Lighting Designers are amongst the unspoken heroes of the arts community. They achieve highly valued pictorial landscapes, and all in the name of creating an experience or to help tell a story. One of the most talented and insightful lighting designers working in Vancouver is Itai Erdal. A world renowned designer, this man has transcended the backstage both in practice and in art form with the production “To Disappear Completely’. Produced by The Chop Theatre, this play develops a keen insight into family, sickness and euthanasia. It also explores the relationship Itai has with light, as it is used as medium, prop, and narrative device. In this interview we begin conversation about the masterpiece of his solo performance which then leads into a uncommon and much needed dive into the technical considerations of design.
Encouraging access to his work, Itai published his show online, giving the entire online and arts community free engagement with the piece
I: Hello James, How are you
J: Hello, I’m doing well. How’s it going? So, Itai you’re working right now in Victoria you said?
I: Yeah I’m performing ‘How to Disappear Completely’ for like 5 weeks straight
J: Now this is the one about your mother, it’s in reproduction is it?
I: Well I’ve never stopped doing it, just toured city, something like a hundred shows now, over 4 years.
J: And you’re performing yourself in this production?
I: Performing ya ya, have you not seen my show? It’s all about lighting, I run the lights from the stage. I’ve never stopped doing it. There are 5 more cities in the UK, and then we are going to Montréal. Then Ontario and a whole bunch more shows.
J: Wow, that’s a really long run
I: Yeah it’s the gift that keeps on giving, I know. We are gonna be at least 23 cities, and counting. We are still booking. My first time writing, and my first time acting.
J: And how has that transition been from lighting designer to performer?
I: It’s great I love it. This run is really gonna test my stamina, I’ve never done that many shows I did twenty five shows in Edinburg in August. But that was fun because that was Edinburg. Then a year in Victoria, Eights shows in a week, so its really gonna test my stamina as an actor. So ask me in a few weeks
J: Oh I would love to follow you up on that.
I: Well if you come to Victoria in the next month I can get you a ticket
J: If I can make that work I would love to, buy you a beer after…
I: It’s a fun show for lighting people; I had Alan Brodie come to see it again. He is maybe the best designer in van, he is amazing, he is doing his masters in directing at Uvic right now so he came to see and he first saw it when I first did it 4 years ago at the Chutzpah festival. Every city I do it, many many, many lighting designers come. In Dublin, maybe 8 designers came in the same night, and we went out for drinks, so I feel like I met the entire design community of Dublin. So my show always brings designers out. It’s really, really fun for lighting. Lighting is a metaphor for many, many, many things.
J: Do you think your piece has grown, from each and any different city, perhaps evolved by meeting all these designers’ communities?
I: Ahhh, I don’t now, I think its grown because I’m more comfortable and relaxed as a performer, so I think its growing like that. But yeah…I don’t think that. Lighting is a kind of device that we have in the show, because it explains why I’m on stage. So it’s like a demonstration of LD, it starts like that, it’s a theatrical device we use, and not what the show is about. The show is about my mom, family, a lot of things, but eh, so I don’t think its grown like that, its just grown because the more you do it, the better it gets.
J: How are you controlling the lights from the stage?
I: I have a remote; we’re working with an [ETC] express, at some point we thought about moving to an ion cause when I did it in Stratford, the whole show moved to an ion. but my director didn’t like the controller on the iphone, it didn’t look real, it looked like we were faking it. So they liked the big bulky remote better, the cable, and you know it’s just a real remote, and I just pressed go go go go, every time. But at some point the Stage Manager and the operator take over, buts its just a third of the show and at the end of the show. So we just used an express and the old remote, and sometimes when I just traveled in the UK I just rented one from Christie lights, and just traveled with the remote
J: The express is a bit of an older console for this show eh?
I: Well four years ago when we did this show it was the standard but the last 4 years the ion and eos were sooo… yeah it’s a bit of a nightmare having to rent this old light board wherever we go.
J: Did you come to any problems with that with any specific country?
I: Through the UK was a bit harder because Strand was ruling there for a long time but we found one.
J: And have you brought this show to Israel?
I: Noo, not yet. I’m talking to a few people in Israel, there’s all kinds of legal ramifications that make it quite scary. You can see the whole show online if you want to. It’s about euthanasia, which is illegal in Israel, so it’s a little scary.
J: That currently was just brought up in Canadian politics this past summer.
