Lighting Up Skule Nite

The Cannon’s Maddy White interviews Savannah White and Anna Hankinson, the co-directors of Lighting for Skule Nite  2014. Skule Nite is going on this week, from Wednesday March 12th to Saturday March 15th. The show is almost sold out, so get your tickets soon!

C: So you guys are the co-directors of the lighting department for Skule Nite. Was this something you guys already had experience in?

S: I went to an arts high school, I was a drama major, and I did a lot of stuff in production so I ended up as the co-head of my school’s lighting crew. I know how to basically run sound, I’ve stage managed, I’ve directed, I’ve acted, but lighting is definitely where I’ve ended up ad where a lot of my experience is, so that’s why I’m here.

C: So is lighting what you enjoy the most, or is it just what you fell into at Skule Nite?

S: Well it is what I enjoy the most – I mean it’s either that or stage management, and I knew at the very beginning that I wasn’t going to get anywhere near stage management, so I started with lighting.

C: And what about you, Anna?

A: I joined Skule Nite because I really liked Cirque du Soleil. That’s basically the honest reason why. I figured I’d get to be a part of something that was as close as I could get, at U of t. So that’s why I joined, and Ian Liness was the first one that I got in contact with, so he recruited me into lighting. So at first I was moving the follow-spot whenever he told me to, and that worked out well. And then the next year I kind of got a bit more responsibility, and then this year somebody made me director. I like how this played out.

C: So could you guys describe a bit more what lighting actually involves?

A: Ok, I’ll give the softcore intro to lighting.  So basically were there so that the audience can see the show, and more than that, highlight the parts that we want them to focus on, affect the mood they are going to feel (depending on the wash and such) and really play around. I really didn’t know this until last year when lighting was really a part of the story because there weren’t really too many other types of things, but it affects it so much – like if you have a pink light during a sad scene when someone is crying – that’s not a  sad scene anymore, that’s straight up comedy, and everyone is going to be laughing. I’ll let Savannah get into the technicalities.

S: Our job is to start from basically nothing when we have a whole bunch of pipes and a whole bunch of lights on the ground and different effects and we know what we want to eventually do on the stage and we know we want these colours, we know we want these locations, and basically figure how to take the lights and turn that into reality. So right now we’re focusing on making the plot which is where all the lights are going to be, how they’re circuited, all that stuff. Closer to the show, once all that is finalized and decided, we’ll get into figuring out where the cues or each lighting change is going to be, what those changes are, what kind of mood we want… So it’s this process of going from a bare bones of a show, to using it and having it mean something. Because I think that good lighting adds to a show and helps people understand what’s going on and changes things.

C: What’s the technical part of it that you enjoy the most about it?

S: For me lighting has always been – I have a scene, the scene is x, y and z and there’s this happening and trying to technically figure out I want this effect, what lights do I turn on, what colours do I choose, what angle should they come from, all of that stuff. Trying to build from – I have this light and that light and add them in until you have a finished product and the audience just goes – ‘Oh. I get that’. I like that building process of going from nothing to the actual product.

A: I think I agree with everything you said. My favorite part would probably just be when you nail it – like especially when you have fast scene changes and you just nail pushing that button – it feels really good it feels like playing ping pong by yourself and winning. That was a horrible analogy. And when you work hard and you program everything and then you’re just pushing the buttons at the right time because eventually that’s what it comes down to…

C: So there’s a software component obviously but you’re also pushing buttons… could you explain a bit more?

S: Well basically, all the lights on stage are programmed through something called a lighting board, which is a sort of like a computer, and what we basically do is create whole bunch of cues which are basically lighting changes. You can set the time, you can set what lights will turn on, what lights will turn off, whatever. And we do all of that before the show, so we have all of that and when I press the button to make the lighting change, these three lights are going to turn off at this rate, these four lights are going to turn on at this other rate, whatever. And you can stack them, or have a whole bunch of them go in sequence so you don’t have to do anything… So you program the whole show that way, and then when you actually get to the show night, all the lighting director actually does is push a button that says ‘GO’ on it and all the lights change automatically. So if there are 200 cues in the show, you are up there in the box pressing that button 200 times.

C: And you guys have to know when you’re pressing the button.

S: So we do have a script and we right those things down – in a lot of dramatic productions they’ll have the stage manager actually call every single cue, so they’ll be saying ‘lights 51-go’ (if that’s the number that they’re at) and so we’ll press the button and the lights will change. In our show it’s not really like that – the stage manager doesn’t really call every cue.

