Illuminati Creative Technology, Colchester UK

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Stage Lighting: A basic manual of the art.

The Neuropsychology of Stage Lighting

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The Neuropsychology of Stage Lighting

An actor of my acquaintance prefers "light he can act in". When pressed he defined it as "light that does the same thing as my brain is doing by itself, light that changes when my thoughts do: light to turn my face to or away from and light to just be myself in ..... a kind of 'feedback' process, a sort of bio-mechanical interface. It was as though I can control the texture, colour location of the light I am acting in by power of my own thoughts"

That got me to thinking that this was a definite analogue of my own theory which is elaborated in an article I wrote lots of years ago about bio-mechanical feedback loops in lighting design. You can read about this theory here if you want.

The interface between eye and brain is a much travelled neueropsychological path, with many distinguished writers such as R.L. Gregory contributing interesting research, conceptualising the brain as a 'scientist, always making hypotheses about the electrochemical impulses it receives from the visual system'.

We live in a world where natural light is never static, always changing in direction and intensity. But where light is completely static and unhanging, these pulses will be very short -lived and will create very little neuron-firing activity, sending minimal information to the brain. Indeed the eye would probably see nothing at all after a while if it wasn't for the constant tiny eye movement that we all make all the time, effectively refreshing the signals. Any change in light level will set off a frenetic outburst in neuron activity, with various knock on effects in terms of chemical activity, which we can interpret.

Theories vary, and this is mine.

This activity is compared to a vast, perhaps holographically organised lookup table which gives the required cultural referents and information. As soon as that light change becomes static the mind "samples and holds" these referents, and those apply until the next change. In our theatre lighting world, that accounts for why fades and changes work so well and are so important. Lighting design consists of delivering a series of interesting snapshots with the appropriate in and out curves to create the required feelings, with the added complication that at any given moment in a fade it is a new snapshot at which the eye can take a fresh look.

In the first few seconds of the start of the play or walking into a lit environment, the change of light in combination with the scenery or lack thereof can quickly tell the audience a number of things. Where the play is set, what period, what time of day, time of year, class structure of the people involved, what the audience is to expect: all in that first few seconds. The audience then, armed with that information can then settle back and often, frankly would be perfectly happy to see the rest of the play in working light and as long as there is a good visibility and a good effect at the end of the play they can be made to think they have had good lighting throughout.

Of one thing we can be sure: perception is more than simply an upside-down two dimensional image on the retina, but requires an entire arsenal of learning and experience to interpret into something meaningful. American psychologist William James said “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our own mind.” Fortunately, we mostly agree on how to interpret common experiences, but many of these are on the unconcious level. Theatre is the ultimate neuro-- linguistic excercise in people manipulation. It is these unconcious levels we need to learn to manipulate.

Of course, not everone agrees with this.

Two separate visual pathways have been found in the brain – one, described above corresponding to the “what” problem of identifying what we see (indirect perception), the other to the “where” problem of understanding space and movement (direct perception). Peter Brook describes lighting along with sets etc as 'spurious magic" and says that perception as a physical art form depending on action and movement is the most relevent to theatre. Both types of perception exist, each with a vital function, and both should be used as two facets of the same coin when designing lighting.

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Edward Gordon Craig and Adolf Appia- vision of lighting