ROBERT PERRY: Lighting Designer Robert Perry began his lighting design career as "that guy." A drummer intent on a career in music, he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. To pay at least part of his way through school, he accepted a work study job at in the school's performance center, where, among other things, he handled many of the lighting duties. Fellow students quickly took note and either recommended him to others or asked him to light their shows. As Perry says, "It was like, `Oh, who's that guy who did the Thursday night show; could we get the guy who did the lights for that?'"
It's an appellation that stuck, when, a year after starting at Berklee, he transferred to Musician's Institute in California. He was again given a financial aid package that included work in the performance center, and he was again known as much for his lighting skills as his musical talent.
It may seem that all signs pointed to graduate school in lighting design (he received his MFA in lighting design from Yale in 1999) and a career in New York City that has already included a Drama Desk nomination (for last year's Atlantic Theatre Company production of The Water Engine). But Perry says he didn't consider a career in lighting for some time: "At Berklee, it was just for the financial aid and a way of getting through college," he says, adding, "It was at Berklee where I started getting interested in it and was like, wow, this is cool. And the fact that people were saying, `Hey, I like that guy's lighting' gave me self-confidence." That guy again.
But first there were four years at North Carolina School of the Arts, where he says he stopped "flying by the seat of my pants and started learning why I made the choices I had made. I looked back (at Berklee and Musician's Institute) and could say, `Oh, that's why I did that.' "
Perry, never one to waste time, ventured to New York City the day he graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts. Settling into a place with his brother in the West Village, Perry took what he describes as "the Back Stage route." (Back Stage is the weekly trade newspaper that lists audition and job notices for actors and technical staff.) "Those jobs," he points out, generally "don't pay a lot. And you're doing all the work and using clip lights to light shows - bare light bulbs if necessary - whatever lights up, you use."
He spent three years lugging his own stock of equipment around from small theatre to small theatre, surviving by working for Pook, Diemont & Ohl in the Bronx, and then the Joseph Papp Public Theatre as an electrician, while he slowly but surely made a number of contacts and spent free time observing other, more established designers work. He describes those days as a "tough route" but a worthwhile one. "I just pushed and pushed and was getting better jobs here and there. I was hooking up with people, which I didn't realize at the time is the thing to do - making connections," he says.
"If you're nice, you do a good job, and you're talented - and you don't cause a lot of trouble," he laughs, "they take you with them." He worked on pieces with such varied groups as Mabou Mines, the fledgling Expanded Arts (now a downtown favorite known for its Shakespeare in the Parking Lot productions), 29th Street Rep, and generally "lots of crazy performance art." And he began to work on student shows and pieces presented at the Atlantic Theatre (one very important connection, since it has led to actual Atlantic-produced shows like The Hothouse, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and the aforementioned The Water Engine). But then, he says, "I sort of peaked-well, I don't know if I peaked or if I burned out." So he applied to Yale, spending three years analyzing, studying, designing, and, for Perry perhaps most importantly, learning how to communicate ideas.
Still, he muses, "There's such a mystery about lighting, even while you're doing it. Truthfully, you can do the plot, you can plan, but," he pauses and with a grin continues, "you don't know what it's going to be until you turn that first light on."
And that, he says, is "my favorite part. You're in the theatre turning on lights, there's the set, we're focusing, and then any nerves you had are gone."
Making his living off of lighting (and paying back student loans), Perry works both in New York and regionally. Recent projects include For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide... at American Place Theatre in New York, Coriolanus at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC, The Chairs at Intiman Theatre in Seattle, and Inexpressible Island at Dallas Theatre Center. Upcoming is The Secret Garden at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, NY, and The Night of the Iguana at Dallas Theatre Center.
And now, far from his Berklee days, he has been given a new moniker, noting that for whatever reason, he has the kind of name that people turn into one long one, as in "robertperry." But whatever he's called, with such an already established reputation, he has certainly come a long way from being just "that guy."