Lighting The Way: LD Thom Weaver Brings Order To The Cherry Orchard

This spring saw a groundbreaking new production of The Cherry Orchard at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. The production melded both Anton Chekhov’s original comedy and later productions emphasizing the tragedy into a piece of political theatre seen through the lens of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Setting the play in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Russian director Dmitry Krymov and set designer Irina Kruzhilina center the stage around an old-fashioned train station flip board, which has its own character and interacts with the cast by posting messages. The sound of letters flipping through to create each phrase can be soothing at lighter moments, like the flapping of birds’ wings, or ominous, if the characters are tense and waiting for an answer. This mechanical cast member sitting in the middle of the stage is both an amusing oddity and a reminder that the play takes place at the cusp of the mechanized age, where trains are bringing modern ideas and machines to the rural idyll where the family is in denial about its circumstances and role.

Although the play went into production before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are several key moments where the war is referenced, and at the end, the sound of the orchard being cut down is replaced by the sound of bombs falling on Kharkiv.

The production is a reminder that theatre is about engagement and emotion. Largely through the work of lighting designer Thom Weaver and a very energetic cast, the audience is very much a part of this production and not able to sit quietly in the darkness being entertained. There is nothing relaxing about this version of the play. The house lights are frequently up while cast members address the audience directly, sometimes taunting them, other times running into the seats and climbing over people. The atmosphere can switch from an effusive welcome for supporting the show, to a hostile environment where the audience feels exposed and trapped in the light. The lighting is constantly reference in the play, at one point Madame Lyubov Andreievna Ranevskaya stands on a table and asks for her spotlight, at another point a character climbs over the audience to unplug and steal a light fixture and bring it back onstage.

Lighting designer Thom Weaver is an associate artist at the Wilma and is about to start his 20th project there. He spoke to Live Design about his work on this unique version of The Cherry Orchard and shared his lighting plot and gear list.

Live Design: What was the appeal of this project?

Thom Weaver: First and foremost working with Dmitry Krymov. I have been an admirer of his work for a long time. I also found the idea of The Cherry Orchard compelling because this notion of loss, absurdity, and grief was very present for me, as I’m sure it is for everyone these days. This production was postponed twice during Covid and we finally started rehearsals five days after the invasion of Ukraine. Dmitry [who is Russian] got back into the country only three days after the invasion. Of course the creative team were horrified and the development work took on a whole new sense of purpose and a sense of sadness.

LD: How do you feel about one of your fixtures being unplugged and taken away during the performance?

TW: I’ve designed shows where the lighting is dynamic and in the foreground, but never quite so literally. There is so much theatrical self-awareness that the machinery of the lighting is a part of the play. At one point the cast is staring into the light and talking about the future, and Justin, one of the actors, just climbs through the audience to the back and unplugs a live fixture and says, “This isn’t your future.”

LD: So there is literally no light at the end of the tunnel for them.

TW: Yes. We were using the lighting as a character, as part of their world. I thought it was hilarious when they decided to do it. I saw that moment during a run-through in the fall and I remember thinking how exciting and irreverent and absurd that moment was.

I put the Source Four PAR can on a hand clamp so the actor could unplug it and take it away. We are using it to light the show so the lamp is hot, but it cools down quick enough that it is manageable. Then the actors take [the fixture] and wrap it like a baby.

LD: The production is fast moving and chaotic, sometimes the only thing keeping thing keeping order and directing attention is the lighting. How did you accomplish this?

TW:  The lighting is about holding all this chaos in space. Letting it exist freely. There is the occasional special, but a lot of the light comes from high intensity sodium vapor fixtures, the kind used for security lights in parking lots. What is so great about them is that they are not compositional, they just come on and light everything evenly and without bias. The almost indifference of the light is unsympathetic, like the light we encounter in a city, it just is. 

The Cherry Orchard Magic Sheet Credit: Thom Weaver
(The Cherry Orchard Magic Sheet Credit: Thom Weaver)


Click To Expand Magic Sheet

LD: There are a lot of different intensities of white, did that come from the director?

TW: I don’t tend to use a ton of color so that is my own dramaturgy, but I do use different shades. Sometimes people say there is no color and I’ll be like, “There were five shades of blue!”

