Revisiting the Roadmap

by Natalie Robin

 Justin Partier designed lights for Opera Merola’s production of Postcard from Morocco in summer of 2012. Pictured (L-R): AJ Glueckert, Carolyn Sproule, Aviva Fortunata, Andrew Stenson, Matthew Scollin, Suzanne Rigden and Joseph Lattanzi
Justin Partier designed lights for Opera Merola’s production of Postcard from Morocco in summer of 2012. Pictured (L-R): AJ Glueckert, Carolyn Sproule, Aviva Fortunata, Andrew Stenson, Matthew Scollin, Suzanne Rigden and Joseph Lattanzi
Or, “So you want to be an assistant lighting designer.”

In 1989, lighting designer Craig Miller wrote what he called “A Guide for Assistant Lighting Designers.” Generations of designers to come (including Miller’s own assistants) were handed this document (either in magazine or type-written form) that listed the tasks of an ALD as a reference and guide to their new jobs.

 

 

 

Ken Posner was lighting designer for the Roundabout’s recent Harvey revival. Left-right: Larry Bryggman, Holley Fain, Charles Kimbrough, Morgan Spector, Rich Sommer.
Ken Posner was lighting designer for the Roundabout’s recent Harvey revival. Left-right: Larry Bryggman, Holley Fain, Charles Kimbrough, Morgan Spector, Rich Sommer.

Miller described, in detail, what kind of paperwork an assistant should be doing and how to talk to the electricians and other members of the production team. But he also got to the heart of being an assistant lighting designer: Listen. Be present. Pay attention. Miller was really the first person to write down these expectations. Though he may have done it out of frustration, he provided us with an incredible roadmap.

A lot has changed in the 23 years since the “Guide” was originally published—both technically and in the nature of the assistant lighting designer position itself.

Ken Posner, now a Tony-winning Broadway lighting designer in his own right, was handed the “Guide” from Miller himself, when Posner was his assistant as part of the United Scenic Artists internship program (a career development program which no longer exists). Posner explains that back then many people used assisting as a stepping-stone, but “with the big British imports it turned into an occupation. With the mega-musical and the notion of multiple companies, someone could make a living for many years remounting and reconfiguring a show.”

With so many changes in the structure of the industry and so much new technology, the time seemed ripe to revisit the idea of a guide for the assistant lighting designer. I spoke to different lighting designers and assistant lighting designers and asked them what assistant lighting designers needed to know today.

 Left-right: Terry Beaver, Estelle Parsons, Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Broderick in the current Broadway revival of Nice Work If You Can Get It, with lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski
Left-right: Terry Beaver, Estelle Parsons, Kelli O’Hara and Matthew Broderick in the current Broadway revival of Nice Work If You Can Get It, with lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski

Attitude

Peter Kaczorowski first assisted Miller at the Santa Fe Opera in the summer of 1979. They went on to work together for 3 more summers at the opera, on a few Broadway shows and on dance performances at City Center and the New York Dance Festival on the outdoor Delacorte stage in Central Park. Kaczorowski took his assistant training from Miller with him when he went on to assist Tom Skelton, and then become a successful lighting designer in his own right, with multiple Tony nominations (including one for Road to Mecca this year) and a Tony win for The Producers in 2001. To this day, he thinks about Miller’s ways of giving himself choices, duplicating ideas and designing the whole space to create his own work. Now, he takes on young assistants because it can be fun and a good opportunity to pass on what he has learned. One thing he learned from Miller was to look for assistants who are “a bit of a kid in a candy store,” who still have some of the wonder and excitement and “realize how lucky they are to be doing what we do.”

And this enthusiastic gratitude is best tempered with a humble attitude. “Don’t be anxious to show off how much you already know,” says Kaczorowski. “Be anxious to admit how much you don’t.”

