This summer Duane Schuler will be lighting two operas at the festival in Santa Fe, NM. He recently lit The Royal Family at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and added dramatic lighting to the “town square” at ETC's new headquarters in Middleton, WI. But Schuler is also a principal in Schuler Shook, a firm with two branches: Schuler Shook Theatre Planners and Schuler Shook Lighting Designers, with offices in both Minneapolis and Chicago, as well as a third office that opened in Dallas two years ago. Confusing? Apparently some of their clients thought so.
“Nobody really knows what we do,” admits Schuler. As a result, the firm decided on a research study to help identify where they stand in the marketplace. “We want to carve out a larger niche as both theatre planners and architectural lighting designers. That's the goal of the study,” Schuler adds. “We found we have to make it clear to people that we have two entities that do different jobs, but they go hand in hand.”
In fact, Schuler and Shook both like to do the architectural lighting on projects where they serve as theatre consultants. “We also do architectural lighting on theatres we didn't design,” Schuler adds. “But if we have the opportunity to sell all of our services, we do. We like to have both sides of the project.” So the question they were asking was twofold: how to separate the divisions of the firm, and how to bring them together.
To quell any confusion, the firm also has a new logo and a new website (www.schulershook.com) to help clarify their corporate branding. “The research showed we needed to increase visibility,” says Schuler, who was already working as an opera lighting designer when he ran into Shook at a USITT conference many years ago. “We talked about joining forces,” says Schuler, who lived in Minneapolis at the time, while Shook lived in Chicago, where Schuler spent at least three months each year at the Chicago Lyric Opera.
“We have two floors in Chicago, so there is one floor for each branch of the company, says Schuler, who now lives in New York, just to mix things up a little more. “In Minneapolis, there is one floor and the people work on both sides of the same project. They are more blended.” Schuler Shook provides everything from theatre lighting to rigging, seating, and communications systems. “We do everything backstage except acoustics,” Schuler points out.
Schuler is, in fact, the primary rainmaker for the firm. “My continuing to do lighting design work means I meet a lot of people, and can see what the individual theatres need to do in terms of renovation. Our specifications are specific to each venue. There are no boilerplate specs.” Schuler's design acumen also lets him quickly see what it will cost in time and energy to get work on and off the stage in the most efficient manner.
With an average of 15 operas per year to light, Schuler maintains a busy design schedule. Coming up is Faust at The Metropolitan Opera, Fidelio in Tokyo, Parsifal in Baden Baden, and The Wedding, a new opera in Chicago, as well as Don Giovanni and Simon Boccanegra in Santa Fe, to name a few. “I have to juggle a lot of projects and it all depends on scheduling, but ultimately the design jobs are good for the business.”
Yet principal Bob Shook remains adamant that Schuler Shook does not design production lighting while they do design theatrical lighting systems for performance venues. “The rebranding was designed to reach specific market segments,” he explains. “In Chicago people were tending to condense what we do to theatrical lighting, which is the one service we do not offer as a company although Duane [Schuler] and Todd [Hensley] do that on their own.”
“We are not changing the way we do business, but trying to separate the business services,” Shook adds. “If an architect calls about theatre lighting, we explain we offer a full range of theatre consulting services.” In fact, the firm's Dallas office handles only theatre consulting, but will call in the architectural lighting side of the firm on jobs.
With a total of 33 staff members (20 in Chicago, 11 in Minneapolis, and 2 in Dallas), Schuler and Shook have two additional partners, Michael DiBlasi, who was an original partner when the firm was founded in 1986, and Todd Hensley. Bill Connor and Jim Baney are also principals. “The offices are fairly autonomous in terms of pursuing, designing, and completing projects, yet the partners and principals might work on a project in another city,” says Shook. “We also get together at least once a year to exchange ideas and information.”
In defining the role of a theatre consultant, Shook notes that one must make sure all the members of the design team are listening to each other correctly, from the architect to the end user. “You are a translator, and you have to be a very good listener,” he says. “You also have to start with what the end user wants and not have any preconceived ideas.”
Shook adds, “The most important thing we do is to create the optimum relationship between the viewer and the audience. Equipment is equipment,” he says. “The magic and difficulty is getting that relationship right. It's different in every theatre.” He also notes that people's expectation have changed over the years, with demands for more comfort, wider seats, more legroom, more restrooms, better acoustics, and better sightlines. “But all of those things fight against making a theatre more intimate,” Shook notes.
Theatre consultants? Architectural lighting designers? Schuler Shook is both. “We have to be careful that people understand we are not changing our business, just clarifying what we do to our clients,” adds Shook. “Our new web site says it louder than anything. We tried to make it easy to use as we are easy to use.” But you'll still find Duane Schuler backstage at the opera.