Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Shelley Hicklin |

Interview :: Shelley Hicklin
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Mar 2006

This months creative personality is Shelley Hicklin, the Lighting Designer at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia.

PCG: People would probably be surprised to know just how much thought and planning goes into theatrical lighting design.

SH: Theyd be shocked to see the amount of paperwork and drawings that go into even the smallest theatrical production. There are the scale drawings of the space, the conceptual drawings, the costume renderings, the ground plan, the elevation, the light plot, etc. People outside of theatre seem to think that we just come up with the show on a whim, which is somewhat true. But there are months and months of meeting, e-mailing, phone-calling, drawing, and drafting that goes on to make those whims happen. Its an even longer process for the producers and artistic directors who have to find the piece, put together the creative team, and find the funding. Its a process that can take years.

PCG: With all that pre-production planning, at what point in a theatrical endeavor does lighting come into play?

SH: For me, the earlier the better. I especially like to be involved before the set design is completed, when the artistic team is still talking about concept and which direction they want to take the show. The collaborative process is why I enjoy my job so much. I like having the ability to work with a wide variety of people and ideas. I also like challenging myself to look at different pieces in different ways.

PCG: What factors—dialogue, stage movement, equipment, available space—influence your lighting decisions?

SH: Actually, everything about a production influences my lighting decisions. As a lighting designer, you have to be aware of every element of the production. Think about all the things that theatrical lighting can do. It can establish time and place, set the pace or the mood, enhance the sets, enhance the costumes, guide the audiences focus, and of course, illuminate the performers.

"Thats when everything comes into light and into focus. Literally."

wantsgood lighting! Care to walk us through the process?

SH: First, I start with the script and consider the style of the piece. Sometimes style is obvious, sometime its not, because two different sets of artists may interpret the style completely differently. So I collaborate with the other artists and see where they are going with a piece. Secondly, I look at space. Theres the physical space we are performing in and also the space we are trying to create. My challenge as a lighting designer is how to shape that space and make it move in the way I need to. Then I consider budget and available equipment. Sometimes that will change my views of style and space. Then I really get down to the nitty-gritty. I have to consider the locations, time of day, where are the actors standing, scene changes, timing, colors of the costumes etc. Thats when everything comes into light and into focus. Literally.

PCG: Lighting technology and equipment have certainly gotten quite sophisticated. How do todays high-tech gadgets and gizmos influence your lighting decisions? Have you had a situation where you wanted a certain kind of lighting effect but had to create or rig it from 'scratch' so to speak?

SH: You may find this hard to believe, but my favorite rig is the hardware store light board made out of home lighting dimmers and a couple of pieces of wood. It doesnt always look pretty but it does what it needs to. A technique I like to use is actor-operated lighting. Thats when the performers actually move the light fixtures themselves. It serves a dual purpose of creating a really interesting style and allowing you to do a lot more effects with less equipment. Instead of hanging a separate light for every look you want to create, one light can do multiple tasks. Sometimes lighting should be invisible and seamless but I love when my work is physically a part of the performance. Its great for the ham in me.

The most challenging thing about this piece is the constant change of location.

PCG: The latest production at the Independence Studio at the Walnut Street Theater is the play Forrest: A Riot of Dreams. Its about the life and trials of Philadelphia thespian Edwin Forrest, Americas so-called first superstar of the stage. What are some of the lighting tricks and challenges with this particular production?

SH: The most challenging thing about this piece is the constant change of location. We move from indoors to outdoors, from intimate to public, from cold to warm. Not only that, but the play even spans the course of years, starting in 1830s London and continuing fifteen years beyond that. My role as the shows lighting designer is dauntinghow do you make a very intimate space like the Studio 3 do all of this over the course of a couple of hours? And how do you shift from scene to scene in an elegant way, so the audience doesnt feel jerked about? Im thankful to the Walnut Studio, for giving me so many interesting challenges over the years, and the chance to work with a wide variety of artists.

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