CUT TO: The private dining room of a fashionable restaurant in the heart of Chinatown, downtown Los Angeles. A waiter enters with several plates of steaming noodles and rice as a small group of lighting designers — Karl Haas, Geoff Korf, Peter Maradudin, Anne Militello, Trevor Norton, and Tom Ruzika — take seats around the table, shaking hands and swapping stories. A still photographer dances around the perimeter of the room as the camera slowly zooms in on each speaker, in turn, starting with the moderator (and fellow lighting designer) Ted Ferreira.
TED FERREIRA: Our goal here is to talk frankly about some of the challenges that we face today in designing lighting professionally for local and regional theatre, discuss business practices, design education, equipment, and any other topics that might be of interest. Since many of you are based on the West Coast, I'd like to start by asking everyone what's different, if anything, about designing lighting for theatre on this side of the country, say from New York or in other parts of the country? And has this changed over the past decade?
KARL HAAS: I think the community on the East Coast is a lot tighter. The contacts you make on the East Coast seem to generate a lot more work, in that the community is a lot more tightly knit — they're closer together. Here, we're more spread out — you can easily work with someone who you may never work with again. On the East Coast, the community seems focused on the journey of being in theatre, but I think the community out west frequently has other things in mind.
PETER MARADUDIN: Like trying to figure out how to afford doing theatre. (Laughter). I think one thing that has changed is that the electricians I worked with in the East were all theatre electricians, and out here they often were interested in things other than theatre. They were rock-and-roll stagehands, looking to move on to working in the film industry or something like that. Now everyone's all over the place. I am finding that stepping from one theatre to the next is getting easier and easier all the time — it used to be a little bit of a culture shock.
TF: Have there been changes in the way that regional theatre productions are being financed and produced and is that affecting the way designers such as yourselves are getting hired?
PM: Well, there certainly is much more work coming out of regional theatre going to Broadway; that's the farm system now. There are those regional theatres that want to play the Broadway development game, and to do that, most of those design teams are packaged out of New York. Producers, if they're enhancing the production in the regional theatre, are going to say, ‘We want these specific designers.’
TREVOR NORTON: And even if it doesn't go commercial, I think there are a large number of shows, with the current economics of regional theatre that are just touring. And that's just less work overall for designers, because the same team is just recreating that show, which now does, whatever, four or five regional theatres instead of new work being done in those theatres. As a result, the slots are now filled with a show that's already been designed.
TF: Has United Scenic Artists (USA) made an impact on designers working in these areas of the business?
PM: I'll go on record as saying that USA has no impact on any of us at all. They have done nothing to help the designers in the regional theatre.
KH: They're working on it, I think.
PM: I would like for them to show me how they made my life as a lighting designer in regional theatre better.
TF: Have they made it harder?
TF: Are they New York — centric?
PM: Very New York — centric.
KH: Yes, absolutely.
GEOFF KORF: It's not a local union, not in that sense of the word. I understand why there is the notion that it's the national union, because of the way we freelance and move around to other theatres, but it doesn't really represent a designer who lives in Los Angeles or San Francisco in relationship to theatres in that community.
PM: I don't feel they understand what a regional theatre lighting designer actually has to do to earn a living wage.
TF: Does a lighting design student today need then to go to New York after graduating? As many of you are also teaching, what advice would you offer?
ANNE MILITELLO: I've had people go to New York, and have a great time; they've assisted lots of people, and now they're on their way. There's just not a lot of assistant opportunities that pay in LA for theatre.
GF: I think it is very much a personal decision. The best you can do in mentoring someone in that situation is talk about what it might be like in New York and what it might be like here and what kinds of things you would recommend that they look for. Then you let them make that decision.
KH: I have strong feelings about that subject. I've talked to a lot of young designers who are starting out in the business and few people here on the West Coast are willing to starve for it. Nobody here. I mean, there's money to be made here on the West Coast, and everybody who comes out of a graduate program, or even an undergraduate program, expects to be paid for it as soon as they start working.
PM: They're out of their minds. (Laughter). In the theatre, they're out of their minds, I mean.
