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Williamstown Theatre Festival

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Interview | Jake DeGroot, Lighting Designer for CAROLINE IN JERSEY

Sarah Slight: I really wanted to interview you because I feel like people, myself included, don’t know a ton about lighting design. It would be really interesting to hear you talk about the different ways you think about it. I imagine you think about realistic lighting but you also enhance theatrical moments. What is all the thought that goes into lighting design?

Jake DeGroot: Well, for me lighting is all about story-telling. That is the essence of it. Just as the actors are telling a story through their actions, gestures and intonations, lighting is doing the same things. It has the same powers. It completely varies from project to project. The lighting should always serve the play. Just like any design, it should never work against anything the director is trying to do. There are plays in which the lighting will be memorable where it is a big part of the storytelling, big gestures, important things are happening. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s an idea that if people notice the lighting then you are doing a bad job and I don’t think that’s always true. I think there are situations where, just like any other production—there are some instances when a character’s funny voice will be memorable yet other times you want their voice to not be a big deal—its whatever the text calls for. Lighting will serve the text.

I think it is important, like every other element of theatre, to have strong collaboration, talking to the director and figuring out exactly how the piece is going to be approached and figuring out how to best enhance the show with light. Like you said that may be very much based in reality. It may be about time of day or passage of time, really defining space, figuring out what the environment is like, where the characters exist and how to make it feel that way, how to augment scenery. It might also be about emotion and about telling the story of what the character is going through. It may feel really isolated, so they’re in some sort of lighting to cut them off from the rest of the world. I hate to give cliché lighting examples but there are all sorts of tricks of the trade we can use to communicate emotion, using color, using angle, all the elements of lighting—color, angle, texture, intensity, movement and timing. All these things. And it also has a lot to do with rhythm.

One of the coolest parts of lighting is that it's both visual like scenic or costume design but it is also rhythmic like sound design. Or like speech or music. You’re creating pictures and switching between the pictures in time with the play, in time with the action, in time with the movement and emotion of the play. So the cuing, which is natural switching from one state to the next, is a huge part of lighting and how that influences the audience’s perception of the passing of time during the play or how actors build emotion. Lots of facets of it, both the visual and the rhythmic and the technological too. The next step is how to accomplish all that. What are the tools we need to make it happen? And that’s where all the technology comes in.

SS: When you read a play for the first time, do you think right away about what the lighting would be like?

JD: I can’t help it. When I read a play the first time, I always try to read it—that’s the only time I am going to experience it as close as possible to how the audience experiences it. I try to do an uninterrupted read in a comfortable, non-distracting setting where I can really focus on the play and not take notes, not be writing in the margins. Maybe I’ll underline words if something really jumps out at me or highlight stage directions or highlight illusions in the text that really strike me, but I try to experience the play for the play the very first time. The same goes for the first run through that I watch in rehearsal. I try to watch that and not really take a whole lot of notes, try to experience the play for what it is. The moment you finish reading the play for the first time, you’re involved in it and you’re never going to have an unbiased perspective on it again. The first read is important.

SS: It would nice to hear you talk about what your process is like, specific to Caroline. How much of your work is done before actors start acting?

JD: Well with Caroline, I read the play before I found out I had the job and was able to talk to Amanda [Charlton, WTF Artistic Associate and director of Caroline] about the play in an initial meeting and whether this was a good play [for me] to be working on, whether it was going to be a good fit. Very early on in the conversations I was already doing visual research and thinking of images that were pertinent to the story and the atmosphere I was thinking of creating. Amanda and I had those to discuss.

Images are really great way to talk about light because light is very ephemeral, very hard to describe in words. Sometimes easier to describe in hand gestures. But its important to find some kind of common ground through which you can discuss ideas and looks with everyone on the same page, director and designers. I find that visual research can do that. You just need to be careful that it is not taken too literally. This is not what it is going to look like on stage. This is reminiscent of what we’ll see on stage or suggestive of what we’ll see one stage. After looking at images, we talked about color palette, mood and atmosphere in pretty general terms.

Amanda and I also got to talking about what the play’s about. That’s the most important thing. What is the play about? Who’s story is this? You know, the basic dramatic questions everyone in the process asks. What do we want to focus on? What is the location? Amanda and I had lots of discussion about those things, about little quirks in the text. What are some of the rules of Will? What can Will do? What can’t Will do? How real is Will? Who sees Will when? Things like that. Or what does PETZ! look like? The actual show. What’s in David’s head about all that stuff? Figuring out where the characters are coming from and trying to get into the story is kind of the first step.

