Master Conversations: Lighting Design with Lim Woan Wen and Daniel Teo

Singapore lighting designer Lim Woan Wen shares about her practice and process, and chats with critic Daniel Teo about the impact of lighting in a performance, and whether critics should be expected to write more about lighting design in a review. This session took place on 18 May 2021 as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable at SIFA 2021. This session took place on 18 May 2021 as part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable at SIFA 2021.

The inaugural Master Conversations series focuses on production and technical theatre. Through four in-depth presentations, led by master technical theatre practitioners from Southeast Asia and around the world, critics will get insights into and knowledge in the often under-discussed aspects of performance-making.

Below is a reflection by AAMR participant James Harvey Estrada, from Quezon City, Philippines, on the session.

Light Matters

It was a hot afternoon in Binangonan Rizal, Philippines around 4:25 pm on a Tuesday. I was sitting at my dining table, preparing my notepad while checking my face in the mirror. I finger-combed my hair. I was ready to be virtually transported to the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR) 2021.

With just one click of a Zoom link, 22 people from different spaces in Asia, across different time zones, shared a virtual space. We were gathered for the first Master Conversation session of the AAMR, an inaugural programme that brought together technical theatre practitioners and critics, facilitating exchange and knowledge sharing, so that critics can better write about theatre design.

This first session focused on the work of renowned Singaporean lighting designer Lim Woan Wen. It was facilitated by critic Daniel Teo, who started the conversation by asking the writers present how they felt about writing on lighting. Half the participants, including me, said they had never written about lighting before. Intimidation and language limitation were the main reasons cited. I surmised that writers are often in the dark about the art of stage illumination, which is usually overshadowed by more prominent elements of performance, such as writing, direction and acting.

Lim shared about her collaboration with The Finger Players, a theatre company based in Singapore that specialised in puppetry. I looked keenly at every production picture, thinking: how can I perfectly describe these beautiful photos? Through her sharing, I realised that lights can craft and shape the seen and the unseen, examining and imbuing new meanings to the space, adding to the ornate intricacies of stage direction and what we see onstage.

With The Book of Living in Dying, where she spoke about her research and design process with her collaborators, she shared that the lighting design was described by a Singaporean arts critic as being “devastatingly beautiful”. I thought that it was true that a well-structured and sculpted beam of light can reflect emotional complexity.

Another work that caught my attention was the play Poop! and the lighting precision featured which effectively brought to life the more challenging scenes in the play, such as those with flying actors and floating faces. Judging from the visuals, it seemed that a complete and balanced mix of witty direction, creative lighting, and disciplined actors who knew how to find their light, made every scene work.

I also found it interesting when Lim admitted that it is not easy for her to talk about her own medium with someone else. Yet it is also not out of reach. “Lighting design is a marriage of art and science. It is not just about sight. It is also about touch and breath…. We cannot be very technical all the time. Even lighting designers get lost for words,” she said.

Another project that resonated with me was her solo project Light Matters, a site-specific and time-based installation made in collaboration with the sun. She said her one major takeaway was in the value of letting go and being open to what will happen. Weather conditions are tricky collaborators. Yet, that added to the magic – audiences stayed for hours watching the light move, and many felt moved to leave feedback in the guest book provided.

Lim ended her presentation by reminding us that we have the innate ability to appreciate light. Her final words to the writers: “I think we should trust ourselves a little bit more. Even if you feel you cannot articulate it, you do know what it is. You just need to keep swimming a little bit more and find that dream world, where all words will come to you as you need it.”

After the session, I had a heightened awareness of light. I noticed the light from my laptop screen. I appreciated the ray of light from the afternoon sun outside my window. I was grateful for every detail of natural light, like how the sun was illuminating my face. I finger-combed my hair again. I think I had gained new perspective on how light matters.

Masters Conversations is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021. 

James Harvey Estrada is a university lecturer at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines under the Broadcast Communication Department of the College of Communication. He works at GMA News and Public Affairs as a writer and director. He is also an independent theatre-maker, performance-maker and filmmaker based in Quezon City and Binangonan Rizal.

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