Intimate Details – A Conversation with Lighting Designer Curtis Mueller
Curtis Mueller knows better than to be fooled by simplicity.
When asked to design lights for Intrepid’s production of Oleanna (which is now currently running at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas), he was careful not to presume that a two-person play set in the round would be an easy show to design.
“The challenge with this play is that it’s so focused on just a conversation really, one wouldn’t think that it would be that challenging,” says Curtis. “But from a lighting perspective, you are really trying to underscore certain moments of the show, depending on that conversation.”
Having designed for Intrepid’s past productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical (2012) and Hamlet, which just closed in February, Curtis was up to the task of switching gears from these bigger ensemble pieces to Mamet’s intimate office wordplay.
“Scenically, we’re in a professor’s office, so we’re trying to figure out ways to make each scene look different, but still not going too far from reality,” he said, explaining that the lighting will play a big part in portraying both the development of the story as well as the passage of time from one act to the next.
“The opening of the show is just a simple conversation,” he says. “The audience doesn’t know what it’s going to escalate to yet, so we have more of an isolated look to it.”
Using the idea of the office windows and playing with the amount of sunlight coming through the blinds is one way in which Curtis plans to tell the story, although without an actual window onstage to work with, this gets tricky. Enter special effects created by lighting gobos that douse the stage with dappled sunlight on cue.
“By the end of the play, the scene is fully exposed, wider and open,” says Curtis. This brighter lighting also serves to “expose” the action as the play culminates into its most heated moments.
The specifics of these lighting choices will also serve to distinguish each act. Since the actors never leave the space and the set never alters, the challenge is making sure that the audience understands that each act takes place in a different time.
“We made a point that passage of time would affect the lighting design because we don’t want to have the feeling that nothing changes at all – especially with the way the play progresses, and the characters develop, and argument continues,” he says.
Working in the round also presents its own set of challenges, as the designer has to make sure that the actors and the set are cleanly lit from all angles and from all audience perspectives. Additionally, the blocking – or the movement of the actors – is different from a traditional stage, so there is extra pressure for the lighting to be uniform no matter which direction the actor is facing.
Given these challenges, this piece is a far departure from its surface simplicity, Curtis acknowledges. “We can really strip everything away and focus on the details,” he says. “I’m actually excited by the simplicity of it.” — T.T.
Oleanna is a special engagement that runs through April 14 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre in Encinitas, CA. Tickets can be purchased here.