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A World on Stage: Speaking with Lighting Designer Cory Pattak on creating moments

Michael S. Eddy • Artist ProfileCurrent IssueJune 2020 • May 22, 2020

Cory Pattak is a New York City based Lighting Designer, a member of United Scenic Artists Local 829, with a long list of Off-Broadway and regional theater lighting design credits including shows at Miami New Drama, The Kennedy Center, Tuacahn Center for the Arts, John W. Engeman Theatre, The Old Globe, Goodspeed Musicals, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Weston Playhouse, Everyman Theatre, and Syracuse Stage. Pattak was nominated for a 2018 Helen Hayes Award for his work on In The Heightsat The Olney Theatre. [See his nominated work in this montage video at bit.ly/SDInTheHeights]  He has worked as an assistant/associate for Ken Billington, Jeff Croiter, and Paul Miller and holds a BFA degree in Design/Technical Theatre from Syracuse University.

Pattak is also the host and creator of popular industry podcast in 1: the podcast, dedicated to long form interviews with theatrical designers of all walks of life. Every episode features one designer discussing their career, inspirations, their training, their trade secrets, and advice to young designers. The podcast has been downloaded over 150k times in all fifty states and across six continents. It’s available at in1podcast.com. During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, he modified the in1: the podcastcreating the Pandemic Happy Hour Sessionsto gather groups of designers together to talk about how they are coping with the stress, no work, and what they see on the horizon. Pattak took some time out of his quarantine to speak via phone with Stage Directions about putting one of his busiest scheduled years on hold, his work, mentors, and old school technology he still loves.

When the shutdown came in March, Pattak was busy year abruptly stopped as productions suspended, postponed and cancelled. There is a lot of uncertainty now of when will it be safe to reopen theaters. How will we do it? Will audiences come to shows? How do we keep everyone—audience, performers, and crew and staff safe? “Nobody knows what’s happening,” states Pattak. “Anybody that says they know what’s happening is lying. The sad thing about theater is, you can cancel on a dime, but you can’t start up on a dime. We have to move forward because we might be able to do shows, so we need to start building scenery, we need to start doing all this stuff. But then it could just get cancelled. It’s definitely, a little bit of a scary time. On the podcast, I always ask people, ‘what would you do if your job completely went away?’ It’s always been a kind of existential hypothetical question because theater has existed for hundreds and hundreds of years. There was no reason to believe that it would be going away anytime soon; and I still don’t think it will go away. I think eventually we will get back, but our jobs have gone away for a little bit and we don’t know for how long. So, it’s interesting to see how people respond to that question now.”

Fast Paced Environment
Pattak is known for his work on—and love of—musical theater. Early in his career, he worked a lot with the New York Musical Festival (NYMF) and that fast-paced work has honed his eye and forged how quickly he can work as a lighting designer on projects now. “I did a lot of NYMF shows when I was starting out, and that allowed me to make a bunch of musicals over many years with a number of different directors, and do them really fast. It was really good practice for me to just sort of go with my gut and my instinct; just light as quickly as possible. This has really become the way that I have to work now because nobody gets—unless you’re on Broadway—weeks and weeks to light a musical. It’s all got to be fast, from your gut. You have to come in really, really prepared.”

Light as Dramaturgy
When it comes to important traits for being a lighting designer, Pattak has been giving this a lot of thought lately—the idea of the lighting designer being a good dramaturg. “When you’re lighting a show, often the scripts, the staging, and the music will tell you what the lights need to do. They’ll tell you where you need to look; what the mood needs to be. But if that information is not readily revealing itself to you, it’s possible that there’s some other missing element, whether it be something in the script or the staging. I think that lighting designers are uniquely positioned to realize things like this because during the tech process they’re essentially fact checking the show minute by minute, beat by beat; they’re responding to what the director has done in the room, they’re responding to what the choreographer’s done, they’re responding to the script.”

Sunset Boulevard at Teatro Santander, São Paulo Brazil 

Pattak continues, “Every cue a lighting designer writes is serving some sort of purpose dramaturgically. Hopefully, those cues are easily revealing themselves as to what they should be. But as a lighting designer, if you hit a transition and it’s unclear who you’re supposed to be watching in this transition or where are we going, the lighting designer, I think, is maybe the first person in that tech process to realize in the moment that this actually doesn’t make sense. I’m trying to real time dramaturg with you, and it’s not aligning. So, I think lighting designers have to be good dramaturgs; having a good sense of how a piece of theater moves, and how an audience may respond to what they’re seeing—what the playwright or the director is trying to convey. If that’s not clear, you have to speak up and say, ‘hey, I’m not sure who I should light in this moment. Let’s look at the staging because maybe we can clarify something so the lighting can just piggyback on that’. Real time dramaturg, that’s a skill that I’ve come to realize is very useful and necessary.”

