On October 24, 2011 the theatre world lost an amazing visionary when Liviu Ciulei passed away in Munich at the age of 88. Former artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis he spent much of his later life as an educator working with the graduate students at New York University. That was where I met him in 2003 when I lit a production of Horvath’s Caroline and Kasimir for the NYU Grad Acting department.
Every year Liviu would direct one or two plays for Grad Acting and every year a design team from the Graduate Design Program would be assembled to design “The Liviu Show.” The rumors of how difficult he was to work with were practically shouted in the halls to intimidate incoming students. He was like a ghost, whose mere name was enough to elicit fear and terror in any young designer.
My Romanian classmates loved him. And for good reason. He was not only widely recognized as a theatrical innovator on the stage, he had contributed, as an architect, to several physical stages, including the Romanian National Theater in Bucharest. While well-respected in this country he was famous in Europe generally and a legend in Romania. A legend can be a terrifying thing to work for.
Liviu’s difficulty, I soon discovered, was not that he was mean, or threw tantrums, or anything of that ilk. His supposed difficulty was that he had a very precise and specific way of seeing the world, and the stage in particular.
I find a lot of directors, particularly young directors, feel the need to “know light” and will ask for specific lights turned up or down. Telling a designer to “turn that light down 10%” when what you mean is “I want the space to feel more intimate” does more harm than good. Often this comes from a misguided sense of needing to be in control. Yet you hire a designer because they are a specialist in their field so you can focus on the emotional journey and they can manage the technicalities of how you get there.
But because of his background in design Liviu knew not only how he wanted something to look, but how to achieve that specific look on stage. As a friend who once stage managed for him said recently “The frustrating thing with Liviu was that he was right.”
She went on to tell the story of a chaise that Liviu wanted the legs trimmed two inches. This was a fair bit of work for what everyone else saw as an insignificant detail no one would notice. They pushed back but he insisted. Finally the chaise was trimmed down and, lo and behold, everything fell into proper proportion. The scenery felt better, the actors appeared more graceful, everything felt right. Liviu’s background as a designer and architect meant he was that rare exception where, when he said “turn that light down 10%,” he actually meant it because he could talk lighting. As such the experience of working with him was much more as an associate designer facilitating his work. It forced me to look at the stage through his eyes.
My first day of tech with Liviu was one of the roughest I have ever been a part of. It seemed that no matter what I did, I did it wrong. The light was coming from the wrong angle or was too dim or too bright, the cue was too fast or too slow. But the thing was, Liviu was never vague. It was never “This cue is too bright” but rather, “That second light from the side is 10% too bright.” The man knew light.
His precision was not only in lighting. The actors struggled under such precise direction as “Now put the emphasis on the second syllable but turn on the third syllable.” Movement, diction, light levels, everything was subjected to the needs of his keen, precise eyes and ears.
Change the Mundane
A focus on radical specificity is necessary for any production to go from good to great. Focusing a light “mid-stage center” and “1 foot left of center, centered in the second wing” are two very different things. Every detail of a design must be imbued with that level of specificity if we are to make great work. Is the sidelight just a “pipe-end” or does it hang 20 feet 6 inches from Centerline?
Attention to detail is not only about the minutia of how a particular light is focused or if a cue is needed. Attention to detail must also exist at the macro level of the production as a whole. Does the design idea truly embrace the production? Is the lighting furthering the storytelling overall and is it adding subtlety and nuance that would not exist without it?
It is a radical specificity that makes a design vital and necessary to a production. That specificity can also include how one approaches the use of frontlight or sidelight in a play. Are they necessary? If so, what do they mean in this specific incarnation?
Before working with Liviu I thought I knew what frontlight was. We all do, right? It is light coming from the direction of the audience. Not so fast. Perhaps frontlight can mean something different. What if frontlight meant light coming from the direction in which the actor is facing? This is much more a cinematic idea than a stage idea. For Caroline and Kasimir, Liviu saw staging moves and lighting moves as cinematic cuts and angle changes. If someone was frontlit, they should remain so wherever they turned.
For this idea to work we needed light coming from every direction, and boy was I glad I put all those diagonals and sidelights into the plot. Most every time an actor turned we needed a light cue. Frontlight, ordinarily thought of as dull and unexciting, became vibrant and alive with this technique. Each light that was turned on had a very precise and specific meaning both moment to moment and across the larger design idea for the show.
The style was very different than I was used to and I fast learned that this was not an exercise in expressing my individuality and vision as a young designer. Rather, it was about learning to see through someone else’s eyes. It was about transforming my vision.
If the first day of tech was the roughest I had ever been a part of, the second was an amazing collaboration. By paying attention to what he was looking at I began to solve cueing problems as they happened. I learned to see through his eyes, a useful skill for any designer, but invaluable on a Liviu show. By the end of that tech week we were working side by side, him restaging and adding increased specificity, me relighting as needed for the new staging.
Getting behind Liviu’s eyes and lighting his vision of that play was an invaluable experience. Not only did I learn a new way of approaching light, but I experienced the radical specificity necessary for making great work. Not only did it improve my own work, it gives me a leg up when watching other designers work. Instead of thinking “Well, what I would do here is …” I can better see through their eyes and try on different ways of seeing. This is a wonderful learning tool and one we can carry with us as artists throughout our lives.
Seeing through the eyes of the director and focusing on maximum specificity in decisions and instructions work in tandem to ensure that a light plot is not the same from one show to the next, but always specific to a particular incarnation. Be it a new play with a new team or the third remount, having the specificity to take every moment on its own unique terms is something I am deeply grateful to Liviu for teaching me. I hope his legacy will live on with better-lit stages around the world.
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