During my final semester of studying theatre at Dixie State University, I designed lighting for our black box production of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Our director, Michael Harding, was inspired by the line “Into a thousand parts divide one man” (Chorus, Act I, Prologue). This inspiration led him to direct the production as a textual study that focused solely on Henry’s thoughts, emotions, and actions throughout the course of the play. Seven actors would embody the title role and perform only the lines delivered by Henry and the Chorus. The goal of the experiment was to see how much of the plot and themes could be conveyed to the audience through the perspective and words of just the title character.
During my design process I focused on Henry’s lines and found his actions in pursuit of power to be horrific. He mercilessly condemns former friends to death, threatens to murder children, orders the execution of his war prisoners, and leads his army to kill thousands of the French men he seeks to eventually rule. I was similarly disturbed while viewing Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son in my Introduction to Art course. My fellow students and I gasped in shock at the gruesome depiction of the god’s elimination of his would-be competitor. The bright, pale skin tone of Saturn’s child juxtaposed with his saturated, red blood violently grabs the viewer’s eye and forces it to focus on the terrible act of cannibalism. I saw parallels between the themes of this painting and those of Henry V and sought to incite the same emotional reaction from our audiences. Goya’s painting influenced my own color choice; I used saturated red backlight washes to cut through an otherwise muted, earth-toned color pallet whenever Henry’s mood turned violent. Deep blue washes provided a visual and emotional contrast to Henry’s wrath, and I employed these during his pensive and somber moments.
Our production featured seven Henries who took turns reciting Henry’s lines and listened intently to each other. Their reactions to the words spoken varied between unanimous consent and conflicted disapproval. When our actors appeared to be in disagreement, I used angled lights and front light gobo washes to further fracture and isolate them. When the Henries were unified, I used softer lighting instruments and brighter intensities to give the actors strength.
Early on in the process, Professor Harding approached me and asked if there was any way I could run the lighting manually for each performance, the way an audio engineer mixes a show. I felt comfortable doing so, having much experience busking lighting for concerts and corporate events on campus. We agreed that this would allow the actors the freedom to make new choices in terms of blocking and interpretation for each performance. The static set was inspired by a jungle gym, and the actors had been encouraged to explore, delivering their lines from different areas each night. In rehearsal, I initially felt as though I was chasing the actors around with lights, but gradually we found our rhythm and discovered thrilling moments of synchronicity during the run.
Designing lighting for this production is one of the experiences I treasure most from my undergraduate education. This process taught me how to draw inspiration from a script, searching the text for imagery and making interpretive choices about characters and actions that would later inform my design. I also developed a greater appreciation for actors and the process they go through in developing their characters and keeping their performances genuine each night. I did my best to mirror this process through my design.