Saturday, May 5, 2012

Rashomon--Lighting Design

The Monk and the baby
Rashomon, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was produced Winter Semester, 2008 in the Snow Black Box Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho.

The play begins at the Roshomon Gate where a priest, a woodcutter and a commoner are waiting for the rain to stop and they talk about the big news of the day.  A samurai has been discovered, murdered in the forest.  A bandit has been captured and tried for the crime.  The priest and the woodcutter were both called upon to testify in court and they recount the trial to the commoner.

The first witness was the bandit, Tajōmaru who claimed to have overpowered the samurai and seduced the woman.  She begged him to free her husband so that only one man would know her dishonor.  They fought and Tajōmaru won, leaving the samurai dead.  The woman fled.

The second witness was the woman, who claimed that the bandit fled after raping her.  She freed her husband and begged him to restore her honor, but he didn't believe she fought hard enough.  She claimed to black out with her dagger in her hand, but when she awoke, the dagger was firmly planted in the Samurai's chest.

The last witness was the samurai himself who testified with the aid of a spiritual medium.  He claimed that after Tajōmaru had seduced the woman, that she told him to kill her husband so she would not know shame.  Tajōmaru was repelled by this and freed the samurai and left.  The samurai claimed to have committed suicide rather than face his shame.

The woodcutter then claims that the samurai's story was a lie because he had witnessed everything from a hiding place.  He hadn't told the court because he didn't want to get too involved.  According to him, the samurai didn't want to fight Tajōmaru because he didn't want to risk his life for a spoiled woman.  She then castigated him and Tajōmaru and called them cowards.  They decided to fight but neither were very skilled and by accident the samurai is killed.  The woman and the bandit fled in separate directions.

At that moment, the priest, commoner and woodcutter hear the cry of a baby who has been abandoned on the midden heap.  The commoner takes the offerings that were left for the baby and he and the woodcutter fight.  The commoner has deduced that the woodcutter robbed the body of the samurai, so why shouldn't he take from the abandoned baby.  the commoner leaves and the woodcutter confesses to the priest that he robbed the samurai's body to provide for his six children.  Then he offers to take the baby home and raise it as his own.  The priest leaves, no longer despairing for humanity.

The director, Roger Merrill wanted the priest, the commoner and the woodcutter to be onstage for the entirety of the show, observing the characters as they act out their testimony.  He also wanted to distinguish between the Roshomon Gate, the courtroom and the forest.  The action moves from one location to another fluidly and seamlessly so there was not time for scene changes.  That meant we would need to accomplish most of that with stage lighting.

I have to say that the scene designer, Richard Clifford gave me a very good canvas to light.  First there was a raised deck about sixteen feet by twenty-two feet with a hanamichi, which is a long ramp in Kabuki theatre which runs through the audience to the stage.  There was another raised deck at the rear of the stage with the Rashomon Gate on it.  The Rashomon Gate had two openings on each side covered with Shoji screens.  Above the set were some distressed, raw silk banners, three of which would come down in front of the gate during the flashback sequences.

Rashomon, set by Richard Clifford
There were three different types of scenes to light for this play.  The first type was a rainy evening in the present with the priest, the commoner and the woodcutter.  The second type of scene were the court scenes where the character would have to testify.  The third type of scene was during the testimony when the action would be played out in front of the audience.  The first decision I made as a lighting designer for this show was to use a haze fog so we could see the shafts of light and provide atmosphere.

For the general light hang, I decided to go against convention and only have one area for the main part of the stage.  Normally a lighting designer would break a space that big up into six or more areas and light each of them separately.  One of the reasons for this was that the electricians who wired the black box theatre only gave us 70 circuits to work with.  I wanted to hit the stage from nine directions didn't have enough circuits to do it with multiple areas.  To do it, I used ETC Source 4 fixtures with 36 degree barrels which spread the light over the whole area.  The problem with that is that there is a finite amount of light coming from an instrument and the wider the beam the dimmer it appears.  To compensate for that, we hung a second instrument to the side of the first and focused it on the exact same spot.  Then we plugged them both into the same circuit with a Twofer.  Essentially we got twice the light on each area by hanging this way.

