Like everything else in theater, there’s much more to lighting and sound design than their obvious purpose of making on-stage action visible and audible. Through means bold and subtle, they enhance our experience and understanding.
Lighting signals us where to look and who’s the current character of interest, not necessarily the speaker. The type of lighting used (harsh or flattering, bright or muted) further reveals something about the time and place where a scene occurs.
For the last class in my “how to watch a play course,” we watched Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau, as produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. The stage was bare, each scene defined by only a few pieces of furniture, and the lighting did much to reinforce each setting. In the high school scenes, cold, bright light mimicked fluorescents; in the teacher’s home, the light was warm, subdued, and her son’s white shirt glowed in the dimness. While we might not consciously notice this difference, we would definitely perceive it.
Lighting can create a mood and reinforce a production’s style. The fuchsia lighting of the dance scene in She Loves Me was not “realistic”—nor was the dance—but everything worked together to convey the sense of watching a confection.
Smaller effects are also important—the light through a window reflected on the wall, the change in daylight from morning to night, the use of “practical lights” like lamps, flashlights, or the light inside a refrigerator.
These days, the myriad light cues in a production are computerized and programmable. If a theater is outfitted with colored LED lights, even the desired color can be specified for the computer, though old-fashioned plastic “gels” are still in use.
Like lighting, sounds help establish time and place (crickets chirping, a clock chiming, sirens). They can be random or diegetic, if, in the world of the play, the actors know about and respond to them, like a ringing doorbell.
Sounds reinforce the reality of a scene, like a car door slamming or the splash of water from a faucet. Such sounds may be easily overlooked, if only because they fully meet our expectations of what a slamming car door or running water should sound like. Adam Immerwahr, artistic director of Theater J in Washington, D.C., who led the course, said that, to create the multilayered sound we hear as “rain,” it takes a combination of at least three separate recordings.
Underscoring, or background music, playing softly under dialog, is not heard by the actors and contributes to mood. Sometimes incidental music ramps up between scenes, as it did in Pipeline, holding our attention while sets or costumes are changed.
Pipeline included some deceptively simple sounds. The teacher’s lounge scenes had a public address speaker, which produced the kind of slightly garbled, staticky announcements we remember from high school. The hospital scene also included public address announcements, but they obviously were the product of a high-end system. A tiny but telling detail and a deliberate choice.