Monday, June 18, 2012

A Christmas Carol--Lighting Design

Scrooge eating his evening porridge
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was produced as the last show of Fall Semester, 2006 in the Snow Drama Theatre at Brigham Young University-Idaho

The story of A Christmas Carol is so well known and has become a part of the popular culture that I won't give a detailed synopsis of it here.  I will instead give a short summary.

Ebeneezer Scrooge is a miser, who hates everything about Christmas.  He has a clerk, Bob Cratchit that has been working for him for years for meager wages.  Scrooge routinely turns down any opportunity to celebrate Christmas or donate to any charities.  He insists on calling Christmas a "Humbug".

Scrooge's former partner, Jacob Marley died seven years earlier on Christmas Eve.  As Scrooge is settling down to go to sleep, he is visited by Marley's ghost who is sporting an enormous chain which he describes as the chain he forged in life and tells Scrooge that his own chain was the same as his seven years earlier and has grown larger still.  In an effort to save Scrooge's soul, Marley tells him he will receive three visitors, all ghosts who will show him he was wrong.

The first visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Past.  She shows Scrooge a time when he celebrated Christmas, when he was a more tender soul.  She also shows how he became miserly.

The second visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Usually played as a jolly giant.  He shows Scrooge how people all over the country celebrate Christmas and then shows him how happy Bob Cratchitt is with his family, even on the meager wage he is paid.  Scrooge is also made aware of Bob's crippled son, Tiny Tim.  Scrooge asks the spirit if Tim will live, and the ghost mocks him with his own words.

The third visitor is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  This spirit is usually portrayed as the grim reaper, and only gestures but doesn't speak.  This spirit shows Scrooge the Cratchitts without Tiny Tim and finally shows him his own future as a corpse not cared about and later in an untended grave.  This has the desired impact on Scrooge and he vows to change his ways.

The next morning, Scrooge awakes and is giddy, making good on his promise and begins to celebrate Christmas by giving himself and his riches to all the people he had previously foresaken.  He brings Bob in as a partner and vows to find doctors to heal Tiny Tim.  The narrator ends the play by saying Scrooge was "better than his word."

A Christmas Carol is my all time favorite Christmas story.  I'm thankful I had the chance to be a part of this production.

The first and fifth acts of A Christmas Carol are set in the present and follow a chronology, but the second, third and fouth acts are episodic and scenes change rapidly.  Because of this, the Director, Omar Hansen wanted to make certain that we differentiate the scenes with lighting.  We also decided that since Scrooge existed in a different dimension than the shades he was seeing that he would be lit differently than the other characters in the scenes.  I asked if there were any moments where we could have the actors' faces go into shadow.  Omar said we could, but he wanted to be able to see faces most of the time.  In other words we could do it for effect, not the overriding aesthetic of the whole piece.

Richard Clifford designed a beautiful set that was mostly background elements with a raked stage out front where furniture pieces could be brought in to change location.  There were also a few pieces that were flown, such as windows and Scrooge's apartment building fasçade.  The most striking feature of the set was an enormous working clock which was to be lit from within through most of the show.

Because the nature of this piece is episodic, and it trends to the supernatural, I chose to light it in the following ways:

Present Day
The scenes set in the present, with no ghostly intervention, I chose to light primarily from the beam positions in the Snow Drama Theatre.  The beams are the catwalks over the audience in the auditorium.  I decided to light the actors in a more realistic fashion, at least the way audiences are used to seeing them, fully lit.  Even so, the lighting was angled slightly so the actors would be more three dimensional than they would with straight on frontlight. 

I chose cool colored lighting for the first act because of how chilly Scrooge's outlook was on life.  This helped sell the fact that Bob Cratchit is cold and has to warm the ink in the well to get it to flow.  There were also a few candles in places which motivated the lighting somewhat.

In the fifth act I chose warmer colors in the light, pinks and ambers to show how the events of the night had softened Scrooge's heart and made him a more sympathetic character.  In both acts I and V, there was a large flown window that had Santa Frost on all the panes.  I backlit the windows to cause them to glow.

Act I cool lighting

Act V warm lighting

Act I Effects Lighting
I picked a teal green gel for anything relating to Jacob Marley, Scrooge's late partner.  When Scrooge goes to his home, the door knocker transforms into the likeness of Marley.  I decided to use the green gel in a pinspot, aimed directly at the knocker as a special to acheive this effect.  I used a ten degree barrel on a source four lighting fixture and that didn't create a small enough circle of light, so we added an iris to the fixture to make the light even smaller. 

Doorknocker special

Just before Marley appeared, Scrooge was eating his porridge and I lit him with a pink sidelight from one direction and a blue one from the other.  The image for is at the beginning of this post.  I wanted to heighten the supernatural aspect of the coming scene and chose to do it in this way.