And then as we move forward, well before the show has been cast, I’m re-reading and we’re talking about transitions. We’re talking about how the play is actually going to come together. Amanda wants to be prepped going into rehearsals about how the transitions are going to work. So she is talking to the designers, getting a handle on that so when the actors are in rehearsal she is able to address those things and its not the first time its coming up.

Throughout that process of months before rehearsals start, I’m mentally compiling a list of things I want to try and incorporate into the show. I want to make sure I have a way to do that moment. I want to make sure I have this system of light to tell the story of this time of day. And then it gets more formal as I have to start turning that into a plot. The light plot is due around the beginning of rehearsal so certainly before I’ve seen a run through and before the show is blocked so the light plot is really based on the space, the set design and how the space is likely to be used. I look at what Andrew [Boyce, Scenic Designer] has created and what he and I have talked about and I try to tell the story we want to tell without have specific knowledge of how the play is going to be blocked. There might be a specific moment or two where Amanda and I have talked about “I know this is going to happen right by the fridge.” We might be able to have some specificity that way but I also want to leave myself open in the light plot so that when the majority of my work happens, I am able to adapt, which is during tech.

The lighting designer’s primary job happens live in the room during tech rehearsals. So once I turn in my light plot, the electrics department is able to look at it and go to work on it, getting all the supplies in and hanging the lights during changeover on Sunday [August 2nd]. And then we start tech on Monday night [August 3]—that will be the first time we are turning these lights on. I have a picture in my head of what its going to look like, and while there are some ways to predict, you never really know how its going to look until you first turn those lights on and you start creating.

Each of the other designers processes happens outside of the room in a studio somewhere where they are able to focus and draw and research. For lighting its all happening live in the room. Its all happening with a whole room of people waiting for you, so pressure’s on. First turning those lights on and writing those cues, seeing things work or not work and taking notes happens very quickly here because the tech schedule is so short. You don’t have a lot of time to respond to changes. In a typical tech situation, in a regional theatre, where you have a week to tech a show you have more time to do notes. You’ll work on the show at night then generate a list of notes, come in and do them, then tweak things and refine even through previews. Here we are doing that in a matter of days, so you want to be working very fast, taking notes quickly and fine tuning and polishing as much as you can, so you can put it up in front of an audience.

SS: One more question: you are also the co-lighting supervisor here, what is that job? You are designing a show, but what else are you doing?

JD: Well the lighting department is a big department at the festival, about 20 people all-in-all, staff and interns. We support everything from Cabarets to Workshops and Fridays @ 3 straight up through the Main Stage and Nikos Stage shows, Fellowships, all of it. So we keep very busy. Lighting sort of has a reputation for working very hard, keeping long crazy hours and really not having a lot of free time. Everyone is here as a lighting designer. All of our interns, all of our staff are hear because they love the art, they love theatre and they love what we’re doing here, so they can’t really get enough of it.

Managing all of that stuff is a full time job in and of itself. In fact for two people, Carl [Faber, Co-Lighting Supervisor] and I both dedicate ourselves to making that run as smoothly as possible. That has a huge range of responsibilities, everything from scheduling all the people to deciding who will design each Workshop show and assist on each of the Main Stage and Nikos Stage shows to supervising everything they are doing, all the drawings, all the paperwork that is being created to interfacing with all the guest designers on the other shows that are not being designed in house like Caroline is, receiving drawings from them, making sure they have the most up-to-date information and also upholding all the standards of the Festival, the safety standards, making sure everything gets done correctly and well and that everyone is happy and able to get at least a couple of hours of sleep each night, so its managing people, managing scheduling, a lot of preplanning.

Also a huge part of what we do is our seminar series. Usually we do about 2 seminars a week plus a talkback with the lighting interns. We schedule those all summer long with guests, industry professionals from all other aspects of lighting and of theatre, trying to work all that in the schedule in order to make this as great an experience as possible for the interns, so that doesn’t stop. That is still going on during Caroline and while its great that Carl and I are able to—when we get busy, we are able to pick up some of the other's slack. There is certainly plenty of work to go around.

SS: I’ll let you get back to it. Thank you very much.

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