West Side Story at Maltz Jupiter Theatre (Photo: Marcos Santana)

Conducting Light
His background in musical theater especially leads Pattak to note “I see lighting as another instrument in the orchestra. I spend a lot of time talking with music directors and orchestrators when I can, and if I’m lucky enough to be working on a new show, I’ll talk with the composer. To be able to ask the composer, ‘tell me about this moment when the scene goes from this major key to a minor key, what were you trying to convey? Really digging into the music, a lot. I listen to the music a ton and I make it my job to know every note and beat of every song; how long this drum fill takes and when this little French horn part comes in. Because the more I know that, the more I feel like I can continue to seamlessly integrate into the music. So, the lighting, the color, and all that—it really just feels like the last instrument joining the orchestra. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to plays, but since I primarily do musicals, the music really is the start and the end point of everything in terms of my work on those, I think.”

New Tech Vs. Old Tech
What lights a designer selects is also an important design choice. While LEDs have become ubiquitous in theater lighting—Pattak does use them for certain applications—he still doesn’t see them replacing tungsten front light in his designs. He still stays with tungsten for his designs until something better can replace that quality of light. “As good as LED sources have become—and they’ve gotten really good—my eye can still tell the difference between an actual tungsten source and an LED version of tungsten. I think they’ve gotten so good in doing nearly every color that they need to, but for me, I’ve rarely done only LED front light yet. I can’t embrace that yet. I still want the primary light that’s hitting people’s faces to be tungsten. We’ve gotten really, really close. And I will say that some of the LED moving lights, I think the Martin MAC Encore with its color mixing are really good; that was never a tungsten source to begin with. We’re comparing that to an arc source, to a moving light. I can’t imagine—anytime soon—just not having any tungsten sources in front light. That still feels really crucial to me. I suppose we’ll get away from that at some point, but I’m not there yet. I think some of the tunable white LEDs are getting really close, but if we’re talking about color mixing, even the best ones, to my eye, it still feels like something’s not right, something’s off.”

Networking
Pattak, who has been working steadily since moving to New York after graduating from Syracuse University, has had a number of mentors as well as people who have had a positive influence on his work. Pattak started out his career as an assistant and associate designer before moving on to his own design work. “When I first moved to New York, there’s been sort of three people who I would count as mentors. After about eight, nine months in New York, I got hired and spent a year working for Ken Billington as a studio assistant. That was incredibly important to learn how the industry worked and I developed a lot of great relationships. I worked in Ken’s studio with people like Ben Pearcy, Paul Toben, John Demous, and Anthony Pearson. I got a lot out of working alongside them; getting that opportunity to go shadow Ken on Broadway shows or on galas. Ken was super influential; actually he’d been a huge influence before I ever moved to New York. I remember seeing the national tour of Footloose; I’d never seen moving lights like that in a stage production and I was so blown away. My goal when I moved to NYC was to work in Ken Billington’s studio.”

While working for Billington, Pattak got advice he followed to help shift his career from assistant to designer over time. “Billington always says to young designers, if you want to be a lighting designer, be a lighting designer, try and say yes to everything that let’s you design. And that means taking a show that pays very little money. It might be taking a show out of town that no one’s going to see. The only way that you can get better at something is by doing that thing. That was a notion I always really tried to take to heart as I was building my career. If I had two job opportunities and one of them was a chance to do something else, like assisting and maybe make more money, and the other one was to go be the lighting designer, five times out of 10, I would go be the designer because that’s ultimately what I wanted to do.”

“After working with Ken, I spent a lot of years assisting Paul Miller What I learned so much from Paul, and Ken, was about how to conduct yourself in the theater and about interpersonal relationships. So much about being a good lighting designer who gets hired over and over, is that people want to be in the room with you. How do you do your job as a lighting designer, how you get what you need, while also remaining everyone’s friend and keeping a positive attitude.

My last period as an associate was working for Jeff Croiter—who I had worked with briefly when I first came to New York. We did Newsies, Peter and the Starcatcher, and A Time to Kill on Broadway. We had various Off-Broadway shows, and started co-designing shows. We had a similar career path; he did a lot of commercial musicals and worked fast, so, I learned a lot working with him.”

His work on Newsies meant a lot to Pattak, “Working on Newsies was a big turning point career-wise in the sense that it had been a really seminal movie to me as a kid. I started out as a dancer. I’d always dreamt that if this thing ever gets on stage, how amazing would it be to work on the Newsies musical. It was never anything more than a dream. So, when the opportunity came along to be a part of it; I couldn’t believe my luck. It was six years of my life; we did it at Paper Mill Playhouse, we did it on Broadway, we did the tour, and we did the Netflix film. Just getting to work on a show like that, getting to work alongside Alan Menken, someone who was so important to my musical theater upbringing. Also, working at the Broadway level and seeing all of that; that was a really big moment for me.”

