Brent Sullivan Sees the Light

by Dance

When it comes to the performing arts, Brent Sullivan is a man with a light touch. Lighting design touch, that is. Sullivan, production supervisor for the Harvard Dance Center, has worked nationally and for TV. His workshop "Lighting the for the Performing Arts" -- 5:30 p.m. Friday Oct. 8 at the Harvard Dance Center -- is designed to help students work with lighting to meet the artistic goals of their production. The event is free, but an RSVP is necessary. The OFA Harvard Arts Beat recently spoke with Sullivan.

What initially attracted you to lighting design?

I fell into theater tech early in my undergraduate years. I was working in the scene shop when the theater's technical director came up to me and asked if I wanted to design the lighting for an upcoming dance concert. My first reaction was, "I don't understand: What do you mean design the lights?" We sat down and put together the light plot, but I was still confused by it all. When I entered the theater and began working with lights I finally got it and saw infinite possibilities.

What is exciting about lighting design to you?

I think of lighting as a game that I am playing with the audience: what I choose to show you, and what I choose to hide. I get excited about the ability to completely changing the intent of a scene or a dance just by changing the color or shadows onstage. When you design and build a set or a costume, once the piece is finished your job is basically done. But with lighting, there are always new possibilities to explore.

In some ways, lighting is the least tangible of the "design" art forms; there is the most room for interpretation on the part of the viewer when it comes to lighting, allowing the audience to use their own imagination to engage with the performance.

Why is lighting design important for the performing arts?

Lighting design is still a relatively new art form, when you consider how long theater and performance have been around. Without good lighting, you just have a set and performers in costume. The lighting pulls everything together and transforms the stage into something else. In one moment it can be early morning in the country, the next it can be a dark and sinister night in a London alley. No other design element has the flexibility to change the entire story so rapidly as lighting. With scenery and costuming you create the physical elements of the story; with lighting and sound you create everything else the audience could imagine. For me lighting is the doorway to the imagination; without it there is only darkness.

How can lighting design help performers with their work?

Having a basic understanding of lighting can help the performers connect with their environment. If they understand the intent of a light cue or a look onstage, they can better understand or inhabit the environment. This helps them to really get into their role and give a believable performance, which makes the experience of seeing live performance more exciting for the audience.

What are examples of really great lighting design?

As you become more involved in lighting design, you begin to see it everywhere. The way the sunlight reflects off a building, the way a bottle catches the light, the gentle movement of light being reflected off the surface of a river or lake. It's as if there is a whole world you never knew existed waiting to be explored. A few years ago I saw a dance piece that had just one lighting cue, yet the lighting was so important that the choreography of the dance made the lighting the central character. The dancers moved in and out of the light as if it were a game of hide-and-seek with the shadows, and although the lighting never changed, the way the performers interacted with it gave it a life and an energy all its own.