Since 1992, Harry Sangmeister has been programming and operating automated lighting consoles and controlling the way hundreds of (mainly live music) shows appear on the average person's 19" television screen. While his title is not that of TV lighting designer, Sangmeister's background and creative talent make him much more than just a button pusher. He is the only lighting director who routinely runs both a Vari*Lite(R) Artisan(R) and an LSD Icon(R) console during live tapings, and when Vari-Lite was looking for someone to write a manual for an advanced programmers course for TV lighting he was their chosen scribe.
"I'm like a studio musician for the lighting industry," Sangmeister posits. "There is always a designer who has put the initial thoughts and the framework of the project together, but I'm relied on to flesh it out--to expand the design and take it in different directions--in the same way that a studio musician will do with a song."
Sangmeister has been hooked on lighting ever since he wandered into the theatre department's production rehearsals for Candide, when he was a freshman chemical engineering major at the University of Delaware. After graduating with a degree in technical theatre, Sangmeister joined Busch Gardens as a board operator for one of its summer revues--a position he got after his advisor, Peter Vagenas, set up the interview without his knowledge. "I've really been lucky my entire career," Sangmeister says, "because every time I've needed someone to push me or give me a step up, that person has shown up in my life."
Sangmeister also worked at various regional theatres, where he met scenic designer Bob Phillips, who was doing an Off-Broadway show that needed a lighting designer. He put in Sangmeister's name for the job, prompting the LD to move again. His next job was at the Playboy Casino in Atlantic City where Tony Tauber not only hired him, but as the local IATSE president, he also hooked him up with his union card. When a revue arrived at the casino with a Vari*Lite system, Sangmeister got his first taste of automated lighting. "It was 15 VL1(TM) luminaires," Sangmeister says. "And I was trained on the old VL1 console." Curious to learn more about this new technology, the LD went on his first tour with Tangerine Dream. "I really learned what the board could do out there." While on tour with Kansas in 1989, he got a call from Walt Disney World to develop the lighting systems for the Pleasure Island clubs, which included both conventional and automated systems.
Vari-Lite then sent him out with Starlight Express, which made history as the first theatre show to tour with automated lighting. When the tour wound down, Vari-Lite put him in touch with LD Allen Branton, who was looking for somebody to work with on Paul Simon's global tour. When it finally ended, Branton enlisted Sangmeister to work with him in television. That was in 1992. Since then, the associates have created beautiful lighting for hundreds of projects, including Woodstock 2, numerous MTV Unplugged shows, a diverse number of annual award shows (MTV VMAs, Cable Ace, Essence, among othe rs), HBO comedy specials, and live concert shoots such as Garth Brooks in Texas Stadium and Bette Midler: Diva Las Vegas. "To me, Harry shows up on a project as an impact player or a money player in a sports situation," Branton says. "He can not only fill the job description, but he brings a lot of added value to the table. It's not coachable; it's just talent."
"Allen's mentoring me and teaching me the techniques needed for television has taken me to a completely new level," Sangmeister contends. "We've done a lot of things that I never thought I would do, and been involved with a lot of projects that I would never have expected to participate in. I feel very lucky that I enjoy my work so much."
Sangmeister also enjoys working with other designers on occasion. "Working with different people, like Roy Bennett and Peter Morse, is really interesting because every designer has his own style," Sangmeister says. "TV is so fluid; it keeps changing until the tape stops rolling. What keeps that from being a complete nightmare is that some of the crews I've had working with me take all that in stride."
Recently, he worked with theatre LD Howell Binkley on a touring show called Cirque Ingenieux, which is similar to Cirque du Soleil. "I'm not going to give up TV work," the LD says, "but I've always been trying to get back into theatre, because that's where my true love is."
When he isn't behind a control console, Sangmeister can often be found under the ocean, where he recently earned his advanced certified scuba diving certificate. "It's a lot of fun," he says, "and it's a great escape from the stress of our business." While he has no plans to escape the business anytime soon, Sangmeister has hopes that teaching the fundamentals of lighting will figure into his future at some point. "That's why I was so flattered when Vari-Lite asked me to write that syllabus for their advanced programmers for automated lighting for TV," Sangmeister says, "because that's my long-term interest." Any advice for those future students? "Well, I've probably changed the focus of my career six times since getting out of school, and each time, it's been a step forward," Sangmeister says. "Most of those have involved a physical move as well, and it takes some courage to do that. But when an opportunity presents itself, by all means grab it."