When the ghost of Jacob Marley finally appeared we choreographed his movements through the scene so he would go to the exact same spot on the same word each night.  That way we could control the light on him.  I used the teal green gel as downlights and we created a cue system that led and followed Marley as he moved through the scene.  The light would slowly come up in front of him and would trail off as he left it, kind of like a spectral trail.  As much as possible, we tried to keep Scrooge out of the spectral light, or at least on the periphery.

There were two moments when Marley roared and we lit the entire stage and out into the audience when he did so.  That cue was a multi-step one that started on him and grew in three or four phases till it filled the auditorium.  Then it trailed back in reverse order.  The Marley cues were among my favorite of the show.

Marley's entrance

Marley descends the stairs

Marley in the light, Scrooge on the periphery

I am Marley, hear me roar!

Act II--The Ghost of Christmas Past
When the Ghost of Christmas Past was introduced in our production, she reminded me of an image from a Maxfield Parrish painting and I decided to use pink for her color initially.  Some of the experiences she chose to show Scrooge reminded him of happier times in his life, as well as some sad memories that give the audience a little insight into his character.  During the happier moments of his childhood, I lit the stage with more of the frontlight but as he became stingier and less likeable, I introduced side light as the primary light source.

  I used warmer light at the first of this act and finally when Scrooge chooses money over the love of his life, I used a very cool blue light from the side.  The color I chose was Lee 202.  Lee is a theatrical Gel manufacturer and 202 is a very icy blue.  It was so blue it almost made the image on stage appear black and white.  I have added it to my pallette ever since this play.

The Ghost of Christmas Past pink entrance light

Warm lighting during the Fezziwig scene

Lee 202 as sidelight

Act III--The Ghost of Christmas Present
The Ghost of Christmas Present is usually portrayed as a jolly giant.  He spoke his first lines offstage into a microphone with some effects layered in.  I used a 9 light directly behind him to give a giant shadow across the stage that would make him larger than life.  Unfortunately, I don't have any images of his entrance.  For the rest of the act, I tried to keep the light on him reasonably warm, and I also tried to keep the lighting on Scrooge and the Ghosts a little different than it was on the shades the ghosts were showing him.  It worked out fine mostly, but Scrooge would go into the scenes with the other characters (as almost all Scrooges do) so he'd be lit with the shades.  Most of the time, though he'd exit that light and go back to the other light when he addressed the ghosts.

 At the end of this ghost's life, when he introduced Ignorance and Want, I used a much cooler light to signify his passing.

Scrooge and the Ghost in different light outside the Cratchitt home

Scrooge in the scene lighting, Ghost on periphery

Ignorance and Want

Act IV--The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
The scenes with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come were mostly dark and in cool colored lighting.  Even in the Cratchitt home, the light was icy around center stage with some warmer light Stage Left where the fireplace supposedly was.  During these scenes, Scrooge kept his distance as a spectator and stayed on the outside of the circle.

In the graveyard, I used very cool, dark light at the beginning, but as he made his discovery and as he vowed to change, I introduced a lighting effect that I called "the fires of Hell light".  I used a very primary red gel in an instrument that I fitted with a gobo rotator and had two gobos in opposition to one another to create a fire effect that started small and as it gained intensity, it literally filled the stage.  I have still images of this effect but not moving ones, unfortunately.

Scrooge and the spectre outside the light at the Cratchitt home

Scrooge makes a grisly discovery in the cemetery

Scrooge in the Fires of Hell light

The enormous working clock was used as a punctuating device during some scenes.  It became more important as the story went on, getting brighter and brighter, letting us know that Scrooge is running out of time.  The movement was devised by Ray Versluys, our technical director by utilizing different sized pulleys and a belt.  It worked flawlessly throughout the run of the show.  It was a large disk, made of wood with an open front that we covered with muslin and painted transclucently to allow for it to glow.  The light bulbs inside were C-7's, the kind you'd find on an older string of lights for a Christmas Tree.

The clock

I also used sidelight alot in this production.  Probably more than I had ever used it before.  I think to good effect.  Sidelight allowed me to create more dramatic lighting.  For example, lighting from one side allows for part of the actor to descend to shadow.  Lighting from two sides creates very interesting modelling on the faces of the actors.  

Use of sidelight

More use of sidelight

Saturated sidelight at end of Fezziwig's scene

.A Christmas Carol is one of my all time favorite plays.  I've had opportunity to be involved with five different productions of it in my career.  I hope this one is not the last.

Production Details
Directed by James Omar Hansen
Scene Design by Richard Clifford
Lighting Design by Gary Benson
Costume Design by Susan Whitfield
Technical Director:  Ray Versluys
Costme Shop Director:  Patty Randall


  1. Hello,

    Our non-profit organization here in NJ is putting on a free production of the Christmas Carol for the community in December on 12/21-22. I like your designs and work and was wondering if you might be willing to lend us any resources or advice that may be of assistance for the production? If so, we would greatly appreciate it. Thanks.


  2. Hi, Gary,
    I am a high school teacher in Oregon. We are doing a Modern Christmas Carol. Would you mind if we used your clock idea for our set? It is fabulous. We would be so grateful!

    Debbie N.