GK: I'm a little uncomfortable with the polarization of East Coast and West Coast, because I think it has more to do with the individual students. I mean, at Cal Arts, we have a number of students who fall into what you're talking about, who are trying to figure out what kind of job they can make money at when they get out of school. But we also have students who understand the long haul.
AM: One interesting thing is that students coming out of school now have the opportunity here in Southern California that they don't get to have anyplace else because there is so much Equity Waiver theatre here.
TN: Personally, one thing I love about West Coast schools, having gone to an East Coast school and then moved to a West Coast school, is that the opportunities out here are more varied. I don't think you're selling out if you go into industrials or anything like that. It's not necessarily just for the money — that may be where you want to go. I think the emphasis on the East Coast is still not to do that, which means there are people who can graduate unhappy.
TOM RUZIKA: I hardly ever see any unhappy post-graduate grad students. They are all happy and doing what they want to do. I haven't seen anybody who's depressed or suicidal, jumping off buildings because they were part of to large a herd graduating.
TF: Well, maybe in New York. (Laughter)
TR: It looks to me like everybody's happy. It's basically the middle-aged people who are getting burned out and moving on.
GK: If they can stay in Los Angeles, and if they can find a way to make a living that isn't dependent on any theatre, they can actually design.
TF: There's not that much competition.
AM: When I went to New York, back in the Dark Ages, I could do that same thing there because there was so much theatre and not that many designers yet. I could just go to the theatre and not care about how much I was being paid. And a lot of times I tell people here, go out to the Actors Gang and say, ‘I want to work, I don't care about money right now.’ In an odd way, I think there's just some opportunities here that there aren't in New York for raw design. It's not the disciplined Broadway route, but to get a little bit of our creative stuff out I think there's more opportunity now.
TR: Most of the time I find they know what they want, and they will just ask for your support to open some doors if you can. If a student wants to do regional theatre, they will do it.
PM: But then the path is really clear. They'll probably have to spend a chunk of time in New York. They will have to develop those relationships with those directors and those set designers who get them the work. And if they're not interested in New York, then I tell them that they need to do an internship at a regional theatre instead. They want to be in a place where they're going to encounter other designers coming through, like Seattle Rep or the Old Globe, because our work is all relationship-based, ultimately, and it is about mentoring. They need to find someone who will mentor them further.
KH: Yes, I think our craft is still an Old World craft that should be apprenticed. The information is handed down, or learned from being with working professionals, and there's no question that it seems to be concentrated more so in New York than out here.
TN: I think it should be that way, yes, but I don't think it is any more, because of the sort of explosion of the graduate school route instead.
TR: Now graduate school is the mentoring system, you mean?
TN: Exactly, but it doesn't really work in the same way, because of the quantity of students going through it. You can't really have a mentoring system when you're talking about the number of design students graduating each year.
TF: Are we graduating too many students into this business?
KH: Yes, we should fail a lot more.
PM: I agree, I think we should fail a lot more.
KH: We should encourage them to go into law. (Laughter).
GK: I think I just lost my job.
TR: We're not graduating too many, because the students are doing what they want to do, they're exploring their talents and everyone who comes out will rise to their level. All you're doing is giving students an opportunity to grow and develop; you're not really training them to be lighting designers.
AM: My experience with students is that you can tell which ones really want to do theatre, and the others who get all excited about other possibilities are probably going to do other things. But when you've got those diehards who really want to do theatre, you can tell they'll stick with it.
Oooh look, free food! (Laughter).
TF: All right, what about the business of working with the rest of the design team? How has that changed over the last 10 years, given the development of the Internet, fax machines, and cellular phones, for example?
PM: It's fantastic. Nowadays it's the rare scenic designer that I work with who doesn't take digital photos of the model, email them, and let me download and print it out in my studio. Federal Express must be losing a fortune on these designers because we're always emailing files back and forth.
GK: I'm now working on a festival of 20 different shows in which for the first time everybody actually has an email account; usually, at least one or two people don't. It's pretty great that we can do all of our communication, our memos, and things over the net.
TN: I do have to admit if the choice is that versus FedEx, then of course email and all that is great. But, I think that it encourages us getting together even less than perhaps we already did. In some ways it is so easy to communicate this way now, but I think there is nothing like being face to face with each other. I've done several shows recently where I've never met the other designers until we're in tech, which is weird. That's not right.
