Student provides light from limited spectrum

Pat Cavlin was helping a friend set up lights for a play in high school when he mentioned how much wanted to get into lighting. "I can’t wait to do this," Cavlin told his friend. She gave him an astonished look and told him he could never do stage lighting. Cavlin is partially colorblind, but that was six years ago.

That incident set Cavlin on a quest to get his foot in the door of the lighting program in the theatre department at his high school, Calvin said. After working with the school’s master electrician, who was also color blind, he eventually made his way through the ranks. During his senior year of high school, Cavlin devised the main lighting designs for the school’s production of "Romeo and Juliet."

In college, Cavlin ran into the same roadblocks as high school. A lot of people like to use his colorblindness against him, Cavlin said, but that has yet to deter him. The sophomore meteorology major just finished a stint as associate light designer for "Grease," his first college lighting design and the theatre department’s final production of the semester.

"This isn’t something that’s going to hold me back," Cavlin said, noting that some of the best color designers in the world have some sort of color deficiency.

Cavlin is not completely colorblind. He suffers from deuteranopia, a red-green colorblindness, and has since he was a child. The condition runs in his family and is a recessive trait on his mother’s side. Several uncles suffer from colorblindness, which overwhelmingly affects men.

It’s really a color deficiency rather than complete colorblindness. When the color red is mixed with other colors, Cavlin has difficulty picking up on just how much red is present, which means he struggles to differentiate among the finer differences of colors. As an example, he points to the bag of Gold Rold Pretzels in front of him and notes he cannot tell if the bag is maroon or brown. However, differences constitute the mood of a show.

Lighting a performance is equal parts art and science, and colorblindness adds another challenge. It just means a person has to be even more dedicated and committed, Cavlin said. Mixing light to set the mood for a scene is much different than mixing paint because mixing two colors in light results in a different color than in paint.

Beyond primary colors, the Brooklyn native relies on the specific numbers off of gels, the thin sheets of plastic used to blend light, to determine the mood certain lights will convey. This can prove tricky, because on occasion a certain gel will not have the subtle look that is desired. Lighting, Cavlin said, is about much more than illuminating the stage and actors. It’s about setting the tone for the show. As a light designer, he must know how to illuminate skin especially well. Different lighting is needed for darker skinned actors, as was the case in "Grease."

The process of designing his first college lighting show began in December when he sat down at his kitchen table and roughed out the basics of the entire musical. The theatre department’s production of "Grease" used more than 180 lights and encompassed nearly 200 lighting cues. Some scenes bunched dozens of cues into a span of a minute. The hardest aspect for Cavlin was juggling 18 credit hours, including calculus and meteorology.

Another challenging to lighting "Grease" was the fact that he had never worked on a musical before. Musicals tend to step away from reality quite a bit and the lighting has to reflect that, Cavlin said. Lighting is used to help move characters in and out of reality by focusing attention. Musicals can also incorporate considerable special lighting effects.

"I love involving the audience in my lighting," Cavlin said.

Yet, involving the audience in any part of lighting can be a bit of guesswork. Recently, Cavlin used a lighting cue that had a spot light shine out into the audience. During the first performance, he realized people in the audience were covering their eyes because it was too bright, and adjusted accordingly.

Cavlin plans to continue with lighting, but by his own admission, he is no expert. Lighting is just a hobby. He also spends his time as an on-air meteorologist for WTOP.