In this column we often reveal the secret lives of lighting designers. When Amy L. Slingerland read Rick Murray's bio in a dance program, she knew he would be a good candidate. In addition to site-specific dance lighting and production management for renowned modern dance companies like Twyla Tharp and Lucinda Childs, Murray spent several years performing with avant-garde troupe Circus Amok. A few years ago, at a career crossroads, he was prepared to give up on lighting design when he won a Bessie Award. These days Murray has put away his juggling clubs and, in addition to lighting design, he teaches part-time at small private high school in New York City.
ALS: How did you get interested in lighting?
RM: After 11th grade I went to a summer program at Bennington College. At that point in my life I was going to be a poet but I also liked acting. For the final day there's performances and one of the teachers needed help setting up lighting. I had never heard of anything like that; I went in and helped and just loved it. The following year I interned at Theatre for the New City [in New York] and worked with Craig Kennedy designing lights. Then I went to college [Wesleyan University in Connecticut], and my first semester I got into the lighting design class, which was only supposed to be for juniors and seniors but I worked my way in.
ALS: What about the circus performing?
RM: I was a closet juggler in high school — completely self-taught. I went through college doing a bit of juggling with other people just for fun. After college somebody told me the technical director at Movement Research, who was Jennifer Miller at the time, was a juggler and that she was having open circus practice on Sundays. So I went to her house and got way better at juggling, acrobatics, knife-throwing, fire-eating, the whole thing. Then she started Circus Amok. Every summer for three weeks we would do 12-16 shows. We would go to a site, say a park in the South Bronx, unload the truck, set it up, do a performance, tear it down, and the next day go to Brooklyn somewhere.
ALS: How did you get into lighting dance?
RM: Growing up in New York, I was fortunate to be surrounded by all kinds of arts. I enjoyed offbeat things. I latched onto alternative spaces and discovered that with dance you have a lot of opportunity to enhance and create space, and I find that to be a wonderful aspect of it.
ALS: What do you teach at the school?
RM: I teach tech theatre and juggling, I help students with writing, and I do core classes like sex ed, believe it or not. In the tech theatre class, there's just so much you can do with 36 dimmers and a really small inventory. I teach them the basics and we work on all the shows, but I also take them on field trips. We did a trip to the Ace Gallery and went to see the designs for the revamping of the World Trade Center. We're starting to work on set design and I thought both were interesting ways to approach use of space.
ALS: How did you get started teaching?
RM: I performed with Circus Amok, I worked production stuff and designed, and one thing was always up against another. I just got tired of it, and got married and got ready to throw in the towel with the design stuff. I decided to try something different.
I loved working with the kids that would come to Circus Amok, and I decided that I would like to teach. I had a friend who had this job; she was leaving to go to graduate school and she offered it to me. I met my wife; she had been dancing with choreographer Wally Cardona. I was subbing for somebody to do the LD work for him, and she got me to design one show for him, a piece called Trance Territories. This was the last show I had on my calendar.
ALS: And you won the Bessie for it.
RM: And I won a Bessie for it! So my wife and I decided we would stay in New York for a few more years and things are picking up. I work almost exclusively in dance and I really enjoy it. I love the stability of my job, I love working with the students, and I'm raising a whole generation of tech recruits. I have a really nice offer from a principal at New York City Ballet who is beginning a choreographic career. I'll be designing two pieces for him this summer.
ALS: What's next for you?
RM: I would like to continue working on interesting projects for a long time. What I would like to be doing is making art forever and do it in a thorough and involved way. That, for me, means having the opportunity to talk, try things, discard things, and make performances. In terms of genre, dance, of course, and I would love to branch into opera. The idea of being able to shift scale onstage during the course of a production seems like a really interesting challenge.
ALS: And continuing in site-specific works?
RM: What I know best is alternative spaces, which is a strange thing to say. My approach to designing a piece involves discussing with the choreographer or director what they're trying to get out of a piece, then going to a rehearsal and see what it really is, and then imagine the space and try to bring it all together. I come up with a concept and then how does it all squeeze together, how does it all become one thing? That's where the problem solving begins. Where do you run the cable, what light do you use, how do you deal when the ceiling is 9' high, and the venue is 5' wide and 300' long? Maybe branching into gallery space performance, working in a larger scale on different projects. I like space and scale and lighting. That's fun.