How to photograph a play before it's been staged | Backstage | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How to photograph a play before it's been staged

click to enlarge Heather Mull - CP PHOTO: JOIE KNOUSE
CP photo: Joie Knouse
Heather Mull

Name: Heather Mull, Hazelwood
Work: Freelance editorial photographer, including documenting works of theater

What theaters do you shoot? How’d you start?

I regularly work with Quantum [Theatre], off the WALL, PICT. I worked for City Paper; we covered entertainment events and I was photographing performances as a staff person. That led to people asking me to do it as a freelance photographer. 

Are you familiar with the works that you shoot?

Most of the time, no. I walk in and deal with whatever’s in front of me. Now, so much is preview mode that a lot [of the time] I’m in before set, lighting, costumes. Sometimes there’s very little to work with except actors. Most companies hire me twice. One mode is publication and publicity so they can get butts in the seats; second is archival reference for the company. 

How do you photograph a play you don’t know?

I get as much information as I can on the front end, but it’s often very spontaneous. I ask the director, “What is the feeling of this play? What’s the mood? Is it dark, comedic?” The actors aren’t off book at that point; they’re recreating action, so the words don’t matter to me. No one’s going to hear what’s being said. They should recreate the scene using dummy text, improvising but recalling the mood. If they’re having an argument, I want them to have intensity. A love scene needs to look intimate. 

So they’re not holding still and posing?

Running scenes is more effective, more authentic. Sometimes we hold something to give me time to make an adjustment — angle, lighting — but for the most part, I ask them to play as if they were in the scene. It results in more lively and active looking images. 

How is it different the second time?

Lighting changes constantly and quickly. I’ve never seen the show, I have to work fast to capture moments, and I don’t know when the scene is changing, when is the last opportunity before the lights go down. 

[At] rehearsal, I can say, “I like this moment” and run it again. But a dress rehearsal or a performance, I’m watching the same way the audience is, for the first time, and hope I get all the critical moments. 

Quantum does a lot of location-based stuff where the audience is moving. I have more opportunity in a scenario like that than stationed in a seat. That’s the most restrictive scenario that I have and that’s really hard. 

Do you think as a photographer when you attend as an audience member?

If it’s a show I worked on, I notice the opportunities I missed. Other than that, when I’m there as a photographer, I’m not really seeing the show at all. I’m in my own head thinking about the technical things I have to do. 

A couple favorite shows you’ve photographed?

I loved Mark Thompson’s Kimono a couple years ago at off the WALL. It was very dark and very mysterious. I loved Quantum’s Billy the Kid. It was cool to be inside the Garden Theater, having passed by it so many times and wondering what it looked like in there. I also really liked the play. 

What’s the most fulfilling part?

I really like watching actors. It’s fun being in a rehearsal, watching people working things out between them. And it makes my job so easy because they are always putting something out there for the benefit of the audience, or in my case, the camera. When you have great lighting and great costume design and great set design and people who really are skilled, it makes it not feel like work at all. 

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