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.
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Pacific Northwest Ballet resident lighting designer Randall G. Chiarelli.

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.

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.

Ballet lighting is very complicated. It involves direction, color, intensity and focus, where the light is pointed. How important is the lighting design to the overall effect of a dance work?

It’s critical because without it we wouldn’t see the dancers. So it has to be handled carefully and supportively. At PNB, we have the most beautiful people in the world to work with, so my main task is to define their beauty.

It’s also important to consider that dramatic lighting effects aren’t dramatic if they’re dramatic all the time. It’s like someone who yells all the time. Good lighting requires careful consideration and modulation. I frequently work with choreographers who say, “I don’t want any front light, I only want side light,” or “I don’t want any top light” or “I only want back light.”

What do you do in that case?

It depends. The process is one of negotiation and it’s different with every person. I like to talk about lighting in general, but not about the details and I like to be a familiar face to the choreographer because they’ll trust me more. If the first time they see me is in the theater, there are problems. My favorite choreographers allow me to show them what I’m thinking. 

How do you begin your lighting designs?

I consider my time in the rehearsal studio the most important time I have. In ballet, you never see the ballet in its completed order until you go into the theater, but you can’t get frustrated by not seeing things in sequence. You have to figure out how things are connected on your own. So, the more time in the rehearsal studio, the better I can do and the better opportunity I have to get my way when I go into the theater with the choreographer.

What is your starting point for developing a lighting plot for a ballet? The music? The choreography?

The music is our road map; the one that we all share. Music is the universal language and I feel that I can get a much better design statement if I speak more to the composer than the choreographer. The music is already there. It’s my beacon. If I get lost, I go back to the music.

Do the sets and costumes affect your design?

Yes. I’m lucky because we have our own costume shop. I go in early and look at the costumes. Sometimes I’ve even rigged lighting in the fitting room. Blacks are very difficult to light, so we have black tests.

I enjoy taking a choreographer or [costume] designer into the fitting room and showing them what will happen if I use certain tints. I might use a color anyway, even if they don’t like it, and that’s where the art of negotiation comes in.

What are the favorite lighting designs you’ve done?

Kent’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Ming Cho Lee’s sets and all the Balanchine stuff. “Carmina Burana,” although I didn’t do as good as Ming on that. Also, Mark Dendy’s “Symmetries” and “Auguries.” I did some of my best work with him.

There are also some that didn’t work out so well, like “Voluntaries.” But I believe that failure is the best teacher.

You’ve made your entire career in the ballet world.  Any desire to work in the other performing arts?

Working for PNB has been more than a full time job, but I am trying to get more work outside of ballet. Right now, I’m working with Spectrum [Dance Theater] doing scenery and lighting, and I feel 30 years younger. For Spectrum, I’ve done “Petrouchka,” “Theater of Needless Talents” and “LOVE,” which I did with only 24 lights, which I wouldn’t have been able to do without having worked with Tom. Donald [Byrd, Spectrum’s Artistic Director] and I can really get into a groove together.

How is technology influencing your lighting?

It’s getting too easy with computer drafting, computer lighting control systems, computer riggings. That’s why “The Nutcracker” is so great. Except for the lighting console, it’s a totally human-powered endeavor — human dancers, the orchestra and 40 human stagehands and even a human pushing the buttons on the lighting console. I know the machines are here to stay, but they’re just tools, not the result.


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