Who turned the lights on?

A few weeks ago I travelled to Staunton, Virginia, for the opening night of Shakespeare’s Sister, a play by my friend Emma Whipday that was being performed at the American Shakespeare Center. Since 2001 this dynamic company has made its home at the Blackfriars Playhouse, a recreation of a Jacobean indoor theatre. As part of their commitment to original staging conditions, the theatre remains lit at a constant level throughout the performance. Through this universal lighting everyone in the theatre, both performer and audience, have the chance to see each other, “breaking the wall” between actor and audience – particularly for those who take the seats available on the stage! However, the lighting also serves to amplify the communal experience of a play by heightening an audiences’ awareness of each other as fellow viewers of the drama. Though I had a number of questions prompted by the original staging conditions, in the days after the performance it was the lighting level in the theatre that struck me the most, specifically the way in which lighting might be also be a way to illumine the more complex set of behaviours and assumptions involved in the way that we watch concerts.

I still have a dim memory of being in a theatre for the first time, and though I have no recollection of what it was I watched (or rather I tend to conflate several different occasions) I do remember the thrill of that moment when the lights came down and the curtain opened. It was as if a barrier into a world that existed without my knowledge mere feet away had been broken down. As I have worked in theatres over the years I still experience something similar to that childlike thrill, perhaps even amplified because of the fact that, by working there, I get to spend my days traversing the divide between those two worlds. Maybe, though, those two worlds are more like states of reality and dreaming: an illusion reinforced by theatrical lighting. As the lights come down it is as if we fall asleep and are transported into a world in which we simultaneously immersed in the story and yet are also passive participants; there is a dreamlike intensity and timelessness to the experience of watching something on stage, and a corresponding sense of dislocation as the curtain closes and our memories of what we have just seen start to become a little hazy around the edges.

Between the fact that concert culture developed (and in many cases continues) in theatres primarily designed for plays, musical entertainments, and opera, it is unsurprising that elements of theatrical lighting have become part of the symphonic concert. Often this coalesces around a lower lighting level in the house with brighter lighting on stage, presumably serving the practical purpose of improving the audiences’ ability to focus upon the stage. I wonder, though if this might cause us to watch concerts in the same way we watch plays in the theatre or films on the cinema screen, being both transfixed by the reality of what we see, yet aware of its unreality of the act. This can be an exciting thing when watching a concert, emphasizing the other-worldliness of great music, but I wonder if this kind of theatrical illusion might also unnecessarily reinforce a kind of late-Romantic notion of concerts as sacrosanct rituals that are performed in front of an audience who sit at a distance veiled in darkness. From the performers perspective, standing on stage after a concert hearing applause yet staring into the blank of bright lights there is a way in which those on stage are also separated from the reality of an audience whose presence is, presumably, the reason for this being a concert.

Questions about how we view concerts are invariably tied up with those of architecture, be it the acoustic properties of horseshoe shaped theatres or the way a proscenium arch and curtain allows for the lighting of a specific area of the theatre. Thus it seemed fitting that whilst I was thinking through these issues that I read an article about the new Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. This adaptable, “modular hall” is designed to encourage the "thinking ear", allowing for optimal views and acoustics from an orchestra to solo instrument. Seating wraps around the performance area that sits at the lowest floor height in the room, and interlocking ellipses that appear to float above the stage create upper tiers with views directly down to the performance area. I was interested that in both a state of the art concert hall and a recreation Jacobean theatre we see a similar focus on exploring the intersection between performer and audience, promoting greater awareness in an audience, both by emphasising the synergy between sight and sound, and by combining our focus on the stage with peripheral vision of the rest of the audience. Although these two examples come from unique performance spaces, they raise broader questions about how the intersection of sight, sound, and surroundings in concert halls influences the way our audiences respond to the music that we are performing.