A: They just tell us when we screw up. It does come down to sound and lighting with our intercom headsets, just letting each other know what is happening.

C: So you work together with sound?

A: All the directors, or all the people who have a big part in the show, have a headset. We all have nicknames, and it gets pretty fun.

C: So, what’re the nicknames?

S: Noo, its an unofficial rule, what happens on clearcom stays on clearcom. You don’t want to know.

A: But the communication is really important. Everyone has always got to be on the same page, or you have problems.

C:  So it seems like you guys have a lot of independence when you are actually carrying out the show – as in, the stage managers aren’t telling you exactly what to do. But in terms of the design of the lighting, which I guess you guys have been working on for a while – is that you guys or is that somebody saying ‘I want this and this and this’?

A: Well, it kind of comes down to, them telling us like what they want from the scene.

S: Or what the scene is about is sometimes all we get.

A: And then we make it happen.

S: So they’ll come to us with all the musical numbers, all of the sketches that they think will need a lighting effect and they’ll say ‘this is what the sketch is about, this is the idea behind the effect that we need, so we want something to magically appear, how do we make the lighting emphasize that they are going to magically appear’ and then we take that information and turn that into how we design where the lights are as well as how we turn them on and all of our cues

A: A good example would be like ‘we need this to be happening on one side of the stage at the same time that this is not supposed to be happening’, like maybe it’s being set up for something else.

S: So we don’t want them to see that, we want them to just see over here. So how do we make sure that they’re looking this way and not that way.

S: And it gets more complicated, especially Skule Nite usually has a whole bunch of numbers that are just normal – they happen in one place, there’s not anything special and then every so often they’ll have a number that has something weird or different or something thats a little but harder and then it becomes a question of how do we do that – how to we make something that lives up to the director’s vision but also is physically feasible.

C: So how did you guys learn how to do all this? Do you get any help?

A: Ian [Liness] is kind of like our mentor, I guess, because he used to be lighting director so makes sure that were not royally screwing up the show, and also gives us connections to past lighting directors and other people we need to know.

S: He’s also really helpful in terms of the hardware of the lighting in terms of the actual lights themselves and the circuitry, which is not something that we have a lot of experience in ourselves, we have a lot of experience in like the software, programming them, designing them once they’re up. So having him as a resource is allowing us to learn a lot from him.

A: This year so many of the previous lighting directors have been involved, and some of them do this professionally now, like in some way they’re involved in some huge technical thing, so they come back with these huge crazy ideas that we didn’t know were possible and we’re like ‘whoa that would work so well!’

S: But we’re learning a lot. We’ve had a couple of meetings with them that haven’t been very long, but I’ve learned so much about how to do so many things

C: Is it mostly you guys that do the programming of the software?

S: Yes, we are the only ones that do the programming.

A: In terms of setting up the lights, that’s one part that requires a lot of labour so we do get help for that.

S: Hart House actually has people that are in-house that are part of us using the space and part of the union, that hang up all of the lights and do everything safely. So they’re mainly responsible for taking the paper and the plot and turning it into what’s actually on the roof of the stage, and then from there they give us the lighting board with everything pretty much patched and we go from there

C: So it’s a long period of planning I guess before you get to the actual practical part –so have you guys started doing actual rehearsals yet?

S: Oh no no no.

A: We don’t get that until the actual weekend before the show.

S: We found out about musical numbers and the basic ideas of the show back in September, October. Since then they have requested certain very specific special things they wanted to do from there we do research learning what’s the easiest way to get things done.

A: And the cheapest way to get things done.

S: Exactly. We’re just starting now on actually turning this into a lighting plot – we should have that done hopefully before reading week or else during reading week. After that we’ll be coming up with the cues we want, a description of them and then we’ll get into the theatre the Sunday before opening night which is when we’ll actually start hanging lights and well start programming. So we have less than three days to go from whatever hart house had in the last show to a new show completely programmed and done with. And we’re just starting with our lighting plot now.

C: What has surprised you guys the most about working in lighting for Skule Nite?

