Ask us anything
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Dear Aadyam

Light design is an integral part of any theatre production. In fact it is very much a character in the play. So my question is how do you go about planning and creating a light design?
– Vignesh.R.Nair, Christ(Deemed to be University) Bangalore, India.

Dear Vignesh,

There is no right/wrong way to design lights for the stage. Most designers have their own approach to productions. I believe that the backbone to design is communication and paperwork. As per the nature of theatre in India (pre COVID), we are lucky to get more than a day in a particular venue, before its time to pack up and move to another theatre. So a design concept must be adaptable to any type of venue and budget without compromising the concept of the show.

Some directors have very specific ideas of what they are looking for, while others might not articulate what they want, but are pretty firm about what they do not want. As I mentioned, communication is important. It is also important to keep an open mind and set the ground for an exchange of ideas.

While I cannot speak for how other designers approach a particular production, I can only shed some light as to how I choose to work:

  • If it is an existing play, I like to read a script without thinking about anything else, first.
  • Then read it a second time while thinking about that particular production.
  • For a devised play, I try to be in the rehearsal room as much as possible.
  • If a set has been designed early on then it helps me as I can visualize the lights in terms of how certain scenes will look.
  • A meeting with the director is key to moving beyond the idea phase and he/she can go into the rehearsal process with a general idea of the lights as well.
I would like to elaborate further with a couple of plays.

The Glass Menagerie (Rage Productions) premiered in Mumbai a few years ago. The director, Rajit Kapur, added the element of a musician on stage as a sixth character. The play itself is set in the past and present and primarily takes place in an apartment, a balcony and an entrance area.

I saw the play as a postcard (there is a reference to that at the start of the play) with the narrator and the musician being in the present. I found a colour which lent itself to this idea without making the actors look like they had jaundice (i.e. not too yellow) and was more sepia.

Jim Sarbh and Shernaz Patel in The Glass Menagerie

Over and above this, the mother and daughter had areas which were specific to them which needed to be highlighted. The mother is over protective of her children and I chose to flip the colouring of their areas i.e. warm and soft for the mother and colder for the daughter.

A fair bit of the second half of the show is in “darkness” as the power fails in the apartment. While there were candles on stage as per the script, all the daughters areas returned subtly through the scene, while the areas outside the apartment remained on, although much lower to allow the audiences to adjust their eyes to where the action/ scene was taking place on stage.

While the show premiered at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai which is a small intimate venue, the design also translated to larger proscenium venues and banquet halls.

Amrita Puri and Jim Sarbh in The Glass Menagerie

The Threepenny Opera (Motley) was directed by Imaad Shah for Aadyam. The musical is set in 1920’s London and takes place in multiple locations with many songs. The production was fortunate to put the set up in a proscenium theatre for a few days before we moved into our opening venue. Essentially I “struck gold” as a designer and got to play around with ideas in my head while watching run-throughs on the set before we got into the venue to set-up and program the show. I knew that I wanted to recreate the feel of London while paying tribute to theatre of that era (budget restrictions had me change my thinking a wee bit).

The only scenes with intelligent lighting were the scenes in the whore house in order to get richer colours on stage which looked like nothing else the audience would experience for the rest of the evening. All the other songs and scenes were lit primarily with conventional fixtures to maintain the integrity and time period of the show.

Three Penny Opera

To add to the “smoggy” nature of London, I added haze throughout the show which broke the “clear” stage but did not affect the singers voices and each beam of light had “smog” illuminated.

The tricky part of this project (apart from the design itself) was making sure that my script was marked properly and my notes were up to date, because I was unavailable for the second day of shows and had to prepare a handover document for another person to take over the execution.

When we revisited the production a month later in another venue, there were changes to be made to the colour scheme of the show in general as I did not feel it was grey and grimy enough the first time around. By the time we opened, I felt creatively satisfied as just by changing a colour, I achieved the look that I had in my mind. There were other tweaks too, but this was the one that stood out.

Three Penny Opera

While I have given the example of two period plays, the approach to both was quite unique. I needed to rid my mind of any prior thoughts or visuals attached to both plays and start with a blank slate.

At the end of the day, lighting needs to tell the same story as the play, just silently.

About Yael Crishna

A graduate from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (B.D.A. Technical Production), Sydney, Yael has been an active part of theatre in Mumbai for over two decades.
As a freelancer, she has worked with a variety of groups including ACE Productions (Broken Images, Cyrusitis), AGP (Good Mourning), AKVarious (Dekh Behen, One Night Only, Miss Cuckoo, Internal Affairs), Book My Show LIVE (Disney’s Aladdin, Peppa Pig LIVE Celebration), Dragon Rose Productions (Event for Unity, 26/11 Memorials, PCGT Youth Shows), Dur Se Brothers (Elephant in the Room), FATS Thearts (All In The Timing, 777), Motley (The Threepenny Opera), NCPA Productions (SOI World Music Concert – Karl Miller, Laughter in the House, Laughter in the House – 2), Patchworks Ensemble (Fly By Night, Ila, The Gentlemen’s Club AKA Tape), QTP (Beyond Therapy, Chapter Two, The President is Coming, TATA Literature Live), Rage Productions (The Glass Menagerie, The Bureaucrat, Love Letters, Mahua, Jaal, The Djinns of Eidgah, Naqqaash, Class of 84, Twelve Angry Jurors, One on One, One on One Two, Pune Highway, 27/11), The Primetime Theatre Company (Nine Parts of Desire, Wedding Album, Gauhar), and Silly Point Productions (The Buckingham Secret, Rusty Screws, Laughter Therapy, Four Square).
With shows, she has travelled extensively across India, working in a variety of venues and also to Europe, the Middle East and South Africa. In June 2017, she was invited by the Sydney based Bakehouse Theatre Company for the play Jatinga, which premiered to a sold out season.

Leave a Comment