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Serving the Story: Talking Lighting with Jen Schriever

Michael S. Eddy • August 2020Design Insight • July 29, 2020

A Strange Loop at Playwrights Horizons (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Jen Schriever is a New York City-based lighting designer. Her Broadway credits include Grand Horizons, What the Constitution Means to Me, Lifespan of a Fact, Eclipsed, and John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown (also filmed for HBO). Schriever’s Off-Broadway credits include work with Second Stage Theatre, the Public Theater, Labyrinth Theater Company, SoHo Playhouse, and more. Regionally, she’s worked with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Paper Mill Playhouse, Folger Theatre, and Williamstown Theatre Festival. Her opera credits include working with the Metropolitan Opera, the English National Opera, and the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia. When theater went into the pandemic intermission, she was working on two shows, Selling Kabul at Playwrights Horizons and Birthday Candles at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. She is also an adjunct professor at Purchase College, which is her alma mater as well for her undergraduate degree in lighting design. Schriever was awarded two 2020 Obie Awards, one as a part of the ensemble and creative team for Michael Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop. The Obie judges commented on her other award, “…This season alone she brought us to the worlds of Broadbend, Arkansas, Power Strip, A Strange Loop, and the great dry desert of Tumacho. For her seemingly limitless ability to transport us into these worlds and so many more, the judges have awarded an Obie for Sustained Excellence in Lighting Design to Jen Schriever.” From quarantine, she graciously spoke with Stage Directions to discuss her career and thoughts on lighting.

Over your career, were there moments or projects that really set you on your course?

The Pearl Fishers at the Metropolitan Opera (photo credit: Ken Howard)

Yes, there are some touchstones for me. One would be working with Brian MacDevitt. I was his associate for a decade or so. I really do credit some of the people I met with him as major players for my trajectory. When Brian lit 13, the Jason Robert Brown musical, I was his associate. 13 was directed by Jeremy Sams. Jeremy hired me to light my first opera at the Met Opera. The opera work opened a lot of doors, and while I don’t have a huge opera career, it’s like those were some touchstone projects. Doing The Pearl Fishers was major. The Pearl Fishers at the English National Opera allowed a lot of collaborators—I now love and adore in the UK—to see my work. That project opened doors to me going to the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia and being able to do things outside of the New York scene. Really working with Brian I consider my apprenticeship-style grad school.

You mention being an associate lighting designer, what’s an important trait needed in that role?

There are so many. If I were to boil it down to one, I would say presence in the project. Meaning, you are not waiting for direction. You are present in participating in the timeline of what needs to happen to get the project finished. Sometimes, matching the designer. I know what I learned from Brian, and what I now need from my associates is a nudge from time to time because I’ve got so many things on my plate and a three-year-old child. It’s helpful to have an associate say, ‘Hey, Jen, you didn’t pick color yet’, before I get the electrician asking, ‘where’s the color?’

So, I like presence in the room. I’m totally fine if you’re on your phone, or on Facebook, or whatever if it doesn’t distract you from what’s going on in the room. If I can quickly rattle off, ‘Oh, that thing needs to be sharper’ and you know what that thing is. Or you can ask me the right question to figure out what that thing is. You need to be someone who wants to be there; who’s happy to be in the room. Someone who can anticipate what’s next.

What’s an important trait as a lighting designer?

I think first and foremost, you have to love being a lighting designer. I think if you don’t absolutely love doing it, it’s going to be hard. There’s a lot of crap you have to take. Also, the time you’re away from your family and the time to money ratio isn’t always equivalent to what it should be. So, I think there has to be a really deep love of the process and project. I think you have to have a point of view. If you don’t have a point of view, and that doesn’t trigger an instinct or a quick response, then I think you’re going to be struggling to either continue to be hired or to make work yourself. Because if you don’t have a point of view that doesn’t quickly connect to your internal lighting instincts that doesn’t quickly connect to your mouth telling the programmer what to do, I don’t know if you can easily survive.

Eclipsed on Broadway (photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Is there something—be it color or cueing—that makes a design a Jen Schriever design?

It’s funny, I was asked this recently. I don’t know. I bet my assistants would tell you, or the directors I work with! It’s hard to answer yourself, but I think what I tend to stray from is applying a lighting idea on top of the realism or the realistic shape of the space. Instead, what I love to do is heighten the possibilities and the naturalism. Meaning, how can we use the rules of what the set designer and director have set up in terms of the realism of the space and heighten that to support the emotion or psychology deeply? 

