think that putting in this new chapter at the end about work related issues was very important to me. I think it will help students make a transition into how can I think about maybe doing this. And I don’t think there are too many books that do this.”

The new third edition of Lighting and the Design Idea engages in the conversation about design in a detailed and contemporary text, which speaks to both new students and longtime practitioners.