An interview with Lighting Designer Rob Siler
We love our tech crews! We are grateful for the opportunity to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes.
Rob’s work with ArtStream can be seen in Must Love Music and WXYZ, March 15-24, 2018 at the Richard Kauffman Auditorium in Alexandria, VA.
A phone interview held February 22, 2018 with Rob Siler and John Newman from ArtStream.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I got introduced to theatre in some way, shape, or form through my parents who did a children’s theatre program show twice a month at my church when I was growing up. And I did not want to be on stage at all. I was fairly shy as a kid. Instead of being onstage, I learned how to do the technical side of stuff. I’ve always been kind of a nuts and bolts person. So I learned how to run a light board at the age of 10 and I learned how to run a sound board at the age of eight.
I kind of went away from theatre for a while, got back involved with it in late high school, and kind of decided that it was what I wanted to pursue as a career.
I did not want to be onstage at all… So I learned how to run a light board at the age of 10 and I learned how to run a sound board at the age of eight.
I went to Shenandoah University for undergrad with a scenic and lighting design major. And then I went out and worked for four years as a master electrician, the person who actually hangs the lights and takes a designer’s drawing and decides how to make it all happen. And also, I was the resident designer at a bunch of different places. Eventually, I decided it was necessary to go to grad school. I went to grad school at the University of Maryland and studied under Brian McDevitt who is a five-time Tony Award winner.
Currently, I am a freelance lighting designer. And I also work as the production manager for the theatre department at the Loyola University of Maryland, up in Baltimore.
What are some shows that you’ve been involved with lately?
Probably the most noteworthy one recently is a show that’s called Occupied Territories, which we premiered at 59E59 Theatres up in New York City. It is a show that deals with a woman learning about her father’s PTSD from the Vietnam War. Learning about it through a series of flashbacks linked with like photos, memorabilia, stuff that he had in his basement. And you learn about the trickiness of veteran families and what they go through.
What became really neat about the production is that it became cathartic in many ways for both veterans and for their families and for people who had never actually experienced, you know, what veterans go through. They did a couple different workshop productions of it. They did one test production of it at Theatre Alliance down in Washington DC, I was brought on board for the New York production.
It’s one of those theatre experiences that you walk away from being like, “Wow! I was involved in something that changed people’s lives,” which is a really special feeling.
There was actually a veteran in the cast from the Afghanistan war. That was a really cool thing also, to see his perspective on war and the camaraderie and the brotherhood of the armed forces. That’s something that I’d love to do again. I think that’s a very exciting area that is not explored very often. There are lots of times when we go around and we do the happy fluffy stuff like The Music Man, but I feel particularly lucky when I am involved in something that has the potential to change people and change their perception of the world.
I feel particularly lucky when I am involved in something that has the potential to change people and change their perception of the world.
How do you feel about working with ArtStream in Alexandria this year?
I’m excited to be involved with a group that is so dedicated to changing people’s lives and changing people’s experience of theatre and their preconceptions of theatre and what the participants are able to do. The stigma of disability in this country can be just so strong that people go completely overlooked. At the end of the day, we’re all human and we all have our special sets of skills. I worked with ArtStream once before a few years ago and I remember walking away from that experience being completely blown away by what the participants are able to do and how the shows are crafted in a way to really let each participant shine in what they are capable of doing. They all have such unique and special skills. It’s really exciting to see them share it and share it in a really strong and powerful way.
I remember walking away from [my first ArtStream show] being completely blown away by what the participants are able to do and how the shows are crafted in a way to really let each participant shine in what they are capable of doing.
Have you gotten a chance to interact with any participants?
A little bit. At rehearsal there were a bunch of participants who came up to me and said “Hi.” They asked who I was and what I was doing there, all very friendly, nice, genuinely interested people. They’re always excited to have you.
Most of the time designers can go unnoticed. That’s sort of our job to be unnoticed. It’s always kind of fun when people take notice. That’s something that the participants definitely do.
What do you think you bring to the show as a lighting designer?
If nothing else, I want to bring storytelling. That’s something I always try to do with every show that I get the opportunity to design, to tell a story. So the ArtStream shows are no different. I want to help support the storytelling. Whether that’s by helping to make sure we feel like we’re on the beach or in the newsroom, whatever the case may be, I want to bring that environment to life for the participants and for the audience. I think that’s something that I’m especially excited to do for the participants. To take this story that they have been working on, in a rehearsal room with fluorescent lights at the most, to be able to transform this black theatre around them into the location.
The goal is transporting people. Bring them in for the story and make that be the focal point for the hour.
Talk to me about what your role will be during tech rehearsals.
So the lighting designer’s job is to design what you see, when you see it, how you see it onstage using lighting equipment. We use different things like intensity, hard or soft light, color, movement. We use all these things to help tell the story and also to reveal people on stage.
