Using light to shape scenes on stage

Picture the glow of candlelight or the quality of light after a rainstorm.

Imagine trying to recreate the seamless work of Mother Nature, in a theater, casting actors or musicians with just the right hues to create the suspension of disbelief that allows an audience to sink into the performance.

This technical mastery is a glimmer of the work of Northeastern’s new assistant professor of theater, and lighting expert, Justin Townsend.

“Lighting helps shape the architecture of a theatrical space itself, and the architecture of the story; how we tell the story, and how we see the story,” Townsend says. “It’s my job to find both the mood, the difference between the soft candlelight and the rainy day, and to shape the entire space that we’re witnessing.”

The new addition to Northeastern’s faculty, known nationally and internationally for his lighting and set-design talents, begins many of his projects by plunking a desk down in the middle of a theater or performance space, and having a performance or play unfold all around him.

While watching the performers, Townsend’s imagination takes hold: “It’s a neat right-brain, left-brain job,” he says. “I use my engineering mind to consider the technical aspects of lighting, and geometry to figure out where to put the light to accommodate the very basic needs of the story.”

Or, in an upcoming case, Townsend is trying to light a musical score.

Working with Yale University doctoral candidate of music Anna Gawboy, he is inventing a “light organ” that emits colors instead of sound to accompany the musical score Prometheus, by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

The score by the late 1800s composer calls for the color red to be emitted whenever the C note is played, Townsend explains. “He was ahead of his time. He imagined the existence of a light organ before any such thing ever existed,” he says.

Townsend plans to make the light organ a reality. With the help of Northeastern undergraduates this summer, he hopes to create the technology to add the color red to the score.

“The technology will combine computer, keyboard and conventional LED equipment to make light playable like a piano,” Townsend says. “This will provide the red light Scriabin imagined when a chorus and 200 musicians perform.”

Townsend is also working on a new play, “Monstrosity,” produced by a group of playwrights in a production company, 13P. With this work, he attempts to dig deeper into the story of an anarchist youth movement set in the future.

Townsend, who earned his master’s at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, and works on roughly 30 design projects a year, can’t imagine a better outlet for his talent.

“When I sit at a table in the middle of a theater and have a play performed for me, it’s totally spectacular,” he says. “While I’m watching the action, I get to dictate how the rest of the world will see that performance.”