I wanted quite a bit of texture in the lighting because the majority of the play took place out of doors in a forest.  Originally I wanted to have a breakup gobo in every instrument and we hung it that way at first.  It was too much and I had the electricians remove one gobo from every pair of lights.  When I saw the quality of this light, I remembered something Jules Fischer said in a stage lighting convention I had attended.  He said a lighting designer should "light the shadows."  Originally I had planned to have both lights from each position gelled with the same color filter but when I remembered what Jules said I experimented with different colors and ended up putting a warm color in the light with the gobo and a cool color in the light without. 

What ended up happening was the warm light was more dominant than the cool light so wherever the warm light passed through the gobo it overwhelmed the cool light.  That allowed the cool light to illuminated the shadows without losing the shadow effect.  It worked very well and I ended up adopting it for the whole of the show.

Lighting the shadows.  Scene set in the present
The scenes with the priest, the commoner and the woodcutter were set in the present during a rainstorm at night.  These three men were seeking shelter from the storm and passing time by talking about the death of the samurai and the trial.  For much of this, they huddled around a small firepit that was cut from the stagefloor.  We used a silk flame for this effect.

For these scenes, I used primarily cool, dim, textured light to simulate evening.  I wanted to create a rain effect with light, so we had source 4's aimed at the building with gobo rotators and fixed gobos to achieve it.  It was quite convincing. 

For the trial scenes, I backlit the Shoji screens and we had an actor create a shadow character of a judge or a lawyer behind them while the defendant or the witness was onstage in a harsh colorless downlight.  During the trial scene with the medium, though I did add a downlight with a gobo rotator to make her scene just a little more mystical.

Tajōmaru on trial
The wife as a witness
The medium testifies on behalf of the slain samurai
For each of the different re-enactment scenes, I designed a different quality of lighting.  In the bandit's tale, I backlit the Shoji screens with yellow light and a masculine, angular breakup gobo.  I backlit the silk banners above the set with a foliage breakup gobo and green gelled light as well.  The dominant lighting color during this scene was amber, with blue light filling the shadows.  I wanted the quality of light to reflect the character of the bandit, as a braggart.

The bandit's tale
For the wife's tale, I chose a softer approach.  The light behind the Shoji screens was a salmon pink and the gobos were very delicate.  The primary lighting color during this scene was pink to reflect the feminine aspects of her character.

The wife's story
For the samurai's tale as told through the medium, we decided to have the lighting be mysterious.  I used a different gobo in the Shoji screen lights and also used color scrollers to change the lighting color through the blues, greens and yellows during the scene.  I wanted the screens to be different from each other in this scene to convey the mystical nature of the spiritualist.  At the end of the scene we brought the medium back into the harsh downlight of the trial and had her pantomime the self murder of the samurai while he also performed the act behind the three silk banners over the gate.  I lit the banners with yellow light and what I called my dagger gobo.  Inside the gate where the samurai was I used a red downlight.

The samurai's tale as told by the medium
Death of the samurai
For the woodcutter's tale, the scene designer dropped green ribbons from the grid to the stage floor to represent a bamboo forest.  The director and I decided that this tale was the most reliable one because it was told from a third party so we lit the scene as brightly as possible.  As I'd write the cue and show it to Roger he'd ask, "Can we make it brighter?"  I lit the Shoji screens in this scene with a nice green light and streaky gobos set in the same direction as the ribbons in the bamboo forest.

The woodcutter's tale
At the end of the play, after the commoner has left, the woodcutter takes the baby from the priest to raise along with his own children.  The priest now has a more positive outlook on life because of the woodcutter's selfless action.  He exited on the hanamichi and I lit him with backlight primarily to give him a halo effect and just enough frontlight to warm his face.

The priest exits on the hanamichi
I enjoyed working on this show.  I felt we had a very positive collaborative relationship and created something praiseworthy.  All aspects of design were pleasing and the performances and direction were very good as well.  This was a good production.

Production Details
Directed by Roger Merrill
Lighting Design by Gary Benson
Scene Design by Richard Clifford
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costume Shop Director:  Patty Randall

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