In English / Sociology of the Media / Theatre

Who turns the Bay lights on?

They work in the dark to figure out how to reveal the emotions and the beauty of acting. Without them, theatre, opera, musicals and dance music shows would all look the same. Their unique and ephemeral works make them full artists who fight to protect their rights. Focus on lighting designers with the San Francisco Bay Area artist, Kurt Landisman.

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“Flash”, kurtlandisman.com, UC Davis©.

For a minute, imagine the picture above without a lighting effect focused on the actress. Or imagine her in the dark. Would the intensity be the same? Would she strike you equally? No, it would probably not. Mastering the subtle and powerful use of light is essential to reveal the actors’ emotions, the mood of the action, and to give indication of the time of day and location. Despite current technical feats, the lighting designers’ importance is still underestimated.

This occupation represents a minor part of those dedicated to art performances in the San Francisco Bay Area. Indeed, surveys and data are much easier to find when it comes to actors, of course, but also costume and sound designers. After 700 shows in a 35-year-career, Kurt Landisman may be the perfect man to talk about the job. Light is a technically difficult yet astonishing medium that requires mastery of varied and continually evolving disciplines.

More information about him here.

Trust and experience over education

First of all, he is the first to say that studies do not automatically bring success in this field: “Upper level education didn’t do very much toward helping me establish a career. I would have to say that I had a lot of ambition, perseverance, and innate aptitude towards design.” Experience and hard working have a significant role in becoming a designer: “For all designers, the old adage that you’re only as good as your last show is real”.

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Kurt Landisman, Sacramento Magazine, all rights reserved.

The main difficulty for lighting designers is that, unlike the set, costume and sound designers, they do not bring any drawings or sketches to the director. Like any other creation, lighting design remains an individual work since it can only be prepared in the mind. Therefore, a collaboration is set based on the “trust that they will give the directors what they want or steer them to something that will be good” confesses Kurt Landisman. Thus, there is a lot of pressure on lighting since the costumes and scenery have all been designed and built, but the lighting gets designed on stage. The director must also trust the different members of his team on being on the same page. Moreover, there is no audition for lighting designers, but rather inquiries about their availabilities, since experimented designers who can be trusted are not easy to find.

“You’re only as good as your last show is real!”

Expertise comes from diversification and adaptation

If Kurt Landisman is having a great success in the Bay Area, it is also due to an expertise that few theatre participants have. He obtained it thanks to the wide range of types of productions he worked on: “it is so refreshing to not get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. In theatre you have a lot of time to perfect moments, and talk on an intellectual level about the significance of moments, where in opera you have to move very fast, barely getting a word in, as the stage time is so expensive. In musicals and opera, the music itself tells the story and signals the lighting designer how to approach their design, and when the light cues should begin and end. In dance music plays a part, but it’s the movement that is paramount in leading the designer in their process.” Therefore, a career full of short contracts should not be seen as a drawback but rather an opportunity to diversify the activity, as Kurt Landisman did.

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“Turandot”, kurtlandisman.com, Virginia Opera, all rights reserved.

Unions and work protection

Whereas playwrights can use texts and scripts as media to protect their creations, how can an ephemeral and immaterial creation be protected? Which proof can be given in case of plagiarism? Pictures would not entirely catch the effects, and filming is not possible for every production. Thus, many designers, like Kurt Landisman, decide to become a member of unions. More than the contract agreed between the designer and the producer, unions’ conventions enable to protect their work. The lighting design is therefore the property of its creator, and any use, transfer or modification must be submitted and financially compensated, as specified in the standard agreement written by the union.

The lighting designers’ contribution to a show is estimated to 20%. Indeed, this is the percentage they would perceive if the show came to be sold. Now, imagine if Mamma Mia’s lighting effects were sold to the musical West Side Story: thus the compensation for the designer could go up to 75% of the sale price. In case these shows had to be revived or transferred, the designers could perceive 35% of their contracted fee. Obviously, since there is no guarantee a show will be a success, designers also earn a minimum rate —during the period of elaboration of the production— that is determined by the union of United Scenic Artists and subject to a raise of 2% every year.

Click here to find more details.

This rate is calculated according to the number of seats in the theater and the kind of design involved, and lighting designers can also perceive an Additional Work Compensation if the production implies more than five phases or scenes (or no lighting designer would agree to work on Shakespeare’s plays). Thus, the secured part of the rate is earned during the elaboration of the production, since this is the period when  most of the work is done; it is then up to the stage manager and the light crew to perform the lighting set designed. Then, the “bonus” lighting designers gain after the first public performance depends on the success of the show.

Now, if you want to assess for yourself what the lighting designers’ contribution to a production is, make sure you attend “Tree” by Julie Hébert from January 24th at the San Francisco Playhouse. You’ll see how Kurt Landisman turns the lights on.

Information on the play available here.

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