Kaczorowski echoes the fundamental necessity of being able be part of a team for the good of a show. “Miller wanted to believe that the lighting team was a single organism,” says Kaczorowski, explaining that Miller encouraged his assistants to "act like I act," providing his ways of working with those around him as a model for young professionals. Miller’s work “was important to him. If you wanted to work for him it had to be important to you, too.”

A moment from The Winter’s Tale at the Guthrie Theatre, with lighting design by Philip Rosenberg.
A moment from The Winter’s Tale at the Guthrie Theatre, with lighting design by Philip Rosenberg.

It all goes back to Miller’s emphasis on being present, being another set of eyes. Philip Rosenberg has assisted or associated on between 30 and 35 Broadway plays and musicals and has moved on to be a successful designer in his own right. As a designer, Rosenberg says: “I want the person next to me looking at the stage too. Or being ready to answer ‘what would you do?’” But having an opinion isn’t the same thing as saying it out loud. Rosenberg emphasizes knowing when to talk and when not to talk. The assistant is the assistant, NOT the designer. It is a fine balance between constantly thinking, evaluating and absorbing and knowing when to offer an opinion. Assistants should use their time at the tech table to learn: “Once you get into a room, just pay attention, stay alert and pretend that you are the designer (in your head),” says Rosenberg.

Miller encouraged his assistants to be “in the mindset to ‘own’ the entire show,” says Kaczorowski. “He wanted them to understand the plot and layout so as to be able to make changes that conformed to the existing system.”

But that doesn’t you should make them. Justin Partier, a designer and assistant on and off-Broadway and currently the resident ALD at San Francisco Opera, says that the role of assistant LD changes shifts “depending on the relationship with the designer, but the most important thing is that you are there to help achieve their vision. It is their name on the program, and you are there to help facilitate their ideas. It is about making sure the work gets done efficiently and quickly, but still be sympathetic to their vision. If they want to try something to see if it works, then so be it.”

Taking Note

One aspect of assisting a lighting designer hasn’t changed since Miller’s “Guide”: A lot of the job is about the paperwork. There’s more of it than ever thanks to movers, LED’s and multiple DMX universes.

Knowing Lightwright and Vectorworks (and/or Autocad and hand drafting) is absolutely necessary.  Having a system for keeping cue lists and work notes and tracking is a given. The key to any system is to choose a method you like and that seems intuitive TO YOU. It will make you faster and better at your job. Some people use Excel or Numbers. Some use Filemaker or a combination of programs (e.g., Lightwright for work notes, Excel for cue lists, etc.). Some use a good old-fashioned pencil and paper.

Partier emphasizes that it’s all about creating an efficient and simple way to work: “As long as the information is being kept track of, then you should be OK. Everyone has a different way of doing things, and whatever works for you is the best option for you. I like mechanical drafting pencils and steno pads. ”

One of the most important jobs of an assistant is to keep track of the notes, both physical and artistic, that are constantly being generated in the production process. The systemization of note taking and the disseminating of information at the appropriate times are crucial.

 Andrew Griffin won a Helen Hayes Award for his lighting design on the 2012 production of King Lear at Synetic Theater in Arlington, Va.
Andrew Griffin won a Helen Hayes Award for his lighting design on the 2012 production of King Lear at Synetic Theater in Arlington, Va.

As Andrew Griffin, a former resident assistant at Michigan Opera Theater now based out of Washington D.C., says: “The most important task is keeping those files up to date. When a designer wants to move lights around if all the information isn’t up to date, that move just got a lot more complicated.”

In order to keep the process smooth, the ALD must be familiar with the technology and the process of production. Partier says, “Moving lights and LED’s have become such a mainstay we need to make sure we have a way to keep track of all that.”

With the newer technology, “the assistant’s job has shifted away from tracking levels and moved to recording cue placements, cue descriptions and keeping track of preset and palette information,” says Griffin. This way that info can be retrieved quickly and keep the cueing moving. “So assistants are still tracking, but they are tracking different information now.”

