Whiteout, Visibility Zero: Life as a Lighting Design Hero
Confession time, folks. I am a huge nerd.
Like HUGE nerd. I love math and science (except geometry and biology because fuck those guys). I fell in love with physics my senior year of high school but not hard enough to give up on performing. It was The Notebook. James Marsden building strobe circuits from scratch and Ryan Gosling creating life from words on a page. We all know how that ends (if not…spoiler alert…my bad, y’all).
I haven’t taken math or science since high school (I miss you honors physics and AP calculus) but I did discover lighting design. Working with electronics, problem solving, programming, taking things apart and putting them back together, bringing an artistic vision to life onstage. Bet.
An amazing teacher (the incomparable George Epting to whom I will be forever grateful) noticed my passion and took me under his wing. Prof. Epting is detailed, firm, disciplined, exacting and an absolutely brilliant designer. he’s kind and fair and I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor (though he definitely could’ve gotten a better student. 20/20 hindsight, man. Sorry, Epting…). He forced me to focus and he made sure I was good. No like really good. Like design a show on the fly using only six lights and running the show while still being in it good.
I rescued a production of Cinderella I was in when the lighting designer left us acting in the dark on opening night (seriously you had one job, dude). That got me designing three more shows for that theatre. I was the go-to designer in undergrad for student productions and one mainstage show (could’ve/should’ve done more. Hindsight. Ugh). But despite all this, I never thought I knew enough, that I was enough, until I got a specific professional gig.
I got a call from Reggie Ray (another amazing Howard professor, may he rest in peace). Je’Caryous Johnson’s touring show, Love Overboard, was playing at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC and they needed help with lighting the show. Amazing opportunity, I wasn’t doing anything. I was down.
I show up and of course there’s a union house electrician. In my mind, he’s more knowledgeable and more experienced than I am. I figured I’d step back and assist him however he needed. Foolish. Take a 750 watt white light, shine it on a white wall, and stare at it for two hours and you have his design method. Picture that for a moment and be blinded. I let that fly for about ten minutes (way too long but I always hope for the best in people).
I asked him to add in more colors to save the audience’s retinas (added bonus, this was happening during a show with a paying audience). In true IDGAF fashion he started turning lights on at full so the colors appeared out of nowhere. That settled it. He clearly wasn’t on my problem solving or critical thinking level. That was the last thing I asked him to do. I took over and created a magical, nuanced, beautiful lighting concept (on the fly) worthy of a film set. The production team loved it. They invited me on the road with them (I probably should’ve said yes. Stellar judgement, guys, stellar). No more blinding lights and all of it happened without the audience noticing.
Of course he ruined it all the day I couldn’t be there. Of course. But I learned that when I know my shit I need to stand up for myself. And when people show you they have zero common sense do not let them hold up progress.
Do you have any skills you doubt? What could help you be more confident?