In Grad School, I found myself sitting in a room with 5 other first year MFA students (all of whom had a much stronger arts background than this stiff engineer) feeling very insecure. In walked a madman with wild grey hair, huge bushy eyebrows, and a glorious English accent - Dr. David Nancarrow. His enthusiasm, his seemingly random teaching style, and his his unorthodox way of approaching lighting had me bewitched. I still remember one of the first commandments he gave to us. "I want to see you climb out as far onto that limb as you can, then turn around and start cutting through the branch just to see what happens." My poor little engineer trained brain was screaming "I know what will happen, I'll fall down and die!!" But I didn't die. Oh, we all fell occasionally, of course we did. That's what school should encourage. But Dr. Nancarrow was always there to pick me up, dust me off, and send me out onto another branch. He taught me how to dissect a work from the perspective of the playwright, the composer, the choreographer, and not just the designer. What was the essence of the piece, not just the stage directions, the setting, the dialogue, the steps. Why would these characters do these particular things, say those particular words, move that particular way, at that particular time. To him, a lighting designer was a CRAFTSMAN first - there to service and support the text and the director's vision of that text - but our ART came in how we approached the material. It was not which lights we turned on when. Ultimately, what he taught was the hardest lesson of all - how to see the light before an actor walked through it, before the dancer jumped into it. He taught me to know what was there, and to know why I put it there. I learned that I had put it there because that is what was right for that moment. I was no longer afraid if it wasn't what everyone else did.
Start cutting, baby, and see what happens.
A little bit of this, a spoonful of that...
During my senior year in High School, I was sure that I wanted to pursue a career in Theatre. Apparently however, that wasn't a "real job" - an old argument which I'm sure many an artist has heard - so instead I went to college and studied Engineering and Computer Programming. It was fun and taught me to look at the world in a very specific, systematic way. And yet, I was always felt the pull of theatre. I still remember "the dinner" with my parents during my final year of university. I told them I wanted to go to graduate school and pursue my passion. I wanted to become a Lighting Designer. I promised them that I would finish my degree in Civil Engineering, but that I felt this was something I needed to do before going to my fallback job of writing code and designing sewage treatment plants. My parents graciously finished the dinner (in what I'm now sure was a state of complete panic), and to their credit did not try to dissuade me. Instead, they supported my need to at least try for my dream.
Yet as so often happens, the realities of life in theatre hit home - specifically money, or the lack thereof. However, I got an opportunity to work on a TV Movie. Dolly Parton was making a film in Austin, and the Production Designer came to the graduate school. He asked if anyone wanted to design the lights for the "concert" sections of the movie. Hearing that it paid, I jumped at the chance. I got onto set and watched as the Director of Photography lit the scenes leading up to my part. Here was lighting design, but with even more technical requirements (because of the cameras, film, lower contrast / exposure ratios, etc.) and it paid! My art brain and my engineering brain had a quick meeting, and I was off on a new career in film. Cut to life in Los Angeles, working my way up from Camera Assistant to Cinematographer. A decade and a half later however, the grind of film production had gotten to me.
The Siren call of Theatre was heard again.
My then 5 year old son wanted to be a dancer. After finding a great dance school in L.A., I took him to his first Recital rehearsal. You know that smell that every backstage has -- a mix of dust and sweat and wood and magic? It was there, and it felt like home. I offered my services to the studio, and they strangely enough welcomed me into the family. I was back where I belonged after a decade plus of absence - lighting a dance show onstage.
My approach to design is a bit different from some others. I still see myself as that craftsman. I am here to service the needs of the project and not my ego. I, of course, have my opinions, but I love the give and take of production and collaboration. Just beware - I will ask you some strange questions. What does this dance taste like? What does the song smell like? What color is this monologue? The lights are just tools, and the set is just an extension of the text, the characters. The ART is in the approach and in the things we build together.