TF: Norm Schwab considers an ideal future to be where he could mount a camera to the tech table.
PM: He's got a WYSIWYG studio, where he does all of his programming beforehand. It's kind of fantastic.
PM: But it's different for theatre than for rock and roll. Because I've done WYSIWYG for rock and roll, and could never do it for theatre.
TF: Forget about the technical capabilities, what does it do to the art?
PM: One thing it does do is that, even though you have these weird virtual relationships, it has extended my collaborative base. I am now collaborating with people I probably wouldn't have collaborated with before. People are now more willing to hire me for an East Coast gig even though I am in San Francisco, because these other things have broken down the barriers.
TN: I agree that it may be good for us, but I'm saying that maybe it is not good for the art.
PM: Even then, I would argue that the economics of doing theatre in this country anyway force you to have to accept that.
TN: We're all onto the next job and such, you mean.
PM: Exactly, and so it doesn't matter if it's face to face or not face to face anymore.
AM: I agree that it's always a rush-rush-rush situation, but when you look at it from an economical standpoint, the theatres are not necessarily the bad guys either, because they've got to be able to afford to keep alive. We're all in this together, and even though it's not always what we all want, we're just trying to maintain the art form, I think.
TF: Do you feel that there are other things still to be done that can improve our day-to-day practices?
TN: Theatres are just barely now getting CAD drawings and stuff like that out to us. In the last year even, finally, some are actually making CAD drawings available that you can have, instead of people redrawing them in CAD for the umpteenth time.
GK: Just getting some of that stuff, even when it's not on the Internet, should be easier because you can email it. You shouldn't have to wait two days for the mail to get there. And of course, it would be nice if we were using all the same CAD program. (Laughter).
TF: You won't find that question on my list of topics, I assure you. (More laughter).
Are there any new products out there that you've found really interesting — consoles, software, fixtures, anything that merits special attention?
AM: Indexing gobo rotators, right on! And the Great American Film/FX. Not bad, either.
TF: For theatre applications, theme parks, or what?
KH: Theatre only.
AM: Theatre and live shows. I mean, everything not permanent. It's good stuff.
TN: I agree, because they're effects that you can do a lot of different things with, affordably. There's a lot of other stuff out there that I, at least, would not get to use regionally because the budget isn't usually there for it.
TF: How about automated lighting? Excluding Broadway, are they working their way into regional and local theatre?
PM: Very, very slowly…
TF: Because of demand or price or…?
PM: Price, plus maintenance issues.
AM: And programming time, especially.
PM: Yes, that too. Theatres are not giving you any more time to do technical rehearsals than they ever did.
AM: Even if they say, ‘We want moving lights,’ I tell them, ‘Let's block two more days of tech if this is what you want.’ And they don't do it, and then you're yelled at and fired.
KH: And never work there again in your life.
AM: We won't go there. (Laughter).
GK: I agree with the scheduling problem, but I am finding it much more possible now than it used to be to have a few moving lights in a show. I'm not talking about shows like large musicals where moving lights are the centerpiece, but rather certain special effects and things that were not feasible 10 years ago. Now I think it is feasible for a lot of reasons: one, because theatrical consoles are more able to integrate them; two, they're cheaper; and three, they have more features that will work for theatre, like CMY mixing, which is vastly more flexible than the 11 very saturated colors you used to get.
TF: What about the use of automated lighting in the educational environment?
KH: I feel that schools are somewhat doing a disservice at times, teaching and training that emphasizes moving lights and high-end equipment. How many students do we see who are comfortable designing a show with 400 fixtures and two dozen moving lights, only to say ‘I can't do that’ when they are told you have 12 dimmers and a dozen fresnels? That can be a real disservice.
TR: But it gives the students more ability to explore the art of light. It's not saying that's what you're going to get when you get out of school; it's letting the students explore the art of light and have fun being creative with light. In working with automated lights, you're getting deeper into the human soul and into what light can do. You're orchestrating it, you're choreographing it, you're moving it with the human soul and spirit; that's why the students should be working with them, because they can get deeper into their soul and explore what light is all about.
