A YOUNG DESIGNER LEAVES SCHOOL AND BEGINS HIS CAREER

Jason Larcombe and Matthew Richards are part of the current crop of lighting designers graduating from colleges all around the globe. Once it would have been the norm to hone one's lighting design skills on the job; now one often learns the ropes through formal education. It certainly helps when designers of Jennifer Tipton's caliber are dedicated to passing on their experience through the Yale University graduate design program.

This is where Matthew Richards recently graduated from after three years of intensively refining and broadening his lighting design skills. On the other side of the Atlantic, Jason Larcombe has been busy establishing himself as an LD after studying lighting design at Rose Buford College near London. There is no denying that New York-based Richards and London-based Larcombe are living in two of the most famous theatre cities in the world but how do their respective studies and career strategies compare and what is it like trying to carve out a career in these fast-moving and aggressive, cosmopolitan cities?

Instead of having a relaxing vacation celebrating his graduation, Richards was busy designing shows. By summer's end he had worked in his hometown of Ithaca, NY, then on to Vermont, Maine, and Atlanta, GA. After that it was back to New York City for the all-important job of apartment-hunting, a task that appears just as daunting in bustling NYC as it is in popular and crowded London.

CHOOSING A SUBJECT
Before studying at Yale, Richards had a BA in theatre from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and spent several years working as an assistant designer in New York in addition to lighting theatre and dance shows elsewhere. “I always had an idea that I would go back and do graduate study, and after three years I felt I had hit the ceiling in terms of how much further I could go as an assistant LD. It would have been quite easy to continue along the same track but I wanted to investigate my work much more thoroughly, and Yale allowed me the opportunity to do that. The great reputation of Yale and Jennifer Tipton's presence there led me to believe it was the right place to go and it certainly turned out that way.”

With small class sizes in the graduate design program, Yale offered Richards the opportunity to work intensively with other students from the costume and set design track and he found this extremely beneficial. “I felt the organization of the first year was really structured for the set and costume designers and this experience really pushed open my perceptions of design. I learned so much in the first year and it was very intense and a lot of it so new to me. In the second and third years you take the information you've learned and set about trying to incorporate it into your own ethos.”

Richards decided to greet his studies at Yale with an open mind rather than lock horns with the faculty in the manner that some students did. “I took information at face value and absorbed it in the best way I could and there was plenty to learn. Jennifer Tipton was amazing and generous with her time; she would come in all day Monday to teach but also made the effort to see everyone's shows.”

The knowledge that Richards gained at Yale has influenced the kind of LD he is evolving into; he explains that he has left Yale with a different philosophy to the one he arrived with. “My approach to lighting has become more minimalist; I go for less saturated color and aim for a more natural look. I've become more aware of lighting in the world around me and this influences my lighting in the theatre.” A word that Richards uses a lot is collaboration and he is passionate about working with peers who are exciting and exploring projects that offer diversity. Richards has no desire to be known as an LD who is pigeonholed into one genre.

FACING THE FUTURE
When asked where he would like to be in five years Richards replied, “working in New York and in larger regional venues hopefully doing dance, theatre, and opera.” Broadway holds no allure for Richards at this stage of his career; rather, it is the bright lights of New York that inspire him. Despite its toughness, this challenge is undoubtedly part of the attraction. “I believe you have to be very proactive when it comes to securing work. There has never been a time when I haven't been sending out my résumé and seeking out contacts. I've never gotten work as an LD with a cold call to someone but I have gotten work as an assistant this way.” These days Richards sends out fewer résumés and believes that “work leads to more work.” He doesn't have an agent at this early stage of his career but imagines he eventually will.

The question of how much an LD should keep up with technology is always up for debate and in Richards' view it is impossible for an LD to stay fully informed about every technological advancement. “I don't think you can ignore evolvements in technology but you collaborate with professionals who specialize in this side of the business. You do your best to acquire knowledge but lighting boards in particular expand and change so much that you rely on your operator to translate your requests. It is easier when you can give specific keystrokes to the operator but it's not always possible.”

Richards believes that the market is saturated with LDs, adding that the arts are overpopulated with people looking to carve a niche for themselves. But he clearly has the determination and passion to make it on what is perceived as a challenging career path. “I think the way in which lighting designers are perceived is changing. Directors are hiring LDs more specifically now rather than hiring them as part of a package with a set designer or on the recommendation of a set designer and I find this exciting.”

There is no doubt that Richards has a clear grasp of the direction he would like his career to travel in but he is leaving room for unexpected possibilities and in a city like New York the possibilities are endless. “I've been lighting shows since I was 13 years old. The money is woeful at this stage and graduating from Yale doesn't automatically mean you will have an easy time of it, but my attraction to light in its abstract form and collaborating with others make it exciting for me.”

In the second part of this article we'll see how graduate life is treating Jason Larcombe on the other side of the Atlantic in London. Jacqueline Molloy is a UK-based freelance writer with a background in lighting and production management. She can be contacted at jacq@jfmhome.demon.co.uk. Matthew Richards can be contacted at M1Richards@aol.com.