A Career in Consoles, Catching up with Anne Valentino

by Michael Eddy
Anne Valentino at USITT 2018
Anne Valentino at USITT 2018

To say Anne Valentino has been influential in the development of lighting control consoles in our industry would be an understatement. She has been involved in the development of some of the industry’s most defining lighting control products. Most recognized for her work and guidance in the development of ETC’s family of consoles, who she began working with in 1990, Valentino has also worked with Kliegl Bros, Strand, Vari-Lite, and PRG, during her nearly 30-year career. If you have run a lighting console from any of these manufacturers, odds are insanely good that Valentino’s work was an important part of that board. Currently, she is the Eos Product Manager with ETC and is involved with console development from inception through development, and then taking it to the market. Many lighting designers and programmers have worked with, given feedback to, and been trained on the consoles by Valentino at tradeshows and training sessions all over the world. Her contributions to the industry have been deservedly recognized as well. She received the prestigious Gottelier Award in 2016 and in 2018 USITT honored her with the Lighting Design & Technology Distinguished Achievement Award. While at USITT, Stage Directions caught up with Valentino to talk a bit about her career.

Talk a little bit about your career path, and how you came up through theater, but then into manufacturing.
I had a master’s in theatrical production, and got a job right after getting out of school as the technical director of a small roadhouse that was being constructed right outside of Houston. It was in a town called Orange, TX. It was on the circuit of theatrical production that would hit Nashville, they’d hit New Orleans, and then they would hit this small roadhouse before they went on to Houston. 

It was probably the worst consulted theater in the history of the world. It had electrics that wouldn’t drop all the way to the deck, because the multi-cables were cut too short. It had a hospital intercom system, instead of Clear-Com. Trying to make these people understand why this wasn’t functional, was kind of hard, because it was a city building. 

And so, I happened to meet Joel Rubin from Kliegl Bros. at a trade show, and I just asked him, “I’m really interested. How does this happen to people?” They spent a lot of money on this venue that just wasn’t functional and I spent a lot of time trying to make it work and get things fixed. 

So, that meeting eventually led to working at Kliegl when you moved to New York?
Yes, they hired me as a technical writer at Kliegl, then from being a tech writer I ended up moving into doing console training, and that sort of launched the whole thing that has become my career. So yes, it was working at a non-functional theater that got me started in the industry. 

After you left Kliegl, you worked for Strand and Colortran, correct?
I worked at Strand and I consulted for Colortran, in between leaving Strand and going to work at ETC in 1990. I did about six months of consulting for Colortran. 

You’re most known for your console development work over the course of your career. Talk a little bit about your console development work and finding the talent, and managing that talent, to develop these consoles.
It’s hard to find software developers. Most of them are not going to have any kind of germane knowledge, because their path has been something different. So, that is a challenge. You can really see it, whether a developer is going to fundamentally understand what we are attempting to do or not. 

I actually break it up in my head between, what I call, a developer and an engineer. You need the engineers, because there’s that level, but they’re never going to fully embrace the craft. And then you’ll have other people who get it immediately. Like on our team—Dan Duffy and Chris Mizerak. We’ve exposed them to some of what happens in production, and you could see that this was a world that they could really understand; that really makes a difference. You need both of those. We were lucky on Virtuoso development, that we had a group of developers who had been with Vari-Lite for a really long time, so they understood what the entire job was about.  

Talk a little about your winning the USITT Lighting Design & Technology Distinguished Achievement Award, and how that makes you feel.
I’m kind of abashed, a little bit. I’m very proud and I’m honored. I’ve always been on the front of the product, but the big thing is, I don’t ever do this by myself. There’s a person who’s the face of that particular product, but every single project I’ve worked on, I’ve been partnered with really, really good technical people. You never, never do things by yourself. It is really a team effort.

I’ve always been lucky. On Obsession, I was partnered with Jon Ide. On Virtuoso, it was Michael Snyder. On Eos Dennis Varian, and then, Matt Halberstadt along with a great team of developers. They’re the people who actually do the work. It’s always a big team of people that make these things happen, so, I’m a little abashed by it, because it’s always a team that brings us to where we are. 

Who were some of your mentors?
Three people come to mind immediately. When I got this job as a technical director for the roadhouse in Orange, TX, I was 21 years old; I had no professional experience whatsoever. The guy who ran the venue, Pete Schulman, who is now working in Washington, D.C., hired me. I asked him later why he hired me, because they had people who were far more qualified applying for the job. He said something along the lines of, ‘It was obvious that you were smart, and you were willing to work hard; someone needed to give you a break. And when it’s your turn, you’ll have to give someone else a break, because that’s the way we do it.’ I’ve taken that to heart, over the years.

At Kliegl—which really was my first experience with any sort of product development—Gordon Pearlman and Steve Carlson were just so generous in taking the time with me, to explain how development works, how decisions were made, and what that whole path was like. 

Those three people are who really come to mind from quite early in my career. There have been many others since. I think the thing about mentoring, or being mentored, is you have to be willing to say, ‘You don’t know.’ I’ve always been really willing to say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that.’ People in this industry, they so want to help. It’s a big thing for us to mentor in this business, but you have to admit to people that you need it. I’ve never been shy about saying that at all; about asking. 

Did you find it difficult working in a male dominated industry, in terms of the lighting side of things?
That’s an interesting question. A long time ago, I would have said no. That being a woman was actually an advantage for me. When I was working at the roadhouse theater, I’d walk out on the loading dock, and the touring stage manager would get out of the truck, and you could see the look on his face like, ‘Oh, geez, it’s gonna be a long day.’ But I did my job and I got noticed, because I wasn’t better than a man, but I was as good. So, for me, I always felt that, that was an advantage. That I was tested on stuff, where they would have given a man a pass, and that gave me an opportunity to show what I was able to do and it was noticed.

As I have gotten older, my views on that have changed somewhat. As I’ve seen our industry not step up to embrace women—as we should be doing—in a year that begins with a two. So, I’ve been blessed, because I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. I just figured, do my job, do my job well, but I don’t know what influence it really had. I only know that things worked out pretty well for me, but I see a lot of women, that it’s not that easy of a path for. And unfortunately—I’ve been doing this for 30 years—it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed at the pace that we would want it to change. But I’m very hopeful. There’s a really great crop of young women who are coming up through the programming community. It’s thrilling to see them, and it’s great to see them doing Broadway shows. 

Well, considering in the early days of lighting design, it was mostly women designers. Also, computer programming was originally a women-dominated field. There should not be any gender bias for these jobs.
It was women. And I agree there is no reason for gender to be part of it at all. 

Do you miss production? Because you took a detour away from theater production. Would you have changed your path?
I do miss it. Being part of just creating, from an empty stage, this entire world. I do miss that, but no, I wouldn’t change my path at all.