written for Apil "Progettare il Progettista" in Milan, March 2012
I have had the honor and privilege to work in the theater and the live arts for more than 25 years. I was introduced to the theater at a very young age and since have had the extraordinary opportunity to work with many wonderful artists and in countless venues of all types in over 35 countries. I have gained access to language, culture, friendship and food. Growing up American I may have been able to find more opportunities for work in lighting design than the typical italian, but it is just for this reason that I feel suited to explain how the role of Lighting Designer can be helped here in Italy. I have chosen to make Italy my home; I want that my colleagues and those who want to work in the theater, to be able to practice in the best conditions and I hope that I can help them to achieve that.
Theatrical lighting design is recognized as a relatively new profession in Italy. This is obvious as there is no equivalent word for lighting designer as there is for 'scenografo', 'costumista', etc. Until recently the chief electrician of the theater worked over the course of the long rehearsal period building up the director's wishes. As time and resources to build new shows have been drastically reduced, the role of a lighting designer is becoming obvious. But, in order to qualify the job, the role of lighting designer must defined, discussed and diffused.
To encourage and promote lighting design and successful lighting designers one must support preparation, professionalism, preservation.
Italy's long and important history of theater and theater craftsmanship has produced countless wonderful artists. With funding shrinking and many leaving theater jobs to look for more income, theater's role as a teacher is becoming increasingly unreliable. Lighting design training and instruction must be offered to young artists in a school setting. However, Italian schools are not constructed to support this type of eduction; first because they offer only theoretical classes with no access to studios and theaters, second as their budgets are extremely limited, third as Italian schools traditionally offer history and not pragmatic methods for connecting with modernity, fourth as teachers are not allowed to practice, and last because students just don't want to be in school when they are not stimulated. Schools that offer lighting design must have a knowledgeable and practicing staff of theater artists, a space to build up projects frequently profiting from a reasonable inventory of lighting materials, encourage their students to take on morally challenging and present-day topics, and be allowed to fail. School is the only chance students can fail - in the real world if one fails one can lose everything - in school there should always be another opportunity. Finally, students must learn standards of lighting practice, from concept to planning to execution to documentation. There are ways to develop more opportunities for theater students but they require higher integration with the professional world and more freedom to work.
An electrician is not a lighting designer. Each has a unique and important role in an event. The lighting designer must create a concept, be able to draft and communicate that concept in the form of plans and drawings so that an electrician may build it up, and then supervise the installation and focusing of that concept, directing the electrician. Often the lines are blurred. Many times lighting designers come late into a theatrical project. For many directors, light is intangible. Light is difficult to convey in the pre-production phase. However, there are many tools at the lighting designer's disposal. Mastering these tools and communicating concepts are central to the role of any designer and a lighting designer is no different. In order for lighting designers to be included in the process more of our colleagues must understand the role. Light is not applied to the stage - it is incorporated into every facet of the project in both space and time of the theatrical scenario.
As difficult as it is to perform lighting design it is equally difficult to document it. A set can be put in the warehouse, costumes into storage and sound saved to CD. But lighting requires all the visual elements, actors, and movements as well as focused lighting equipment and programmed sequences to exist at all. A plan is not enough to explain a lighting design, nor is a photo, nor a video. Lighting designs must be preserved from many aspects with in-depth documentation so that if a production is recreated, so too can be the lighting, exactly as it was the first time. It is unacceptable that if other 'designers' are invited to work on projects to redo the lighting that it is botched because there is no reliable documentation. Nor is memory a substitute for documentation. Documentation is a necessity as designers must want to maintain the integrity of their project as if it travels or is reproduced. Disappearing are the days when an electrician will design a show and then travel with it and designers must be prepared for anything. In an ephemeral medium like theater, documentation is the way to save the lighting design. Lighting designers create a product and that product must be described in order for it to be better recognized financially. The fact that a lighting design does not have the concrete shape of a text, a musical score or a costume does not make it any less of a creation.
There is a fourth piece to the puzzle: women. Why are there so few women working in lighting in Italy? Some of the most famous and important lighting designer's have been women: Jean Rosenthal who practically created the field, Tharon Musser; Jennifer Tipton just won a MacArthur genius award. Lighting design is an art, an art where the designer must know much technical information but it is not the same as being a technician. And while there is no reason why there should not be more women in technical fields, it Italy, lighting seems to exclude women because it is perceived as technical. Lighting design should promote the integration of women, if at the very least, to have a diversity of lighting designers on offer.