Student in the lighting lab

New lighting lab helps students practice technical theater skills

Sitting in a dark theater before a stage, you notice the details of the set, the shadowy faces of the actors during a tense scene, the melancholy mood created after something tragic unfolds in the plot. All these details of the play come together to create a powerful viewing experience where the mechanics of the play are felt rather than seen.

This is exactly the goal of Natalie “Nat” Davies, a visiting assistant professor of theater design and management, in her technical theater courses.

Davies, who has worked as a lighting and set designer in the theater industry for almost 20 years, has brought her expertise to Lees-McRae, and is sharing her technical theater knowledge through the college’s first Lighting Lab.

In the Lighting Lab technical theater students learn how to light an on-stage production in a way that enhances the storytelling.

“Through lighting you can control every moment of the show,” Davies said. “You can support the actors by changing the time of day, the focus, you’re literally assisting in the storytelling.”

Davies uses miniature sets for students to practice on in class, but some students, like junior Abby Paulson and senior Tanner Funderburk, have been able to apply their new knowledge of light design to the stage.

Neither Paulson nor Funderburk were initially interested in lighting design, but after enrolling in the theater program at Lees-McRae they were able to dabble in all different sections of theater and found a new passion for the technical aspect.

“I didn’t think I would like lights, I always thought I would be a set designer, and then the lighting lab was started, and I instantly fell in love,” Funderburk said. “It’s just really incredible being able to be in there and see how different light affects the little figures we had, and then being able to move onto the actual set.”

All the hours the students put in at the lab paid off, and they were able to apply their skills.

“The stuff that these guys have learned in class we’re able to instantly use in shows because we’re using the same equipment,” Davies said. “We bought some LED lights, and these guys were able to work on the lights for ‘In the Green.’”

Both Paulson and Funderburk worked on the college’s production of "In the Green" in November where they were able to apply the skills they developed in the lab.

“Being able to play with the color of the lights and modeling and shaping and seeing how it affects figures has been really awesome,” Paulson said. “It’s more than just using lighting to hit a person and make sure they’re seen, it needs to flatter them and look good, and really tell the story of the show.”

While the students agree that there was a bit of a learning curve when transitioning to a full-size stage, they felt well prepared to design the lights for the show and were able to bring the collaborative nature they developed in the Lighting Lab onto the stage.

“With ‘In the Green’ being how it was, we were able to take what we learned in class and apply it,” Funderburk said. “I was the stage manager, and Abby was the board operator, so we were able to take the relationship we built in class and move it there and be able to create the lights for the show.”

No matter how much you practice, Davies says that lighting a show requires a lot of trial and error. The goal with lighting design is not to teach the audience something new, but rather to employ already established principles, such as the psychology of color, to elevate the mood and plot of the play.

“What we’re teaching the students is to trust their instincts and be able to exploit them. We want to mix realism with mood and atmosphere,” Davies said. “I like to say it’s painting with light.”

The course touched on psychology and color theory, and students even created mood boards for inspiration. Building a strong foundation about the power of colors and light allowed the students to experiment with what techniques would tell the story best.

“A lot of it started off with those colors from the mood boards,” Paulson said. “I wanted one character to be lighter and another to be darker, so I played with more blues for his deep satin aura. I wanted the girl in the show to be the light to his dark, so I played with a lot more warmer colors to kind of find this contrast and really play into the mood onstage.”

Davies hopes to continue to use and expand the lighting lab in the upcoming years to provide an even richer and more rewarding classroom environment. She hopes to buy more lights with different capabilities so that students have as much room to experiment as possible.

By Maya JarrellFebruary 03, 2022