Steve Vargo played a key role in two Outstanding Production-nominated shows this year (Red Light Winter and Of Mice and Men) both with Unit 102 Actor’s Company. But his nomination is actually for his Outstanding Lighting Design on another Unit 102 show Pinter’s Old Times, the first production mounted after the company lost their space, forcing Steve to make his usual magic with almost none of the resources he’s used to having.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I don’t remember, but there’s a photo. It’s me, I think before kindergarten, like, it’s preschool. I’m onstage, I’m in a catsuit. And I think we’re doing “Old MacDonald”. I was a cat. I assume I said meow.
I think the very first thing that I do remember is seeing Peter Pan on stage when I was very young. The biggest thing I recall is a big crocodile’s mouth as tall as the stage and Hook just walking into it at the end. It was really cool. And I left with a crocodile plush.
How did you get into lighting design?
I got into acting first around grade four. I started acting a lot. Then through high school, I got into music. I was doing more music than theatre and I was kinda doing both at the same time. And after high school, I decided to go to George Brown. I wanted to do their program, but I didn’t get in, so I got into their 1-year program; it’s like a general program- you do performance, you do writing, directing, you’ll do scene study, some character work, monologues, you’ll do reviews. I realized I like the creation side more than the performance side, and I don’t really think I was that good of an actor anyway. I learned about Humber’s Theatre Production program. I wanted to learn everything so that was perfect for me, because I didn’t know that side of theatre. And I knew some people from high school that went to that program, so I applied, and I got in. I wanted to do all the design but I ended up getting into stage management a lot. I realized, doing stage management, a lot of people needed lighting designers, so I would end up just doing stuff from school. I actually ended up not doing the lighting design course in my initial two years- I went back years later just to do that one course- I just had too many electives, so I couldn’t fit it in. But I was doing work. I was doing stage management and lighting at Fringes for a few years, then I went back and did the lighting design course. And I really liked it; it was a really good course. It really helped me out. And I’ve been doing the lighting more than stage management lately. I like the design side, I’m very visual.
As you mentioned, you have credits all over the place with stage management and props and sound design. How do all of those different skill sets support each other?
They all go together to make every little moment happen on stage. Everything has its role- every little thing, every costume piece, every sound bite, any lighting change- everything has a little piece of the puzzle to tell the story about the show. They’re all part of life- you hear stuff, you see stuff, there’s lights, there’s darkness, people wear clothes. It’s all just encompassing everything that the world has to offer in a confined space.
What’s the most important thing about lighting design that people take for granted?
Being able to see the actors! It’s very simple. If there wasn’t lighting design, you’d be in a dark room. Or you’d have house lights- it’d be very bland and boring, like you’re in a classroom watching a show. Which is fine, you can see great theatre without a lighting design. And outside, that’s where theatre used to be done; the sun used to do its own thing.
How’d you get involved with Unit 102?
Every show that I’ve been on, I’ve got a new relationship and got onto a different show. I got in contact with Leroy Street Theatre and we did our show at Unit 102. They’re friends of the space, so it started with them. The Deliverance of Juliet and Her Romeo, that was the first show I did at Unit 102 I believe. I was doing a few shows with Leroy Street Theatre there, and I eventually got talking with Luis [Fernandes], who rents out the space. Then he starts saying “hey, do you want to do some lighting for our shows?” I think Red Light Winter was the first one I did with them. Anne [van Leeuwen], who is at Leroy Street Theatre, was the director, so she just asked and that’s how it really linked up.
Old Times was the company’s first show after losing their space. How did the change in planned space change your design?
I knew the old space very well so I knew that I could make a lighting design within a certain amount of time. But, when we learned that we had a new space, we had to go through a new process of getting used to this new space, and having a walkthrough and just really trying to understand how this space works. It doesn’t have a grid, so it’s like “where can I put the lights?” We have to know what the set’s gonna look like, then we go into the lighting design process. We also lost a lot of equipment in that move, or we lent it to other people. So, for Old Times we had one dimmer; I think six lights, six little birdies, and a few clip lights as well. So I had to do the design with limited materials.
