The Off Broadway musical Dreamstuff had a rather short life earlier this season, but it did serve to introduce the work of rising young LD John Lasiter. Actually, introduce may be too strong a term-he's been lighting productions for 10 years. However, Dreamstuff was one of the most visible projects yet for a designer who has been quietly building a career in New York and around the country while assisting some of theatre's top LDs. Not bad for a guy who had started out to be an astrophysicist.
Lasiter, a Southern California native, pursued his goal at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; while there, he switched astrophysics for math. But then, he notes, "I got a work-study job in the theatre," and it was all over for science.
The theatre was on campus and functioned as a road house, bringing in touring music and dance events. Lasiter started out as a janitor, then progressed to pulling the curtain; soon after he was helping to focus lights, "and then I started doing sound," he says. "Another year went by and the technical director quit; I applied for the job and got it."
Lasiter took a year off from school to work as technical director. When informed that he would have to light theatre productions staged by a school club, he went out and got a copy of The Magic of Light by Jean Rosenthal. "The Water Engine was the first play I did," he says, laughing. "I had played around with lights in the theatre and decided that backlight looked the best, so I did a whole show with no frontlight, and that didn't work. I discovered the problems and difficulties of lighting design, totally blind."
The next stop for Lasiter was the University of New Mexico, where he studied lighting design. "New Mexico is really an amazing place for a lighting designer to grow up," says Lasiter. "The atmospherics are amazing."
After graduation, Lasiter enrolled at Rutgers University in New Jersey, for his masters degree in design. "I met [department chair] John Jensen, who's really an amazing person, and had a great conversation and that was it." Speaking of Rutgers, he adds, "It's conservative in the sense that the training is based on analyzing the text," he says. "I found that meshed really well with my philosophy. As a designer you develop a style, but not in the same way that I.M. Pei develops a style. I don't want someone to walk into a theatre and say, 'Oh, John Lasiter did this lighting.' I want to be different every time. Designers should be like chameleons."
Lasiter graduated from Rutgers in 1991, then went to New York City Opera as a Gilbert Hemsley intern. "It was nine months long, 8am to midnight, six days a week," he recalls. "It was pretty intense, but all these people that I later assisted I met there-Peter Kaczorowski, Robert Wierzel, Natasha Katz." The experience also taught him to love opera. He continued his training in the medium at Santa Fe Opera, where he went for two summers as lighting supervisor, working with the late Craig Miller. "He was a pretty big influence, I think," says Lasiter. "I learned from him the temperament of a lighting designer-the best way to collaborate. Sometimes, things are better left unsaid; sometimes you know where it's going to end up but you shouldn't say anything, because you have to take the journey. You can't say, 'No, that light has to be red.' Sometimes you've got to say, 'Okay, let's try white," even though you know it's going to end up being red."
The opera gigs led to work assisting other designers. Besides the LDs mentioned above, he also assisted Andrew Bridge on the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and Paul Gallo on the Broadway production of The Tempest. More recently, he was associate to Wierzel on the Broadway show David Copperfield: Dreams and Nightmares, and assisted Stephen Strawbridge on the opera Marco Polo, a production that opened in Munich, played in Hong Kong, and will transfer to New York City Opera next season.
However, he says about assisting others, "I don't have a passion to do that, although I've learned a lot from it." He has steadily pursued his own career, no matter what else he may have been doing. He has done multiple gigs at Memphis Concert Ballet; Theatreworks in Hartford, CT; Skylight Opera in Milwaukee; and Manhattan School of Music.
For Dreamstuff, the challenge was daunting. The show features a runaway boy in New York who dreams that he is Aladdin of lamp-and-genie fame. Michael Schweikardt's all-white set consisted of platforms and stairways; the burden of conveying a sense of different locations fell to Lasiter, whose cleverly conceived light plot made maximum use of color and of instruments placed in the stage floor, as well as three High End Systems Trackspots¨. "We set it up with a color idea so that when we returned to each location it had the same color scheme," he says. "I wanted it to be fun, big, loud, exotic. We looked at a lot of pictures of Middle Eastern fabrics and color schemes-I really tried to match gel colors to the Middle Eastern color sense."
Next up for the opera-loving LD are Rappacini's Daughter at Manhattan School of Music and Athol Fugard's Valley Song at Theatreworks. Wherever he goes next, other designers should be happy to work with this intensely collaborative artist. "I think lighting has a different responsibility than the other designs," he says, "because we reveal other people's work. If someone does the most beautiful set in the world, and it's not seen, then their work is not revealed. I feel a responsibility to reveal their work in a way that they're happy or comfortable with."