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Light Shows:
The Dynamism of Light in Performance

The MA Theatre & Performance thesis project of Carlie Todoro-Rickus
May 1st and 2nd 2015, in Marine A grain elevator at Silo City, Buffalo, NY.

In most performances, light functions as a supporting medium for other elements, such as the scenography or actors. This project aims to liberate light from this limited role and redefine it as an equal collaborator and performer within a performative installation. Poised between theatre and sculpture, here the single beam of light functions both as a performer and as an anthropomorphic figurative sculpture. Using Wassily Kandinsky’s The Yellow Sound, Samuel Beckett’s Play, and expanding on two of my earlier works, I explore light as a protagonist. Specifically, I ask, what is the potential of light onstage before other elements? How might the power relations between light and other elements be reconfigured? What possibilities exist beyond the immediate function of illuminating the performance space? Situated at the junction of visual art and light scenography, Light Shows explores these questions through a series of light beam installations in which light performs as object, character, partner, director, and spectacle. Positioned within a found, urban space (rather than a theatre), Light Shows premiered at Silo City, a campus of rehabilitated early 20th-century grain silos along the Buffalo, NY waterfront.

This work draws on my 15-year career as a lighting designer. In much of my design work for theatre and dance, light played a supporting role by making onstage action visible, illuminating the bodies on stage, and providing dramatic information about the time, place, and atmosphere of the performance. Used in combination, sequences of colored lights can be used to convey time passing. Blue light, for example, frequently represents night, whereas low angled amber light suggests sunrise or sunset. Lighting designers also create dramatic moods as in a red wash that bathes a murder scene in the color of blood, or color choices that support the emotional context for a choreographer’s work. Common to all these applications of light is its status as a final layer added to text or movement. Light in these scenarios supports the creative work of a playwright, director, or choreographer, but it is not its own independent entity.

What if light came first?

Pursuing this question, I explore light’s ability to function in a dynamic capacity in performance, rather than a passive and supportive role. Drawing not only on my experience in lighting design, but also in sculpture, my work moves from light in and on sculptures to my collaborations in dance that positions the human body as sculpture to the environments carved with light. This thesis project extends these investigations to mobilize light as the element that generates performance, either as a solo performer, or director of performance. As performance studies scholar Jennifer Parker-Starbuck might say, light is now the subject of the performance.