Lighting Designer Lucas Krech has graciously agreed to let readers in on his process in a three part series he's titled "A Designer Prepares". Here's the first part:
A Designer Prepares - In the studio
The design process typically begins well before I meet with a director for the first time about a project. Perhaps there is an email or a very brief conversation consisting of little more than, "This is great, read it and get back to me." In my studio, or sitting at a cafe reading a script for the first time is where it all starts. My first read through a text has little to do with design per se. Rather, it has to do with becoming familiar with the words and with the characters, learning about the setting and understanding the story.
My first time through a text I am not thinking of technical rehearsals or fresnels or lighting boards. My first time through, I am thinking just of the text. I want to know where we are and who are we dealing with. I try to understand where we are going, the journey. When reading through the text I underline anything related to lighting or weather. I give far more weight to lighting mentioned in dialogue than in stage directions as that has a more direct impact upon the final product. Mentions in dialogue get an underline, while mentions in the stage directions get a mental note. Let us consider Romeo and Juliet, for example. One must address the moon in the balcony scene. It may be decided later that the moon is in the mind, or is blocked by the house or is a slowly rising line of neon, but one way or another the entire creative team must address the line "yonder blessed moon." Conversely, a scene where the only indication that it is night is in the stage directions may end up set in the afternoon. So I focus on the spoken dialogue.
I look for clues, direct and indirect that will tell me where we are. I want to know what the text says about these things before I ever set foot in a design meeting. If the style is somewhat traditional, then this information becomes directly relevant. If the style is highly abstract it helps guide later discussions. No matter how abstracted the final product becomes, it is necessary to get a firm grasp on the literality of time and place. In fact, I find this especially useful with more abstracted pieces. Knowing where, exactly where, the action occurs gives me a much stronger place from which to abstract the action. If the moon is a slowly rising line of neon, what implication does that have when deciding to abstract the swords or the poison or the balcony itself.
After reading through the play at least once it is time to break it down into more meaningful pieces. I have a document template I use for this where I analyze the play scene by scene, each scene on its own page. I have fields for Act/Scene number, Location, Time of day, Weather, Scenery (this typically gets filled in later), Characters, Lines, and other Notes. At this point Notes tend to be minimal, although any special lighting needs would go here. The Lines category often does not include lighting mentions. Rather this is a way for me to get into the heart of a scene, or a character. The lines I pick out may be the opening to a famous monologue, or a clear indication of the emotional tone of the scene or a moment of deep insight into a character. Upon first reading it might simply be something that stuck out at me. As I go on, the lines will change as certain aspects of the play become more or less relevant. The job of the lighting designer is to modulate tone and mood more than times of day. As such I am deeply concerned with the emotional tone of a scene as much and sometimes more than time of day.
In the Notes section, beyond lighting mentions, will be thoughts on style or preliminary design ideas. This could be anything from color ideas, to angle ideas, to texture or lamp types. A play I lit recently had two outdoor scenes that occurred at night while the rest of the play consisted of interior scenes. There was nothing in the dialogue that necessarily placed the outdoor scenes in one location or another. Even the stage directions were vague, something to the effect of "outside at night." All we knew was that in the second of these scenes they must see a moon as there was a line "Oh my god, that moon is huge." While the specific solution would be determined after discussions with the director and scenic designer, at that point I merely noted "Moon."
But what to do with that other scene? Obviously the moon was critical to the second scene, but what about the first scene? The tone of that first scene was very different than the second, confrontational rather than romantic. Harsh was a word that came to mind and was duly noted on my breakdown. There were no direct lighting references, but we did know the time of day was somewhere late evening to late night. I chose to light this scene as though under an orange street light. In this case it was the combination of the absence of any direct textual clues combined with the emotional juxtaposition with the second scene. I knew it had to be different and I knew the second scene had to include a moon. I noted the idea down in preparation for my first meeting with the director.
There are times where the text alone does not provide the necessary clues or an idea can not be expressed merely in words. At this point I shift into visual research. Pouring through books of images or Flickr or a simple internet search in order to find the answer to that elusive question. Certain shows demand a more visual approach while others are more textual. If the piece is musically based, like an opera or musical, I find many of my ideas stem directly from an emotional reaction to the music. A particular chorus might feel harsh or soft or green. There are times when inspiration comes through words, although not through the text at hand. I have been maintaining a blog for several years now that serves to process textual and linguistic concerns. This is typically me working through my own internal thinking about a piece independent of my discussions with the director.
The more times I read a play or think through a scene, listen to an aria or pour over my research, the more detail and understanding comes to me. Any new ideas or insights go into the Notes section, as with the above mentioned streetlight. Eventually when I meet with the director and other designers, I will add their ideas and the emerging concept into my notes.
The intent with this system is to become familiar with the piece and as well as create a quick reference guide to the work at hand. As I typically have several projects running in various stages of completion it can be difficult to remember everything relevant to the show I have a meeting for that day. Sometimes there is no time for another read through of the play before the production meeting, having last read it on a flight to a different tech a month earlier. By doing this detailed prep work, I am able to reference the text and bring to mind all the critical elements of the piece.
This system gives me a solid foundation upon which to enter into a meeting. I am familiar not only with the matters that directly concern the lighting, time of day, weather conditions, etc., but I also have a solid understanding of the flow of action, the characters, the setting and the overall tone. From this place I come to the work as a full collaborator and can truly work towards creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.