"I've made my career by not being a designer and I'm happy about it," says Jeff Harris, lighting supervisor for New York City Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera summer festival. Last season was Harris' sixth at Glimmerglass and his first at New York City Opera, where he began working in the fall of 1996. Both companies share artistic director Paul Kellogg and production director John Conklin, as well as Harris.
"I try to make every place I work as friendly as possible to guest designers," says Harris. His position at New York City Opera allows room for outside talent to work. "John (Conklin) and Paul (Kellogg) wanted to get away from a resident LD," says Harris, who considers himself lucky to work with a roster of designers including Robert Wierzel, Mark McCullough, and Pat Collins, all working at Glimmerglass or New York City Opera this season. "City Opera is an exciting place to be at the moment," says Harris. "This is the first season selected by the new artistic staff, and they have really brought a new vision into the company."
Harris also instituted some new vision of his own by redesigning the repertory lighting plot that New York City Opera uses at the New York State Theatre, the Lincoln Center venue it shares with New York City Ballet. "They replaced the lights over the years but never rearranged them," he points out. "This season they gave me their okay to redo the system." Harris' changes include providing the opportunity for more backlight with a dozen 5k fresnels (rented from Production Arts for the season) and sidelight, as well as adding 80 Wybron color scrollers. His goal was to add flexibility to the repertory plot, although older productions that return now need to be readdressed by the designers.
"I spoke to as many designers as possible before making the changes and got as much input and as many opinions as possible about what a basic rep plot should be," says Harris. The basic rig contains approximately 350 ETC Source Four ellipsoidals, a mix of Kliegl, LMI, and ETC dimmers, and two ETC Obsession consoles. Harris removed a dozen automated luminaires that had been in the opera house. "The schedule doesn't allow for programming them," he notes. "We might add some in a few years or rent them for a specific show."
In a typical 12-hour day, he might see three different sets onstage at New York City Opera: one from the night before, one for the afternoon rehearsal, and one for the evening's performance. Before lunch, the crew might focus 70 to 100 lights in a four-hour period, then repeat the exercise in the afternoon. "The whole process starts again yet in less time," says Harris, attributing the rapid turnover to the talents of his Local 1 crew. "They make my job possible." With a staff of two assistants, Harris focuses half the shows; his assistants share the other half.
The 34-year-old Harris, who is from West Palm Beach, FL, studied lighting at the North Carolina School of the Arts after acting in a play in junior college and noticing that the lights were wrong. "I began thinking maybe I was doing the wrong thing," he says. He first worked as an assistant electrician at Hartford Stage Company in 1988-89 and then as master electrician at Playmaker's Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, NC, until 1991. He then moved to Center Stage in Baltimore where he remained until 1995 at which time he left to freelance for a year, touring with the Alvin Ailey dance company and serving as master electrician for several shows at the Public Theatre.
"After four seasons at Center Stage, New York was the logical next step," he says. "But it was there that I learnedthe long-range planning aspects of a regional theatre, and it was rewarding to work with so many good designers. That's where I met many of the designers I'm working with now." In working with the outside talent at New York City Opera, Harris finds that "the hardest part is having to say no, and that I can't give them what they want due to financial or time constraints. We look for other creative alternatives," he says.
As productions flow from Glimmerglass to New York City Opera, Harris is there to help the lighting process. "I take part in the pre-planning and encourage designers to work within the means of the company, yet give them the most flexibility we can afford within the rolling rep time frame," he says. If a production at Glimmerglass is headed to the city, documentation is of utmost importance. "It's a huge job, but you have to make sure everything is extremely clear," says Harris. "You can't just leave it to someone's opinion."
This spring, Harris will relight New York City Opera's production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann (original lighting by Jeff Davis) but is still not tempted to switch over to designing. "Many designers are dear friends and I'd hate to give up working with them," he says. "I love the supervising side of it. But maybe designing one show a year would be nice."