Let There Be Light

by Kathleen Moye

THE LAST FEW MOMENTS before the start of each new theatrical performance there are butterflies in the belly, or at least seconds of calm preparation, for each creative person involved with the process. As the lights go down, actors take their places and musicians ready their instruments. The stage manager, often the expert of everything that is supposed to happen backstage and onstage during the show, is professionally poised to orchestrate. The director and producers hold their breath in anticipation. Lights up, and it’s curtain time.

Russell Thompson is Lighting & Audio Designer for the Prather Family of Theatres—locally, the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre. He’s been in the business since the mid 1980’s when he joined the Performing Arts Academy, Interlochen NMC, in Trevor City, Michigan.

Thompson became hooked on the way lighting and sound design brings a performance to life. He describes how it works:

“It starts with a reading of the script and listening to the musical numbers and you start to get a picture in your head. Then you meet with the set designer and the director and everyone discusses the picture they have come up with and you find out quickly if you’re on the same page as the other designer and director. At this point the set designer goes and works up his ideas into a sketch. While waiting for that I go back over the script and music again. After about a week I get some plans. I build a 3D virtual model on my computer and begin lighting ideas. You have to take into consideration what colors the set designer is using as well as what colors the costume designer is using and the complection of your cast.”

Every single element of the lighting and sound design comes from the script. Thompson says he makes notes for technical aspects as he pours through each line and stage direction. “I go through the script. Each scene has it own list of objectives I must achieve. Day or night, morning or evening, winter summer, inside outside, happy and upbeat or scary or dark or moonlight, etc.”

He marks next to actual times and lines on the script, denoting ‘cues.’ In a performance, each cue will show a different lighting look onstage. Sometimes a cue is as simple as making a room onstage light up when a person enters and pretends to flick a switch. Or, a cue could take place over time. For example, if the action onstage scene in a play will lasts from afternoon to evening, then there may be a light cue to slowly dim the lights and change the color reflected onstage gradually from bright yellow to pale shades of blues and purples.

Thompson uses a computer drafting program called ‘Wysiwyg’ to capture his location, color, shape and intensity lighting ideas. “I’ve been using it about 7 years,” Thompson says. “Before that, it was all imagination, and sometimes you got it right and other times you found yourself starting from scratch on the first day of Technical rehearsals.”

Technical rehearsals are the days when the actors get on stage in costume and walk through the times in the show where lighting and sound elements are coordinated with the script. All the lighting and sound cues are programmed into the computer and equipment in the tech booth at the back of the theatre. Technicians man the controls and read directions from the notated cue script. It’s a crucial and sometimes grueling opportunity to get the technical steps perfected.

A designer may have a while to plan what the lighting look will be, but at Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, there’s usually not much time once technical rehearsals start before there’s an audience.

Broadway Palm runs a tight schedule for turning over productions: they often close on a Saturday night with a brand new show (new lights, sound, and set installed) the following Wednesday!

Russell Thompson paused a few moments after a show to reminisce about his beginnings.

How did you get into this business? Can you tell me about your first design experience?

“My first design was crazy; I was designing a show called “Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, and his granddaughter was in the show...no pressure! In the show ghosts appear on stage - Major effects even for well equipped theatres, so for a small theatre in the 80’s it was very challenging.

What part of designing a project do you like best? Why?

Building the actual effects and looks of the show, This normally takes place between 11PM and 6AM. It’s where the creativity takes place. You start with a black stage and create what the audience will see, as well as what they don’t see.”

What do you look for when you watch a show?

“I’m a terrible theatre goer. I look at all the technical elements of the show much more that what the performer is doing. I notice little flaws in the programming, stuff as a designer you try and fix before an audience see it, but you almost never get them all.”

What was your favorite project?

“I have a few, because the projects were so different. A show called The Civil War was a big one for me because my hobby is civil war history, and it had a lot of different looks to it. When I was with a TV show called Club MTV it was great because with each show/concert it was a different band. I just finished a world premier of Around the World in 80 Days. It was very cool because it had never been done before anywhere, and with the author on site, it changed every day. Jesus Christ Superstar is about my favorite show. I mix normal stage lighting with rock & roll lighting. Best of both worlds!”

Over the summer, the Broadway Palm featured Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which Thompson describes as theatre meets rock concert. “the lighting is just as much of a performer as the actor,” he says. For comparison’s sake, he’s really not exaggerating! There are nearly 400 light changes in Joseph in the entire 65 minute show. A show like Damn Yankees, seen earlier last season at the Broadway Palm runs 220 minutes and only had 145 light cues.

But usually, an audience member isn’t paying all that close attention to the lighting, which is one of those pieces of the show where one might not notice its affects unless something goes wrong. When it goes well, lighting enhances the action on stage and the overall creative direction of the show. “If I do my job well they will walk out and say Wow that was great.”

In September and October, the audiences can see Russell Thompson’s handy work in two shows: I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change is on stage through September 29, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story opens October 4-November 17.

For information about the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre, call 278-4422. •

from the September-October 2007 issue

Russell Thompson

Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre
Did You Know?

• Russell Thompson designs and adjusts lighting effects for shows at the Broadway Palm from row B, which is near the front and center where critics are often seated to review performances.

• The professional theatre and motion picture designers’ union, of which Thompson is a member, is called International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE (pronounced colloquially as ‘Eye–Aht–See’). He’s also a member of USA, or United Scenic Artists.

• Inside of one of the special spotlights that the Broadway Palm uses includes two color wheels of eight different colors each and fourteen gobos (special discs that go in front of lights to project shapes onto a set).

• Once lights cues are recorded into the computer (sometimes involving a series of cues), an operator only has to push one or two buttons to make the effect play onstage.