What led you to light design?
I’ve always been interested in how we, as humans, perceive the world. When I started undergrad studies at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, I had never been exposed to live theatre. I was studying an array of disciplines such as sociology, political science, English Lit, painting, and photography— and I needed an elective credit so I decided to take a course called ‘Intro to Stage Lighting’.
My lighting professor, John Malolepsy, proved to be far beyond anything but a normal teacher. He is not only an amazing set and lighting designer, he’s an advanced philosopher of all things related to light. His courses covered everything from the myth of Prometheus, the Egyptians and how they aligned the great pyramids, the physics of the eye and how our brain translates electromagnetic energy into a visual picture, as well as basic theory of Einstein Relativity of time and space. He taught me to dissect every day reality into an experience defined by the light that inhabited each moment.
The key is to become a keen observer of your emotional state and connect that to the visual information generated by the light surrounding one’s experience.
If you watch closely at all times, you will begin to learn about how deeply light affects your everyday feelings.
I began applying some of these teachings into my own practice while designing student shows (theatre and dance) and experimenting in the lighting laboratory.
In the summer between semesters, I did an apprenticeship at The Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico. Five seasons there proved to be fertile ground for professional learning, allowing me to build relationships with new peers, and to work with world-class designers. I moved to NYC in the summer of 2001 and in the beginning I had to do a lot of different jobs just to pay the rent. I worked as an electrician in small theaters and also as a console programmer. I assisted a very talented lighting designer named Jim Vermeulen for whom I was lucky to work with; he introduced me to a lot of other important people in the New York Theatre community. I was lucky because the very first show I designed in NYC was nominated for a Drama Desk award. It was presented at Soho Rep in 2004 titled FRANKENSTEIN by a fantastically inventive downtown theatre company called The Flying Machine. Their shows were deeply image based, lots of simple, yet stunning lighting effects were used and thus the lighting got a lot of attention on the show. My second big break came in 2005 when I was asked by the great German director Peter Stein to design David Harrower’s BLACKBIRD at The Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. I met Peter because I had worked as an associate for a few years under the master opera lighting designer Duane Schuler who designed many of Peter’s shows. Duane was a very important mentor in my life and gave me many opportunities along the way. He was not available to design the play so Peter felt I was up to the task. BLACKBIRD was a critical success in Edinburgh and thus transferred to London’s West End. But the most recent lucky break came to me from director Jack O’Brien. Jack had seen a few shows I designed at Lincoln Center and one day I got a call from him asking me to design THE NANCE starring Nathan Lane on Broadway. I could not believe my ears. Guess it worked out because it landed me my first Tony Nomination in 2013.
Can you explain a bit about the creative process with regards to lighting for a Broadway show? (From conception to being onstage).
In the early stage of design, I always begin with reading the text and listening to the music prior to having a meeting with a director or other designers. It’s very important to get one’s own impression of the piece before being influenced by others. In some projects I am brought in before a set design has been created; and in others there is already a design in process. Once I see the geography of the environment we are working in, we create a lighting plan that contains lots of flexibility. There will be clear ideas which get implemented in the beginning, but there is always a need to create unknown visual images yet to be discovered.
Regardless of what kind of show I am working on, the real creative process for me begins when we start focusing lights on stage. I never really know what a particular piece is going to look like until I get in the room and start experimenting. While I begin with a system of light that I feel will provide a piece with the right quality and variety of light, I find that there is always a secret visual code waiting to be unlocked. Often I will see strong images revealed through a mistake. For example, I might turn on a light that happens to be pointed down into the corner of the room, not where it’s intended to go, but in this accident it may create a haunting halo around the back edge of the set, or possibly a strong shadow. The result will be something unique and beautiful which in turn leads me down a different path of how to shape that particular environment. It’s a process of discovering clues that lead to the essence of the visual language.
Congrats on your Tony nomination for Dear Evan Hansen. I would imagine this show, in particular, was quite complex as far as designing the lights, considering it involves many projections as well as really making the audience feel what it was like to go inside the mind of Evan. Can you talk a bit about how you came up with these ideas and how you can manipulate lights to create such strong feelings within the world of the musical and influence the audience’s feelings as well?
The lighting, working hand in hand with the music, is a very important, symbiotic relationship for the design. There is a unique scientific connection between frequencies of light and sound that has been explored by scientists and artists throughout history. Basically, I interpret the emotional frequencies of the music in Paul and Pasek’s score into a visual picture. It can not be explained as to how this is done, other than emotional instinct. I manipulate the angle and quality of the light until it most closely reflects the feeling of the musical tones.
One of the strong elements that can be seen in the design is that we use many shades and sizes of intense beams of light from above during special moments in the music. The beams range from piercing tight blue-white pinpoints (like the iconic moment in WAVING THRU A WINDOW when all of the characters create a circle around Evan and are suddenly revealed in a circle of interconnecting beams), to intense thick golden columns of sunlight (FOR FOREVER). The beams sometimes form geometrical intersections, creating a kind of aerial architecture that weaves the interrelationships of the characters together. While these light beams serve as a way to draw the eye directly to the actor, they also serve to connect them to the divine and mysterious, always emanating from above. The result of this multifaceted approach generates an evocative atmosphere that results in an unforgettable visceral audience experience.
What inspires you to pursue specific projects?
For me it’s about working with fellow collaborators that inspire me. It’s less about the type of show or subject matter that interests me; it’s all about the people.
The process of making theatre is collaborative. It’s about sharing ideas with fellow artists and bringing out the best of each others talents in order to tell stories.
Any advice for those wanting to become a lighting designer?
Learn to observe the light of your everyday experiences and how they affect you, watch and listen always, wherever you are. Don’t spend all of your time in the theatre or studying design. Become infinitely curious about life and all things art. Travel the world. Be a passionate lover. Make friends everywhere you go.