Lighting Design

The sub-title of this blog is “Travel and Technology” my two passions in life. This post, however, is about my third passion: theater. Specifically: lighting design.

I’ve been involved with drama groups since the 6th grade, when I joined the group at school as a stagehand. Many years later, I’m still working with some of these people, now mostly focusing on lighting design aspects.

This year has been the first time that I had an all-white stage to light. A white stage comes with a few challenges, but it is also a great opportunity to experiment with colors.

In this production the light design was very simple – only half a dozen different cues – but still accomplished setting the right moods for the show.

Full Stage

Weißes Frontlicht

Center Sidelight

Seitenlicht

Narrow Backlight for Intimate Scenes

Gasse Hinten

Low Green Backlight for Mysterious Scenes

Grünes Gegenlicht

Bright, Colorful Band Scenes

Bunt

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Asphalt Festival 2016

Asphalt Festival is an art festival in Düsseldorf, taking place once a year in the summer. It perfectly fills the void created by theaters going on summer break.

Asphalt offers a wide variety of performances consisting of theater, music, dance et cetera. I had seen several performances in previous years, though this year the three I saw seemed particularly excellent.

Maxim Gorki Theater: “Es sagt mir nichts, das sogenannte Draußen” & “Und dann kam Mirna”

These two performances by the Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin based on plays by Sibylle Berg were extremely entertaining. I find it hard to say exactly what it was that made it so. Maybe it was just a good balance of various elements I particularly like in a play: simple stage setting, small cast in ridiculous outfits, mostly spoken word, sometimes grandiloquent, with a few songs and dance routines thrown into the mix.

Maxim Gorki Theater

Oberbühne

Theaterkolletiv Per.Vers: “Düsseldorf Sous-Terrain”

As an audience member, one took on the role of an investor being driven around the city in this old-timer bus to see the various projects that a fictional development firm was working on to improve the city.

Bus

During the bus trip, refreshments were offered.

Zitrone

At various points in the city, the bus stopped so one could watch performers on the street. The funniest part was watching the reactions of passers-by who saw the performers, wondering what they were doing, unaware of the audience on the bus.

Eventually we were shown the recently built “Le Flair” neighborhood consisting of up-scale buildings in an area where many freight depots used to be. Representatives of the fictional development praised (in song) the many luxuries this neighborhood had to offer. Immediately thereafter we were taken just few hundred meters further where there were still tracks, tunnels and other remnants of the railroad connecting the freight depots. It was in these tunnels, that we met Jörg, who told us how after a series of unfortunate events in his life he was now living here.

It wasn’t revealed whether he was a cast member or whether he was actually living down there, but nonetheless it makes you think about how chance through one having good or bad fortune decides whether you end up living in an expensive high-rise apartment building or in a railroad-tunnel one block down the street.

Maskerade 2015

This week, is Maskerade week and I just have to give it a shout-out here.

Maskerade is a bi-annual festival for school drama-groups, three weeks before Easter. It’s the single biggest item in the event calendar at my high school (pictured below).

Goethe-Gymnasium

It’s run by a core team of ten or so people (including myself) who are supported by many more from the entire school community (teachers, parents and both current and former students).

My school is very lucky to have semi-professional sound and lighting equipment, so we can provide excellent conditions for the other groups. It’s a lot of work, but it is so rewarding to see our stage transform into a completely different setting for each performance and see how the other groups utilize the space.

Moments in pictures

The Maskerade banner. Unfortunately, because of the dark-green color scheme, it’s a bit hard to see for passers-by. Something to consider for Maskerade 2017.

Maskerdeposter (schmal)

Setting up the decorations on opening day (note: while I helped hanging them, I had no involvement in choosing the colors of the balloons).

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Opening ceremony with Düsseldorf’s mayor Thomas Geisel.

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The stage on Saturday morning, waiting to be set up for the first of five plays this weekend.

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And a few hours later, looking completely different.

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There are pictures from each of the performances on the Maskerade website and its Facebook page, e.g. from our performance of Wie Fliegen on Wednesday. It’s a great play that I really loved creating the lighting design for.

Researching Heinrich von Kleist

Last weekend and the two weeks leading up to it, I have done something I don’t normally do: I have been keeping busy learning about the author Heinrich von Kleist, his life, opus and impact. He is a very interesting character and I wanted to use this article to share my experience.

Materials

Heinrich von Kleist Materials

The picture above shows some of the material I used for my research. From top to bottom these are:

There are also a couple of other online resources that I found very useful. These include the full text of his letters, interviews with Kleist experts on their attitude towards the author as well as the full text of all his plays, novels and other work. While the biography mentioned above is very compact and has all the important facts, there is also  Kennst du Heinrich von Kleist? which is more suitable for younger readers, as it is written at a somewhat lower reading level (sample chapter).

Of all these, the book I found the most interesting was Kleist in meiner Küche (literally: “Kleist in my kitchen”). It is a novel set in the present day and starts off with Heinrich von Kleist showing up in the kitchen of the female protagonist one morning. Incidentally, she is a 24 year old literature student writing a paper on Kleist.

