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The invisible work of lighting design

Pacific Northwest Ballet's lighting designer Randall Chiarelli is a master of his art, but the mark of his best work is that no one notices he's done it.
Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli created the lighting for Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana.

Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli created the lighting for Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana. Photo: Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli created the lighting for the PNB’s staging of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Pictured: PNB principal dancer Carrie Imler.)

Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli created the lighting for the PNB’s staging of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Pictured: PNB principal dancer Carrie Imler.) Photo: Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli.

Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli. Photo: Angela Sterling.

Randall G. Chiarelli has been Pacific Northwest Ballet’s technical director and lighting designer since 1979 (except for a one-year stint with San Francisco Ballet). He has created the lighting designs for much of PNB's repertory, including Kent Stowell's “Swan Lake,”Firebird,” “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,” “Carmina Burana,” “Cinderella” and “Carmen,” and re-created the designs for PNB's Balanchine repertory. A Seattle native, Chiarelli received painting and sculpture degrees from the University of Washington.

His lighting will be on view at PNB’s upcoming “Modern Masterpieces” performances March 15-24 at McCaw Hall.

AK: Many people who go to the ballet don’t really notice the lighting, unless it’s bad and they can’t see what’s on stage. Does that bother you?

RC: No, it doesn’t bother me at all. Jean Rosenthal created ballet lighting, as we know it. She felt that a good lighting design is one that people don’t notice, that supports the bodies and doesn’t bring attention to itself. She said light is the water that dancers swim in and for me that’s always been an image that I try to capture. If feel like I’ve done a better job if people don’t say to me, “The lighting was terrific.”

You started out at the UW studying painting and sculpture. How did you get into theatrical lighting design?

I’m not that good with my hands, but lighting was interesting to me because it flows. I was working my way through college as a stagehand at the Opera and the [Seattle] Rep. Because I was a stagehand, I had keys to every theater in town, so if there was an important designer in town, I would go to the show and watch. Then, after the show, I would play with ideas on the lighting board.

You didn’t know Jean Rosenthal but you did study with perhaps her most brilliant protégé, Tom Skelton, who designed for ballet and Broadway theater. How did you meet him?

He lit the original Christensen “Nutcracker” for PNB and did some things at the Rep so that with my little key trick I would sit in the balcony and watch the shows. He and Francia [Russell, former co-artistic director of PNB] were friends through her work staging ballets for Ohio Ballet [where Skelton was the resident lighting designer]. It was her idea to have me study with him. She told him she would either reduce her [stager’s] fee or do something else for him if he would hire me for an Ohio Ballet tour. He wasn’t happy, but he agreed.

What did you learn from him?

It was wonderful for me because, in every day in every theater, he had to completely redo the show with a different setup. At the time [1979], PNB was putting up 150 lights to do a show, which wasn’t much and all the way to Miami [the first stop on the tour] I was trying to figure out how to deal with 400 lights, because that’s what I assumed he was using. But when I got to the theater, Tom had only 61 lights.

There were other things that Tom did that I still can’t figure out. He used colors you’re not supposed to use, like combining pale pinks and pale greens. Greens are the most difficult to use technically, because they make bodies look gray. Most men have some color blindness, but I have a good color sense. Tom’s must have been even better.

I worked with him for about a month and could hardly wait back to get back to try the things I had learned.

And you became good friends too.

Yes, he even remembered me in his will. This is a lonely profession and very few people understand it. It’s easy to understand the mechanics, but not the artistic elements — even for those in the theater.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 5, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

It's terrific to see an article about Rico. He is indeed a wonderful lighting designer whose work is testament to the "less is better" school. It is good to know he is working with other companies as it is always a pleasure to see his designs.

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