The Long Fade

The other day, I heard myself ask another theatre practitioner, “So how many dimmer packs do you guys have?” And it kind of struck me what an utterly obscure question that is to the majority of people. “Uh, you mean a dimmer switch?” Kind of. I’m not even a lighting guy. I’ve hung a few lamps, moved some barn doors around, but the whole of black cables and gel combinations remains some weird alchemy to me.

But I do love the lights. When I go to someone else’s show, after I’ve finished checking out the program, I sometimes find myself looking at the grid and counting instruments, trying to figure what’s focused where. And I think that’s because I’m hooked on the fade. It’s just so damn beautiful when it’s done right. The way the color drains and carries your emotion from one place to another. And a perfect crossfade? It’ll sometimes take me right out of a play because I’ll be thinking: my God. Go back and do that again.

It’s curious because it relates to where you are when you write a play. Are you inside the characters, looking out, or are you among the audience, looking in? That shifts around for me. But when I write fade in the stage directions, I am most definitely in the audience, and I can feel those lights moving me.

A number of years ago, I saw a one-man show that had, at the end, the longest, most achingly beautiful fade I had ever seen. I mean, staging a fade that long was sheer nerve, somewhere between utter arrogance and genius. Here’s why: the piece was about a character with all these different opposing facets to his personality, and, as the light so slowly drained, the effect tired the viewer’s eye so it seemed that the actor’s face itself was shifting, rearranging itself, over and over. Forever changing without resolution, which was the point of the piece. What else so reflects the human condition but unstoppable change? Yet the act itself, essentially just slowly turning off a light, was so simple.

That image is still in my mind’s eye. It’s still changing. And so am I.

About Steve Patterson

Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian. View all posts by Steve Patterson

5 responses to “The Long Fade

  • Patrick Wohlmut

    Wow. I often think I’ve gone to a play and paid attention, like really close attention. Then I read something like this, and I want to go to the theater right now and practice re-opening my focus. It never occured to me to look at what the lights are doing in such a specific manner. Thank you.

  • splattworks

    I think I’ve become more aware of the tech from wearing my pointy-headed producer’s cap. You kind of pick up the concepts when designers are trying to explain to you why they need a couple hundred more bucks. I no longer think a gobo is some kind of lizard.

  • E. Hunter Spreen

    Great post. It’s funny how much producing will affect your writing. I work with a great sound designer and lighting designer that relationship feeds my writing. I think in sound (I’ve always thought about light for some reason). The downside to producing is that I began to start thinking stingy and that also affected my writing – I’ve stopped saying to myself “but we can’t afford to have a set like that or we can’t afford to have a show that runs as long as the audience wants.”

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