There are few lighting designers who need no introduction. Brian MacDevitt is one of them. With two Tonys under his belt, the LD has three shows currently playing on Broadway — Fiddler on the Roof, Sweet Charity, and The Color Purple. Aside from his design life, MacDevitt is also one of the most popular speakers at the BLMC each year. Live Design managing editor Mark A. Newman caught up with MacDevitt for a chat via cell phone as the LD drove into Manhattan for yet another tech.
LD: Where do you find inspiration?
BM: I try to draw most stuff from outside of the theatre, and I try to get students to think the same way. I get inspired by anything: music, visual arts, music, poetry, even some text. Nature is one of my number one inspirations. I just keep my eyes open and look at the natural world. My BLMC lecture is all about is trying to find other visual forms of inspiration as a way to communicate with directors but also as a way to inspire you to get new ideas. I feel like you can get locked in the theatre and just keep drawing from theatre knowledge and theatre history. To look for inspiration outside the theatre will make our work richer and the theatre's work richer.
LD: Give an example of your inspiration for The Color Purple.
BM: The whole idea behind The Color Purple is nature and God. If you open your eyes and look around you and see what's inherently beautiful, that translates to the beauty inside of you. I know it sounds cliché, but it's something I do believe in. I think we present beauty pretty much throughout the show, with a few exceptions. We were presented with a set that was inherently beautiful [by John Lee Beatty] in work light, and then we had these gorgeous layers of drops where we do this amazing cloud work. Guys on the crew asked, “Who did the projections?” because it looked very naturalistic. The sky is always beautiful in the show; it's a series of layers of templates in moving or static lights that change color, and we had the luxury of putting moving lights 15' upstage on an on RP. So we could backlight a scrim, sidelight a scrim, and then frontlight a scrim, so you have all these different layers. It gives the sky depth. You can see clouds in the stratosphere and clouds closer, and it gives the feeling of infinite space.
LD: How does your creative approach change?
BM: After a while, you have a routine of how to go about a certain style of dance or scene or musical number, but I try to stay as open as I can. Like Groucho Marx used to say, “I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while!” How do you get inspired if all you're doing is schlepping to and from the theatre?
LD: Is there any piece of technology that's come out in the last couple of years that has really impressed you?
BM: I'm a huge fan of the VARI*LITE VL3000™ series. I just think the color temperature and quality of the light is great. And now there's a quiet and shutter-able version. You can do some naturalistic looks on them. I could never get the color temperature to simulate sunlight [on other moving fixtures] as you can with those. I mix them with [Martin] MAC [Performances] in a rig because I like the effect you can get. [In The Color Purple] I use moving clouds to show time passing almost like time-lapse photography. LEDs are the new thing. The jury is still out. I have a bunch on The Wedding Singer, a lot of [Color Kinetics] ColorBlast® and ColorBlaze® fixtures. We'll see what becomes of them.
LD: How important is collaboration?
BM: I think it's of the utmost importance. We're not in a field where any one part of the show can live on its own without the others, especially lighting. We get credited for lighting, when what we really do is just edit and reflect what's naturally there. A beautiful stage look is not on a bare stage. It's a combination of all the ingredients of scenery, costumes, and lighting to create the place for the actor. I really don't like people who dictate. As a young designer, a director will tell you exactly what to do: “oh no, no…a little brighter, a little dimmer.” That's no fun. I have to believe that — for myself, my sanity, and livelihood — it's much richer to collaborate than to have it dictated. The more cross-pollination you have, the healthier the art form is going to be. I would rather recreate my own personal dream than someone else's.
WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT BRIAN MACDEVITT:
- In 1980, his first summer in New York, he had a fruit stand on Fifth Avenue that he shared with an actress. It helped him subsidize his lighting career.
- He got rejected from SUNY-Purchase the first time he applied. “If you know what it is you want to do, don't let something like that stop you,” he says. “It was a big deal then, but it's become less and less important.”