It’s springtime, which means that students all across the country are graduating; leaving college full of excitement combined with trepidation, hope tempered by reality, and far more questions than answers. In the spirit of the season, I spoke with Brian Shevelenko, head of the lighting department at University of Hawaii, Manoa (on Oahu) about life, the universe, and everything.
We’re going to start off today with what you’re working on at the moment…
I’m just in the tech week for a production here at UH. It’s actually my first “official” design here; one where I controlled the process from start to finish, not just mentoring or picking up slack.
And how’s everything going?
I’m in that awesome part of the process where the focus notes are minimal, the rewriting/large overhauls are (hopefully) behind me. Now I get to scrutinize. That light up 5% in this cue; that one down 10%; add 2 more seconds to the cross-fade. This might actually be my most favorite part of the process.
Aside from your paycheck, why do you show up at your gig every day?
The students. As much as I get frustrated working with them, I really feel that they help me push to be a good example. I’m more careful with my cue placement because the Stage Manager is a student. I’m more careful with my plot drafting because the Master Electrician is a student. I have to explain in detail why I do what I do, and I find that to be fun.
In your experience as an educator, have you found that there are some common approaches to bringing out creativity in students or is it something that’s based on each individual student?
I have yet to find one general solution. It’s an ongoing and often small-step by small-step process with some students. My favorite example was a quiz question I gave on the Synge play “Riders to the Sea.” I asked the question; “If you were designing the set for this show, how many chairs would be onstage? Explain why.” I got the answer I was sadly expecting from one student. “It doesn’t say how many chairs anywhere in the play. I double checked.” Of course that was correct, but my point was to think creatively about the play and justify a number of chairs based on the story. Just about any number from 1-12 could’ve been perfectly correct, depending on why you chose that number. Students today are more accustomed to spitting back information as it was given to them.
I speak a lot with high school students and see the same thing. It’s a little disheartening…
But slowly, with much repetition and reinforcement, I find that students will eventually break the mold and understand that it’s the quality of ideas I’m looking for, not the recital of facts. Once they realize they won’t be shot down for giving the “wrong” answer, they become more willing to try.
Another related problem, maybe a bit off topic, is getting students comfortable with giving and receiving criticism. I teach THEATRE, it’s a subjective art form. Part of my job, I believe, is to help train the aesthetic… it’s not always about right and wrong, but often about what works well, what works less well, and what doesn’t work at all. There’s a question of aesthetics and technology present in many course projects. For example, this particular color combination is going to make the actor look greenish and sickly. As long as that was the goal, you were very successful. So that’s one question: “Did your technology accomplish your artistic goal?” But on top of that question, you may need to ask if it was an appropriate goal in the first place. You wanted the character to look sick, you accomplished that successfully, but maybe it wasn’t very appropriate to have the character look sick at that part of the play… this too needs to be discussed and considered. I find that many people around me are afraid at looking at that second question. We can and should learn to be critical of our work, and of everyone else’s. Sparing someone’s feelings with the blanket “it was great” comment doesn’t help them learn. It also doesn’t help all the students who saw the same play and hear that reaction learn anything. I believe it’s my responsibility to talk frankly about the quality of the work we see, as well as the content. I hope that in this way I’m helping them learn not only how to be creative, but how to express that creativity successfully.
That’s a great way of putting that, especially since we live in an era where students receive praise and adulation just for showing up. I believe artists must know how to articulate the “why” and the thinking behind their process; but at the same time, I totally understand how difficult that can be. I still struggle with it occasionally and I think it’s great that you emphasize that part of their process. What else do you hope your students take away from your instruction and guidance?
Going off my tirade, I hope they are learning to be critical; of their own work, of other works they see. Then, more importantly, apply that information toward making their own work better.
A second hope would be that they gain an excitement/enjoyment for the work. If we graduate a student who has learned to hate the theatre experience than what is the point? It is our job to make them learn, improve, and yes, do the work. But it’s also our job to make sure they can learn to love what they do, or at least learn why they should find what they love if it’s not theatre. I think you mentioned recently that working long hours shouldn’t be considered a bad thing if you love what you do for work. I agree with this sentiment whole-heartedly.