S: Okay, so I went to an arts school and they like to do things ‘professionally’ and they like to have a hierarchy of things. So if you wanted to get involved in the main theatre of the school at all, you had to start as a running crew person, and then you moved up to like head of props and then up to whatever position you wanted that had more responsibility. Skule Nite, I found, doesn’t necessarily have as much of a ‘work your way up’ kind of structure – I walked in, said I had experience, and there’s three people that do lighting every year for the most part. So the fact that there’s so few people means that if you get into lighting you’re basically doing everything and you have the responsibility. They’re able to tell who’s just saying they want to be involved and who actually wants to be involved and wants to be involved in the show for many years to come so when they actually say you will be on this team – they’ve already weeded out all the other people, so you actually get the responsibility and they know you’re going to do a good job.

A: Like the hierarchy of Skule Nite, if there was one, is definitely more about your passion and commitment and interest, rather than any other way you might define what you deserve.

S: So what about you?

A: What’s the most surprising part? Probably how close people get.  First year I had friends, you know, everything was good, but then I had Skule Nite, and I had like – jeez, that level of friendship that develops just in one week is pretty intense. And we’re all still pretty good friends, and I think that’s both the most surprising and the most likeable thing about Skule Nite.

C: That was another thing that I was going to ask – what’s the most enjoyable thing about Skule Nite as a whole? The community is something I’ve heard a lot.

S: For me the community is an amazing thing, but coming from the experiences that I have, my favorite things about Skule Nite is just the variety. They go to such extremes, every number is so different. I’m used to working on ‘Okay were going to do a show, it’s the same show all the way through, and everyone plays the same character all the time, all the musical numbers are sortof in the same kindof vein’ so once you figure out what they want for the first number it’s mainly similar themed for the rest. So my favorite thing about Skule Nite is that I can do one number and it’s like some cheesy campy, bright, thing and then the next number everyone is sad and crying and failing.

A: Going back to what’s most surprising about Skule Nite, it’s also just the way that they operate  – it’s like everybody rehearses form the very beginning but how they rehearse is that they don’t get the same part every rehearsal – it rotates around, and its only like a month before the show that people get assigned to their actual parts.

C: Oh cool! I had no idea.

S: Yeah I was there on Saturday and like they had done hundreds of scenes in rehearsal but the director had just decided which scenes would actually be in the show and now he’s in the process of saying okay these are the scenes, who is going to be in these scenes, with what kind of show order, how do we make all that work.

A: So this also relates to the hierarchy of things, I think everything just kindof happens, like whatever feels right happens, and I like that.

C: So I guess yeah there’s no ‘star’ of the show like there are in most productions.

S: Exactly. Everyone has a skit that they start in, everyone has a musical number that they lead in or are a big part of…

A: And even the auditions, are not your typical auditions

S: Yeah I’ve never done an audition like this one. I did it this year because I just wanted to see what the auditions were like – I am an actor, I have acting training, I figured I could probably do that…

A: It’s different, right?

S: It’s such a different audition, and you know, I came into it knowing that I was going to be doing lighting and I wasn’t going to do it cast but I just wanted to know, and I learned so much about the director, about the show, about the audition, about everything, just from like two hours, doing an audition.

C: Wow. So what’s so different?

A: Well I had to go (all while reading the same script) from a waddling baby, to a like a forty year old smoker with like a husky all within about thirty seconds

S: And most of the auditions that I’ve ever done have been like – prepare a monologue for like a week and a half – and you sit there and you do the monologue and that’s all they see, and they say thank you, goodbye. But like you bounced all over the place, you did everything, it is like a truly improvised audition. Like they give you a script that you sort of play off of, like a cold read, but after about ten seconds the script is no longer important, it’s just whatever character they’re telling you to do and you’re just saying words. It’s so cool

C: But you guys definitely prefer the lighting side of things to being on stage

A: Yeah it kind of goes back to Cirque du Soleil – like the act is really cool, but what I’m thinking is ‘who made that thing, how does that work’.

S: That’s my favorite thing, now that I’ve done a lot of productions, is that I can’t walk into a show anymore and not analyze everything. Like I have to like wait for the show to go for like half an hour before I can let go and actually just watch what’s happening because the first thing when they walk on stage is like’ that stage is really nice, I wonder how they built that?’.

A: I’m not that far, I still go in and I’m like ‘Ohh it’s so pretty’ and I’m able to enjoy it.

C: So do you guys get lighting ideas from going to other shows?

