The cast of Midsummer Night's Dream (photo: Chris Gallow)
Lighting Canadian Stage’s Shakespeare in High Park
by Jason Hand
It’s been just over a month since I made the final adjustments to the lighting design of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now that the run is about halfway finished, I’ve come back to have a look at how things are going. There’s no question that the show is looking quite a bit different than it did on opening. Usually this would be reason for a designer to get upset, make phone calls and write emails. After all, isn’t a play supposed to be consistent from night to night? Isn’t every audience supposed to see the same show? Absolutely. But only if you’re indoors! When lighting an outdoor production of a Shakespeare, there’s an additional variable that comes to define the style of the design: the constantly changing sunset.
Six days a week, the show begins at 8pm and lasts until about 9:40pm. Opening night is in late June and the show runs through to Labour Day Weekend. For an indoor show, there would be nothing very special about those figures: a ten-week run with performances at a usual time. But for an outdoor show, those numbers change the game entirely.
It’s a tricky thing working with a constantly changing sky.
Opening night is just after the Summer Equinox. That’s the longest day (and therefore the brightest evening) in the calendar. So that means that sundown comes earlier with each performance. It’s just about a minute-and-a-half each day. By itself that’s almost nothing: barely a soliloquy in our trimmed-down version of Dream. But over the two-and-a-half month run of the show, the cumulative effect is significant. On opening night, the sun sets at about 9:03pm, with complete darkness arriving at 9:38pm. So by the time we close, dusk will fall at 7:47pm and with sundown at 8:15pm. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a difference of almost an hour and twenty minutes! This means that while Act 3 was performed in full daylight on opening night, by the end of the run that same scene will be completely under the moon. It’s a tricky thing working with a constantly changing sky.
The lighting cues have to start off bright. In order to compete with the sun, nearly every lamp is at full intensity during Acts 1 and 2. Gradually the cues get darker as the sun sets. That might seem backwards, but you can try a little “Bill Nye the Science Guy” experiment at home to get an idea of what I mean. Turn on the lights in a bright room at midday: you will barely notice the change in the brightness of the room. Do the same after dusk, and the room will be filled with incandescent light. When the electric light doesn’t have to compete with the sunlight, it becomes much more noticeable. So back at the park if I were to bring up the first cues of the show after the sun had set, things would look awful. That’s because those lighting cues are usually seen against the backdrop of a bright sky. Everything would be over-lit and flat, and there’s nothing dream-like about that kind of lighting. So that’s why when I program the show, I make sure I slowly pull down the intensity of the lamps as the show progresses. The result is that the audience experiences an evenly lit play from start to finish; the lighting sneaks in over the run of the 90-minute play. It nicely parallels the audience’s experience. As they get more and more involved with the play, the lighting becomes progressively more theatrical. (cont'd)
Dmitry Chepovetsky and Gil Garratt in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photo by Chris Gallow.
I had notes in my script about the real-time placement of each cue. Lighting Cue 54 happens at 8:12pm, Lighting Cue 118 happens at 8:58pm, and so on.
Here’s how we went about lighting a show that plays alongside a sunset. Remember the longest day/brightest evening bit? That equinox eve happened to be the time that we were scheduled to set the lighting cues for the play. That day at 8pm, director Richard Rose and his assistant Ker Wells, stage manager Sandy Plunkett and I started to build the first lighting cues in the show. Now we couldn’t just motor through like you would in a regular levels session. Every once in a while we had to stop and wait for the sunset to catch up. I had notes in my script about the real-time placement of each cue. Lighting Cue 54 happens at 8:12pm, Lighting Cue 118 happens at 8:58pm, and so on. That way, I could begin to account for the changes in daylight that would occur during each evening’s performance. Then as we ran the play in subsequent rehearsals, I refined the cues so that they were always in balance with the natural light.
But that kind of figuring can account for only so many weeks of progressing sunsets. That’s why I go back to the park mid-run to watch the show, take notes and make a few adjustments. With the sun setting thirty-five minutes earlier than it did on Opening Night, it’s completely normal that the show looks so different. And there’s still a month left in the run.
So every night at the Dream Site, the actors, the crew, and stage management work to deliver a bit of Shakespeare in the middle of a forested park. They perform with singing cicadas and crickets, heat waves that result in surprise thunderstorms, escaped dogs and overly curious raccoons. The show reports even include the daily count of airplanes (the day I visited Sandy reported 17 planes and one helicopter). The whole while they’re being lit by a combination of sunset and theatrical light. The cast is amazing at taking all of these unique challenges, integrating them with the play and making it all into a very fun night of theatre.
No matter how hard I try, I can never find that moment during the play when darkness finally falls. It’s as impossible as trying to pinpoint the exact second that you fall asleep. My favourite part of Shakespeare in High Park always happens at the end of the play. You suddenly notice that it’s night and the colourful light is reflecting up off the stage into the glowing tree canopy. The moon and the stars are overhead, and you can barely hear the city as you listen to Puck’s final speech. Seeing a show in High Park is a genuinely unique experience. You haven’t had a proper summer in Toronto until you’ve been.