Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sound and light shows

When I filled out my imaginary Tony Awards ballot this spring, I was a little stumped by the sound and lighting categories. (Along with best orchestration. Even though I now know what an orchestrator does, I still don't feel any more qualified to give an opinion, even an imaginary one.)

What made me think about sound and lighting is that the recipients of this year's MacArthur "genius" fellowships have been announced, and there's at least one theatre-related winner of the $500,000 prizes, veteran Broadway lighting designer Jennifer Tipton.

The 71-year-old Tipton won Tony awards in 1977 for The Cherry Orchard and in 1989 for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Originally a dancer, Tipton also designs lighting for dance and opera. She's taught at Yale and trained many other designers in the craft, including Donald Holder, Tony winner in 1998 for The Lion King and in 2008 for South Pacific, and Howell Binkley, the lighting designer for In the Heights and Gypsy.

The biography at the MacArthur Foundation Web site says, "Best known for her work in dance, Tipton’s painterly lighting evokes mood and defines and sculpts movement. Preferring a small but powerful palette of colors, she pioneered the use of white light in theatre and dance."

"Her subtle, shifting lighting for Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (2005) gave visual support to the play’s delicate balance between vitality and deep sadness; in the final scene, the cleansing warmth of approaching dawn affirms the sense of peace and forgiveness finally achieved by the protagonists."

Sadly, when I'm writing my review, sound and lighting are two areas I tend to forget about, whereas I almost always remember to mention the sets and the costumes. Of course, there are exceptions, like Kevin Adams' very dramatic colored lights that usher in the Berlin phase of Passing Strange, or the blackout that occurs during In the Heights.

Sometimes, I neglect to mention them because I don't realize who deserves the credit for something I really enjoyed. For example, I loved the whole staging of "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair" in South Pacific. But I didn't realize that it was Scott Lehrer's skillful sound design that allowed Kelli O'Hara to sing and wash her hair at the same time - without getting electrocuted.

So in my effort to become an ever-more perceptive theatergoer, and in recognition of all the designers' great work, I'll try to consider sound and lighting more closely. Maybe next spring when the Tony Awards come around, I can at least venture an opinion.

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