The Goal: Naturalism
Given the type of story this is, veteran lighting designer Pat Collins (Proof, Doubt, Ain't Misbehavin') needed to bring naturalism to the show. "It's kind of a romantic naturalism," she clarifies, "just because theater heightens everything anyway. But naturalism is what we're after, and a play like this is about seeing the actors all of the time; every minute, all of the time. It is about text that is trying to speak to something and is not about plastic mobility. This show is more about movie lighting. It defines the space, but it really is about your being able to see those people."
Collins is aware not only of the need to hear actors but also the need to see them speak. She says that the lighting was dictated by what scenic designer John Lee Beatty did with the sets, but her job went a little deeper than that. "It is really quite specific in its locations, and it is about trying to make you believe those locations that became my job as well as making sure that you heard because you could see those actors all of the time."
Even in a more dramatic location like the church, where some of the characters play bingo, the lighting is not too moody. "Don't forget, this is also a comedy, and you really have to get the words," stresses Collins. "There is a lot of plot going on in those particular bingo scenes, and if you don't get it and are caught up in imaginary mood instead of exact place, then you are going to miss stuff."
The scenes for Good People take place in very ordinary locations: behind a dollar store, in an apartment kitchen, at a church and in a doctor's office; and most importantly and distinctly, in Mike's nicely furnished living room and adjoining rooms, which dominates Act II and offers a larger, deeper set piece to contrast with the rest of Margaret's world.
As Mike's house is the one set that opens up in all directions, Collins feels it was appropriate to light it with more shadows and more depth than the other set pieces. "Things fall off into other spaces, which is required by the manifestation of class anyhow," she says. "You have to believe that this guy lives in a rather fulsome way. I thought it was a dead-on take on what that kind of house would be. John Lee is really, really good at this. We did Proof together, and for me there couldn't have been a better recall of what that particular kind of house is in Chicago."
Collins offers further praise to Beatty, who has five set pieces on a turntable that holds four in the first act. "The pie is divided up in that way, and certain pieces slide on to finish them out downstage," explains Collins. However, Act II of Good People only has two scenes, one of them occurring in the sprawling doctor's house, which could not possibly have fit on the turntable in Act I. "You should see how that entire show is stored, because it would really give you a very good idea of how clever John Lee has been about how he got these looks. There are pieces that slide in downstage and remove, and the turntable turns around to get into another place, so it's an amazing puzzle. It's a height of craft and art that is just terrific; and tricky because most of them are triangular except for the big Act II piece. Mostly you're impressed by the verticality of it. When you are given that kind of vertical scale, it implies more structure than is actually there. It's quite a magician's trick and a really good job."
A Conventional Rig
To light Good People, Collins used approximately 230 fixtures. They are all Source Four Lekos with different lenses - 19-, 26- or 36-degree lights. It is a straightforward theater setup, and there are no moving lights. She states that the reason for this choice was both the noise factor and the fact that director Daniel Sullivan cannot stand that kind of noise in the background with actors. But Collins was also sensitive to the audience in that regard, too.
"When you're doing a straight play, that is always in the background, and some people can't stand it," she observes. "They cannot stand that level of noise. A lot of people are perfectly content to plug their ears with ear buds and listen to music constantly, and therefore background noise doesn't bother them, but a lot of people are really disturbed by it as a background to conversation. I'm like Dan Sullivan; I don't want to hear that stuff. I'm there, I want to be focused, I want to hear what people have to say and I don't need to be hyped. Some people think of background music or noise as putting a kind of hype on a situation, and it is. We get it all the time. My God, [with] every television play that you see, every drama that you see, try to get away from the music and the nonsense and just listen. You can't. They are either using it as a transition because they don't want to write the scene, or they're using it because they need an emotional booster."
It is interesting to note that Collins has worked on many more plays than musicals, and that seems to tie in to her approach to lighting in general; she's less about the razzle-dazzle and more about what she calls "the art of the appropriate...If the playwright has done their job correctly you don't need that kind of [unnecessary] support," believes Collins. "The playwright is telling you with the height of his craft what it is he wants you to hear, and the actors at the height of their craft are portraying it for you. They don't need extraneous music pumping up the emotional moment. If they do their job really well, and are great actors like Franny [McDormand], they don't need that. You're just adding something that puts them in competition with something they don't need. And that's what a straight drama really is - it's about the only place where you're really going to get nothing but the facts. You're just going to get the straight stuff. Everything in our culture today is hyped in one form or another."
Appropriate - and New
In the end, working on Good People offered a new lesson for veteran Collins, even while appealing to her instincts as a designer. "The show confronted me more with what I could not do than what I could do, and that is a very interesting place to be," she declares. "That requires that you throw away all of those areas of comfort because of technique. It's like suddenly you're confronted with a piece and you have to create an entirely different style, and the style that you're comfortable in simply doesn't work for you in that particular piece. That's more or less what was going on the show because it was [sets with] triangular shapes, and technically all the pipes, all of the things you can hang lights on, run parallel to the proscenium arch or to the footlights. That makes a triangle a very difficult space in which to make light function comfortably. So I had to essentially throw away technique I'm used to and find another one. When you're confronted with not being able to do that which you are comfortable doing, you have to find a different way of going about it. And that [scenario] is a great educator. You're lucky if you're forced into situations where you have to drop what it is comfortable for you and learn to use something else."
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