Berkshire Theatre Group

Lights reveal form in 'The Petrified Forest'

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STOCKBRIDGE — In Berkshire Theatre Group's production of "The Petrified Forest," you can't see the desert, but you can sense the sand and sun.

Among other hues, different shades of yellow illuminate parts of the Bar-B-Q gas station/diner near Arizona's Petrified Forest, the setting for Robert E. Sherwood's play. Lighting designer Daniel Kotlowitz's choices aim to not only convey the drama's location, but also its timing (sunset into night during a single Depression Era day) and its characters' emotional arcs. He doesn't rely on the script to accomplish these feats.

"If you just illuminate something, you're just seeing it," Kotlowitz said during an interview outside the Fitzpatrick Main Stage before the show's opening, "but what I'm trying to do is get the audience to internalize what they see a little, so they understand it, so they feel it. It's not an intellectual exercise. It's really more of an emotional exercise."

While lighting designers must compellingly depict different settings, they devote much of their time to capturing characters' inner stories, according to Kotlowitz. In this play, for example, vagabond Alan Squier (played by David Adkins) carries angst about his writing career and love into a diner run by three generations of the Maple family. Squier's meditations both enthrall and rile the different characters inhabiting a space that becomes increasingly dangerous as the play unfolds.

"The way he plays it, as he soon as he walks in the room, you can feel that tension that's going on in his world," Kotlowitz said of Adkins. "One of the things that I try to do as a lighting designer is heighten that and support that."

How is that accomplished in practice, though?

"A lot of the times when you see him, he'll be etched out in a very strong sidelight so that ... there's a sharpness to him," he said, "as opposed to when you look at [Gramp Maple], who's very comfortable in this space and never wants to leave, there's that kind of settled feel. He's usually got a little more front light. He's a little less sculptural. There's a little [bit less] of a sense of form to his body than Squier. And, as the show progresses into what really becomes a nightmare for them all, it gets sharper and sharper, and darker and darker, so the shadows start to take over a little bit."

"Form" is a word Kotlowitz deploys a lot, and for good reason: He believes that his primary role as lighting designer is to reveal form.

"There are two elements to form: One is a sculptural quality. Your arm is rounded, so the form is that roundedness, that sense of depth and sculptural quality as opposed to just being flat. ... And then there's also form [that] represents the content of something," he said.

He used the example of a lemon.

"The shape is oval and yellow and shiny, but the form of a lemon is that it's tart. It's that internal form that I'm also looking for, which is the emotional quality and the spiritual quality," he said.

This production presented an obstacle to revealing form. The diner's roof is low, slanting across the stage and holding letters that spell BAR-B-Q. [Near the end of the first act, Gabby Maple (Rebecca Brooksher) flicks on the letters' neon red outlines, signaling the shift into night.] Consequently, Kotlowitz had to arrange many of the play's 180 or so lights at lower angles than normal.

"After I hit the actor, I also hit whatever is [behind him or her]," he said. "I don't have as much control over the light."

Kotlowitz worked with scenic designer Wilson Chin to mitigate some lighting problems during rehearsals, and he is more than satisfied with the finished set. ("Gorgeous," Kotlowitz said.) But the ceiling is still likely the lowest he has encountered in his roughly 40 years, and an estimated 300-plus productions, in lighting design.

"I was a little scared about it," he said.

The New York City native initially became interested in lighting design while attending Grinnell College. He studied painting there.

"I wasn't a very good painter, but I had a pretty good imagination," he said.

He took a course in theater design at one point and was asked to design a show. To his surprise, he pulled it off.

"I felt an immediate affinity for light and for seeing light, and for understanding how it works," he said.

Though he didn't follow the career path of idols Picasso or Caravaggio (who "used light better than anyone"), Kotlowitz still sees the connection between his first arts love and his current one.

"I don't have to physically paint [the stage], but I do consider it very much the way I would paint is the way I light," he said.

One of the his favorite canvases was Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" at Berkshire Theatre Festival. Kotlowitz, now a Dartmouth College faculty member living in Vermont, used to reside near the Stockbridge stages while his wife, Kathleen Cunneen, was a Berkshire Theatre Festival company manager and production stage manager.

His latest work in the South County town has a flashy ending. (Note: Spoilers are ahead.) "The Petrified Forest" concludes with a gunfight. Renowned killer Duke Mantee (Jeremy Davidson) and his gang square off with police in the distance as bystanders seek cover in the diner. Intermittent shots temporarily brighten the stage, including ones from the law enforcers.

"I cheat and exaggerate. Every time the police are shooting inside, I have strobe lights offstage going off, which you would never — it's not realistic in any sense, but because they're timed with the gunfire, the audience, I think, will get it," Kotlowitz said, noting that the lightboard and soundboard are hooked up for the gunfight scene so that the noise and visual effects are simultaneous.

While the two sides exchange fire, Squier and Gabby Maple are center-stage, expressing their affection for one another. Telling that story throughout the chaotic scene was a challenge

"There's the gunfight story, and then there's this love story that's going on. The trick is finding the balance and knowing when you want to look here and when you want to look there, and how do you keep the chaos chaotic enough so that there's this sense of danger, of real danger," Kotlowitz said.

That balancing act is called focus control, or the direction of an audience's eyes towards a particular place onstage. Following the opening, Kotlowitz left this duty and all the rest of the lighting responsibilities to stage manager Shelby North and her crew, who would be calling cues through the end of the play's run (Aug. 25). Kotlowitz, however, didn't depart without discovering new rays of lighting knowledge in "The Petrified Forest."

"Every time I do a show," he said, "I learn an incredible amount."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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