Creating a Storehouse of Visual Images: In Conversation with LD Christopher Akerlind

by Howard Sherman
The cast of INDECENT on Broadway at the Cort Theatre (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The cast of INDECENT on Broadway at the Cort Theatre (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
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With hundreds of lighting designs to his credit over the past three decades, and two Tony Awards for lighting design on his shelf (for The Light in the Piazza and Indecent), Christopher Akerlind’s start in the theater was not what one might expect. “I had acted in high school,” Akerlind recalls, “Performance was obviously part of what I was interested in. I loved acting, but when I turned 18, I promptly lost my nerve and could never imagine going out on stage in front of a big group of people again.”

Akerlind enrolled at the University of Connecticut as a music major. “I played the saxophone, the clarinet, and the flute,” he recounts. “I found that whatever I had achieved in high school as a musician was purely intuitive. In other words, I was a lazy musician, but actually a good one. So, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish the music course.” Taking a year off, Akerlind responded to an ad for interns at Hartford Stage, ending up working as a production assistant and, more significantly, sound board operator for the theater’s epic production of The Greeks. The sound for the production was the first professional sound design by David Budries, who became the theater’s resident sound designer and would go on to start the sound design program at the Yale School of Drama.

New Ideas
Of his time at Hartford Stage, Akerlind says, “I’d never seen theater that existed in that scale. I don’t mean scale as in size: scale of ideas, simplicity of ideas, and therefore deep and rich variety. It would bowl me over and it’s all I wanted to do.” Akerlind credits artistic director Mark Lamos and designers John Conklin, Pat Collins, Merrily Murray Walsh, and Michael Yeargan for inspiring him, as well as the tech department heads at the theater for recognizing his talent and mentoring him. Describing Collins’s design style, he enthuses, “It was something like jazz improvisation, which was my thing as a kid. I connected those ideas to how light can be made.”

After his intern year at Hartford Stage, Akerlind finished a theater major at Boston University in three years, then returned to Hartford Stage to work electrics and run the light board. He then went on to graduate work at the Yale School of Drama, where he studied with Jennifer Tipton, who he described as one end of a continuum of lighting design with Collins at the other end. In comparing the two, Akerlind states, “It’s the difference between Jackson Pollack and maybe Mark Rothko, with Rothko representing Tipton. There’s an unbelievable conceptual structure in image and in time, in what Jennifer does. There’s a formality and symmetry in Jennifer’s work, whereas in Pat’s work, it feels like somebody opened the box and amazing light fell out all over the floor.”

Opportunity and Focus
Because there had been no lighting designers accepted at Yale in the year before him, Akerlind found he had more opportunities than might otherwise have been possible. He points to his design for the original production of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson during his second year, which he believes would surely have gone to a third-year student had there been any. But the result was that by the time he graduated, he had design credits at multiple regional theaters, including not only Yale Rep, but Center Theatre Group, the Goodman, and the Huntington. It ultimately became his first Broadway credit.

As a lighting designer, Akerlind works in a medium that is perhaps less understood by audiences, because it is not physical the way acting, sets, and costumes are. Akerlind says that doesn’t concern him. “I’m trying to keep the focus on the human performance,” he explains, “because I have such respect for performers and the audacity of the imagination in taking on another character, the audacity to come out and do it in front of a large number of people. It’s what has always turned me on about theater. The spectacle isn’t important to me, so I guess, if the audience feels that the human event has been caressed, or framed, or articulated in a productive, positive way, that’s what I would ask. But that’s a hard thing to see, or hard to talk about.”
The Roundabout Theatres Merrily We Roll Along (Photo: Joan Marcus) Balancing the Old and New
Turning to the evolution of lighting technology over the years, Akerlind states that he is always learning, and credits his assistants and theater technical staffs with keeping him current. Speaking to the positive aspects, he recounts, “You can change the look from purple to yellow via two key strokes. One light can change from straw to amber to gold to violet, and that actually feels more like life. With the older equipment, if you wanted to morph from one color to the other, you had to endure a moment in the middle of the fade between one and the other where you got a double shadow that had different colors in it.”

