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UM Theatre Designer Uses Lights to Evoke the Set’s Emotion

By Abby Vandiver
Journalism student

For UM theatre designer and instructor Yi-Tai Chung, lighting is the spirit of the stage, a language that demands fluency and willingness to immerse yourself in it.

Lighting is the spirit of theatre, explains Chung, purely technological, but also requiring creativity.

There is a specific language that lighting designers use to light a show, different types of light and colors to highlight what the other artists create on stage.

UM Instructor Yi-Tai Chung said lighting is the spirit of theatre. Photo by Abby Vandiver.

For example, there is a follow spot, which follows the actor as they walk across the stage. There are also strip lights that are usually used to light a curtain or a backdrop.

The most important thing a lighting student can do is observe. Constant awareness of daily light is key to success in the field, he says.

Look at the sun and the angles of the sun, he says. Look at how fluorescent lights make things hazy. Different types of light produce different feelings in people – something important to understand in theater.

Most of what Chung teaches in his classroom is technical: how to understand the tool and technology and use them properly together. He said that for many students that is not easy. However, technical theater is still art.

A native of Taiwan, Chung studied lighting at the Taipei National University of Arts. In high school, he was involved in a small drama club with around six members. Due to this, everyone helped with every job: sets, lights, costumes, direction, acting, and cleaning.

For his first two years, Chung took classes in all the different technical theater elements. When it came time to choose a specialization, he chose what he was best at.

“I think originally I chose lighting design because I feel that I understand the curriculum better than my classmates,” Chung says.

Four types of designers contribute to a theatrical production: set, costume, lighting, and sound. Each collaborates with the others to tell the story the actors create onstage.

His experience in high school gave him a leg up on his classmates. So, he chose to major in lighting design. Since then, he has come to enjoy collaboration with the other designers.

Lighting is the last thing before a production goes to final dress rehearsals, so lighting designers try to get it right the first time.

Chair of Lighting Design at Ole Miss, Micheal Barnett describes the process as an adrenaline rush trying to get everything perfect as possible in time for opening night.

Barnett said that lighting is the last creative element to come into a show. So, there is less time to experiment with different choices. This is why collaboration with the director and other designers is key.

Chung says that it is important to pay attention to the designers of other elements to help highlight the creative work they have done.

“I can really see their work, and I really try to show their work onstage,” he said. “It’s hard to really see actors’ faces, so that is a requirement.”

Spotlights are used to illuminate the actors at different times in the show. Most likely, when they have important lines or do specific actions. The lighting also gives the audience a clue as to the time of day or season. For example, dim lighting can signify the nighttime, and orange and red hue lights give the feeling of the fall.

“People have a strong emotional reaction to light,” Barnett said. 

Also, candles evoke strong emotions at weddings and at funerals. This is why the job of a lighting designer is to highlight the work of other designers and to add depth to what they have already done.

There are really two parts to a lighting designers job: practicality and creativity. They need to be able to create visibility and highlight emotions while also creating feelings otherwise lost. That is why Chung stuck with lighting design. He said he enjoys merging art with technology.

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