Did those limitations unlock some creativity in you or did you really feel like you could have done more with more resources?
You have to be creative when you have less. However, you can do a lot with one dimmer, I’ve found. If you really look at it, you can have like fifteen different looks. If you put multiple lights on one fader, that can be one look. And, if you have four of them- one dimmer has four- then you have four looks right there. Then you can combine them in any way, and that’s fifteen. But then you can start adjusting the levels and get even more differences. So, it was really just planning out what those four looks are and how we can combine them in different ways. That was kind of the process I had to figure out, then where the lights go is the next thing.
Tell us about working with the director Scott Walker to create the feel of that piece.
Well, Old Times has many interpretations. And Scott wanted to sort of include all of them, or leave it ambiguous. He wanted all options on the table. So that made it very difficult for the actors, of course, but it made them really open up whose story is this and who’s telling the story? Is it a dream? Is something in the past, is something not in the past? Between the two acts, is something different? Is something real or not real? I mainly have to just light them and figure out what the feel for this is. We begin with this ambiguity so finding the feel is the very first thing I wanted to get with Scott. His main description of what kind of feel he wanted was “I don’t know, show me”.
Where do you start?
[Laughs] Well, you start with what you have. So I started with the equipment that I had. I also see a run through. That’s a very important thing; when you see the run through, you get a better feel of what’s going on. I can’t really do anything before that, especially with that description. I read the play, try and get a sense of what possibly is going on, but I can’t make a decision because he wants them all open. After I saw the run through, I realized that the feel of this play is that there’s a lot of questions, there’s a lot of unanswered things, so we have to create that feel somehow. I think you do that with the beginning. The beginning is weird, because we have one character on stage who’s not in the scene at all. So there’s a question right there- where is she? Is she actually there? Or is she somewhere else? Anne [van Leeuwen, playing Anna] came out to the window and we had an orange kind of sunlight happening at the window, and we just started with that. Then the next thing you see is a match. It’s the two other characters in their living room and the lights are slowly coming up. We had this blue light that is not really moonlight, it’s something else, an other world kind of thing. There’s a lot of silence, Scott really liked a lot of silence in this play. And the best part is that the show begins with the line “Dark.” For lighting design, that’s amazing. We had lights coming up, it’s contradictory, there’s questions going on, there’s many things going on, and that’s kind of what, I think, the sense of this play was all about.
Were you working with a sound designer at all?
No. Scott picked out the music. Very, very interesting choices, too, I think. The one that stands out was Elvis singing “Blue Moon”, but I think that was just in the intermission. [The play] didn’t really have a big relationship with sound.
Did you have any big ideas that got edited out for practical reasons?
Well, the space itself has big white lights so I was thinking about using them in some way. I was gonna maybe gel them, put them in different orientations, and actually incorporate the space into the design, and it just didn’t work out. I kinda liked the whiteness of it, because we had a white stage, and it was very bright. But we decided against it, because we needed to do more with fading and blacking out. We really needed to use the board, and those lights were just on a switch. But we ended up using them at the very end because there’s a thing in the script where it says, “the lights flash all on” and that’s what we used.
Were you pleased with how the design worked in practice?
Yeah, I was really happy at how it all worked out, even that blue gel that I’d chosen before I’d even seen the costume. Lauren [Horejda, playing Kate] has this beautiful dark blue, kind of shiny robe and the lights just lit it so well, it was a perfect colour of light onto that. It’s great when things like that happen. I was very pleased at how much came out of the little inventory that we had. We really worked with the lights as well; we had some time to explore with the lights, especially those three lamps. I said, “Scott, you can turn them off anytime you want or we can have them fading out and in” so we have a moment where they’re turning off the lights. It was really great because you can actually play with each kind of light, and really look at every single light. Every light becomes so important when you have very little; they have to be used in multiple different ways, and every one was used in just about every scene.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
It has to be the beginning. The whole moment of everybody entering and the lights coming on. The sunlight, the matches. Matches in darkness is so great, when you can have some real, physical, real life light. And fire is just purest light so it’s great to have that.
