Light Lessons

By Tara Lynn Wagner


If you happen to be sitting in the improv theater waiting for the show to start, or perhaps counting the seconds until intermission is over and the fun can resume, why not take a moment to look around you. Specifically behind you. You might notice that in the back of the house, tucked behind the audience, is the lighting booth, and manning that lighting booth you will find an improviser. (No! Don’t look now! She’ll know we’re talking about her.)

Notice that I referred to the individual sitting behind the dimmer board as an “improviser” and not a “lighting designer” or “illumination technician.” Why? you may ask. Simple. The performers in the show are not the only people in the theatre flying by the seats of their pants. Back there, away from all the glory, sits one person with a finger on the blackout button and an eye on everything happening on stage. This person can make all the difference in a scene, to the entire show come to think of it, and gosh-darnit, attention must be paid.

What makes lighting a show like ours so difficult is that, at the Sunday Night Improv comedy jam, nothing is planned. We have no idea where the scene is going to go, let alone when it is going to end. So how, you may ask, does the poor improviser doing lights know when it’s time to dim them?
Friends, I tell you this from the experience of having been in the hot seat known as the lighting booth: it ain’t easy. Personally, I find it more stressful than actually performing in the show. Well, not more stressful than “Can You Sing This?” Or the “One-Act.” Or that first “Da-Doo-Run-Run.” Well, okay, I find it equally as stressful as actually performing in the show. At least when you are performing you get to sit out a segment here and there to catch your breath. Not so in the lighting booth.

What I personally find most difficult about working the lights is actually remembering that I am working the lights. As I am sure you have noticed, those folks up there are pretty funny and it’s rather difficult not to be amused by them. Sometimes, I’ll be watching a scene, laughing away, completely caught up in the moment as if I am any other fabulously clever and well-dressed audience member. (Oh, stop blushing, you know you are!) Then suddenly it will hit me like an electric shock from a cattle prod: LIGHTS!

Just imagine if I forgot to take the scene out. It would keep going and going and going like that obnoxious Energizer Bunny, which, trust me, is no fun for the improvisers, who are left floundering out there as they work their fluffy pink tails off.

On the other hand, another danger to be aware of when controlling the lights is Trigger Finger. Perhaps afraid of letting things drag on or of missing that most magical of all improvisational moments – the perfect exit line – you sit ever-ready, your finger on the dimmer switch, twitching in agonizing anticipation. At the first sign of building comedy, you jump the gun and – oh! Too soon. The improvisers and the audience find themselves sitting in the dark, unsatisfied, their scene or character never having reached their climax, |so to speak.

Sometimes, we attempt a “save.” We’ve begun the dim, the lights are declining, and in the half-darkness, we realize the mistake. We swing into reverse, thrusting the lights back on full blast, hoping no one will notice the tiny faux pas. But if you’ve ever witnessed one of these attempts, you will know that they inevitably fail. Why? Because the lovely and talented cast enjoy nothing more than to comment on your error, working it into their scene by blaming the other character for having neglected to pay the electricity bill. Or musing that perhaps it was a passing cloud. Or a lunar eclipse. They will argue that that is part of their art, taking what is offered and justifying it. Yeah, right. I know it’s a dig, you know it’s a dig, and they get a laugh at the expense of the perfectly wonderful person who is lighting them.

So that’s life in the booth. The truth is, if they are doing their job well, then you don’t even notice them. So go ahead. Give them a thumbs up for a job well done. (You can turn around now. It’s okay.)