Create a Light Plot on a Dime

by M.C. Friedrich
More lighting work-arounds for when things don’t go as planned, but the show must go on


Last month, I talked about what to do if you don’t have enough lighting instruments or dimmers. This month, we’re going to dive right into power.

Challenge #3: Not enough power

This assumes you don’t have a company switch box for some big load-in.
Do not look to rob from some other place in the building. It is an unsafe (and probably illegal) idea to disconnect the theatre’s heating unit in the summer just to get to the 400 amps for your dimmer racks. For a big show, call the city utilities. They can even tie into the power from the transformer on the utility pole outside. If that is not feasible for the load-in, working with the existing power by unplugging one dimmer rack for another one at intermission has been known to be done.

Sometimes, in-house dimmers have a capacity greater than the physical plant’s needs, so they may not have the power expected. In my own little light lab, the 2.4K dimmers were purchased second-hand but the power to the lab was about half of what the dimmers could take. The dimmers can only take one 1K instrument each, which is fine for a light lab, but when our main dimmer rack burned out for the black box theatre next door, we were forced by necessity to use these lab dimmers for a production of Cabaret. This creative lighting included not fully loading the dimmers, rarely running them at full intensity and repatching. Know how the electricity is distributed to the dimmers. We were able to fully load one dimmer if the one next to it was at zero.

{mosimage}Challenge #4: Ancient control console or no console

Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it won’t work. The audience won’t care how low-tech the equipment they never see is, as long as the show looks good. Modest but sturdy two-scene preset boards (like the ETC Express) are still perfect solutions when your budget is limited. The lighting designer must revive the old custom of internal cues within one of the preset looks for subtle changes, moving a couple of sliders at a time. Even a six-dimmer/one-scene board (like the Pocket Console) is workable if the lighting designer plans carefully.

Challenge #5: No budget for gels or gobos

Use intensity and direction for what color would normally do. Night isn’t blue; it’s lower intensity with less ambient light. The amber shift caused by lowering the intensity is not a significant problem until the dimmer goes below 25%. Don’t try homemade gels, as the recipes for them tend to not take into account the high heat of theatrical lighting instruments.

A lack of gobos is an easier problem. Shutter cuts on instruments can be clean choices. Also, there is always the long-standing tradition of the homemade gobo: Buy heavy foil disposable cookie sheets and cut with a box knife into the desired shape.

Challenge #6: Not enough time
Know what you want and what you can live with. Start simply, then add complexity if you have a few minutes left over. Bang together general looks that will work, a daytime look and a nighttime look, providing enough light focused in the right areas. Then refine as time allows — even during the run of the scene to adjust any big flubs. If you move delicately, and slowly enough, the audience will accept the changes in light as part of the show.

Challenge #7: Small/inexperienced/no crew

It is better to do a simple lighting design well than to botch a complex one that is beyond the ability of a small and/or inexperienced crew. Take a few minutes to assess the crew’s knowledge and then spend some time on rudimentary training. It won’t be time wasted. Have copious, detailed notes and cue lists. Infinite patience is a bonus.

When setting the light looks using a computer console, be able to speak articulately in the lan-guage of the console so the board ops do exactly what you tell them. I keep a cheat sheet to prompt myself for just that purpose. In other words, talk the keystrokes for that particular control console. Instead of saying, “Okay, bring up Channel 1 and, let’s see, 10 to about half. No, make that 70%, okay, save that,” you say, “Channel 1 and 10 at 50%, at 70%. Record cue 15, enter, release.” It isn’t as chatty, but will get the neophyte board op to do the right thing.

If you are designer and crew all rolled into one — still keep it simple and pace yourself. Audiences don’t notice a simple lighting design executed efficiently, but they do notice a messed up one. Create a fabulous, intricate, detailed lighting design later when you have more help.

Challenge #8: All the above

To quote Kenny Rogers, “Know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away; know when to run.”   

M.C. Friedrich is an associate professor of theatre at Michigan Technological University.