Oh wow, I really drifted into it. I had learned basic carpentry, how to hang a light, etc in high school after a fencing accident (yes, a fencing accident) took me out of sports for a while, so when I got to college I was able to do crew work after class. Yale doesn’t have much of a design program at the undergraduate level, so once people saw that I knew how to hang a light, they started asking me to light their shows. That’s all it took! The first show I did was Big Love, by Charles Mee, and I had no idea what I was doing. I think I copied a plot that someone else had hung in the same space, and after that I just kind of made it up. I’m sure it looked terrible! At the time we all thought it looked great, we didn’t know any better. I kind of bopped around like that for a while, and then summer after my freshman year of college I went to Williamstown and that sorted me out a bit.
The good thing about that program was that the department didn’t assign anyone to shows, so you could do as many as you wanted as long as you could make the schedule work. And the school would give money to pretty much anyone who wanted to do a show, so there was always a lot going on. After I decided I was going to be a lighting designer, I just did as much as I could. I had lit 22 shows by the time I graduated—I remember that number because I took one more show at the very end so I could tell everyone I was 22 and had done 22 shows. Dumb. But working so much in school was great—I learned a whole lot, and it gave me room to make some really boneheaded mistakes in a place where no one was really going to see them. I think more undergraduate programs should work that way.
What brought you to New York City?
To be honest, it didn’t really occur to me that there were other options. Almost every designer I had ever met lived in the city, so I figured that was what people did. I moved to New York two weeks after graduating college, got a job as an SAT tutor to pay the bills (things I am bad at: tutoring) and started cranking out shows. Our grads don’t tend to work in theater, and we certainly don’t graduate designers, so I didn’t know many people and didn’t really know how to find work. Playbill.com and Backstage Jobs were my best friends for a while, and I was actually able to get a lot of jobs that way. I would just say yes to everything I was offered and Tetris out the scheduling after the fact. Met a lot of great people, some not so great—got very good at telling the difference. I did that for maybe a year, a year and a half—all tiny, tiny shows. Then I started getting more work as an assistant and that was the best thing for me. There were a lot of holes in my education at 22 or 23, and a lot of ways in which my work was still pretty sloppy. It was either go to grad school or start assisting, and I picked the one that let me stay in the city and keep working.
What influences you as a designer? Are there any artists, musicians, industry professionals, or other resources that shape your personal aesthetic?
Oh god. See, this is a stressful question because I know I’m going to leave a lot of people out and kick myself about it. So much of lighting is storytelling, and I find that lately I’ve been most inspired by people who are telling really interesting and necessary stories—Liz Swados and Erin Courtney, of course (NOMAD PRIDE), Annie Baker, Anne Washburn, Lynn Nottage, Clare Barron, Kim Davies, Martyna Majok, Bess Wohl, Jaclyn Backhaus, Melisa Annis—to name a few. And many many more.
Aesthetically—I’ve always loved Gregory Crewdson. He’s a photographer, and what he does with light is really incredible—dramatic and theatrical in a really lovely way.
And of course a shout out to all the designers I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the last eight years—they are all kings and queens.
Tell me about your creative process. What do you look for in a first reading of a script? The second read?
First read for sense, second read to get a sense of the big picture, what the world of the show might look like, etc. Third read is when I usually start getting more specific. Then I always have a horrible couple of days (which I put off as long as possible) where I actually figure out what I can realistically accomplish given available resources, and which of my ideas aren’t going to make it in.
How do you approach an indie show with limited time, labor and budget? Do you have any special techniques for maximizing artistic expression?
You can do a whole lot with a whole little if the show is right and you’re paying attention. SMOKE, which I did at the Flea, had around 20 units (including three practicals). But it was all one location, all in real time, so we were able to keep the focus pretty loose and maximize what we had. If it had a million locations it would have been a lot harder, and to be honest, I might not have taken it. I try not to take shows if I’m not sure I can make them look good.
In terms of time, that’s where the “paying attention” part comes in. Try not to waste anything. Make sure you’re really clear on what the director wants, and she’s clear on what you can do with the resources you have. Don’t get too precious about an idea if it’s not working. And always, always do the drawings, and do them right—it will save you a lot of time in the space if you have things right on paper.
Is there anything the indie theatre community can do to make things easier for theatre designers? Anything you’d love to ask of producers, production managers, or artistic directors? Anything you’d like to ask of other designers?
I feel like no one ever wants to talk about money, but more money. I love my job, but it’s a job, not a hobby, and I need to be able to keep the lights on in my apartment at the end of the month. It makes me sad when I’m offered amazing shows that I literally can’t afford to take! If you can’t raise rates, at least understand that I can’t always make myself fully available for a $300 fee, and that sometimes I’m going to have to prioritize paid work over a design meeting for a show that’s months away. Luckily I’ve been working with great people over the last few years who fully get it, and it’s been all fun times.
Also, budget for labor—you’d be surprised at how many people forget to do this and end up scrambling.