For most of us, getting braces on one's teeth is not exactly a life-changing experience, it's just one of those things to get through. Lighting designer Michael Gilliam feels otherwise. Now 38 and working in New York and regional theatre, he might not be an LD at all if he hadn't had to get braces. Gilliam was 20-something, living in LA and doing the struggling-actor thing, when a casting agent informed him of the reason he wasn't getting any acting gigs: his crooked bottom teeth. Not wanting to lose all connection with the theatrical world during the three years he had braces, he began to take on technical work. "And," he points out, "by the time the braces were off, I was making a living through lighting design."
One of the events during the braces-wearing period involved a show titled Berlin to Broadway, which a group of his friends had previously put up in Chicago. Many of those involved eventually relocated to Los Angeles, and, as Gilliam portrays it, they "woke up one day and said, 'We're all in LA, why don't we do a show here?' So they asked me to be the stage manager, and I said, 'No way, I'm not going to be tied down to a show every night for no money.' " But he was willing to do the lighting, though he hadn't actually worked with lighting since his community theatre days as a teenager in Indianapolis.
A big hit in 1986, the show ran for over a year, took home a few awards, and led to more lighting offers for Gilliam: "People just kept seeing that show, and they kept asking me to do things. Since I had braces on my teeth, I said, 'Sure!' "
As for his forsaken acting career, Gilliam will always have his post-braces appearances on a short-lived show, The Judge, where he played a paramedic, his brother's real-life profession. In the everybody's-a-critic category, Gilliam's own mother kidded her son about his performance. He laughs as he recalls her comment that his brother doesn't get "quite so emotional" when he picks people up.
He prefers the encouragement and tributes his lighting designs have given him: a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award, seven Drama-Logue Awards, and one Ovation, plus nominations for awards like the Barrymore in Philadelphia, Denver Critics Circle, and the Jefferson in Chicago. But the greatest honor he received was from a writer who, after seeing Gilliam's design for his musical, remarked, "Michael, you made the singers sound better than they are." Says Gilliam, "I thought that was pretty amazing."
Seven years ago, Gilliam settled in New York City, though he still leaves his adopted city to go off and work in regional spaces from Arena Stage (Guys and Dolls, Oak and Ivy) to the Arizona Theatre Company (The Mystery of Irma Vep) to the Pasadena Playhouse (The Presentment, Play On!) to the Mark Taper Forum (Skylight, Dealer's Choice). His most recent shows include Oliver! at Deaf West Theatre in LA, directed by Jeff Calhoun, Blue at Arena Stage, directed by Sheldon Epps, and The People vs. Mona at Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Paul Lazarus.
Dedicated, talented, and determined to enjoy the process, Gilliam tries to schedule his shows so that he can stay through opening: "Let's face it, in theatre we are not making a lot of money, so I made the commitment to enjoy the process, and if I overbook myself I'm not going to enjoy it. I want to watch it come to completion."
As a matter of fact, Gilliam spent all of six weeks, none consecutively, in New York City last year. It gets, he admits, "a little intense," and he wouldn't mind taking on some more New York work over the coming years.
Asked why he got involved in lighting design over other areas, he replies with one word: "Magic. I remember going to children's theatre as a kid. My sister wa s involved in the Indianapolis Junior Civic Theatre, where I took acting classes. I saw her in a children's theatre piece, and there was a gobo stained glass window. I just went wild, like, where is that coming from? How is that happening? You could have a great set or great costumes and you could screw it up with the lighting, because the lighting really pulls it together if you do it right, and I love that."
As for the pressures of being such an on-the-go, juggling-many-projects-at-once LD, Gilliam says, "If you're going to have a sane life, and you go from tech week to tech week, you have to learn how to just roll, because you're going to be miserable if you let the pressure get to you. One of the things I say is, I am going to enjoy this or I'm not going to do it."
Not having attended school for lighting design, Gilliam feels it has forced him to work even harder: "I am doubly prepared." As for advantages, he says, "In some ways not going to college has made me more flexible. No one ever told me how things were supposed to be done so I have not tried to niche myself."
If Gilliam seems to have accomplished things beyond his years, others have noticed: Imagine his surprise at being awarded the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle's Lifetime Achievement Award this past year: "It is kind of a weird thing, at 38, to win the Lifetime Achievement Award." But don't expect him to sit in a rocking chair enjoying the scenery anytime soon. As he points out, "On the award it says 'career achievement.' I prefer that. They can't expect me to retire just yet!"