The Light 'Whisperer'

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The light `whisperer'
He's a behind-the-scenes guy by design, but the Goodman's Bob Christen has been shining for 30 years

By Emily Nunn
Tribune staff reporter
Published July 29, 2005

For a guy who loves the spotlight, Bob Christen spends a lot of time in the dark.

"Can you see?" he asked, as I stumbled into a chair at his temporary office, a long table in a nearly empty, mostly dark auditorium. I could not. But I was soon in the dark in so many other ways that it didn't seem worth mentioning.

Christen is the longtime resident lighting designer at the Goodman Theatre, and he had agreed to let me watch him at work. Making the sets, the sound, the costumes has always seemed easy enough to imagine. Creating light, on the other hand, is so mysterious and godlike.

Christen sort of looks like a movie version of God, played by Burl Ives. He was wearing a large audio headset, and was surrounded by wires, glowing computer screens, charts and scripts. Also, a microphone on a stand, a video monitor with an aerial view of the stage, a half-eaten sandwich on waxed paper, a couple of Dr Peppers.

He and the rest of the cast and crew of a recent Goodman production were toiling away on the second day of the highly collaborative process known as tech rehearsals.

In case you're not a theater type, "tech" is one of the most painstaking periods in a theatrical production cycle; it's the first time the entire cast comes together to co-ordinate the many design and technical layers -- the acting, with the lighting, with the sound, with the stage design, etc -- that make a play. Every day from about 1 in the afternoon until 11 at night, the actors in each show make their way, in stops and starts, through a script, for the benefit of Christen and his colleagues, as they create, record, adjust and synchronize their cues in preparation for opening night.

Every few minutes, when the action stopped, Christen chanted formulas that seemed secret to me but that everyone else in the room clearly understood. ("Channel 30 at 10, channel 4 at 30 . . . channel 2 at 35 . . . take 109 out," he said into his headpiece. "Yeah, that'll work. Record that as Cue 61.") He picked up a color wheel, gazed at an obscure looking chart, then whispered some more formulas.

"I was just making adjustments to the light, and it was recorded as a cue number," he said, unpoetically. But when the crew ran the scene again, the stage was bathed in a new, beautiful, and somehow melancholy honey-colored hue.

In spite of his job, Christen personally is not one for big drama. "A lighting designer's job is to support the play," he said a couple of days later, as he was taking me on a tour of his domain at the Goodman. "Hopefully, to set a time, a mood. You're creating different spaces and times on one stage, defining the action and evolving it."

Obviously, it's a lot more complicated than that. But Christen is a self-effacing guy.

"I'm one of those people who's afraid they're going to get fired on the first day, every time," he said. This, after more than 30 years on the job.

Christen, who is 55 and grew up in Appleton, Wis., fell in lovewith theater at 15, working on high school productions. ("I did a lot more scenic work back then, building rigging. . . . ") He continued the affair at the University of Wisconsin, where he started out as a math major then switched to theater, working in electrics (as lighting is known professionally). Christen never intended it as a career, but at 22 he heard about an assistant electrician opening at the Goodman. He got it. ("They were desperate," he claims.) A year later, for the 1973-74 season, he was master electrician. By 1975 he was also lighting shows. Since Christen is both resident lighting designer and master electrician (usually you're one or the other), he outfitted the Goodman when it moved to its current space in 2000."I found my niche," he said.

Comfortable with role

It says something about Christen's disposition that throughout 40 years in theater, he has been onstage as a performer only once -- in community theater in Wisconsin. "I played a dead body in `Arsenic and Old Lace.'"

But while you may never see him onstage, and he practices an art that often goes unnoticed, he's a huge presence at the Goodman. "Let's take a shortcut through the Albert," he said, on our way through the back-alley maze of halls between the Goodman's two theaters. Suddenly we were standing on the larger of the two, looking out into and overwhelming cavern of empty house seats.

"Whoa," I said.

"Yeah, really," Christen replied, looking up. His attention, of course, was on the lights, which were absolutely everywhere, something you don't notice when the house is full and the actors are onstage.

They were clipped to the front of the balcony, attached to the opera boxes ("we call those box booms; it's a sailing term"), clustered in a dense mass above the audience, dangling from a metal grid above the stage, attached to a forest of vertical pipes in the wings ("sometimes we call those trees"), lining the front edge of the stage (footlights), and hidden behind a scrim backstage. There were more than 350, Christen said, and in the theater next door about 170 were hung so far. "But we're installing some more today. We're not finished," he added.

I must have looked surprised. "The lights change for every production," he said. "The structure stays the same, but the lights themselves we take down and put back up for each show."

According to Christen, I wasn't the most unenlightened person he had ever met. "Most people think the lights are there and you just turn them on or off," he said, with a certain amount of resign. But the truth is very little is automated in his line of work.

"Conventional lights are all hand-done. There are automated lighting fixtures, which you can dim or adjust by computer. But we do very little of that."

Gazing at the lights hovering high above us, I felt dizzy. "I hope you're not afraid of heights," I said.

"Most lighting designers don't need to worry about that. They spend all of their time down here, right here," he said, gesturing toward the stage floor, as opposed to the catwalk. "They're just artists. But I don't mean that disrespectfully."

