My Earliest Days as a Lighting Designer

Over twenty years of lighting I guess I did more than a thousand shows, and only once was I fired outright. It was early in my career, and my company had been asked to provide lighting for a dance recital at the Stanley Theater, Utica’s main performing arts venue (2900 seats, world-renowned interior architecture, union stagehands.) It was the first time I was responsible for every aspect of the lighting on any show: I wrote out the plot, loaded the truck, instructed the crew and ran the board. The customer was a young dance instructor concluding her premier season. Other local dance schools performed at the Stanley, and she had to match them.

It went wrong from the start. Renting the Stanley and paying for sound, lights, and stagehands isn’t inexpensive, although it didn’t seem to occur to the young woman until that very day. She kept urging us to work faster, and she tried to conduct a rehearsal around and amidst our setup, something I’ve never allowed since (it’s unsafe for the performers and it throws the setup into chaos.) Ominously, she kept asking me if I’d be able to “make it look like a nightclub.” I thought at the time she meant bright colors and flashy chases, which I thought I could manage. In retrospect, her dancers and choreography simply weren’t suited to illumination – deep shadows would have helped to obscure the ineptitude on display.

It was during the actual show that a deep philosophical chasm was revealed. I believed it was among my responsibilities to ensure that the audience of moms, dads and grandparents could see and photograph their children onstage. Not only was the studio owner screaming at me over the headset from the moment the curtain went up, her mother was standing behind my left shoulder at the production table threatening to withhold payment unless I got my act together. Looking back, I know that the error was in communication – even now, I remain unwilling to allow three year-olds to perform “I’m a Little Bumblebee” in angsty shadow. I ended up agreeing to cede operation of the lighting board to someone from the sound company (a rock ’n’ roll outfit that actually worked more in nightclubs than in theaters) at intermission, and I settled for half pay.