S: Oh yeah, it’s the number one place that you get inspiration. I saw a whole bunch of shows over the summer and like I’ve picked ideas from every single one that I want to put into this one. You don’t get those ideas and you don’t know what looks good unless you go to shows and you see what other people are doing and you see what the lights are capable of doing.

C: That’s awesome. So how do you guys keep on track with school while you’re doing this?

S: It’s certainly a struggle and it’s certainly something that I’m worrying about constantly, every single moment of Skule Nite – but at the same time I would rather be doing this and take whatever kind of marks I get than not do it, because this is just such a cool experience and so much fun that whatever marks I lose are okay. And I’ve found that a lot of the people that are involved in Skule Nite already know that they can handle it – there’s a huge self-selection thing – like you don’t get involved unless you know you can lose that week.

A: And if you can’t do it, you drop out. Like people disappear out of Skule Nite all of the time, they stop showing up to help. So the people that do stay – are the people that can do both.

C: What are you guys most excited about in general for his year in Skule Nite?

A: Well we’re doing something that Skule Nite hasn’t done before. Or not recently.

S: It’s a very unique show – and I take a lot of the uniqueness and specialness and what I think is great about the show and I put all of that on Navid. He is an amazing director for this show.

A: Like he is not scared.

S: He knows what he wants and he’s done Skule Nite so many times and knows what people are suited for and he knows — it’s a really great show and what makes it so great is his ideas and his feel of it. I wish that we could say more.

A: Me too. But we can’t. Everyone has code words for the scenes because we’re just babbling about them all the time.

C: Well I’m excited to finally get to see all of this. Do you guys get nervous for the shows? Because I know you’re not on stage, but I’m sure you still feel the pressure.

A: For sure. Because during rehearsals you know the weaker points where it maybe hasn’t worked out so well in rehearsals and you just cross your fingers and just hope that is works out.

S: I’m very empathetic to the actors, so like I’m nervous for the actors and like when a scene goes really really well and it gets a good laugh, I am like so happy for you, and when a scene sort of goes weird I’m like I feel so bad and I’m like ‘oh come on, you can get through it, its okay’ so like I get really nervous that way.

A: When things go right, we’re literally like a couple of old dudes sitting watching the super bowl.

S:  Yeah. When we get a snap cue and it goes right it’s beautiful. But when we get one and it goes wrong, like it goes at the absolute wrong time for any reason, you’re like ‘oh shit!’

C: So have there been any real disasters?

A: I think just that one time, on prank night with the bee and it was one of those scenes where things go back and forth very quickly, because the actor keeps popping up in diff places.

S: And it was very much synced up with the sound effects so when the sound changed the lighting changed.

A: But nothing was going right…

S: And this was for prank night so we hadn’t really rehearsed it

A: …and Sandra who was the stage manager literally just stepped off her chair and curled up on the floor, because it was that bad. But the funny thing is that we think it’s that bad because we know how it’s supposed to go, but the audience thought that that was the prank, that that it was supposed to be funny, and they actually found it really funny.

S: It’s always like you’re doing something and when you’re doing it you’re like this might be kindof obvious, – but then you realize that there are two people in the audience, out of like five hundred that are actually going to notice ‘hey that was weird, that didn’t go well’ and everyone else has no idea. So you get a safety net.

C: Yeah that’s what I have heard, like everytime anyone I know in Skule Nite has said ‘Oh this thing went awful’, and I had seen the show – I had no idea that anything went wrong.

S: It’s always best if it goes the way you want it to, but we know that if it doesn’t it’s not going to pull people from the experience.

C: Cool. Any last words about Skule Nite?

A: I think the best part, is , especially when the show is amazing, youre in that box for every rehearsal and you get to see that show so many times until you’d think you’d hate it but… that hasn’t really happened.

S: Yeah I like that aspect like you see it from the very beginning when they get on stage for the very first time and there’s no lighting and no props and nothing and you just see this bare bones of the show and being in the lighting booth means that I get to watch this entire things go from something kind of raw to something beautiful and finished and where you know where the problems are and you know when something goes well and you know when something doesn’t go very well. And getting to know the ins and outs of everyone that’s involved in the production.

A:like some people don’t get to see the entire show until the DVD comes out… Not us. We’re there every time

C: so you guys are some of the few people that get to see the show in its entirety. Well I can’t wait to have that experience myself!


Skule Nite will be on at the Hart House Theatre from March 12-15.

Tickets are still available at but will sell out soon!