I rarely read fiction (as you can tell from books in my library), however, this was well worth making an exception. For one, it is written in a language that is very easy to read, as it is informal, using a a lot of colloquial expressions, basically the vernacular of my generation. This allowed me to finish it in only three nights. And even though it is a work of fiction, the Kleist character in the book is very true to the historical original. Having read his biography prior to this book, I was seeing parallels everywhere; which helped a lot in memorizing his character.

Technology

Since this is sort of a technology blog, let me also add something on the technology I used in my research. Obviously, the most important research tool is a web browser; Firefox 5 in my case. I love its ability to bookmark a page with a single click, adding the page to a special folder of ”Unsorted Bookmarks” that I can get back to later. This is so much easier than bookmarking in other browsers I have used.

The second most important tool has been Microsoft OneNote which I use to hold all my notes, collect snippets from the web and basically organize everything in one place. I love that fact that when pasting something from the web, OneNote automatically includes the URL of the page I pasted from, so I can easily go back to the original page later on. It has also been extremely helpful that OneNote on my PC is synced up with the mobile version on my Windows Phone. As I was listening to the audio book mentioned above while on the go, I wrote down a sentence in mobile OneNote whenever I came a cross an interesting passage. As I came home, these notes showed up in the same notebook where I keep all my other Kleist notes and I could easily find the full text of the letter I had listened to before.

My Kindle has also been very handy. Since Kleist’s work is public domain, it is available for free in the Kindle store. One night when I lay in bed and couldn’t fall asleep, I just turned on Wi-Fi on my Kindle, downloaded one his novellas form the store and within a minute I had new reading material. I should add, though, that that novella was The Earthquake in Chile, which contains some extremely graphic violence and was therefore probably a poor choice as a late night read.

Playing with Light

A couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Faszination Licht (called “Light fantastic” in the English version) by Max Keller who is the Head of Lighting at the Munich Kammerspiele. The 85,00 EUR price tag is a bit off-putting at first, but the book is well-worth the investment.

This book is like the ultimate stage lighting book, covering everything from the early history of stage lighting, the technical basics (such as types of lamps, connectors and cables), to the artistic aspects of stage lighting, e.g. what kind of colors help convey what kind of emotions and how different lighting can present the same stage in many different ways.

Having a several years of experience in the basics stage lighting from my high school days, it was the latter part that made me get the book. A good part of the book is dedicated to pictures that showcase what can be done by a professional on a big stage with the right kind of equipment (a couple of these pictures are on his website as well, so go check out the gallery there). But for those of us that have to work with less, it’s still a great source of inspiration. The only downside is that it gives the director ideas. Ideas that can be extremely difficult to implement on a school stage that lacks the proper facilities.

Hands on

So in order to find out what’s possible on our stage, I spent a Saturday afternoon with the dedicated individuals from the stage crew at my old school. Over the years, the school has accumulated nice stable of equipment. Although some of it is a bit dated, some 30 fixtures of the 1KW class with a nice mix of PCs, PARs, Fresnels and spot lights gives one something to work with.

Historically, we have avoided using color gels, because while color can be used to help convey certain emotions and set the mood for a particular scene, color is very easy to get wrong leaving one with an effect that would be OK in a cheap disco but look ridiculous in a serious theater. Also, as the number of fixtures is limited, having gels in some of them reduces one’s flexibility as this makes it impossible to re-use the fixtures in other scenes that don’t use that particular color.

One interesting use of color that we experimented with yesterday is that of lighting with complementary colors. For instance, having one spot in blue and one in yellow will produce white light where they overlap and a blue-yellow gradient at the fringe of the light cones. As the two lights produce two shadows, one of the shadows will be blue and the other yellow (see page 57 in the book or this stagespot.com article for more details).

This can produce quite an interesting effect in the right kind scenes. While it looks OK on a black background, the effect will be even greater on a white one. Essentially, all color effects work much better on white than on black. However, we learned that it is important to get exactly the right kinds of gels or else one will end up with a weird, slightly off, non-white color. Also, the angle between the two fixtures is important. If it is too big, parts of a person’s face will be hit by only blue or only yellow, creating yellow and blue shadows that can look a bit creepy. Although this can of course be part of the design if the scene calls for this kind of effect.

Theater Know-How Link Clearance

The other night I spent a couple of hours at my old high school, the Goethe-Gymnasium in Düsseldorf. When I was a student there, I was one of the kids in charge of all the technical aspects of the school’s drama group productions. I did this between 6th and 13th grade and really learned a lot during those days. So when the teacher heading the drama group asked me to pass on some of that knowledge to the next generation of students, I gladly complied.

I only had about two hours to cover the basics, so for further study I want to recommend the following pages from the German Wikipedia. This list is by no means exhaustive and I am sure there are other great resources besides Wikipedia, so feel to free to comment with additional links that you find useful.

Additionally, check out Stage Lighting Design 101 for an introduction to the basics of stage lighting (in English).

Lighting

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