Mike Monsos on Designing Lights for All My Sons
By Production Dramaturg, Cohen Ambrose
Last week, I sat down with the Lighting Designer for Montana Rep’s 2016 National Tour of All My Sons, Mike Monsos. I wanted to offer the Rep’s audiences some insights into Mike’s process as a designer, how he approaches a new design, and what his reactions were to Arthur Miller’s classic drama.
CA: How do you go about designing lights for a touring production?
MM: The National Tour doesn’t bring its own lighting instruments, so every place the tour goes, adjustments must be made. Each venue is different and their lighting inventory and positions vary tremendously. So when you’re designing lights for the tour, you have to think about what it’s going to be like in all of the locations. You have to be aware of which lights you can cut and still keep the production looking right. We don’t want it overly simplistic, but we want the design on the road to be as close as possible to what we see in Missoula. So design choices made are in the best interest of both the show here and what is seen on the road.
CA: What were your initial reactions to the script?
MM: The single day in which everything happens is the microcosm of the Kellers’ life: of who they are, how they learned, developed, and grew, and, at the end of the play, separated. I was familiar with the play, but it had been a long time. It is so enjoyable to read and when you see it onstage you realize how wonderfully crafted the words are. As you study it more in-depth, you realize the importance of everything the characters say throughout the play. It applies just as well now as when it was written in 1946, and it will continue to apply because it’s about humanity at its core. I love the play and I’m really enjoying the performances as the actors bring these characters to life. One of my favorite aspects is the relationship between father and son. It is written in a way that I think all sons could see their fathers throughout the stages of their lives. As a boy, your father is one person; in your teenage years, your father becomes a different individual because the relationship changes; and then you get to a point where you surpass your father and the roles reverse. So this single day in which All My Sons takes place is, to me, the evolution of the relationship between father and son.
CA: What kinds of initial research did you do to develop your design?
MM: In my early research, I looked at skies, clouds, trees, and vernacular architecture and scenes. What I think is so elegant about Mike’s [Fink’s scenic] design is that it’s this vernacular, everyday, common home that could be anyone’s house in any location. I hope to reinforce that sense with the lights so that the tone is that of an everyman’s place. For example, I love putting texture onstage with lights. I like to paint the stage with texture and quality that is more than just visibility. Knowing where the characters are, knowing where the light is coming from, knowing what the light had to get through, and what the light had to accomplish in order to actually be in the space. What is outside of the set that we don’t see? In reality, light is bouncing off a number of surfaces: it’s coming off the ground, it’s coming off of trees, it’s coming off of walls, so you’re going to get reflections, colors, and qualities that are coming from many areas and I like to justify in my mind of where light is coming through so that there’s a reason for it to be there.I can choose that reason. I can choose where the sun is coming from. For the most part, the cues in the production are mostly smooth, transitional, and would be what you expect during the day in which the play takes place. I’d like people to not notice the lights are changing, but realize that, for example, the day has changed.
CA: How has [director] Jere’s [Hodgin] concept influenced your design?
MM: Jere and I seemed to be, more or less, on the same page from day one. The main thing we talked about was really capturing how the time of day reflects the mood of the play. As the characters get into the ‘fight’ – the big moment at the end of act two – the clouds are moving in, some stars come out. At the beginning, they even talk about how there’s not a cloud in the sky, but we don’t stay there, we move into something that’s darker, moodier, and the oncoming storm is reflective of the storm that’s occurring onstage. We talked about what we were going to do on the cyclorama and decided that we wanted to accomplish the look everyone is looking for with lighting instruments and not have to bring in projected media. We also discussed the transitions from one point to the next. What the lights look like in one cue and what they look like in the next cue are important, but to me, evolving from cue-to-cue is just as important, if not more so, than the look of each cue itself. The movement of light is a very important quality. With the exceptions of the moments at the beginning and end of each act that serve as a prologue and a button on the storytelling, the transitions are all very smooth and realistically motivated.
CA: What colors and patterns can we expect to see onstage?
MM: We will see a lot of deep, dark blues for the nighttime scenes. We will see a lot of tree-leaf patterns. While we have color picked for the show, it is an organic process-it’s really easy for the lighting designer to change color. Repainting the set is tedious and expensive, changing costume fabrics is impossible at this point in the game, but pulling color media in and out of lighting instruments until you get it right is relatively easy. The play is also set during summer in the Midwest and the trick I’ve struggled with when trying to emulate heat onstage is that it is difficult to accomplish without making it really bright. You have to somehow capture the qualities of light of a hot summer day. To me, hot is a hazy, brutal yellow, but many yellows can be atrocious onstage. So, it kind of comes down to direction. I try to bring light in at different angles so that the eye becomes aware of it, as opposed to making the actors’ faces brighter, which only reads as intensity. I try to create a strong directional light that is suggesting deep, hot, sun rays. I have a hot amber that I’ll use, but also knowing that it’s a hot day that is filtered by clouds and trees helps me justify avoiding making it look like the Sahara Desert.
CA: What do you listen for in the first readings in order to help generate ideas?
MM: I listen for how the actors are interpreting their characters, but there’s not always a lot I can get from a reading. What I get the most from is watching the initial run-throughs of each of the three acts after they’ve been staged. In those rehearsals, I get a better sense of Jere’s boxing ring concept, and, currently, for example, in the staging there are moments where people are getting cornered in the yard, as if in a fight. So it’s fun to watch people get stuck in corners and battle to get out. Because of those staging choices, I am able to make some strong decisions on how I was lighting the stage. If a character seems to get lost in a corner somewhere in a shadowy, reflective state, I can choose to reinforce that with shadowy, reflective lighting. The staging is a lot more important than the language to me because the pace and transitions in the movement all influence how I need to pace and transition the lights. The lights have to support the movement onstage.
CA: How does light contribute to the storytelling in a play like All My Sons?
MM: The light contributes to the storytelling in All My Sons by helping connect us to who these people are, where they are, and where they’re going. My goal is to add the element that finishes making everything beautiful, beautiful in the sense of correct, appropriate, and elegant. There are moments I can bring in that help the production and the audience connect – a light on in the cellar, for example, can be foreshadowing as well as establishing location and time of day. Lighting can make the last and important step of turning this production into a complete piece of theatre. Scenery can look great, costumes can look great, sound can be great, acting can be great, but if the lighting isn’t bringing it all together, if it doesn’t reinforce the wonderful choices of the rest of the team-those things can all get lost, muddied, or displaced. So I want to be able to take all the work everyone else is doing and give it that final nudge.