I’ve joked that my go to color palette is Roscolux 16 and Lee 200. Which some people are like, ‘That’s quite monochromatic.’ I do think I instinctually have a pretty pale and tight color palette, but that doesn’t mean I’m not grabbing a deep dark red sometimes or a nasty acid green. Probably, every electrician that I’ve worked with has the same color order for me. My favorite thing to do is super-enhanced naturalism that spins off what the set design is for a show. 

Talk a little bit about your philosophy as a lighting designer. 

Maybe this is just what I’m into right now, not necessarily my philosophy, but I’ve been really interested in the movement of light and cueing. I find I have a really hard time—and actually have to remind myself it’s okay to sit in one place for a long time—to stay in one lighting state and let the play happen in this state. What I tend to do—and what I’m interested in—is figuring out a parallel to the arc of the story or the theme; the conflict of the story as it unravels in front of us. How does the light move with that? Sometimes, that’s literally movement. I did this play that took place on the side of a hill in Greece, and the light was never still. I mean, it was still for a certain moment, but it was constantly as if clouds were passing by or fog was rolling through. There was something really exciting about that, and I’ve tried to always figure that out. I’m always wondering ‘how can this space stay alive in a way with light’?

My philosophy is do what’s right and that might mean do less. I know I just talked about doing a lot, but sometimes I have to remind myself to do less. I lit the new national tour for the Blue Man Group; it’s a massive new thing with a ginormous set design by Jason Ardizzone-West and killer video by Lucy Mackinnon; It’s like a rock concert. I cued the shit out of it, and it was super, super badass. Then I realized two previews in, it was way too much, and I had to pull it way, way back. So, you have to stay real with yourself and don’t be afraid to try crazy shit; but also be willing to take it away, or restore, or repent. Keep your eyes open, stay sharp. Be able to critically assess what’s going on up there. And are you really helping, or do you need to do more? Do you need to do less? I think I’m always asking myself those questions until opening. 

What’s a show you’d like to design?

I would love to design the next Pillowman. I’d love to design Will Arbery’s next play. You know, whatever is the next, dark, unwritten, super mind-blowing, psychological, genius work that’s going to come out of this quarantine that some brilliant person is writing. Like Michael Jackson’s A Strange Loop. Whatever he’s writing right now, I promise it’s going to be one of the greatest musical known to our generation. I’m super excited about stuff like that. In terms of something that already exists, I’d love to light Chess. I’d love to do a badass, rock musical, I feel like that would be a fun, especially coming out of quarantine. To just let it all go and rock the hell out.

Do you have a preference of plays over musicals?

Support Group For Men at the Goodman Theater (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

I used to say plays, but I don’t have a preference. As long as it’s good. I love cueing to music. I think I might sometimes tend to cue a musical more like a play. That doesn’t mean I’m not rocking out, when it needs to, but I love serving the story. I love working with directors, discovering their ideas and let them teach me about storytelling in a new way and then we can run with an idea to create something to tell that story. 

What do you enjoy most about your career? 

I love everything, honestly. I mean, I am a total optimist in terms of work. I love working. I love that I get to do different things every few weeks. I love that I get to be with a different combination of old and new friends, and collaborators, and we get to make stuff together and come together in different configurations down the line making other things. I love celebrating when we freeze the show and being done. I don’t love the first day of tech. I don’t love the first run through with design. I love the last dress rehearsal room run-through when you get to see the play in worklight, in the front row, in a folding chair with whoever, some rock star actor you’d never get to see act that close. Doing it all, not marking it; I love showfolk. I love the kind of people that are theater people. It’s the people I get to work with that I love.

Jen Schriever at work

What are some old school technologies that you still rely on? 

A tungsten or incandescent light bulb. I mean, there’s really nothing like it. I’m so into lighting someone’s face with an incandescent bulb and not some sort of LED moving light or whatever. Incandescent front light, I will always beg for and try to have. It’s getting harder and harder to get, especially on the road. I love a PAR64 or an ACL, like a sunbeam; a bunch of ACLs through a window, that’s beautiful. Those are slowly fading out of inventories, so if some theater has them and can maintain those, that’s great. An incandescent source is probably my favorite old school thing. Sometimes, I would rather have a [Rosco] I-Cue and an iris in a Source Four over a [Vari-Lite] VL1K arc source. There’s the hotspot and the color rendering index; just the way it reveals the human skin that can’t compare yet. We’re getting closer, but I still notice a big difference between the two.

