How to Light a Pearl

by Northlight Theatre
from Sarah Hughey, Lighting Designer for Black Pearl Sings!

As a lighting designer, I am often called upon to help transform a setting onstage.  In Black Pearl Sings! the most striking canvas for this transformation is the vast sky that scenic designer Jack Magaw gave our world.  The colors of the sky help track the passage of time in each scene and comment on the emotions onstage.  But in Black Pearl Sings! the lighting must also enhance the subtle but important distinctions between Pearl’s prison home in Act I and the cozy apartment of Susannah’s “bohemian” friend in Act II.

The stage lighting in Acts 1 & 2

A few impactful set alterations suggest two entirely different locations: the change of the silhouettes of a Texas prison vista to the NYC skyline, the addition of walls, doors, a window that encloses the apartment within the grand stone windows, and a change to more sumptuous furniture.  Most importantly (for a lighting designer), the scenic color palette shifts from cold, industrial, gray stone to warm beiges and rich brown wood.  (The floor remains the same in both acts: a meticulously-designed paint treatment allows it to appear more cool or warm depending on the colors in the light.)

So that seems pretty straightforward: light Act I set in cool tones, light Act II set in warm tones.  Right? Well, half-right.

There are people walking and talking and singing in both of these worlds, wearing Emily McConnell’s carefully-designed clothes.  The color palette of the clothing purposefully contrasts with that of the scenery to make Pearl and Susannah stand out.  In Act I the clothing features warm tones to pop against the cooler set, while the Act II clothes feature cool tones to contrast with the warmer set.

So light the Act I clothes with warm light, and light the Act II clothes with cooler light.  Right?  Well, half-right.

Remember—the set needs to be lit coolly in Act I, warmly in Act II.  What this adds up to is a need for warm and cool light in both settings.

The stage and costume palettes

In Act I, cool side- and back-lighting could tone the floor and bring out the cold grays in the paint.    Adding a bit of pink light from above would accentuate the warmth in the costumes, and cool light with a linear pattern in it scrapes across the upstage wall to reveal the stone texture.  Each of the large windows has its own cool white light to bounce off of the sill and highlight the shape of that structure.In

Act II, amber down-light tones the floor and a low amber light from the sides of the audience tone the walls and fills the shadows, while minimal cool light creeps in to pick up the tones of the clothing.  Amber light glows softly on the downstage arch to reinforce the warm atmosphere of the cozy apartment, where Pearl’s and Susannah’s friendship is tested and then solidified.

Pearl, lit from the sunset windowIn the final moment of the play the walls of Pearl’s present melt away as she transcends into the world of her ancestors; the lighting of the bright amber sky takes us across an ocean and back into the past.  A sky like that is a lighting designer’s playground.


Sarah Hughey is a Lighting Designer who lives in Chicago. She earned her MFA from Northwestern University and teaches lighting design at Northwestern and Columbia College.


Production photos © 2012 Timmy Samuel of Starbelly Studios