Why lighting is so important in the performing arts

Renowned lighting designer Jennifer Tipton shows her protégé how to compose a stage with light as a painter does with colour

©Rolex/Stefan Walter

By observing legendary light artist Jennifer Tipton’s work in several forms and on two continents, Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez is experiencing the full breadth of lighting’s unique power to unify and clarify the performing arts.

By Amei Wallach

S t. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn. A technical rehearsal is in progress for the Wooster Group’s Cry, Trojans! — an experimental take on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

On a thrust stage in a high space still evocative of its industrial past, actors in improvised costumes mill about a set consisting of a makeshift teepee, an inner tube, a wagon wheel, a pail. Every once in a while the actors pause to take their places and say their lines for a sound check.

Part way up the rows of seating, facing the stage, Jennifer Tipton sits in the dark. “I sit in the dark and make my own sunshine,” she likes to say. Her lighting for theatre, concerts, opera and dance has become so legendary that hers is one of the rare household names in the field.

She sits quietly through the starts and stops, re-cueing the lights during the hours of controlled chaos. She laughs, she waits and she watches. She is looking at the actors, how they talk and how they move, so that she will best be able to light every aspect of their faces and their bodies.

“I sit in the dark and make my own sunshine,” says Tipton.

Invisible but powerful
Two rows behind her Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez, is writing in a notebook. “I keep notes of my time with Jennifer,” he explains. In his travels with Tipton, he noticed how “the light Jennifer designed was sometimes invisible but powerful.” He had become intrigued with “the silence of the light”, and her use of colour. The Wooster Group often integrates video into its staging and at the rehearsal he is transfixed with how Tipton works with video as a source of light. “In one very long scene,” he says, “the light was subtly going down and down, and then going up and up. You didn’t notice it, but just like that you had the feeling that you were going all through the night to the dawn. To me that was wonderful.”

When Wooster Group director Elizabeth LeCompte announces: “There are a lot of changes, so Jennifer is very happy,” I really don’t have influences in the usual sense. I guess I must say natural light. Paintings — all paintings. I find it fascinating to see how different painters render light in two dimensions. Turner is a special favourite. Different painters have different techniques for composition as well which I find provocative and stimulating. Tipton chuckles. For every change in staging many lights will have to be changed, then changed again.

“Sebastián, you could move closer,” Tipton calls, setting to work in earnest. Her method of mentoring is to invite her protégé to observe, because only in this way will he be able to take in all phases of a production rather than focusing on a single task.

“She knew it was going to be hard for me to just be there kind of doing nothing” says Solórzano Rodríguez. But he has benefited hugely from Tipton’s approach.

Theatre mentor Jennifer Tipton with her Mexican protégé Sebastián Solórzano Rodriguez in London. ©Rolex/Hugo Glendinning

Like a shadow
“I have learned about her creative process, how she makes decisions and works with technicians, how she establishes a dialogue between the work and the space in a scene. Afterwards we talk about what I have seen. I am like a shadow and I am happy with that. It is an opportunity to see her work in a large frame and also to see how its rhythm differs according to the country.

Tipton’s is a multifaceted international practice, and Solórzano Rodríguez has watched rehearsals and performances in London, Paris and Barcelona, as well as a season of Paul Taylor dances in New York. He has watched her work with directors who wanted hands-on input into the lighting and recreate the lighting for a choreographer who was dead. He has watched her create lighting that appears simple out of the most complex combinations of timing, colours and lights.

She has taken him to myriad plays, operas and dance performances that she thinks would engage him. And she has studied his work and delivered incisive critiques.

“She told me something that I will never forget: ‘Lighting is a composition in space and time.’ She said that I had to learn how to differentiate the necessities of the director, my own necessities and the necessities of the play. The audience’s understanding comes first and you have to discover how to encourage it.”

Solórzano Rodriguez prepares for ‘Telegrama a los ángeles’ in Mexico City. He invited his mentor to his home city so that she could see his work in context. ©Rolex/Stefan Walter
“Lighting is a composition in space and time.”

Solórzano Rodríguez also attended a few of the classes Tipton has been teaching since 1981 at the Yale School of Drama, rising early to meet her at the 7 a.m. train out of New York to New Haven. “Use your eyes,” Tipton told her students, as they lit a moment between Mimi and Rodolfo in La bohème, when Mimi holds a lighted candle and then blows it out. Tipton pointed out how the quality of the light changed with the colour of the shirt, with the height of the actors, with the shape of their faces.

