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The atmospheric approach: Robert Shakespeare, at the forefront of lighting design

Robert Shakespeare

Robert Shakespeare

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"When I started in 1975 as a lighting designer at the Bristol Old Vic theater company in England, I had 75 dimmers, about 90 lighting instruments and a whole lot of passion," he said. Today, in Indiana University's Ruth Halls Theater, he works with more than 600 dimmers and a department inventory of about 800 lighting instruments.

"Back then it was people's fingers moving faders. Now, many of our resources are robotic lighting instruments," said Shakespeare, professor of lighting design in IU's department of Theatre and Drama and head of the department's design and technology area and its Master of Fine Arts lighting program. "Lighting art continuously transforms."

His passion, however, hasn't changed a bit. As the head of design and technology in IU's department of Theatre and Drama, Shakespeare works on several productions each season, from classics like Romeo and Juliet to experimental fusions of dance and light. He teaches students how to plot designs using the latest computer-rendering capabilities. And he continues to expand his lighting design portfolio, which now includes bridges, skyscrapers and houses of worship.

His most recently completed project, the IU Art Museum 25th Anniversary Light Totem, is a "beacon" to green lighting on campus, he said. This installation, incorporating a 70-foot freestanding tower in front of the museum, a 40-foot illuminated line within the building's atrium, three searchlights, and a light show along the building's south-facing wall, uses less than 20 percent of the wattage that would be needed with traditional tungsten lights.

"I was purely focused on theater lighting until the late 1980s, when it was being discovered that the same principles could be applied to architectural environments -- malls, churches, restaurants, anywhere that would benefit from an atmospheric approach," he said.

The collaborative skills needed to work with a team of directors, costume designers and set designers proved equally valuable in consulting for the Hong Kong government or hotel owners in Shanghai, Shakespeare said.

"We in theater are very practiced in working collaboratively," he said. "You need to be able to go in with a lot of ideas but not be so arrogant that you can't let go of your initial thoughts. You're leaving one antenna up in the air to receive inspiration while your attention is focused on managing and absorbing other people's ideas."

A crucial component in Shakespeare's collaborative capabilities, he said, is his experience with computer rendering. Using this technology allows him to share photographically accurate images of designs during planning meetings -- an unthinkable concept when his career began.

He has long been ahead of the curve in adopting these digital technologies, so much so that when he arrived at IU in 1985, he was "swept onto the computing policy committee" with only one other arts faculty member (electronic music professor Jeff Hass). In that capacity, he has advocated for incorporating computing into the arts and for building bridges between art and science for more than 20 years.

"The university was very brave in funding the Center for Innovative Computer Applications," he said of the unit of the IU Office of Information Technologies that has enabled artists and scientists to explore computing since 1988.

Support from CICA allowed Shakespeare to collaborate with California computer scientist Greg Ward Larson on a book, Rendering with Radiance: The Art and Science of Lighting Visualization. The text continues to serve both architectural and theatrical lighting designers as a user's manual for Radiance Lighting Simulation and Rendering System software, which Larson designed through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy's interest stemmed from the energy conservation inherent in substituting photo-accurate simulations for costly mock-ups of original designs. Shakespeare has remained committed to "green design" philosophy, using low-energy light-emitting diode lights whenever possible and promoting conservation throughout the university.

Other ongoing work with the IU Art Museum illustrates the tremendous descriptive power of Shakespeare's designs.

"I'm working on the Third Floor Gallery and thinking about the journey of the visitor," he said. "So if there's a stone tool in the collection, the questions I'm talking about with the staff might be whether to reveal the chisel marks of the creator, or to try to recreate how it would have been viewed in the men's hut by the campfire, or to just hang it in the air and let it scream as art unto itself."

Shakespeare's work, while always illuminating some other work of art, somehow manages to do the latter.