Lighting Your Unicorn

by Jim Hutchinson

Jim caught a unicorn when he finally designed lights for Jesus Christ Superstar—but it wasn’t everything he thought it would be. Photo Credit: Jim Hutchinson
Jim caught a unicorn when he finally designed lights for Jesus Christ Superstar—but it wasn’t everything he thought it would be. Photo Credit: Jim Hutchinson
Making Your Dream Show Live Up to Expectations in Your Designer Brain

[While I’m on vacation, I’ve asked some friends to contribute blog posts. Today we hear from Jim Hutchinson. Jim Hutchison, the goateed, shaven headed lighting expert who writes JimOnLight.com and designs for Alive Lighting is doing some major moving himself right now, packing up his life to move to Toronto, Canada at the stop of the month.  Jim's been all over the world lighting stuff, from ex-presidents to rockers, and from divas to dummies.  Throwing the photons is Jim's game.  Oh yeah, and writing about the photons.]

Very recently, I designed a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which has been one of my “unicorn” shows since I was a boy.  My mom had the concept record lying around when I was a kid, and I used to love listening to it and imagining.  (It is also true that I had a toy drafting board and t-square at ten years old.)  I can’t be the only designer who does this with shows - I will salivate over a script that I like for years sometimes, and occasionally I jump right into a production that I’ve digested for a long time.

These “unicorn” scripts (referring to a script or production you haven’t had the chance to design) have a lot of things at stake – your past expectations of the production; creating pleasing designs that not only fit your imagination but also fit the design concept in reality with the current design team; and generally being happy with your work.  Are you able to separate what you want from what might happen?  It’s an important trait to have – mostly this falls under collaboration with others.  You have to not only create on what’s set in front of you, but you need to be able to parse that with the best design for the show.

I went literally twenty years without designing a live production of Jesus Christ Superstar, save one theoretical design of it in grad school where I turned the production into a huge touring project with 22 trucks of gear.  As you can imagine, I jumped for joy when I found out that the company I was working with was doing the script.  This is where the story takes a weird turn into reality, and not only for me, but for everyone involved.

In design meetings at the beginning, the entire team decided that it would be spectacular to produce the show with quite a bit of spectacle; this made me pretty happy; this would most certainly require a lighting rental.  I presented research material (images, videos) with lots of moving beams, heavy color, and accented visual statements that would create spectacle.  Scenically, a large unit set design was created so that lighting would create the location, which we all wanted.  The Costume design was very beautiful and flowing, which worked well with lighting design ideas.  Generally, everyone agreed to this route, and we proceeded with creating this production.

This is where things change.  Weeks went by, and we discovered there would be no lighting rental, period.  We also found out that scheduling missed the designer run, so my team would not be getting to see a whole run of the show concurrently.  This is really nothing to sweat, this happens all the time in our industry.  A few more weeks go by; we hang, focus, and cue the show to be ready for the morning technical rehearsal of production week.

For the first four hours of tech, the scenic designer and I find out that a miscommunication had taken place; we learn that the director has completely changed her view of the entire show, and now we’re lighting what boils down to an allegory play – my gobos were now inappropriate for the new setting, nothing was bright enough, and after an eight hour tech day, I ended up literally cueing the show a second time.  No rock-and-roll, no spectacle; this production was now just good old-fashioned loud and bright belt your face off time onstage.

There are some mitigating factors needing mentioning.  First, the director is an absolutely brilliant woman who was making a brilliant go at this script.  Second, I know every lick of music and every lyric in this script, so a recue wasn’t a big deal, save my pride.  What was most important was making art that we all agreed was in line with the director’s vision.  This is paramount.  So what happens when you have dreamt of a production for so many years that has just been transformed into the exact opposite of what your dream has been?  Do what I did – I invested myself in the new vision and direction, and we rocked that script so hard that it was impossible not to like the new direction.

As you advance through the years, you’ll experience scenarios exactly like this one.  You’re also going to take on some designs that you might have been better passing.  What is most important is that your work flows with the rest of the team.  It’s not about the lighting design, it’s about the production.  This can be a hard lesson to learn, but the quicker you learn it, the better you will be in the business.  Also, when your design has been changed at the last minute and you feel like you want to cry or puke, don’t forget that a smile is your passport to giving yourself some peace of mind.