LIKE MANY HIGH SCHOOLS across the country, on March 23, 2020, Ball State University officially went on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes migrated to remote formats, faculty and staff were generally not allowed on campus, and the Department of Theatre and Dance canceled five productions in rehearsal at the time.

The next four months proved exhausting, trying to determine how (or if) we would produce shows in the fall. There were numerous solutions considered, ranging from limited audiences and socially distanced actors to prerecorded new works uploaded to YouTube. Ultimately, we decided to try livestreaming productions using video-conferencing software.

The first production of the fall semester was Overpass by Julia Specht. The entire production team consisted of undergraduate students, and one of our main conversations from the beginning was how to transition our traditional lighting design process to this new, virtual world.

If you’re a technical theatre student working on your first virtual production, the lessons we learned might help you avoid common pitfalls and make better design choices.

DEVELOPING A NEW PROCESS

Overpass performers were able to change the mood of a scene by playing with their proximity to lighting instruments.

Overpass performers Maddie Land and Emma Grow were able to change the mood of a scene by playing with their proximity to lighting instruments. Photo by Mickie Marie.

We quickly learned that our traditional process of conceptualizing the design, creating a plot, and writing light cues was not going to suffice. Instead, we began to think of this process more as a devised production, with many of the designers experimenting in rehearsal and developing ideas alongside the actors.

To maintain some control over production aspects, two classrooms were set aside as “studio” spaces. Overpass has only two characters, which meant each actor could inhabit their own studio. Having the actors perform in classrooms meant we had more reliable internet connectivity, since student performers were not dependent on their internet connections. In addition, having each performer in their own space meant they could perform without wearing a mask. Three computers were located in the studios, one for each performer and a third to act as the “control,” providing the stage manager with a view of each actor.

As performers rehearsed, the production team sought maximum lighting impact using minimal elements. One benefit of a virtual platform is having greater control over the audience’s perspective, which is confined to the camera’s view. We used one desk lamp and one standing lamp in each studio. We knew we would be able to control the lighting levels by shifting the proximity of the lights to the performers. We also had a couple of auxiliary clip lights to add fill if needed.

The first part of the show takes place in a living room, while the second part takes place in the bathroom of a restaurant. For the living room scene, our designer used two lamps with warm white light bulbs in front of the performers to create a “front light” feeling. In the second part of the show, the designer used the rooms’ overhead fluorescent lights to create a harsher top and back direction to the lighting. As technical rehearsals progressed, however, the designer and director wanted the second part of the show lit differently for one character to imply a supernatural element. The designer moved two desk lamps to the floor, while continuing to use fluorescents in the other character’s room. These drastically different lighting directions achieved the desired effect of making both characters feel as though they were in separate locations.

During technical rehearsals, we made a few discoveries. The first was that built-in computer webcams were not of sufficient quality to keep lighting consistent throughout the scene. Several times the camera auto-adjusted its sensitivity to make the scene really dark or really bright. We added higher-quality external webcams to ensure consistent lighting throughout the show.

The second major discovery was the way performers were able to play in the light. Because the lights were significantly closer to them than a theatrical fixture would be in a larger space, the characters could change the image created by the light on their faces just by changing their proximity to the lighting instrument. This was especially apparent in the second part of the show for the character lit from below. With a subtle adjustment to her face, she could shroud her eyes in darkness or be evenly lit. This subtle light play was extremely effective in creating dynamic moods.

In addition to the design components, the technical rehearsal process was dramatically different from a traditional production. We knew choices would shift in this devised production, but we didn’t know how much. Ordinarily, we start technical rehearsals on a Saturday morning with a plan in place and lights focused. That was not the case for this production, and in fact we adjusted the lighting throughout rehearsal for both scenes, including creating “bounce cards” to control fixtures, installing black plastic around windows to control light bleed, and installing different lights for a scene onto one surge protector so a crew member could flip a single switch to change the lighting.

Table lamps, standing lights, and overhead fluorescents were combined in the lighting design for the Ball State University production of Overpass.
Desk lamps, standing lights, and overhead fluorescents were combined in the lighting design for the Ball State University production of Overpass. Photo by Mickie Marie.

KEY DESIGN TAKEAWAYS

While our lessons were many, the most important takeaways can be boiled down to these two recommendations.

Simpler is better
First, simpler is always better in this format. We think of light cues as the beginning and end of a scene. Light fades up on the scene, and the scene starts; at the end, lights fade down, and we move to the next scene. With virtual platforms, designers don’t have that control ― the camera does. Unless you use major broadcasting software, you probably won’t have a “fade” option, so the scene either starts when the camera turns on or when the actor walks into the camera’s view.

Make bold choices
The second major takeaway is to make bold choices. Subtlety is lost in the camera without a tremendous amount of control (think major film production control). Our eyes are much more sensitive than a camera. In live theatre, we can make subtle choices that enhance character motivations, locations, or time of day. With webcams, designers must make bold, dramatic choices to draw a contrast between two scenes. In live theatre, we might make one scene a warm white and the next scene a cool white to show the passage of time. On a platform such as Zoom, where the camera tries to adjust to enhance the subject’s appearance, subtle choices like these get autocorrected to just “white,” leaving no major difference in what the audience sees.

The virtual format is absolutely a legitimate way to create theatre. But we must change our mindset from one of absolute control over every aspect of the environment toward one of experimentation. We must be willing to give ourselves grace when things don’t work and learn from them, just as much as from things that go right. Theatre has always evolved with changing times. This virtual transformation is one more step in that evolution.

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