Post from 552, September 2011

Changing the Lights – Does Minutiae Make the Art?

Monday, 5. September 2011 0:15

In graduate school I had a professor who, trying to impress upon us the importance of lighting, told us repeatedly that you could make an audience cry simply by changing the lights.  He never demonstrated this phenomenon, but he held that it was true in the strongest possible terms.  We thought, or at least I thought, it was an exaggeration at best.

Then later I was working on the light crew of a musical and there was a two-beat sequence in act one that went, punch line/blackout, and the audience laughed. (And how fast you read that phrase was about the timing on it.) One night, someone slipped and we were late on the cue, so it went, punch line/beat/blackout, and the audience laughed. So the next night we tried punch line/beat, beat/blackout, and the audience laughed. We (the portion of the light crew that manned the dimmer racks—this was a long time ago) observed that the audience did not laugh until the lights went out, which gave rise to all sorts of theories and ideas and wonderings.

So we decided to play with it—only within certain limits, lest we screw up the show and/or incur the wrath of the stage manager, or worse, one of the many stars in this vehicle, although most of the real prima donnas were in act two. And what we discovered over the next few nights was that the audience did not, would not laugh until the lights went out. Not really a scientific test, but enough to convince us.

Of course, we didn’t know what to do with the information. The study was not scientific enough to generate a paper. It was difficult to talk about without acknowledging that we had knowingly jacked with the timing of the show, which none of us wanted to admit. Certainly, the laugh was set up by the actor and the lines, but the trigger was the blackout. A blackout, nothing more, and, regardless of the timing, it triggered the laugh. It amazed me, amazed all of us, I think.

We theatre types pretend we know how to do comedy; we have all read comic theory; we have had practical experience with audiences, and so we have some idea. But this little long-ago experiment taught me how little we know about what actually triggers a laugh. And by extension, it taught me how little we know about what in a performance triggers any reaction. It could be as simple as a blackout, or the timing of a reading, or—in an intimate theatre situation— the quarter-inch movement of an eyebrow. Then by further extension, I began to wonder about other triggers. What is the thing that triggers the choked-back sob in the audience; what is the thing that actually causes a viewer to have a fear reaction?  What tiny thing is the thing that makes the painting be more than just oil on canvas, what curve or angle makes the sculpture really impact spectator, what detail makes the photograph reach out and touch the viewer, what tiny movement makes the dance have real meaning for an audience member, what word choice causes the reader of a poem to tear?

Perhaps it’s the entire composition: the combination of line and form and texture and all of those elements that we learned in art class or design class. But given all that, there is still there is some factor that separates those art works that really impact us, that make us laugh, or cry, or think, or remember from all the others. And there is something that actually triggers those responses.

Maybe my professor, Gordon Pearlman, was right; he did, after all, go on to become one of the giants of stage lighting control. Maybe it is something as simple as changing the lights.  Or maybe, changing the light is not nearly as simple as it seems.



Category:Audience, Presentation, Theatre | Comments (2) | Author: