On paper, Shakespeare is all about the language and grappling with the text. But on stage, Shakespeare is a whole new ballgame: Through the actors’ craft, costumes and lights, the words are brought to life.
Chautauqua Theater Company’s final performance of Henry V begins at 4 p.m. today in Bratton Theater. And while the audience watches the 13 conservatory members on stage, it is difficult to overlook the hues of blues and reds that define the French and English and streaks of white that set forth Henry’s life.
Justin Townsend can be held responsible for the lambent Bratton stage these days. A lighting designer hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Townsend won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lighting Design in 2013 and has overseen lighting for various productions and festivals including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“One of the things I love about lighting design is that everybody else does their job ahead of time, but it is my job, in the crucible of two days, to pull the strings of production together — to focus and sharpen the ideas already inherent in the plays,” Townsend said.
While Henry V is about the rise of a leader, it is also about two different countries, England and France. Set designer Lee Savage is a man of minimalism, and Our Town was an example of that. In Henry V, Savage has used two scaffolding-like structures as the main piece of set; with almost-contemporary costumes, it can sometimes be hard to figure out the two countries. Townsend’s lights are the easiest and clearest indications to differentiate between the English and French. Savage also drew all the light booms in the initial design, and it was up to Townsend to fill in the gaps with his creativity.
“I am interested in using the qualities of angle and intensity and simple color to define the play,” Townsend said. “The simple gesture of using the blue light to define the French as the crisp and sharp ones versus the warmer and inviting English — that’s how I tell the story.”
Townsend enjoys the process of walking into an empty space with a toolbox of bold ideas. His biggest challenge (and joy) with Henry V was the time constraints.
“You have to come in and shoot from the hip,” he said. “It is my job to come in and shout the ‘what ifs’ and shoot at something bold.”
Townsend likes to make “big, bold, strong, muscular lighting choices.” His work and preferences paint the stage. He likes using clear light, fluorescents and tungstens, and Henry V is filled with them, defining some beautiful and important moments in the play.
“I am interested in the idea of the unmodified and what it inherently makes,” he said. “I am trying to make a progression from this theatrical toolset to say, ‘Here is an empty space,’ and I am using simple tools and fundamental colors and angles to help see Henry’s journey.”
This was Townsend’s first Chautauqua experience. Having a background of community theater, he understood the Bratton space and the idea of intimate environments better than most.
“I grew up working at the Dorset Theatre Festival, which was three revolutionary barns staged together by a community,” he said. “That idea of a community is a priority reflected in my work. Coming to Chautauqua and being in a historical community gathering is the core of my work.”