This was an effort to not romanticize the story. Cold and warmth are overused when we talk about lighting but here I didn’t want warmth, I wanted a sense of discomfort. I wanted a hostile environment.

LD: Is this why the house lights are up so much?

TW: Turning the house lights out creates a sense of ritual and safety for the audience, they can hide in the dark. I’m pleased with this production and its ability to disrupt these rituals.

We created a new kind of agency for the audience. You have to engage, you can’t hide. You are responsible for being an active member for this event. Even making audience members stand up so an actor can get around you. In subscriber-based American theatre we do everything we can not to disrupt the audience, so it was great to work on a show where the audience has no place to hide.

When we were in tech, there was no obvious moment to turn off the houselights. The trick was finding that moment in the show. Like a lot of the work in this piece you have to wait for the correct moment, it was very improvisatory even for the lighting. I was waiting for an unspoken consensus for when we needed something, so for example, in act four there are no light cues. As collaborators we did not think we needed anything. Until we needed that gesture, we decided not to do anything.

LD: There is one grand “gesture” when the mother climbs on a table and essentially says she is ready for her spotlight and then is bathed in light from her own special.

TW: Not just any special! I found an old 12” beam projector that we had in storage at the Wilma and I felt really strongly that that moment had to have a vintage quality to it. The special needed to be a light from another era. 

The lighting spans several eras, not in a way that audience members would know but it comes from several worlds, fluorescents and vintage lamps. We rented the fluorescents and atmospherics but everything else was already there, I’ve helped curate a collection of weird lights to draw upon so things like the sodium vapor lights have been there for a while.

The Cherry Orchard: Lighting Plot Credit: Thom Weaver
(The Cherry Orchard: Lighting Plot Credit: Thom Weaver)


Click To Expand Light Plot

LD: How do you approach a piece like this?

TW: This show was so wild I really started on it even before meeting with the director just trying to come to terms with where my dramaturgy intersects with the piece, what do I bring to this. This approach allows me to make artistic proposals rather than waiting around for someone to tell me what to do, I want to make choices that others can respond to as the work comes together. That served me well on this project, even though tech process was somewhat improvisatory. It was helpful to say, “I have this idea for this scene.“

The director and I were on the same page, but it is also true that I had elements in the light plot I didn’t know what I would do with. I had the HISV and back lights but it was about being in the room and setting yourself up with the right kind of composition tools to respond to a proposal.

LD: You didn’t make any attempt to hide the fog machines, or be subtle about them, which is unusual.

TW: The fog machines, like the flip board, are such important characters. We let them be loud and visible so in these quiet moments there will be a sudden hiss of the fog machine which is so silly but mechanization is such a part of this overall world.

LD: What was the biggest challenge?

TW: The hardest part is knowing when to back off and let it be. Knowing when you need a cue and when it isn’t necessary. Dmitry was very helpful in saying no, it’s good. I do enjoy minimalism, but it is not easy to know when to do nothing.

Gear List

  • ETC Source-4 14° @ 575w   1
  • ETC Source-4 19° @ 575w   11
  • ETC Source-4 26° @ 575   94
  • ETC Source-4 38° @ 575w  66
  • ETC Source-4 50° @ 575w  2
  • ETC S4-36° LED Lustr•S2 @ 171w  12
  • ETC S4-PAR (NSP) @ 575w  22
  • ETC S4-PAR (MFL) @ 575w  40
  • ETC S4-PAR (WFL) @ 575w  1
  • PAR 64 NSP @ 1kw    3
  • 12" Beam Projector (11") @ 500w/750w/1000 1
  • ARRI D25 @ 2.5kw  1
  • Color Force 72 @ 720w   7
  • Dimmable Florescent Transformer @ 5w  9
  • Dimmable Neon Transformer @ 5w  1
  • Sodium Vapor  2
  • 15" HID   2
  • High End Systems F 100 @ 1.45kw  1
  • High End Systems FQ 100 @ 1.5kw   1
  • Look Solutions Unique 2.1 @ 1.5kw  1
  • Freeze Fog   2
  • G300 2

The Wilma Team

  • Irina Kruzhilina  SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER
  • Daniel Ison  SOUND DESIGNER
  • Noelle Diane Johnson  EDI OFFICER
  • Patreshettarlini Adams  STAGE MANAGER