Griffin describes the assistant as “Someone who is always generating lists and data, constantly updating files and, further, someone who is always aware, who is catching information and making sure people are aware. Albeit, sometimes that information may be superfluous, but I would rather an assistant ask me if something they heard is something I should be concerned with than not say anything at all. In the freakishly fast world that is lighting design, it should always be an assistant’s goal for the designer to worry about as little as possible but the design.”

An assistant’s job doesn’t end on opening night or when the design is frozen. A show needs to be maintained, and if it moves, that will need to happen smoothly. An assistant’s paperwork and skill are what allow that to happen—and the continuing lives of productions are what have transformed the job of an ALD to a possible career.

 Nick Solyom designed this look for The Threepenny Opera when he was the 2010-211 Resident Lighting Designer for Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company.
Nick Solyom designed this look for The Threepenny Opera when he was the 2010-211 Resident Lighting Designer for Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company.

Keep Up

Nick Solyom, who is currently assisting Ken Posner on a number of plays and musicals on and off Broadway (including the highly anticipated Giant which premiered at Dallas Theater Center last winter and will have its New York debut this fall), sees much relevance in Miller’s roadmap. For him, “laptops have replaced mat knives and moving light tracking has replaced cue track sheets,” but being organized, focused and prepared are still the tasks of an ALD. Of assisting Posner, he says “Ken is one of the most focused people I have ever worked for … and I have to be the same way.” And Solyom sees his own most important skill to be not only speed, but accuracy: “If your paperwork isn’t perfect then there’s no point to any of it. If things are wrong it just becomes impossible to troubleshoot.” A single mistake on the magic sheet could be like a thread that is pulled and unravels tech, taking up precious time when everyone could instead be focused on the show. Solyom reiterates that you should use a system that makes sense to you, because in the middle of tech, when a designer is trying to cue, “It could be the entire theatre waiting for you to say that preset number.”

Whatever you choose to work with, the key is to keep up with the designer. Allen Lee Hughes is a decorated educator and designer, winner of the 2003 USITT Distinguished Achievement Award in Lighting Design, well-known for his design with ballet choreographer Eliot Feld and whose latest Broadway credit was Clybourne Park. Hughes often says: Be able to provide the answer to any question in seven seconds or less. Which doesn’t mean know everything. It means be organized. Know how to FIND the answer quickly and efficiently.

Viviene Leone was associate lighting designer on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Viviene Leone was associate lighting designer on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Vivien Leone, another longtime Broadway assistant and associate with more than 25 years of experience, agrees that the assistant sets the pace, starting with focus: “You are like the drummer of the band in terms of keeping the rhythm going. It’s my first rule—you are there to set the pace, to keep things flowing, to have the answers, to expedite, to ‘assist’—which seems like such a simple word, but when you do it well you really are keeping things moving.”

Tony-winning Broadway lighting designer Kevin Adams (Spring Awakening, The 39 Steps, American Idiot) refers to this as “keeping the machine going.” He wants his assistants to anticipate what is coming because “if I have a problem I will bring it up [but otherwise I expect them] to keep the machine moving.”

In the midst of a long technical rehearsal, it is easy for things to get missed. Posner learned from Miller that “If it comes out of a designer’s mouth or a director’s mouth IT’S A NOTE!!!” And it is the mark of a great assistant that he or she reminds you at 11:30 at night that you said something at 8:10 in the morning. As Leone says, “a designer on the move is constantly making changes and seeing things and having discussions and that’s where the design happens. The assistant’s job is to follow along and not wait for that information to be delivered to him.” If you aren’t keeping up you will miss information.

Relationships

Navigating the different attitudes of people you work with is also key as an ALD. You have to be able to do “the crew guy thing” with the electricians in the morning, which is very different than talking to the director and designers in the afternoon. You will have to keep good relationships with everyone over incredibly long hours. Handling the relationship with a crew and understanding when to make a request or how to prioritize the notes in the time you have can really shape a production. Griffin explains: “You need to be able to look at a list and calculate how long accomplishing those tasks should take.”