In terms of other influences and changing up the way musicals are lit, Pattak notes a few fellow designers whose work he enjoys. “There’s people whose work I just think is amazing and I’m so happy that I can call all these people my friends. I think Justin Townsend is amazing; I’m excited to see everything that he does. The same thing with Japhy Weideman. I love how they both approach musicals, especially in ways that I would never think of. I think people like Justin and Japhy—and I’d say Paule Constable, when she’s done musicals over here—I really like how they are breaking the mold for what a Broadway musical looks like. I think for a long time, there has been a bit of a template that has been set for a lot of the big musicals of the 90s and into the 2000s. Whether it’s the colors that are used or if you have followspots. Whatever those kinds of unspoken rules are that says ’this is what a Broadway show looks like’. It’s been really interesting to see designers who come from different worlds. Paule with a different UK approach or Justin coming at it from more of an installation, fine arts background. It’s just been interesting to see people bring those different backgrounds to a Broadway musical and then redefine what a Broadway musical might actually look like. So, I look up to them and look forward to trying to follow in their footsteps. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, lighting my own Broadway musical.”

The Music Man at The Kennedy Center (Photo: Paul dePoo)

Working Regionally
As his career progresses, Pattak finds his work locales have switched. When he first arrived in New York, he did a lot of work in the city and less on the road. In recent years, he has switched to doing mostly all work regionally and very little work in NYC. “I used to work in New York a lot more, which is like a weird thing to say for someone who’s not that old. I did a lot of Off-Broadway shows, smaller commercial stuff, Equity showcases, or I was assisting. There’re tons of little downtown theater in tiny rooms with not a lot of lights, for not a lot of money but you end up doing a lot of work in New York and you get to stay home, which is great. Now, I’m working hardly in New York at all. However, I’m working on what I would quantify as much better projects; bigger things and the pay is better. I’m working with more successful directors and theaters that I’m interested in working with and getting to create new work and having larger budgets; all the things that you want as a designer. I’m lucky if I do one show a year now in New York.”

The reason that Pattak has found for this career-flip is due to the kind of work that he likes to design. “I do primarily musicals; there isn’t the kind of path in New York for musical theater designers as there is for play designers. I think if you’re a play designer, there’s a lot of opportunities to do sort of downtown plays that might transfer to a commercial run; that may transfer to Broadway. You can kind of cut your teeth doing experimental plays or dramas. There’s no such similar path for big musicals. Even the smaller Off-Broadway companies that do musicals are typically going to hire a Broadway-caliber designer. I’ve found, for cutting my teeth on musicals with directors who are primarily musical theater directors, that path happens outside of New York. Working at regional theaters, I’m doing out of town commercial tryouts. And then, of course, the hope is that some of those shows might transfer in, or those directors who I’m establishing relationships with, will get shows in New York and then I would get an opportunity to come back and do those. While I do feel somewhat disconnected, at times to the New York theater scene, all the people I’m working with are not necessarily disconnected. The directors, the choreographers, the producers.”

Pattak is doing some interesting lighting work on musicals in a variety of regional theaters. One example that he cites, “things like my ongoing Kennedy Center gig, which is the most amazing gig that has happened to me in the past couple years. Literally, everybody that works on it is from New York in terms of the creative team and the cast, but we’re all doing it outside the city. Maybe one of their shows will come in one of these days. It’s taken some adjustment of being on the road that much in the past couple of years but I am really enjoying the work.”

A Wonderful World at Miami New Drama

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut theater down, Pattak had in fact just opened a new musical with Miami New Drama in Miami, FL—A Wonderful World about the life of Louis Armstrong. “We made it through all our previews. This was a new musical about Louis Armstrong, all told with his songs, but told through the perspective of Louis’ four wives; they represented different time periods in his life and different geographical places over his career. There’s a lot of time-bending flashbacks things where we see the wives communicating with each other or observing another wife’s experience. It was on a unit set with various pieces that come in and out. It covered a lot of time periods; a lot of cultural periods in our country and there was a ton that lighting had to do to convey all of that and find various looks for all these different time periods. Hopefully, this show will have some kind of life and we can do it again because I think there’s a lot of potential there. Everyone working on it really came up with something that works well. I’m grateful that we got some audience reaction before closing and we’ll see what happens in the future.”

Creating a Moment
It is obvious that working in the theater means a lot to Pattak and his enthusiasm for his work is clear. He was a theater kid; he started seeing theater as early as possible and started as a performer at a young age. He wasn’t considering lighting or working on crew. He thought he would be onstage. “I performed for a long time and thought that I was going to be a performer until I shifted into lighting. Theater is an escape in people’s lives. It’s not their job; it’s not their home life. It’s a thing that they go to as an audience member to do for fun; something that’s enjoyable. So, the idea that your job would be to create those sorts of moments for people, help them experience something they will remember with enjoyment, is kind of amazing. I don’t really get that experience until I’m sharing the room with an audience…which by the way, is why I think streaming is not a great ultimate solution after this quarantine; because I know that I only get this feeling when I’m in the room with a bunch of people and you’re sharing that theater experience together. You realize how much joy you’re bringing to people. Being part of a creative team, being able to create moments on stage that make people feel like they’ve witnessed something magical, even if it’s just a transition with a scrim. The opportunity to create those moments to work really, really hard at them and to then have them appear seamlessly in front of an audience; to witness something magical in their lives even if it’s just for a couple hours. That’s incredibly rewarding. I think creating that magic, surprising moment on stage for an audience and watching them experience that night after night—I can’t imagine that ever getting old.”

You can learn more about Pattak’s work and see his portfolio at www.corypattak.com.

 

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