Donald Holder has been one of Broadway's top lighting designers for nearly two decades now, beginning in 1989 with Richard Greenberg's Eastern Standard. He is currently represented on Broadway with The Lion King, La Cage Aux Folles, All Shook Up, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Movin' Out, which BLMC attendees will be seeing on June 21 to get an idea of what great lighting design looks like. Holder shares his knowledge with BLMC attendees on June 22 when he talks about his special means and methods in using light to bring a Broadway show to life. Managing editor Mark A. Newman got the chance to interview Holder between gigs.
ED: What are the big trends you're seeing now?
Donald Holder: It's important to introduce the use of technology in the theatre. What's clearly happening now is that we're quickly acquiring and exploring all the technology used in more economically viable entertainment disciplines, specifically the whole idea of multimedia technology — video and sophisticated projection systems. I feel like if anything is the wave of the future it's the idea of how lighting, video, and projections interact and the idea of projections and video arrays as scenery, like in The Woman in White (ED, Jan. 2005). How do lighting designers fit in that new discipline in terms of the creative hierarchy? How do these people collaborate? This is what we're going to be dealing with in the next decade.
ED: So what can BLMC attendees expect from your talk this year?
DH: I want to talk about how technology should be used and drive home the point that nothing can replace a great idea. It all has to happen here [in the designer's imagination]. Theatre design has to be based on ideas, not on technical effects and wizardry. It all has to be related to the material and the director's vision.
Folks who come to the BLMC classes are also looking for some practical pointers and tips, not just high concepts. So, I'm considering a lecture on lighting cycloramas and backgrounds that was successful several years ago. I would like to discuss and set up a demonstration as well.
ED: Why do you feel cyc lighting is so important?
DH: The way backcloths — the surround of a space — are lit is so important and critical and so sensitive to the overall success of what a show looks like. It's important to discuss, and a lot of people don't know the best way to do it. If they learn from this seminar, they can take it back to where they come from, and that's as important as the high concept discussions that go on.
ED: How have you seen the role of the lighting designer change with technology?
DH: With the introduction of this new technology, and the overall state of playwriting, there seems to be a trend toward greater fluidity onstage to create more cinematic and effortless movement from scene to scene. Writers are writing things that need instant transformation with scenes that quickly jump from place to place and moment to moment. Writing is getting more sophisticated and nonlinear. All of this has to be articulated and realized through the lighting designer, especially with the trend of minimizing scenery. The tendency with each passing year is that the LD or the lighting design will fill in the gaps and provide the visual vocabulary to help tell the story in a more profound way than it did 10 years ago. Writers are seeing potency and power of lighting, and it's clear how light can function in theatre.
ED: What do you think caused this realization?
DH: The introduction of affordable moving lights. Now every show has them, even smaller shows way off Broadway. The need and expectations for much more detail and specificity is a day-to-day thing. Everybody expects it now. Now lighting designers are under more stress to produce more detailed design in the same amount of time. We have tremendous technology and tools at our fingertips now, and every year it gets more sophisticated. We're allowed to do more subtle and powerful things on stage, but the amount of time has not increased and, in many ways, it's decreased. For example, in Movin' Out, the lighting is almost like another character. That sophistication and density of design couldn't have been pulled off visually 10 years ago.
ED: So it seems like the theatrical LD is finally being viewed as an equal with the rest of the creative team.
DH: To be a lighting designer is very exciting, but it's a huge responsibility with each passing year. There's this sense I get that the LD can fix everything. It's flattering and exciting, but with each passing decade, the role of the LD has become increasingly more prominent. We're clearly a partner in the process. Nobody can say that the LD contributes less or is less a partner than anybody else on the team. That trend is continuing.
ED: This is a good thing, right?
DH: It is. It's very exciting.
ED: It's better to be an equal than an afterthought.
DH: Absolutely. I welcome the change; I just wish they would give us more time. For example, for the first pass of All Shook Up in Chicago, we had to light it in four-and-a-half days; that's a lot to ask for a show that size. If you're going to step into the arena of Broadway, then you have to be prepared to step up to the plate and you have to produce very quickly. Certainly, it's very exciting and it's very thrilling. I've been working as a lighting designer for a lot of years now, and today I feel like we're getting more responsibility. That's fantastic, as long you're prepared.
ED: Have you seen your own skill sets change over the years?
DH: Yeah. Automated lighting is something you need to know. If you don't know how to do that, I don't know if you would have as much work. Some designers don't deal with moving lights, but I wouldn't be able to survive. When I first started out, the digital age was not there. Everything was handcrafted. It would take me a day or more just to write out the hook up and instrument schedule and the chance of it being correct were pretty slim. It's incredible to compare where we are today to where we were in the mid ‘80s. Everything has to be produced five times as fast. Unless you can produce using all this technology, it would be difficult to function in today's entertainment industry. Every day something comes out that you need to be up to speed on and to apply in your own work.
ED: Does new technology change your creative process?
DH: My process — the way I think about, create, light, carve out a stage space, and the way I see theatre — has not changed. My approach to the work will never change. All this new technology is all peripheral as far as I'm concerned. Ultimately, it's about an actor in the space with a light. It's about revealing a world in real time and being in an intimate setting with an actor and the spoken word and music. That's what excites me. I love all the new toys, but what excites me is being in the theatre and being a part of the creative process and being moved by the material I'm working on.
ED: But has newer technology made the “old school” methods irrelevant?
DH: People ask me if I think moving lights will ever replace the tungsten/halogen ellipsoidal spotlight and I don't see it happening, at least not for me. There's an elegance to simplicity in being able to turn on a light and carve out a space with that beautiful incandescent glow. That's something I would never want to lose in the theatre. There is something tangible and more human than a lot of the other stuff we're using today, despite how spectacular it can be or how wonderful it enhances the stage picture. The simple things, the building blocks, won't disappear. Without them the work is soulless.
ED: So what does your crystal ball say the future holds for the lighting designer?
DH: Lighting is going to become more and more automated. There's going to be a tendency to use more and more automated, pre-programmed remote control fixtures. The handwriting on the wall is that we all need to understand and develop an acuity for the multimedia/video element that seems to be quickly approaching. LDs, based on what I've read in your publications, are being asked more and more to create yet another visual component. The background, once suggested by the cyclorama, is now filled with content and the way the content is manifested and integrated into the lighting is going to become the LD's responsibility.
The other tendency that's quickly approaching in the commercial Broadway theatre environment has to do with control, or rather the consolidation of control systems. We have to rethink our traditional process of programming and constructing shows cue-wise. Today, we program and construct a show with two consoles for moving lights and conventional lighting, which are controlled via separate desks and are linked together via a MIDI signal, but that's becoming economically prohibitive and inefficient. We're seeing a tendency to incorporate all lighting control into a signal processor. It sounds simple, but it means that the syntax we're familiar with and the way we construct light cues has to be rethought. The days of programming as we know it are quickly ending. It's the responsibility of me and my colleagues to learn about different ways to control and program our shows. It's a scary step because you hang on to what you're familiar with.
We all have to go back to school to a certain extent.