Associate lighting designer Vivien Leone has spent many years lending her creative eye to an impressive roster of award-winning productions, including the recently opened Caroline, or Change! on Broadway. We caught up with Leone to find out more about her unique position and what it takes to be such an asset to the professional theatre community.

MSD: What role do you usually play on a production?

VL: I started out as an assistant, a job that varies from designer to designer. It basically involves whatever the designer needs to be able to stay focused on the design. For about the last ten years, I've been more often an associate designer, which is a little bit more an extension of the designer with some more autonomy. I'm essentially there to problem-solve for the designer without having to be told exactly how to solve the problem.

MSD: Do you have different responsibilities, depending on the designer with whom you're working?

VL: I do a lot of shows that come from overseas, so I have to deal with many designers who are not in the country. Take the situation of working on La Boheme with lighting designer Nigel Levings from Australia. Because of the extreme time difference, I tended to do a lot more in pre-production, especially since the director and the set designer were here in New York, and the designer was across the world.

Things happen rapidly, so you need to have clear understanding of what the designer needs but also the autonomy to be able to keep the shop moving forward. Every designer really has different needs, and my job is to facilitate the details so he or she can keep a clear mind on the design. That involves a lot of interaction and coordination of schedules and pre-production, both in the shop and once we're in the theatre.

MSD: What does “paperwork” entail these days, and who generates it and takes care of it all?

VL: Pretty much everything is recorded so it gets into the theatre properly — and then again once it's in the theatre so that it can be maintained — including the conventional lighting rig, the followspots, the moving lights…everything. The point of paperwork is to communicate all this information. This is very useful, especially when you want to distill the design for a touring production.

Starting with a light plot, instrument schedule, and channel hookup, I normally handle all these pre-production issues because it makes me familiar with the show so I can quickly get things accomplished. On Broadway, time is money. Being intimately familiar with certain elements of the design, why things are where they are, and how they interact with the scenery and other physical objects on stage helps to expedite the process.

MSD: How early in the process do you join the team?

VL: When working for designers with whom I have a long-term relationship, I start when they start. In situations where a show is transferring to Broadway from another venue in which I was not involved, I tend to start about the time it hits the shops.

MSD: What are some of the more challenging issues you face?

VL: In general, the biggest challenge is to put yourself behind the eyes of the designer and be able to go in the same direction, right alongside, without falling too far behind so the designer has to spend time catching you up. You also shouldn't over-anticipate or second guess the designer — that's rude and unhelpful. You have to keep things moving and expedite the process — this is very important in what I do. A chain of command exists within this sort of team, and I have to take the information from the designer and pass it on to the assistants, the electrician, the production manager, etc. A lot of the process requires making sure everyone has what they need and delegating that information out to the various team members to make sure things keep flowing.

Technically, the most challenging and interesting situation is any show with a lot of set electric, because that adds another layer of coordination between the lighting designer, director, set designer, scenic shop, etc. La Boheme was very electric-intensive…the whole set was basically a giant light box with very little room for lights. Also, because of the incredible creative energy of director Baz Luhrmann and scenic designer Catherine Martin, the show was constantly evolving, so it was a bit of challenge just keeping up.

MSD: How Have you seen lighting change over the past decade?

VL: The biggest change has occurred with the introduction of moving lights. Shows used to be 600 to 700 lekos, and it was very labor-intensive to light specific moments. When moving lights came along, it allowed us to see how the show evolves on stage and be more spontaneous in molding the lighting around what's happening on stage. It's a lot of fun because we can be more “in the moment.” We don't have to put something on a work list and wait for the next work call to hang the special. Somehow, though, there's also more to keep on track.

MSD: Any advice for aspiring lighting pros?

VL: Part of the thing you have to get used to in this business is the fact that one day, you may have nothing going on, but the next day, you'll have three productions at once. It's helpful if you thrive on the uncertainty of your future. If you need to know what you're doing each and every coming week, you're in the wrong business!

Selected Broadway Credits:

Caroline, or Change

Eugene O'Neil Theatre
Associate Lighting Design
2004 - Present

Little Shop of Horrors

Virginia Theatre
Associate Lighting Design
2003 - Present

The Play What I Wrote

Lyceum Theatre
Assistant Lighting Design
2003 - 2003

La Bohème

Broadway Theatre
Associate Lighting Design
2002 - 2003

Into the Woods

Broadhurst Theatre
Special Effects Assistant
2002

Fosse

Broadhurst Theatre
Associate Lighting Design
1999 - 2001

Sunset Boulevard

Minskoff Theatre
Associate Lighting Design
1994 - 1997

Crazy For You

Shubert Theatre
Assistant Lighting Design
1992 - 1996

The Phantom of the Opera

Majestic Theatre
Assistant to the Lighting Designer
1988 - Present