Early on in her career, while assisting Paul Gallo, Leone “followed the leko,” tracing the path of the design via a light, from plot to shop order to bid process to the shop and truck to hanging it in the theatre. This let her really understand the whole process from both ends—which still allows her to give information to the electricians relevant to what they need to know. And the assistant’s relationship to the electrician is ultimately what accomplishes the things the designer needs to move forward. Griffin refers to the ALD as “a diplomat that can cross between designers and technicians and keep everyone happy. Being able to give an awful note to an electrician and finding compromise points on time and budget and still keep the designer happy is key. It was one of my biggest jobs at the opera. How you can approach your ME and let them know you need to rehang a whole electric pipe (true story) and figure out how to do that while keeping your crew happy and keeping your designer happy is critical.”

But don’t just focus on the crew—remember you’re assisting a lighting designer. Leone shares the story of talking about assistants with legendary lighting designer Tharon Musser when Musser asked her to define the characteristics of a good assistant. “I said a sense of organization, a sense of calm and a sense of humor.” But, she adds, for Tharon, a sense of humor would have been first. It is the assistant’s job to recognize how the LD likes to work and adapt to that. Tech is fraught enough without the assistant being a problem.

And don’t just wait for the designer to tell you how they like to work. Observe their habits and even do research. Though Rosenberg has since stopped assisting to focus on his own quickly growing designer career, he remembers, “It is the assistant’s duty to go to a designer and ask what they need or want.” Don’t wait to be told what to do. Be proactive. “Know that you have to gather information.”

 Kevin Adams’ Broadway work includes Spring Awakening, Hair and American Idiot, a moment of which is shown here.
Kevin Adams’ Broadway work includes Spring Awakening, Hair and American Idiot, a moment of which is shown here.

Kevin Adams agrees, even if he didn’t follow the same route as Posner or Kaczorowski into lighting design. He started out as a set designer and though he assisted in that field he never worked as an assistant lighting designer, so, he says, “I just kind of learned how to use assistants by just kind of using assistants a lot. I had never been one.” By now, of course, he has had several. He says: “I think that people might think that assisting is about being around to do what you're told. I want someone who is proactive and who knows to do all that and is a little more politically mature. And how production works.”

Adams says that he finds most of his assistants through other assistants, because that way the new assistants often “get tips on how to work with me. I like a big quiet space around me.”

And there’s nothing wrong with remembering that sometimes everyone needs a little bit of TLC. “Getting a cup of coffee is an act of mercy, not a subservient act,” says Leone. “Part of our job was to be the one oasis looking at the stage, ready to go, not getting caught up in things.”

Keep Learning

Remembering Miller’s emphasis on preparedness, Kaczorowski still focuses his own shows so that he can prepare his assistants to do the notes. He tries to be clear about what he needs from pre-production so that everything comes out well in the theatre. But, as always, mistakes will happen. When they do, don’t get defensive. Assistants should be able to admit when they are wrong or made a mistake and know how to learn from it.

In fact, assistants should constantly be learning. Keep up with the new gear and technologies—but don’t stop there. Solyom says that you can always be learning new techniques and tools from your peers. (“Everything I do is conglomerations and adaptations of the work of other people.”) But you also want to look outside your method of notetaking to learn. “If you are open you should always be learning in every situation, from how someone looks at a button to a song or lays out there sidelight or talks to a director,” he says. Ultimately,  assisting will make you a better designer.

Leone agrees, adding that “It is your job to be reinvesting and reinventing yourself as you go along.”

Investing in yourself is probably the best choice you can make in this field. We can spend all day discussing paperwork and the benefits of Filemaker versus Excel or why all the lighting designers we know own Macs. But the fact is, what makes a good assistant comes down to personality. It all comes down to the fact that  you will sit next to each other at a table for 12 to 14 hours a day and still go to dinner together.