So during tech I will help position every light where it should go. Physically moving lights around in the theatre. I will plug them in, make sure they work. Focus them, is what we call it, so we’ll point them to the area on stage that they are responsible for. We’ll put in the color that they’re supposed to have. There could be a texture, something like leaves or windows, we’ll put that in with something we call a gobo. When all that is done and the actors arrive I will start what we call cueing. I will sit down at the light board, a lighting console, a computer that controls all the lighting equipment in the theater. And I will start to tell the story using those lights. And I’ll write individual cues, which are basically like a “look” onstage, so however many lights are on, whatever we need to create, “the beach” or to create “the newsroom.” And I will store that [cue on the computer]. Cues go in different places. It could be the beginning of a song or when it changes to a different scene or to a different location. So we’ll put all those together. And that becomes the show, how it looks.
[Lighting designers] use different things like intensity, hard or soft light, color, movement. We use all these things to help tell the story and also to reveal people on stage.
I work very closely with the director to make sure we’re telling the same story, we’re on the same page about what each moment should look like or feel like. Or also simple, practical things like, “This person’s a little too bright,” or “It’s a little too dark over there. Can we brighten the light on that side of the stage?”
The other person I’ll work very, very closely with is called the Stage Manager. That’ll be the person who actually makes the show function and happen from beginning to end. They will be the one who “calls” the lighting cues. They will say to a person, “Go,” and that person will push the button and that is what causes the transition between each lighting look for each location. They’re also the ones responsible for making sure scenery changes for each moment or whatever needs to happen onstage. So I’ll make sure that we are working together very closely so that the show looks how I think it should look and happens in the pacing that I feel like the lighting should happen in.
What’s your design process like and who do you work with along the way to figure out what these scenes should look like?
One thing that I do is research. I will look for pictures or paintings that give the mood or the type of lighting that I’d like to see for a scene. So if we’re looking at an office building I might look at how the sunlight enters the office. Or look at the shadows of the windows stretching across desks. That might give me an idea of where to actually position lights and what color to make them. So taking a very artistic representation of light or a realistic representation of light and figuring out how to mimic it onstage. The other really important piece of any process work is to always go back to the script. Always go back to the script, it doesn’t matter if you’ve found the coolest image in the world of neon lights and it’s all really fun and fancy, but if that’s not what the story needs and that’s not the story you’re telling, then you shouldn’t be using that image as inspiration. Always going back to the story: what’s at the heart of every story, what different themes might be for a scene; what the mood is; and trying to go through and figure out the best way to support that.
One thing that I do is research. I will look for pictures or painting that give the mood or the type of lighting that I’d like to see for a scene… [I take] a very artistic representation of light or a realistic representation of light and [figure] out how to mimic it onstage.
Once you do all of that kind of work, you eventually sit down to do the drafting of the show. I do it on a computer. I take a 2-D representation of the space and I will start drawing where lights should go and I will detail what their purpose will be, what color they will have and where they should be positioned in the space. It basically starts to look like an architectural drawing, just more theater-like.
How do you communicate with the director what the stage is going to look like?
(laughs) So lighting as an artform, and lighting, in general, is ephemeral. You can’t touch it. Unlike a set design, where you can see a drawing of what it’s going to look like and you can do test painting. And eventually you have the real set pieces and they’re painted and they’re there and they’re in front of you and you can analyze them that way. Same thing with the costumes. We all know what clothes feel like and what they look like. If someone says they’re going to be in a plaid shirt, that’s something we can instantly get a mental picture of what that might be. Lighting is trickier. We have to talk about emotion. We have to talk about what it’s going to feel like.
I tend to use very active adjectives and verbs when talking to a director. “This feels to me like sunlight breaking through the palm trees. I think it should be an amber color and feel like a cozy, comforting environment.” Or, “Oh, this is over here now so we want it to feel harsher, colder, like an icier tone to the whole scene. Maybe a little bit more shadowy so that we feel more incoming danger.” I almost talk more about the themes and the mood of every scene than I will talk about the lighting. Because one person’s warm and isolated could mean something completely different from my interpretation of that. So we try to talk about what it should feel like. And maybe a location element that we need to pay attention to, like windows. You kind of use that kind of conversation to ground you.
I almost talk more about the themes and the mood of every scene than I will talk about the lighting….We try to talk about what it should feel like.
I will also make big printouts of compilations of research images for each scene. That way you can quickly show the directing team a big piece of paper (or sometimes we’ll do it electronically) and that way we can say, “Look at this. This is how I think Scene 1 will look. This is how I think Scene 2 should look.”
What do you want people who come to the show to think about the lighting design?
In a way, if they’re not paying attention to me and they’re completely immersed in the story, then I’ve done my job.