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Mike pontificates about lighting design

I thought... how easy it is for a painter to lose a painting.  He can paint and paint—work on a canvas for months and one day he loses it—just loses the structure—loses the sense of it—you lose the painting.

When the kids were little, we went to a parents’ meeting at their school and I asked the teacher why all her students were geniuses in the second grade?  Look at the first grade.  Blotches of green and black.  Look at the third grade.  Camouflage.  But the second grade—your grade.  Matisses everyone.  You’ve made my child a Matisse.  Let me study with you.  Let me into second grade!  What is your secret?  And this is what she said: “Secret?  I don’t have any secret.  I just know when to take their drawings away from them.”

                                                             John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation

1.  The designer is lost without instinct.  Figure out what the above quote means and live by it.  In every creative effort there comes a moment when intellect is too cumbersome and instinct dictates what is right.

2. Beauty comes from contrast — bright vs. dark, one color vs. another, or one scene standing out from the rest of the evening.  Contrast is also the difference between what we expect and what we encounter: realistic versus interpretive; presentational versus representational.  The process of lighting design is a search for opportunities to bring contrast onto the stage.

3. The designer is more than an artist.  S/he must have the imagination and the drive of an artist, but the job is to reconcile artistic ideas with practical considerations.  The designer’s medium is suspended between and among other people’s work, and it doesn’t exist without this other work.  It compromises in order to exist.  The lighting designer compromises not just with directors and other designers, but also with the people who have to pay for everything.  A good designer doesn’t insist; he sets priorities and at most tries to influence the priorities of others.  This can be a delicate give-and-take, and it works best among warm, respectful, friendly people who invite the trust of others.  Nobody offers a new idea when they’re afraid of how it will be received.

4. The number of lights in the air is a measure of the number of lights in the air, and not of anything else.

5. The designer contributes to the production and to the producing organization.  We have obligations not just to ourselves and our ideas, but to the organization that decided to invest in those ideas.  Take the gig or don’t, but once you are working for someone, keep their interests at heart until the job is done.  Don’t bitch about the fee, or anything else that you knew about when you signed on.  Then take the next gig from them, or don’t.  Never take a job expecting to make art and complain that you aren’t making money.  Never take a job expecting to make money and complain that you aren’t making art.

6.  Everyone should get their own coffee.  But if you’re going anyway, buy a round.

7.  Some performance comes from the face and some performance doesn’t.  These are to be lit differently.  The designer should think of the light as a physical presence onstage, and he must take the same care as an actor not to upstage anyone.  Almost always, the lighting is a supporting figure: it’s there to contribute to the performance of others, not to be the star of the scene.  But like a good supporting actor, when the lighting gets a moment of its own, it shines.

8.  Intelligent lighting frequently isn’t.  It’s fine to use tools, but it’s almost never a good idea to use tricks.

9.  No idea is worth disrupting an intact moment of communication.  If the audience has to stop and think about the intention, the intention is too muddled or cerebral.  No matter how beautiful the effect, the lighting is not allowed to demand more than its fair share of the audience’s attention – and most of the time its fair share is a small one.

10. “Professional” is a state of mind, not of contract or budget.  “Be flexible” is a great motto, but a terrible strategy.

11.  Nobody is interested in how tired or how busy you are.  Least of all the crew, who have actual work to do.

12: I don’t have to agree with your idea in order to respect it, just as you don’t have to accept my idea in order to give it a thoughtful look.