Happy Vernal Equinox! Today marks the first official day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and is one of two days in the year (the other being the Autumnal Equinox) when we receive the same amount of light as darkness. Isn’t the symmetry gorgeous? It has traditionally been a celebration of life, renewal, and a reminder that warmer, brighter days are ahead.
Trip the Light Fantastic
I have a loving yet fraught relationship with sunlight. It lifts my spirits, renews my energy, and gives me the opportunity to wear punchy sundresses. It provides the best lighting for selfies and picnics. (But it also makes me break out in photodermatitis hives. Hello, darkness my old friend.)
Although we, of course, need sunlight to live, electric illumination is now so integral to our daily lives that we hardly give it a second thought. New Yorkers know what it is to feel like we’re drowning in neon and LED – it’s part of what makes Times Square in turns wonderland and hellscape. We relentlessly fill our bleak and empty spaces with light, desperate to illuminate any corner the sun does not reach.
For most of human history, people relied on flame, moonlight, and starlight to see in the dark. How magical, then, that we summon light from thin air. The advent of electric light completely changed the way we work and create. The theatre is no exception. We all know light makes photography and cinema possible. But we take stage lights as a matter of course. Lighting is more than just a tool for visibility. It changes the ambiance of a moment, a scene, an entire play. And it extends beyond just head and footlights – lighting designers now have high-tech projections at their disposal as well. The storytelling capabilities of light are spectacular – the impressionists knew this well.
The first stage lighting took the form of beautiful, ambient, and extremely flammable candle flame. They made do with what they had, hanging candles from chandeliers throughout the house, and over wings and foot of the stage. Throughout the centuries, theatre practitioners further developed lighting technology powered by gas and oil that was brighter, easier to control, and also pretty flammable. The theatre was once a much more dangerous place, all those little fires! Eventually, in the late 19th century, the advent of incandescent lighting allowed theatre houses to install electric lighting. These updated technologies gave lighting technicians more capabilities for specific illumination — including spotlights, arc-lights, and more.
(Here’s a cool breakdown of theatre lighting throughout history.)
Going back to some of the earliest lighting design, the interplay of color and light has always been a tool used to enhance the stories being told onstage. While advances in technology have given artists more possibilities, lighting is typically a design element meant to go unnoticed. That is, well-done lighting will typically be so adeptly woven into the performance that audiences hardly realize the way it affects their experiences of the scenes. Prolific Cursed Child lighting designer Neil Austin says in this Broadway World interview, “But all of this technology is at the behest of one thing: telling the story. Our work should always be aiding the playwright to do that.”
Though those behind the scenes rarely stand in the spotlight, lighting designers deserve to receive their due. My favorite part of the theatre is its collaborative nature – all these moving parts on and off stage come together to illuminate one cohesive story.
This Vernal Equinox, I’m feeling special gratitude for light where there was once darkness. Onstage, outside, and within myself.
Love and theatre,