I have always been intrigued with the way natural light was used in the theater of ancient Greece. They started a play at midday, and went on until the sun went down. While today we can make use of a tremendous amount of lighting technology, if it's properly done, an audience shouldn't notice it. When you watch Hamlet you aren't thinking about the moonlight coming in the window. You're involved with what he's saying.
Oftentimes the quality of the light tells the story: the time of day, the weather, whether sun is streaming through the window. It can also help you appreciate what the actor is feeling, what the playwright wants you to feel. Any engineer can put a spot on someone. Lighting is not about function. It's much more about the mood and the emotion that the playwright and the director are trying are trying to create. Our job is to support their poetic direction.
The first play I did on Broadway was Spoon River Anthology. It was unusual in that all the characters were dead. Each one sat on a stool and came forward to read a poem. There was very little interacting. From a lighting perspective, it was a chance for me to create a new world.
In Hair I used all kinds of light to create different moods and feelings. It was performed on a bare stage with very elemental means. The design was wonderful, because it was so simple. It had all kinds of 1960's icons: an Elvis statue, and Indian statue. I incorporated hints of the psychedelic lighting coming out of Filmore East and rock-and-roll concerts. It wasn't sunlight coming into a room, but burbling colors, like the purple that people might experience coming out of a psychedelic trip. I was able to light the nude scene with a film image of a bed of flowers, a pattern projected straight down. All the actors were lit in this kind of ghostly but inviting pattern.
A collage depicting different wars was done under a flickering single strobe light, which made it very scary. Using a strobe light was not original; they were in every disco. But in a collage of war scenes, the effect was startling. Images of brutality were thrust into the audiences' face ten times a second.
Over the past fifteen years, the trend has been toward the use of more sophisticated equipment. Where lighting was once controlled manually, now somebody touches a button. Computers are used to regulate sources of light, enabling us to have infinitely repeatable control. Robotic lights move, follow a person onstage. Lights can swing to one side and change in color and intensity, in form, in degree of softness or hardness.
There is reliance on visual technology. Whole sets lift up, drop down, and twirl in imitation of movies. If it's necessary to tell the story, if there's a purpose for the stage lifting up and revolving, fine. But if the story can be told simply, beautifully, without the over-reliance on technology, do it that way. Great theater still depends on the playwright and the actor - the words.