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How ‘Moby-Dick’ Comes to Life Onstage

January 2, 2020 by Suzy Evans
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How do you create a whale in the theater? That’s the question that Tony-winning lighting designer Bradley King needed to answer in “Moby-Dick.” Just like Ahab is on an obsessive quest to find the whale in Melville’ story, the theatrical lighting designer needed to figure out how to bring the sea creature to life through lighting. While musicals like “King Kong” and plays like “War Horse” have brought their titular characters to life through puppetry, “Moby-Dick” takes a different approach.

“The whale is me,” King said, explaining that the creature is created through a lighting effect. “They’ve actually wrote into the script that Moby-Dick was just white light and it was up to me to manifest that.”

“Moby-Dick” marks King’s third time collaborating with composer Dave Malloy, director Rachel Chavkin, and set designer Mimi Lien after “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812” and “Preludes.” The team’s shorthand was crucial in establishing the visual world onstage, especially for the show’s first production at American Repertory Theater, where it runs through Jan. 12.

“Dave and Rachel are both incredibly open collaborators in general, but then to also be working with a team that has this much familiarity, that lends itself to group discussions, and that gives Dave something to riff on,” King says. “Rachel’s not conservative when it comes to trying new things, so you/I need to be ready to deal with that from day one.”

We chatted with King about creating theatricality through lighting and why he doesn’t want audiences to compliment the lighting.

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Had you read “Moby-Dick” before you started working on this production?
I’m probably one of the only people on the team who hasn’t read the book in its entirety, which is ironically the same position I was in for “Great Comet” [which is based on a section of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”] Presumably not everyone who comes and sees the show will have read the book, so it’s nice to have someone on the team who hasn’t either. I knew there was a whale and Ahab and Ishmael, and that’s kind of the extent of what I knew about Melville’s work.

Coming in not knowing the book, what did you look at for your lighting design concept?
That’s where familiarity with Rachel and Mimi comes in really strong. Mimi has just this incredible way of using space that really just lends itself to being lit in very particular ways, and then Rachel has a very specific aesthetic when it comes to lighting. I was involved in some of the very early discussions about what the space was going to look like, through a number of revisions to the set model. So being part of the conversations about the space, I’m already thinking about how does this space want to be lit, how are these numbers going to be lit, what are the tools I’m going to need, those sorts of things.

You’ve used different types of lights in past work with Rachel – from the swinging lamps in “Hadestown” to the chandeliers in “Great Comet.” Do you employ similar techniques in “Moby-Dick”?
Not as much, just because “Moby-Dick’s” lit a bit more architecturally. The space is this beautiful blonde wood ship interior with curved ribs, and planking, and scaffolding, and so it didn’t really lend itself to the blinders in “Hadestown” or the chandeliers in “Comet,” beyond ship lanterns. So what we did try to do was be as unobtrusive with the lighting rig as possible, and so a lot of the lights are just sort of barely poking through the ceiling and hidden in weird corners. So it’s unconventional, from the sense of angle, but it’s not as overt with its instrumentation as some of our other work has been.

How much of your lighting has to create the at-sea world?
The play nominally takes place at sea, but the environment we have built isn’t necessarily literally trying to represent that. We’re playing pretty heavily, especially in Part II, into the vaudevillian aspects of the novel. So a lot of it is very presentational with fun colors and follow spots and that sort of thing. As we get deeper and deeper into the voyage, and Ahab starts going crazier and crazier, that starts to break down, but we maintain that sense of formality. So it’s not really literally trying to recreate beautiful sweeping sunsets, although we have a couple of those, and rippling water. It’s a bit more varied.

You mentioned that the whale is portrayed as a lighting effect in the show. Did you feel a lot of pressure to create this?
It was one of the easiest things, just because Rachel and I have a shared aesthetic when it comes to large lighting gestures, and so we both sort of immediately knew what it was going to be. Then we worked backwards from there. One of the things we discovered in the room was, because we didn’t really want that gesture to come out of nowhere, we wanted it to be of a piece with the world we had built, so figuring out other ways of introducing that language throughout the piece became something that we were interested in.

Did you have any inspirations as you were designing the lights?
I didn’t have that strong an aesthetic or a style that needed to be put on this space, other than just this is a sprawling novel that is encompassing several different styles, and the musical is going to do that as well, so I just need to be flexible enough to incorporate all those.

I would rather people not walk away thinking so much, “Oh my God, that lighting was amazing,” as “That piece was amazing.” The design elements work best when they’re working in concert, and when they’re working in concert to tell that particular story. That’s always my goal.