On That Note! focuses on the individual artists who come together in the process of creating a work of musical theatre. This week we delve into the choices facing lighting designer Colin Bills as he brought Fiddler on the Roof to life at Arena Stage.
Two key elements shaped the decisions facing lighting designer Colin Bills as he helped bring Fiddler on the Roof to life at Arena Stage. The first was the work of painter Marc Chagall, whose work inspired both the original creators of the show and director Molly Smith, who is reviving the work a half-century later. “There’s a Jewish mysticism in both the Chagall paintings and in Fiddler itself,” Bills explained. “That has a direct impact on color choices, especially in the dream moments and in the more mystical touches, like whenever we see the fiddler actually on the roof.”
The second element that shaped Bills’ work was the performance space itself. “There’s this sense of inclusion and of working in concert with the audience,” he said of the Fichandler, an in-the-round theatre where audiences look across the stage to their peers in the opposite rows. “That sense of community, of bringing people together, relates to how far inside the characters we go. It shapes decisions about how dark we go, versus how light and airy the space feels across the way to our fellow audience members.”
A lighting designer working in the round is already limited by the lack of wing space, which provides all-important ‘side light.’ With this production, there’s the additional challenge of a large sculptural element that hangs above the stage, and limits the use of ‘down light.’ “I think of it as a spiral staircase,” Bills said. “There’s a lot of negative space between the ‘steps’ where light can shoot through.” Working together, the design team turned that challenge into an opportunity to highlight a key element of the story. “There’s so much of this musical where Tevye talks directly to God or to the audience,” Bills pointed out. “It made sense for some sort of heavenly, mystical light to be coming from above, making its way through.”
Just as Bills collaborated with set designer Todd Rosenthal to discover how lights and sets could work together to support Tevye’s journey, he also collaborated with costume designer Paul Tazewell, especially on questions of color – and the musical’s famous dream sequence. “The costumes in that section are inspired by Chagall,” he said. “They’re painted in vibrant colors, but how the audience sees those colors depends on what I put into the space. If I use saturated colors, it’ll wash out the costumes.” Still in previews at the time of this interview, Bills was heading to an afternoon rehearsal, ready to find a way to both highlight the costumes and create a dreamlike atmosphere. “We’ll take another pass at it,” he said. “I’m going to try lighting the chorus more specifically in the still moments, so we can really see those costumes, then bring more color in when they’re moving fast through the space. We’ll see what happens.”
Guiding all of these decisions is the director’s vision. “Molly has a very specific take on musicals,” Bills pointed out. “She’s not into the big pop and flash of a Broadway number.” Lighting designers working on Broadway musicals often highlight specific dance moves to build excitement, and to increase the appreciation of impressive choreography. “Molly and [choreographer] Parker Esse are going for a sense of spontaneity in the dance moments,” Bills said. “To highlight the great technique of the dancers, or specific moments in the number, works against that spontaneity. It tells the audience that we planned it all ahead. For Molly, it’s much more about story. The music is building and the lights are building but it’s not as noticeable. You get to those richer, deeper places.”