Anne Militello is president of Vortex Lighting in Los Angeles and head of the graduate lighting department at California Institute of the Arts. She has received numerous awards including lighting designer of the year at LDI, an OBIE award, the Waterbury Award, several Joseph Jefferson awards, and an American Theater Wing nomination. She is also on the faculty of the first-ever Live Design Concert Master Classes at CenterStaging in Los Angeles on December 11 & 12, 2010:
1. How did you get into this wild biz in the first place?
Back in the Middle Ages when I was an art major in a vocational high school in Buffalo, I worked for local concert promoters and the local regional theater doing odd jobs after school. My favorite thing was cutting gel. I had a short stint in college and had the privilege of taking a lighting class with Ken Tabachnick. I left for San Francisco with the idea that I was either going to be in a punk band (yikes!) Or become a designer for touring rock shows. I worked as a roadie for several Bay Area touring houses and also lit bands in many of the punk clubs. I hit a ceiling pretty fast, and told over and over again as a female I could work road crew but not become an LD. Didn’t exist. I went over to the Magic Theater, met playwright Sam Shepard, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize, and decided his type of work was more open to the likes of me, and I made my home in the more progressive and tolerant world of theater. I remember seeing a David Bowie concert that Allen Branton lit and marveled at how theatrical and sophisticated it was. I decided someday, I would come back to the world of music by earning respect as a serious theater artist —I was hoping for a more tolerant future world where I could be treated equally and do what I loved.
Twenty years later, after dedicating myself to the stages of experimental theater and gritty dramas in New York City, I got the call to come back to music. I had forgotten about my dream in those years in the theater, but it all came around, the way I imagined it.
2. How do you approach design for concerts? Theatre? Architecture? Is there am underlying similarity?
I approach it all the same. It starts with a feeling, then a vision—and then, because I am ultimately a collaborator, deep conversation with whomever I am working with.
3. What are your most interesting/challenging concert design experiences?
It’s always a good challenge creatively since I’m not interested in making a run of the mill boring rock show. My challenges come from trying to convince my management and crews to buy into the alternative ideas that the band and me are ultimately psyched about doing. There’s often one curmudgeon that sinks the show because it’s not “easy” or sometimes the runaway lighting director who ruins your design. My excitement comes from creativity and knowing how to put something on stage that will work. My joy is when it does work and the band/artist loves it —my challenge is when management doesn’t want to do anything out of their comfort range and tries to squash a good idea.
4. Teaching/learning: grad school VS on the road?
Depends on what people are looking for. Grad school should allow for the time to explore one’s ideas and grow their creative muscle, but without the practical experience that’s eventually needed. Certain good schools also have the gear to start playing around with programming which is essential.
The road exposes you right away to the realities of the practical process without giving you an hour to be introspective about your art —unless you drink loads of coffee and stay up all night with your rig experimenting and experimenting...!
5. What advice would you give young designers today?
Go to art museums, galleries, theater, and opera—and know your art. Aspire to understand the power that light has in life, in design, and know your medium. Then get to know your tools. Anyone can mess around with lights and get lucky a few times, but to master it takes continuing respect and openness to learning. Make sure you have tolerance and a hard shell if you pursue the commercial end of the business.
6. What will you be discussing at the concert master classes?
I will be talking about how to talk about lighting to highly creative artists/musicians who may have never considered lighting as anything but a minor accessory—how to get them excited and on board with a great idea and how to help make sure that your design gets realized.