I: All the time, it keeps evolving a lot. In the last 13 years since my mom has died, the whole topic has changed. We did the show in Seattle and Portland where euthanasia is legal there. And to hear peoples reactions
J: What was the feedback from that public
I: The feedback has always been great. In Stratford, We did a forum called ‘Writing About the Right to Die’, which was then aired at CBC radio. And so I’m very used to talking about it in public, and the reactions have always been great. I’ve never had anyone say to me “how dare you, who do you think you are”, people have always been positive.
J: And this is with your company?
I: No, this is the chop, the Chop Theatre.
J: Now, do you find yourself having more technical way of working or do you have a more expressionist practice?
I: In this one it’s a lot more artistic because its more personal, but when you’re asking about designing a different show. I think lighting is the real marriage of both. I mean finding the balance between technical and the artistic is the most interesting thing you can do. And I’m very pragmatic person. So I think about what I would like to do but I already know what my inventory is. I never imagine things I cannot achieve because that’s just a waste of my time, so first I look at the venue, then I take a look at the set. Cause if there’s four walls you can’t have side-light. You can’t have shins if you have walls. And when I’m involved early, I ask the set designer and director to think about the lighting early. And personally I like side-lights so I try to have sets that have legs or windows or openings in the sides…So like I said it’s a real marriage between the artistic and the technical and there is not one without the other. I’d like to tell you it’s all artistic but no it’s very technical.
J: You said you liked side lighting and that made me think about dance. do you have a particular style of performance that you enjoy lighting the most
I: Well I love doing dance, but I just don’t get to do much dance. When I was younger I did a lot more dance. Dance companies are usually poor, they contact you in the last minute, they don’t have budgets, so nowadays most times dance companies contact me, I’m already booked by theatre companies who are a lot more organized and book you a lot earlier. There’s freedom in doing dance that’s fantastic, you don’t have to justify anything. It does feel a little more artistic in the sense that there’s more freedom in dance, but I guess because I don’t get to do that much dance anymore, my favorite shows are very abstract theatre pieces. So theatre that has a lot of movement, or physical theatre that is movement based, creation processes where its not like a play that’s already been written and set in stone. And my contribution can be more influential in it. I guess those are my favorite types of things to light. …Companies like Theatre Replacement that straddle the line between theatre and performance art, Leaky Heaven does the same.
J: The first time i worked with you it was on Radix Theatre‘s piece ‘Beautiful Problems’
I: That was fun. And all those hard edge squares, [the focusing] very finicky, a shutter here, a shutter there, yeah that’s the kind of example that I meant where you have freedom, cause I pitched them this idea, well they told me they wanted to do a show about chess but ok I can’t get 48, there isn’t enough lights for a chess board, but I can do 36, that is the most scrollers I can get, that’s the closest thing to a chess board I can do. but that’s a good example of somebody who gives me a lot of freedom. Because I pitched them this idea and said ‘well, the whole show needs to be in the squares.’…In my mind, all these companies have a good story, and I still think that if the words and the story is the strongest thing, then its theatre, not performance art.
J: What is it about light that you find enables you to tell a story?
I: Well lighting is an integral part of the story telling, you know, because, lighting I think, there’s so many aspects of lighting. There’s the physical act of seeing the actor speak. And then there’s creating the environment whether its winter, its gonna be cold lighting, if its summer its gonna be hot, if there’s a chandelier, window. And then there’s effects, whether is lightning or gunshot, and then there’s all the subliminal stuff right? That lighting really changes the mood of a piece, subliminally. So when I do naturalism, I like doing really long cues, thus manipulating the audience without them knowing. So I would have five-minute cues where all the light would shift from one side to the other side over five or ten minutes. And that’s something that nobody could ever see, but they can feel it, and you can feel that it’s dynamic because it’s ever changing and growing. So those are many, many different aspects of lighting and so all those aspects help you tell a story.
J: Would you agree that we are in the business of manipulation our patrons?
I: More so in Naturalism, a lot of times when you do abstract, the lighting is exposed, you don’t try to hide what you do. A lot of that depends on your counts, if you do a lot of snaps, if you have zero counts then people will notice the lighting. If you have really long counts then people don’t notice, and every show and situation calls for different things.
J: Your favorite light is a parcan? Do you mind telling me about that?
I: Ya a parcan, which often surprises people. A parcan is like a car headlamp with a tin can in front of it. Bigger or smaller, it doesn’t get softer or sharp…most people think of it as a rock and roll light. Its durable, stubborn, it spills all over the place and yet, it produces the prettiest light of all theatrical instruments. The beam of a parcan engulfs an actor like no other beam. and then [in ‘To Disappear Completely’] I show what a parcan looks like when it goes from 100 to 50 to 30 to 20. and how it gets warmer and warmer when you dim it.
J: Which tells a story of its own. thank you very much Itai.