By Jason E. Weber, Lighting Director

When you enter the theatre to see our beautiful production of American Mariachi, you are met with a towering wall that evokes the billboards and neon signs of 1970s Houston. This wall has been an exciting challenge for the Alley’s Lighting Team. Throughout the show, the wall changes colors, and various signs light up to cinematically transport the audience from place to place.

However, no element is more dramatic than the mysterious central billboard that allows our roving band of mariachi to appear and disappear like a distant memory. Dubbed “The Sky Box” by Director KJ Sanchez and Scenic Designer Tanya Orellana, the billboard uses special fabric and lighting techniques—from Lighting Designer Carolina Ortiz Herrera—to create the illusion that the performers can appear from nothing. This effect has been around for decades and is common in the theatre. The special fabric—usually a “sharkstooth scrim” that is either solid color or painted—is Free Flow Mesh from Rose Brand. In our production, the Alley’s scenery team deviated from the “traditional” fabric because this material could be printed on, and it provided more flexibility in the design of the sign graphic.

The distinguishing factor with either the traditional scrim or the Free Flow Mesh is the open weave with space between each thread. This allows the magic to happen in your brain as an optical illusion. Your eye gravitates to whichever is brighter—the material or the space between—and ignores the other. It is up to the lighting to determine which you see at which point. To make it work, we must be very strict about the light that we have behind—or “upstage” of—the sign. In that upstage area, we ensure that the light is tightly focused on the performers while avoiding accidentally lighting the sign. Similarly, we must avoid any ambient light in The Sky Box so that we can make it pitch black between uses.

Thus, with a simple light cue, we can turn the lights on and make the people brighter than the sign. Magically, the audience’s eyes blur out the graphics and the people appear. Then, as we fade the lights to black, the sign becomes brighter than the darkness and the performers disappear. This is a play about memory and dreams – can you really capture a moment and time from the past? With our production’s set and lights, we have been able to evoke the possibility.  It is a beautiful example of how collaboration is the heart of theatre-making. Here, the scenic team and the lighting team work together to make the effect possible. If the lights are wrong, it does not work. If the fabric is wrong, it does not work. We must play together to make the effect. In a sense, the real magic here is collaboration. That is what I love most about theatre!