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Colin K. Bills, the lighting designer D.C. theaters have taken a shine to

By Celia Wren,

How do you light the apocalypse?

That’s a question that D.C.-based lighting designer Colin K. Bills has pondered repeatedly of late. This in-demand artist, who masterminds lighting for about 18 shows a year, has handled a typically eclectic roster this season: the new play “Lungs” at Studio Theatre, the musical “Hairspray” at Signature Theatre, Synetic Theater’s silent-Shakespeare riff “The Taming of the Shrew,” and more.

But the three-time Helen Hayes Award winner has a long-standing relationship with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which named him to its core artist group last fall. And since the concept of apocalypse has been the unifying theme of Woolly’s 2011-12 season, Bills has been serving up images of doomsday and civilization in crisis. He concocted the eerie dawn of the Rapture for “A Bright New Boise” in October, for instance. Now he is crafting the aftermath of Armageddon for “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” a world premiere by Anne Washburn (see related story), running May 28-July 1.

As the subtitle suggests, “Mr. Burns” imagines life after the collapse of the grid. Working with director Steven Cosson and set designer Misha Kachman, Bills will conjure up milieus bathed with firelight, celestial light and old-fashioned radiance sources like candles. This look will be a stage illusion: In actuality, “Mr. Burns” will rely on modern lighting technology and Pepco power lines. But the illusion will not be merely a good-looking extra: It will figure critically in the production’s storytelling and emotional rhythms.

That’s the theory, at any rate. Lighting can be “about an emotional reaction to things and not necessarily just about the realism of things,” Bills observed last month at Arena Stage, where his challenge was, if not apocalypse proper, at least a minor environmental emergency. The bespectacled 36-year-old was engaged in technical rehearsals for “Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks,” a production that involved a hefty dose of fog; and on the previous day the fog — orchestrated via the lighting control board — had set off Arena’s fire alarms.

Bent on rectifying the situation, Bills ensconced himself calmly behind two computer screens in the Kogod Cradle seating area and launched into an afternoon of fog- and lighting-cue fine-tuning, a process that involved monitoring the screens and the stage while muttering requests like “Move cue 20 to cue 19.5. Great. And then, 7 through 9 at zero” over a headset. His lighting board programmer, on the other end of the headset, was making revisions based on the numbers, which referred to cues and variables like brightness levels and specific lighting instruments.

Bills gravitated toward this kind of esoterica early in his career. Raised in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, he enrolled at Dartmouth with vague ideas of studying engineering. But after an acquaintance asked for help hanging lights for a campus production, Bills started immersing himself in drama. Upon graduating with a theater degree and a linguistics minor, he landed a lighting internship at Baltimore’s Centerstage, where he met another intern, Rachel Grossman, who became his wife.

The two subsequently settled in the D.C. area, where Bills began assisting lighting designers around town. (Grossman is now managing director at Washington Improv Theater, as well as a ringleader of the ensemble Dog & Pony DC.)

Eventually he racked up the expertise to design shows himself. His early collaborations with Synetic helped him develop a signature style involving sharply defined areas of light in bold tones and textures. He became a fan of impressionistically colored shadows (“It’s not always appropriate, but I think you get a richer image,” he says, casually citing the precedent of Monet) and of the volatility of green light (“Depending on how it’s reacting to other things, it can be warm or cold. That’s what I love about it”).

Along the way, he has become an old hand at lighting budgets, which he says may go as high as $10,000 for a splashy local musical with a longish run. (The budget line might cover expenses such as gels, which give lights colors; gobos, patterns placed in front of lights to shape the beams; and the rental of any lighting instruments a theater doesn’t own.)

But Bills tries not to let details hide the big picture. He makes a point of attending the earliest planning meetings for any project he signs on to, for instance. Even when the production in question is a revival of an old play, he says, “there’s a legitimately new world that we’re trying to create. And I want to be in on that.”

Directors who have worked with him admire this holistic approach, as well as his flair for giving light an emotional and narrative valence.

“He’s a big thinker,” notes Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz.

“He understands that lighting is a character in these productions,” says Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who staged “Hairspray.” “In a musical, the light has got to match the music, as well as the action,” Schaeffer observes. “In a play, it’s much more subtle. He can do both — and that’s not always the case.”

John Vreeke, who directed “Bright New Boise,” says, “With Colin, it’s not just the visual aspect of how you illuminate the story and make it clear and cogent and powerful — it’s also about how the light moves us from place to place” within a play’s gamut of revelations.

With the revelations of “Begotten” wrapped up (fog problem, solved!), Bills has been completing his design for “Mr. Burns,” thinking about matters like a scene in which characters sit around a nighttime bonfire. Visible bonfire flames might undermine the story’s urgency, because “the safe ways to do fire onstage tend to look — and especially smell — really fake,” he says.

By the week before tech rehearsals started, he had a plan to conceal small lights with parabolic reflectors inside a barrel suggestive of a makeshift hearth. The beams of these “birdie” lights, shining out of the barrel, will suggest dying embers, but they won’t brighten the whole tableau: Even with a separate moonlight-like glow pouring down from upstage, shadows will still gather on the outskirts of the scene, communicating mystery and menace.

The sequence will be “both warm and cold, cozy and dangerous,” Bills predicts. Thomas Edison himself could hardly have asked for more.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Mr. Burns,
a Post-Electric Play

runs Monday–July 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.
Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.

© The Washington Post Company