What’s some of the newer technology that you like, from the last couple years? 

Well, I’m obsessed with the [GLP] impression X4 Bar. I want those in every show; play or musical. I love the narrow, slash of light. I love the movement and the color. I wouldn’t probably use it as front light, but I love silent moving lights with shutters and animation wheels like the [Martin Lighting MAC] Encore. I always want shutters. I always want the moving light to be silent, and I often want an animation wheel. 

I like animation. Cory Pattak kids me about it, ‘You love your clouds,’ he says. I love animation wheels that go in both directions—which most of them don’t anymore—but the Encore does. It’s all the things I need in one little quiet box. Also, I like good LED pixel tape that is bright. Tiny, bright, dimmable sources that you can hide in tiny places. 

What are some changes in process or workflow in the few years that have improved your design process?

My big ass [Apple] iPad Pro and script notation apps, like Scriptation that I use to do my scripts on. I don’t need a paper script anymore. It updates the script. It moves your handwritten notations to the right place or asks you if it doesn’t know. So, it’s smart. You can just import the new script whenever it’s ready without having to rewrite anything, and I can share it with my assistant so we can both be looking at the same thing. 

I love doing my roughs and my initial design ideas using the app, GoodNotes. I can have a different folder for each project and import the initial PDFs and sketch on them. I like to storyboard for myself. It’s sort of the perfect combination of analog and digital for me. I can use the pencil and I can write and sketch, but it’s all in one little thin iPad all together. And my associate, Aaron Tacy, who I’ve been working with lately is also the greatest new help to me. He is a rock star. So, I’d say my iPad Pro with those apps and my associate, Aaron Tacy, are the greatest new support to my design process right now.

Transport Group’s Strange Interlude at Irondale (photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Who has been a mentor or has influenced your work?

I mean, 100% Brian MacDevitt. I grew up just outside the city in New Jersey and would come into New York to see shows through high school. My parents weren’t theater people, so I met the theater kids in high school, and we would just bus, train, or drive into the city and see everything at the Public, the Delacorte, or Playwrights Horizons. Brian was doing a ton of Off-Broadway work at that time, so I was curious and interested in what he was doing. When it was time for college, I wanted to learn from Brian, and found he was teaching at Purchase. That’s why I went to Purchase, except by the time I got there, he was halfway out the door. So, I had to track him down. So, yeah, Brian was a major influence in my young life. 

I would say honestly, right now, I’m super influenced by the set designers I work with, especially my two dear friends, Dane Lafferty, and Arnulfo Maldonado. The two of them see the world in a way that I am delighted to see through their eyes. They’ve changed the way I design in a good way. I am excited by their influence. They break me out of my tendency to naturalism in a way. Dane sometimes is a little more minimalistic and Arnulfo is sometimes a little more electrified, but not always. Sometimes, they swap, but the two of them especially inspire me. 

What has surprised you most about your career path?

That I can make a living doing what I love. I mean honestly, I still feel childlike about it. I’m turning 40 this year, and I’m like, ‘Holy crap, I make a living doing what I love to do’. It’s still surprising to me. I don’t know when that will go away. But I feel super blessed or super lucky that I get to do this for a living. I can support my family by being a lighting designer. I mean, that is so cool. Yeah, it’s weirdly surprising to me, still, that I get to do this.

Is there a piece of advice that you got at the start of your career that you still find applicable today?

A bit of Brian’s advice to me—one of many, but one bit that rings out—was to keep a low overhead, so you can take all of the little design gigs that are inspiring you and you don’t have to necessarily swing a wrench all the time or have a ‘day job’. That’s not always the case. Some people are coming into the ‘real world’ with more debt than others. But keeping a low overhead was something that rings out in my ears, and it does apply right now because none of us are making any money at this moment. 

The other was to serve the story. To serve the story you’re telling. To question everything that you’re doing. Are you serving the story? Are you taking away from the story? If you’re serving the story, carry on, but if you’re taking away from the story, ditch it. Find the way to serve the story always.  

See more of Schriever’s work at https://jenschriever.com

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