He continues, saying, “The new equipment behaves, oddly enough, more like light behaves in nature, and that’s a good thing. The bad thing—and this is my Jennifer Tipton head—is that lighting designers aren’t doing the same kind of conceptual heavy lifting. They know they can put lights everywhere and they can all morph. You can get whatever you need by just hanging something that’s not compositionally specific to whatever effect you’re lighting. The other problem is that there are now a lot of directors—and I respect directors—who can sink your conceptual ship just by saying, ‘What if it’s purple now?’ Which is fine on the improv side. On the structural side, you might have imagined a beautiful structural series of light images that have nothing to do with purple, but suddenly you’ve got a purple look. None of this is good or bad, or as Hamlet says, ‘Thinking makes it so.’ It’s a double-edged sword. I do feel that a lot of younger lighting designers and younger directors are abandoning something. There’s still, to me, nothing as pleasing as selecting the actual place for the lights, the perfect place for a light for a scene or moment, and turning it on.” He concludes the thought, saying, “That is sort of a vestige of the old way. I revere the old and accept the new and try to combine a little of both in everything I do.”
Oklahoma! at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Photo:Jenny Graham) Helping a Scene Happen
Of his conversations with directors during preproduction, Akerlind says he’s most excited when a director speaks in dramaturgical rather than physical terms, giving an example of the latter as, “Can you turn on the front lights?” Akerlind explains, “I like when I’m fed an idea that I hadn’t previously contemplated, because that will stir my imagination and my imagination likes to be stirred.”

Akerlind notes that he wants to work with directors who create ‘a hot scene,’ describing one as, “A scene that works, that moves you. Those kinds of scenes tend to create their own light, because if the lighting designer is a human being who’s feeling and thinking, they would either be possessed of some sort of counterintuitive idea, which could be interesting, or to do what actually allows that hot scene to happen. That’s what I think of myself again as a lighting designer. It’s not always about the style of the images one makes. It’s about the idea of ‘does the image allow the scene to happen and how does it boost the imagination of the spectator?’”

It is often noted that lighting designers spend less time in each theater where they work, resulting in a higher number of shows per year and, for most, a good deal of travel as well. Akerlind, who is based in Portland, ME, having moved there when he was co-artistic director of Portland Stage for several years, welcomes both the volume and variety of the job. “Every two to three weeks,” he describes, “it’s like this jolt of something new to think about. A new city, a new group dynamic amongst the collaborators, a new take on a play, a new play. It’s a life where there’s something new, or there are new combinations of old things, to think about. I have an appetite for that. I’ve completely eaten it up.” He adds, “The non-theater related upshot of it all is that I’ve seen the whole country and a lot of the world because of what I do—and on the producers’ dime.”
Floyds at The Guthrie Theate Collect the Images
In conversation, Akerlind repeatedly mentions those from who he has learned and those who continue to inspire him—he cites directors Anne Bogart, Martha Clarke, and Rebecca Taichman among others. But since he has taught at Cal Arts and mentored numerous assistants, it’s inevitable to wonder what he wants to impart to aspiring and early career designers. He responds with a strong statement and a related anecdote. “Put [your] phone away and look. Create a storehouse of visual images,” he advises. “A couple of years ago, I was doing an out of town musical in Chicago and had a fairly big staff. There were five of us and we were going to dinner. The theater fronted on the east to west street, so we came down the alley and I knew that the sun would be setting to the right. The restaurant we had agreed to go to was to the left. They’re all on their phones, hit the street, and make the left without even being aware of the fact that there was an outrageous sunset that night. I just stood there looking.”

“They got to the next corner and realized that I wasn’t among them anymore and turned around and looked at me like, ‘What? What’s going on?’ I pointed at the sunset and their jaws all dropped open. The anecdote is simply to point out that if you don’t get your head out of your phone, you’re going to miss some cool visual things once in a while. However, one can actually build a really healthy, elastic, absorbent memory that drives the pleasure of sitting at the tech table and turning on something that looks good, probably because it reminds you of something you’ve seen before that was beautiful to you.”

While all theater is fleeting, lighting designs, like sunsets, are particularly evanescent. But for Akerlind, that’s part of the appeal. “I discovered that light is like music,” says the former high school musician. “It’s almost impossible to talk about with any sense of certainty. A response to it is highly subjective, as it is with anything in the theater. It comes and it goes and it leaves no trace of itself behind. I actually love the fact that 600 some odd productions later, 30 years later, there’s nothing left but a memory.”