You worked on two shows nominated for Best Production this year, Red Light Winter and Of Mice and Men. Tell us first about Red Light Winter. How did you approach capturing that really seedy world?
Well, it’s sort of simple to do when you don’t have many colours in the gels, and you leave some of them open white. We had some that had some warmth to them but, if you keep them open white, then you’re gonna get kinda flat and it’s gonna just look boring and ugly. It’s actually very simple to do that. The only time you see colour is when she has her little song, that’s kinda the only warmth you get.
The main thing with that play, we wanted to get that red light. And we went literally red. It is like that in some European countries, they literally have red light. That was pretty simple. I think that was the first time I put those lights back there in that way, and they shaped the wall so well that we used them for so many other plays after that. So it was great discovering that.
We actually wanted to do black light- and we had some black lights, but they just didn’t read from the audience with the house light on for the beginning of the play, so that just got cut.
For Of Mice and Men, a lot of that takes place outside and in locations where there wouldn’t have been artificial light at all. How do approach recreating that?
Working with Adam [Belanger]’s set was really, really helpful. He literally had a portion that transformed to outside with the stump and everything. But the best lights I think were when we were indoors but you could see the outside light coming in. It’s really just a question of where is the sun coming from? Where is the moonlight coming from? What time of day is it?And what sort of windows are there in the place, or open doors? We had a lamp in there as well. So, when you get all those things together, it just kind of works and it just happens. Especially with a set like that, you start discovering things like when the boards go up and you have light coming in from the back, that’s something that you would see if you go to a barn, the light from outside coming in. So you explore that on your own, and then you try to put it somewhere in the play, if you can.
My favourite cue in Of Mice and Men was some night scene, there’s an open barn door, there’s moonlight coming in and, when someone went outside, you could feel the air of outside versus being inside. That happened without choice; you’re just lighting moon there, then you actually start watching and it feels like something else. That’s kinda just the magic of the play itself, or theatre itself, right? You don’t really plan things.
You also worked on The Harvester at the Fringe this year, which was a sci-fi show. Tell us a little about creating some of the effects of that.
Paul [Van Dyck], the director/writer, he really wanted this entrance to come from above. This is a post-apocalyptic show, and this guy lives underground, so we need an entrance that’s coming from above. So he’s like “I wanna see it, we need to try and figure out how to make this work”. We’re in the Factory Studio, so Erica[-Maria Causi, the set designer] and I really tried to discuss what sort of thing we could do. Obviously it would be a ladder but we just didn’t know what we could do in that space, especially for Fringe and setting up things. So it was a big discussion about “how are we gonna do these effects?” We had two ladders, one that’s unseen. I don’t know if I’m ruining the magic here [laughs], but one of the actors goes up behind the curtain, right behind the ladder that you actually see. They go on top of the ladder, and then just descend. Our special is the spotlight that’s just the sun from above, because it’s desert everywhere. Then, incorporating the sound of the airlock and the hatch opening just made this really great effect. That was most of our setup, just trying to get this effect. And it really worked out, I was really happy with it. And then red, of course, the red emergency thing that’s just basic footlights coming up.
What are you doing now/what’s your next project?
I don’t have one. It’s kind of a vacation. My last one was Queen’s Conjuror, and I also just stage-managed Elizabeth & Darcy again. I now have a full-time job outside of theatre, so I’m sort of getting out of stage management because I can’t do both. But I can still do lighting, so if anybody’s looking for lighting… [laughs].
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
No, just thank you for having this interview. It’s great to have an interview about the behind the scenes. And I’m really glad you have a stage management award. It’s really, really good. Nobody who has an award for stage management. I always thought when NOW puts out their best ensembles, and best production, when they come out with that, I feel pride in that as a stage manager because I’m like “ok, everything went very well, so that means I did my job well”. That’s kinda the only way you get to have that. Stage managers are pretty humble I think, though. It’s really great that you have the stage managers, the people that they work with [submit the nominations]; it’s kinda nice to have that as a your dear friends nominate you kind of thing.