Her protégé has drawn a crucial lesson from these sessions: “Light affects everything you see and how you see light is affected by everything.”

Sebastiàn Solórzano Rodríguez, ©Rolex/Stefan Walter

Like a colt
Solórzano Rodríguez is long and lean. His hair is long and black and caught at the nape in something too elegant to be called a ponytail. He is gracefully awkward in his movements, like a young colt finding its legs — or a dancer offstage. He talks with his hands and from his heart.

“Jennifer loves to teach. That is something very important when you are teaching,” he says. “She really loves to spread information. It’s just incredible how she works and how she sees.”

Tipton is tall, and at once composed and imposing. She wears her hair in a single thick braid down her back. She is a woman of few words, and those succinct and to the point, with long pauses between phrases. There was often a comfortable silence between mentor and protégé.

Solórzano Rodríguez was eager for Tipton to come to his home town of Mexico City, not only to see his work in dance, theatre and visual art, but also because he wanted her to experience his world in context: the sidewalks with their ad hoc snack tables of tacos or sushi; the bright modernist buildings shoulder to shoulder with dilapidated wrecks; the exuberance of colours in clear, vivid light. He took her to see the Aztec excavations at the Plaza Mayor.

Light unites
They discussed his use of contrasts and shadows to illuminate the central character’s split personality in the play Las pepenadoras (The Garbage Collectors), and how light alone cannot clarify themes for the audience if the acting and the direction don’t. “Light is the glue,” is how Tipton puts it; light unites all the other elements.

Tipton’s emphasis is always to start from the basics. For Solórzano Rodríguez, that may also mean creating his own lighting devices, ©Rolex/Stefan Walter

She returned to Mexico City in March, to see a children’s musical that Solórzano Rodríguez lit and an ambitious avant-garde visual art production inspired by Goethe’s Faust, for which he both did the lighting and acted as director. His method is to begin with a plan and then respond intuitively during rehearsals. Tipton’s emphasis is on starting from the basics.

“It’s funny, she always says things that are logical and should be obvious, but sometimes the easiest things are hardest to catch,” he says. “The basics are the real starting point from which to create, because if you forget them you are lost.”

Tipton praised some lovely moments in the musical. “But it was clear to me that the light at some moments was kind of a mess,” he says. “She told me that you have to have a system, a method that will give you a way to find new ideas and solve ideas that you don’t know how to solve.”

Solórzano Rodríguez creates special effects by making his own lights, keeping in mind his mentor’s maxim that “light is the glue” uniting all other elements. ©Rolex/Stefan Walter
Dancers perform ‘Telegrama a los ángeles’, lit by Solórzano Rodríguez, who says an important lesson from his mentor was that he had to put the audience’s understanding of a production first. ©Rolex/Stefan Walter

Technical grounding
By the time he returned to New York at the end of the month, it had become clear to Solórzano Rodríguez that, except for a period as an assistant to the well-known Mexican lighting designer Ángel Ancona, he’d never really had much of a technical grounding in the niceties of the form. He’d learned by doing, by contemplating and by tapping his resourceful imagination.

As he continued his travels with Tipton, to Madrid and Houston, he began to recall their first meeting, when he told her how much he admired her work for the stage, but that he also wanted to make visual artworks with light in the manner of Dan Flavin or James Turrell. “And she told me: ‘You have to choose one path,’ ” he remembers.

“I think she’s right… But after seeing the sensitive way she uses light, the sensitive way she uses colour, all these things that are artistic, I am thinking it does not matter if it is visual art or performance. I have always worked in groups, but now my priority is to make my own artistic statements. Of course, I will keep working as a lighting designer with a team and with my art collective, but I want to find my own path between scenic art and visual art. Whatever I do, light will be my starting point.”

©Rolex/Hugo Glendinning

About the series, Mentor & Protégé
What happens when 14 of the world’s most artistic people spend time together in one-to-one mentoring relationships? Find out in a remarkable series of articles about seven globally acclaimed artists and their protégés who spent 2014–2015 inspiring each other, collaborating and roaming a vast, creative universe.

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Amei Wallach is a New-York based arts writer and film-maker. She is president emeritus of the U.S. chapter of AICA (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art).