Interview with Lighting Designer Jane Cox
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by Roundabout Theatre Company
Ted Sod: Tell me a little about yourself.
Jane Cox: I was brought up in Dublin, Ireland. I didn't see much theater growing up, but I was interested in music, dancing, reading, painting—anything creative really—and most of all, in organizing imaginary games for my friends with complicated stories and characters. My parents took me to see the film of Ingmar Bergman'sMagic Flute when I was six years old, and it changed my perception of the world. It made me think I wanted to be a musician because of the magical flute and the glorious music. I loved music because it expressed things I was experiencing emotionally and energetically that I didn't see expressed in any other way in the world I was living in, but I was always uncomfortable and nervous on stage. I watched the film of Magic Flute again a couple of years ago, and I realized that it is actually a movie for designers—most of the important information that isn't told musically is told through the visuals. The film starts with a little girl watching the stage from the audience—I realized that it is also a film about audiences. A lighting designer is the first audience member in the rehearsal room, and then we try and get the audience to experience the performance in the same way that we do!
I fell into lighting when I was about nineteen, when I was asked to run the light board for a production of Oh What A Lovely War in college, where I was studying music. I fell in love with it. I realized immediately that lighting is the same medium as music, only visual. I hope it doesn't sound too pretentious to say that, to me, lighting has always had melody, harmony, color, rhythm. It is a totally visceral medium. You can't express intellectual ideas with light or music. You need words or images for that. Light is more like energy, and we connect to light in a physical way. I have always been interested in how we communicate with each other without words and images, and lighting is one of those ways.
TS: Picnic takes place mostly outdoors. What challenges does that present to you?
JC: The useful thing about the outdoor setting for me is that the scenes in Picnic take place at very particular times of day, in a world that has a very strong routine. Inge is very specific about time of day. The times of day have very particular meanings for the characters. Hal's relationship to night time is very different from Madge's, for example. Telling the story outside allows us to really use the energy of those times of day through lighting without having to use an abstract vocabulary. So the energy of morning, sunset, night and dawn as it reaches the porches and garden can help us to express the play. How light reaches an outdoor space explains a lot about the world the characters are in—are they living in a confined outdoor space or an open space? Are they closed in by other buildings, are there trees? All these details help us to understand how the characters feel, and the outdoor location gives us lots of tools to do that.
TS: What kind of research did you do in order to design Picnic?
JC: Lighting is a totally abstract medium, really. The sun and the moon don't do anything much different now than they did two thousand years ago. So I don't do much lighting specific research, except for technical things like the sodium vapor streetlight we have on the wall, which is specific to the period. A big part of how I prepare to light the show is by really studying and understanding the scenery. The kind of lighting that will work in any production is going to be dictated by the space. I need to understand the surfaces, colors, geometries of the space and how they relate to a human being. I need to take what I have learned about light and people and emotion, and relate that to this particular space and what these particular people are wearing. It's hard to talk about, because it doesn't translate into English very well, like music. Light can enter a space aggressively or gently, it can catch a person's face brutally or softly, but it always relates to the particular space and clothes the people are in. The other critical part of my prep work is to be in rehearsal and experience the energy of the actors. One big job of lighting is to help the actors harness the imagination of the audience. When I do my job well, I often feel that the lighting breathes with the performers, and it should – unless the light is intended to create an atmosphere that feels like it is stopping the characters from breathing.
TS: What do you think Inge's play is about?
JC: I have come to think that Picnic is about choices, and it is about sexuality. About how life choices relate to sexuality, and about how people's lives are confused or stifled by not understanding themselves or not expressing themselves. In Picnic, this is expressed through a group of female characters who are almost all trapped by their inability to picture themselves in a different life, and whose destinies are dictated by their sexual choices. I imagine that Inge had a particular empathy for how women's sexual desires and choices defined them since, as a closeted gay man, his own sexual choices dictated his life in the time period he lived in.
TS: What do you look for from the director before you start designing?
JC: Every relationship with a director is different. My job is to help the director create their event. In order to do that, I need to understand how they see or experience the play, and I need to figure out how to communicate with that particular director in a useful way for them. Some directors are able to be very articulate about their intellectual or emotional experience of the play (Sam is one of those people). Other directors express themselves primarily through their collaboration with the set and costume designers. Other directors don't really express much about the play until they are in a room with actors. I don't usually like to talk about light specifically with a director until quite late in the process. It is more important that I understand how they see the play, and that they trust me. I need time to work—sketch with light, erase it, sketch again once we are in the theatre together with the light and the actors. And if the director doesn't trust me, it is hard to get good work done. The bulk of the my work happens in the theatre, where I am making extremely fast decisions that affect everyone else in a very short space of time, well after everyone else has had a long process that they have invested a lot of time and energy in. I need to know everyone else's work well enough to be able to do my job fast and well.
TS: How do you collaborate with the rest of the design team?
JC: I collaborate with the other designers mostly through their physical work. I spend a lot of time with the set, ideally the model, but if not, photos of the model and the scenic drawings. I try to really understand what the set is trying to do—what is the essence of the space the play is set in. I stare at it for hours and I wander around with it in my head and wonder why I am not getting anything done. But this time is critical—the energetic essence of a space is how light hits it. I need to wonder exactly what shade of orange would make that wall glow in the exactly right gritty way. I need to wonder what angle of light entering the space produces the most interesting tension with the angles of the walls. And then, I work with the set designer to make sure that their space actually physically allows me to do what it seems to be asking me to do!
I relate to clothing mostly through color. I ask myself who needs to look the most magical in a scene, who needs to look the most depressing? By changing the color of the light you can change which person looks incredible or present on stage. In a larger way, there is a color palette being created between the set, clothes and the lights that has an energetic quality to it. It is my job to bring the three things together in an energetically appropriate way.
Light relates to sound in the most direct way. The rhythm of the show lies in the hands of the sound and lighting as well as the cast. Does the show move fast and aggressively? Does it slide smoothly from one time into the next? The sound designer and I make those decisions with the guidance of the director.
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