Designing Junk: The Lighting

Junk La Jolla Playhouse
(T. Charles Erickson)

Designer Ben Stanton created the lighting for the La Jolla Playhouse production of Junk in the summer of 2016, and has relit it, as adapted to the circular thrust stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre for the current Lincoln Center Theater version, which runs through January 7, 2018. Stanton has been nominated for a 2018 Tony Award for his lighting.

Written by Ayad Akhtar and directed by Doug Hughes, Junk is “a cautionary tale about greed, values, and unchecked capitalism,” says Stanton. “It’s a true story meant to engage the audience, and it helps to be in a theatre without a real line between the audience and the performers.” Costumes are by Catherine Zuber, projections by 59 Productions, original music and sound by Mark Bennett, and sets by John Lee Beatty, who added staircases to the front of the set leading into the orchestra pit for Lincoln Center. This allows for more dynamic staging by enabling actors to enter from below as well as upstage.

Live Design chats with Stanton, who designed such recent Broadway productions as Fun Home, Fully Committed, and Six Degrees Of Separation, about his lighting for Junk, in which he calls upon his experience of having done Fun Home in the round. “I am a convert to theatrical spaces that blur the line between the audience and performer. It makes my job harder but it’s worth it. The emotional barrier is taken away, the audience is more aware of each other as well as what’s happening on stage. It becomes a communal event.” In the case of Junk, the thrust brings the action close to the audience as the play moves quickly through a series of locations in New York and California.

Live Design: In conversations with the director and set designer, what was the direction for the lighting?

Ben Stanton: Junk takes place in fast-paced, greed-soaked world of Wall Street in the 1980s. The piece has a specific time period and is based on actual events that led to the junk bond crisis of that era, but the takeaways of the piece are larger and more universal than this one period in history and are still affecting us today. The director, Doug Hughes, and set designer John Lee Beatty wanted to build a physical production that invoked the period’s obsession with power and money and retained a fluidity that could accommodate the nearly 40 scenes and 20 plus locations needed to tell the story. John Lee designed a two-tiered set comprised of 10 gilded boxes, each backed with a rear projection screen. We used as little furniture as we could get away with, and it was my job as lighting designer to create a unique environment for each scene with light. Using different colors and textures on the upstage screens, and directional lighting on the actors, we were able to give the audience enough sense of where they were in each scene to tell the story.  

LD: How does the lighting help tell the story?

BS: The world we created for this play is an abstract theatrical space that articulates all of the psychological and socio-economic realities of the period. The play moves from coast to coast and from the bedroom to the boardroom, and in every scene, we use design to apply pressure to the characters, reminding the audience of the stakes and ambition of all involved. All of the transitions are as crisp and quick as the characters themselves, and actors and set pieces move through the space as smoothly as a Wall Street ticker. There’s a language of ruthless efficiency that weaves its way through all of the elements of the production in a way that hopefully leaves the audience feeling both thrilled, and a little on edge. We were determined to keep our storytelling abstract to give the sense that while our story took place in the 1980s, it could also be viewed as a timeless fable, similar to Shakespeare’s history plays. It’s also important to remember that the ideas in the play are still very relevant today.

LD: What is your process for researching and designing a new play?

BS: Because I was a musician for years before I became a lighting designer, I’m always looking for the rhythmic pulse of a play or musical. With musicals, it’s pretty easy, but it’s not always obvious with a play. It’s really important to find the right pacing for a play so that the audience understands on an intuitive level what they’re watching. When the lighting isn’t lined up with the play’s “heartbeat,” it can get in the way of the storytelling. For instance, Junk is fast-paced, crisp, and ruthless, and I try to match this in the lighting. Almost every light cue is a zero count. For Junk, I also re-watched some films like Wall Street and American Psycho to remind me of the technology of the era, and what a trading floor looked like back then.

LD: What are the main fixtures in your rig; and what about the use of LEDs, automated fixtures, or color?

BS: The main moving lights in my rig are Martin by Harman MAC Viper Performances, ETC Source Fours with color scrollers, and there is a lot of LED tape. The beautiful set design by John Lee Beatty is very linear, and we accentuate every line in the set with two runs of LED tape, a variable-white strip, and an RGB strip. We rely most heavily on the variable white and tried to limit our palette to variations on white light, but occasionally, we added a little color to some scenes.  

LD: How does the use of projection work with the lighting?

BS: When we built the show in La Jolla, we had no projections. The entire vocabulary was light, color, and direction. For the most part this worked well, but there were several occasions in the play where we found that the audience was missing some context as to where a scene was taking place. For instance, many scenes take place in banking offices both in New York and Los Angeles, and while I was able to create two distinct office locations with light, there was no good way to telegraph which coast we were on in any given scene. When we learned we were headed to the Beaumont Theater, we called on Ben Pearcy and 59 Productions to help us solve this issue. Without undermining the abstract storytelling approach, 59 was able to create dynamic content for many transitions that could add the context we were missing in the previous production. I loved working with Ben on this project, and he added a lot. There were many scenes where we layered video and lighting in ways where you can’t tell which is which. It was an amazing team of designers and technicians who put this whole thing together.

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