Robert Bush noon, Dec. 4
Education of a Theater Lover: The Broken Light Board
“Lighting supplies an enormous amount of subconscious information. It illuminates, but it also tells the audience where to look,” says Luke Olson, who created the lighting design for A Raisin in the Sun, currently showing at Moxie Theatre.
He offers an example from the play.
“When a scene happens on the couch, and takes place over a couple of pages [in the script],” he says, “I’ll have a long slow cue that slowly takes the light out of the kitchen so that the white sink in particular doesn’t pull the audience’s eye.”
Lighting also provides information about time and place as well as mood and atmosphere. In A Raisin in the Sun, Olson’s design uses several dim lamps around the set – in contrast to the tiniest bit of “natural light” from a window over the kitchen sink – to emphasize that the Younger family lives by electric light in their cramped Chicago apartment. And in the scene when Walter Younger breaks down after Willy Harris runs off with his money, Olson slowly and subtly creates a colder, harsher light to emphasize the mood.
Sylvia M Lafi Thompson as Lena Younger, and Mark Christopher Lawrence as Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun at Moxie Theatre. Photo by Daren Scott.
This season, each evening before the show begins, Moxie Theatre management draws attention to the lighting in order to emphasize that it’s controlled by a broken light board, and to apologize in advance in case it breaks down in the middle of a show.
Although the theater applied for a grant that would allow them to purchase a new lighting console, they were turned down and have had to create a fundraising campaign around the issue.
“Light designers who love us continue to put up with our [light] board,” the theater’s associate artistic director, Jennifer Eve Thorn tells me.
We’re in the light booth at the back of the small black box theater, while the cast and crew of A Raisin in the Sun mingle in the front lobby celebrating a successful opening night. She wants me to see the light board. Without knowing much about theater lighting, I can tell this thing is ancient. Lighting designers who went to school 15 to 20 years ago learned on one just like it, Thorn tells me.
“The faders don’t work at all,” she says, pushing a set of dimmers up and down and pointing out the window that overlooks the stage to prove nothing is happening.
Olson will later tell me that while it’s possible to program the lights without these dimmers (also called submasters or cross-faders), it takes twice as long. It also leaves the stage manager unable to adjust the lights manually.
“There’s no emergency escape clause,” he says. “The fear is that during a run of the show, the board is simply going to finish breaking and just stop working.”
Thorn echoes this fear.
“We’ve made do,” she says. “But we can only hope it will last through the season.”