Christen is an artist, too, of course, but he talks about his own design process as if it were executed by someone else: "You determine where all the lights are going -- in the ceiling, on the floor -- and what type and what color; then you have to put together a plan -- a drawing or map -- so somebody else can interpret it as a physical work and install it," he said. First, though, Christen reads the script, meets with the director, watches the actors rehearse, gets sketches and fabric samples from the other designers. He starts planning in his head two or three months before the first day of tech. A couple of weeks before, he submits the light plot.

Office work

Christen's assistant, Seth Reinick, and his technicians, the guys who do the actual installing, were waiting for Christen when we arrived at his huge office -- Stage Electrics Dept. Room 161 (across the hall from the glamorous-sounding North Star Dressing Room). It looks like something from a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie, with theatrical trunks spilling into the hall.

On a desk in a corner, under a shelf of Lighting Dimensions magazines, was a pile of Christen's light plots, or maps

"I still draw 'em by hand. I'm old-fashioned," he said, picking up his design for "A Christmas Carol," a grid with numbered boxes.

"All the various pieces of equipment -- each light or group of lights -- are assigned a number, or control channel," he said. "You could call it the second light from the right on the third pipe, but we need a shorthand. So instead, when you want to bring a light on you say `Turn channel one on at a level of 50 percent.' It's a scale of zero to 100. So the shorthand is 1 at 50, 2 at 35, etc."

While the guys were getting ready to work on the lights in the Owen Theater, Christen took me to the catwalk high above it. Which was scary. We were much closer to the ceiling than I find comfortable, and through the black metal bars of the catwalk floor, I could see a man working on the set directly below us.

Christen stepped out onto the catwalk and introduced me to the ubiquitous ellipsoidal reflector spotlight, a common and quite old-fashioned staple of the lighting business, whose position, color and beam are all adjusted by hand.

And while we were in the neighborhood, we took a quick tour of the control room on the same floor, that mysterious station behind glass located in the back of many theaters; it was dark and cluttered with an amp rack, computers, equalizers, routers, and switchers (Christen's words, not mine), and it looked like a recording studio.

But Christen doesn't spend much time here. Once performances start, the lights are no longer in his hands. "This is where Kim the stage manager sits when we go into performance mode," Christen said. "She has her headset, and the sound and light board operators obey her cues."

Which is to say, they execute the lighting Christen created at tech?

"Right. A cue is a lighting state or a lighting look at a given moment. When I say `record that as cue No. 51,' the stage manager makes a note in her script, so that at each performance when the actor says, `I'm walking out the door,' that's when cue 51 happens, because the light moves to the next room as the actor walks through the door."

The secret to his style

It was time for Christen to work with his technicians, so we headed back down to the set. I had seen the lights up close, I had seen the plans, I had seen Christen's domain from every angle. But I still hadn't deciphered the secret of Christen's style, which over the years has earned him such critical adjectives as "magnificent," "formidable," "subtle" and "superb."

Maybe asking a lighting designer to talk about lighting design, to paraphrase Cocteau, was like asking a plant to discuss horticulture. I got ready to leave.

"You want to watch him work?" Reinick asked, as if Christen were Mick Jagger.

"Hell, yeah," I said, and sat down in the house.

Christen gave Reinick a few instructions (something about hanging a light and plugging it into dimmer circuit 56), which resulted in yelling and the sounds of footsteps from above; a pair of sneakered feet belonging to one of the electricians dangled from the catwalk high above my head.

The house went black, and for the first time since I had met Christen, he went down and stood onstage in the spotlight, like the star of the show. He ran a hand through his hair and looked at the floor.

"That's seems odd," I said to Reinick. "How can he tell what it looks like while he's standing in the middle of it?"

"He knows what the light will do. . . . "

"Are you saying he has a feel for the light? Like a light whisperer?"

"Yeah, he does -- exactly. There's stuff that you wouldn't even notice he's doing; just little things, changing it by 5 percent. . . . That's why he's the man."

"He seems so humble," I said.

"He's amazing," Reinick replied.

Christen was now in a dimly lit patch of space onstage, surrounded by darkness, the top of his head glowing from above. He made circles with his arms, and considered the effect. He held them above his head for a minute, like a dancer. Then he put his hands in his pockets and walked out of the light.

- - -

Some jobs flashy, some subtle

As enlightening examples of his work go, Bob Christen says he likes "A Christmas Carol," the perennial holiday favorite that the Goodman has been staging since 1978, and this past season's world premiere of a new drama, "Mariela in the Desert," by Karen Zacarias. They show the different ways lighting can be used, he says.

"`A Christmas Carol,' because it is so fantastic," he says. "It has ghosts, we have Marley disappear into a dark underworld -- it calls for a lot of different effects, so it's fun to do."

But he likes "Mariela," in which flashbacks are a significant part of the narrative, for subtler reasons.

"It was a real challenge. The drama was dependent on the lighting to create the shifts in time. And it's just a great example of how the lighting can guide the audience along and help them understand the action in a play."

-- Emily Nunn

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