AM: Wow, this is getting really good. Realistically, though, a very narrow percentage of students are going to come out and be successful theatre designers. The rest who are interested in light are going to do entertainment, or architecture, theme parks, television, whatever, and all of those other areas need that technology training, too.
GK: The issue for me from an education point of view is about the timing and prioritization of that training. I think there is great potential with the automation to get distracted from the soul of the piece. I had a student who designed a piece completely differently because of what he could and could not do with the technology. It wasn't about him having a vision or a goal or about the true soul of the piece, it was about, ‘Oh this is cool and I can do this or that, but I don't really know how to do what's in my head, so I am going to give that up.’ And I think that is a danger.
TN: I'm actually having a déjà vu, because this feels like the same discussion we used to have in school about computer boards. You know, the evil of computer boards in educational theatre, because if you don't use a manual board, you're not able to ‘feel’ the fades and so on…
KH: I still agree with that ! (Laughter). Why do I feel like I'm the oldest at the table?
TR: Sorry, Karl, but we still had saltwater dimmers when I started in this business. (More laughter).
TF: Are there products that are still missing, or things manufacturers haven't done that you'd like to have now?
AM: I'm going to speak out on this one. If I were on a game show, I'd probably be slamming the button right now! I love the brightness of moving lights, I just wish that the lamps were a little warmer, because it's really hard to get that nice warm light and the brightness, too. The cool lights are nice for video, but for theatre and some live things, it would be nice if they were a little warmer…oh, and better reds.
PM: Absolutely. You go to a Broadway show now and everybody uses moving lights as a wraith or ghost because the color temperatures are all 5,600K or even higher, and that's really tough to work with. Of course, we have the Color Fader and Wybron CXI, both of which are useful, but I keep wishing for something we could mount to a fixed unit that would offer better CMY color mixing, a bit like the dichroic fins inside a Vari*Lite fixture.
KH: I'd also like to see more affordable projection equipment. When we all think about some of the most spectacular productions using projections, your minds go to back to the 50s; what have we really developed since then that's affordable on the market?
AM: Sort of a poor man's PIGI. (Laughter)
KH: Exactly. I could just be in the dark about this, but I don't know of any of that type of equipment that has gone as far as some of this other stuff we've been talking about.
TF: Well, we're almost out of time. What about products for the future?
TR: One thing we have to look forward to is the Icon M. Whether will we see in it our lifetime before we all retire or quit the business is a question, but it is something of what the future could be. RDS, before going out of business, had a moving video projector that was fascinating to watch; it would go from pure light to moving light to gobo light to all of a sudden a video of a person taking off on a motorcycle, all the while still moving.
TN: And then there is LED technology. To me, it's only a matter of time before the actual lamp we all use is LED-based. Then it will change colors itself, so we don't even worry about it!
PM: I think what we're all saying is that we all wish that you could have whatever color you wanted, at any time, wherever you wanted, with very little cost. (Laughter).
TF: Any other last-minute thoughts?
AM: We've pretty much talked solely about theatre. I'm just saying that because a lot of us have diversified into architecture or theme parks and such because of survival. Well, not only survival, because some of the other stuff is downright fun, too.
PM: That's true, I don't think we're doing more than just theatre to survive financially, but also to survive intellectually. If I was just doing theatre alone, I probably wouldn't still be doing theatre at all. I probably would have left it by now.
TF: How do you think theatre designers are positioned to compete in some of these other markets against people who are trained in architectural lighting design? Does one or the other have an advantage, or are we all basically on the same playing field?
AM: I think they're both a bit different. We do different things. Everybody has got their little slants on where they kind of fit into the scheme of things. I don't think that architectural designers play with the fun stuff early on as much as stage designers do; they kind of go straight to the nuts and bolts.
PM: Theatrical designers tend to be more diverse, and maybe more appropriate for certain projects, I think. Perhaps it really is the storytelling instinct.
KH: I agree. It's learning how to communicate, it really does come from that.
AM: It's changing, though. It's all kind of coming together slowly. Parsons has a really great program now, and a lot of people coming out of it are well rounded in knowing about architectural lighting, about moods, and how to shape things with light. And architects are really interested in light now. Everybody seems to want in on it, doing as much as they can do with light. Light is the hot thing to be involved with.
TF: And with that thought, thank you again for joining in this discussion, everyone.
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