Right – when work doesn’t feel like “work”, how many hours you spend doing it become inconsequential.
Lastly, I hope they learn a work ethic. It has not been the practice here, until recently, to hold our students to professional standards of behavior. I hope very much to change that mentality. I think it does our students a disservice to let them think they can behave like this in the “real world” and get away with it. Designs which are late and incomplete are not tolerated in professional theatre, they shouldn’t be here either.
I couldn’t agree more. Of your previous students, how many would you estimate have continued on in creative fields?
I know quite a few that have stayed in theatre, or the looser “entertainment” industry; off the top of my head, maybe a dozen. That’s a gratifying experience. But I also think that these skills are applicable in a variety of industries, and just because they left the theatre doesn’t mean the work was pointless or wasted.
There is a lot of recent research indicating exactly that. The act of creating; that process, is beneficial knowledge in a number of industries, not just entertainment. Okay, speaking about process, let’s talk a little bit about yours. What inspires you to create?
Necessity. It’s not ideal. I often wish I could just “feel artsy”, and honestly I sometimes do, but I’m really at my most creative when faced with the necessity to be so. I rarely read plays until I have to. I rarely draw anything that’s not needed for some presentation. I have only a few examples when I’ve painted purely for my own enjoyment of the process. This creative drive applies in other areas as well. My father has often pushed me to design an iphone app that can make money. The truth is I can often be quite creative with things like an excel spreadsheet; automating formulas for ease of data entry, color coding various information for quick retrieval. But all of that work is dependent on the necessity to enter that data, to present those figures. When I try to just sit and think of a program I could write just for the purpose of writing something, I’m bone dry. I could never be an author or a playwright. I just don’t have that internal drive to push work out the door. It takes a production deadline for me to sit down and really start thinking about how a show ought to look.
That’s a great personal observation. I recently read an online article recently about this very subject; and how artists split almost distinctly into two camps – those who just create and those who need some form of external motivation.
Most of my creativity seems to occur at a coffee house. Sure, I have to sit in the theatre at a board and write cues for tech day, but the truth is by then I already have an idea of how things should look. I have on more than one occasion written cues for a show that has not yet been hung. That idea, that vision of how the show should/could look was, more likely than not, developed in a coffee house somewhere. There’s something special about the nature of the public interaction in a coffee house; people around you, each with their own goals, their own stories, their own reasons for being there. Some are working, some are chatting, some just enjoying their coffee and listening to music. In this atmosphere, I find I can really touch that “left brain” side of me.
Apart from a coffee house, where do you typically find inspiration?
Art. All of it. From every era, in nearly every genre, and every medium. If I have to narrow that down I think I have to pick the whole of the French romanticism movement. I frequently find inspiration in their color choices, emotional content, energetic brush strokes, etc. I actually use a great variety of art for this purpose, but if I had to narrow it down, I think my own style is most directly influenced by that era’s practitioners more than any other.
Alright, inspiration pop quiz time – name three people, living or dead, who influence your work and why.
Fun question. I think there are way more than three… but let’s see…
One obvious one would be Craig Wolf. Though it’s now been nearly 8 years since I was in grad school, I still hear his voice in my head at times and I can predict how he would respond to my design choices were he present. I no longer feel the need to design a thing in a manner he would like, but I still know what that is, and sometimes use it as a measuring stick.
A far less obvious one is Wagner. Yes, the opera composer. Wagner is credited with initiating the concept of “gesamtkunstwerk”; this radical (at the time) idea that the production should be a cohesive whole. The costumes, sets, lights, and acting style are harmonized in a unified whole; and all serve the story. On the surface, the modern theatre practitioner takes this idea as a given, but I’m frequently surprised when a production fails to live up to this basic concept. In general, I blame the director when this is lacking as it is their role to unify the concept. However, the designers ought to be actively engaged in the collaborative process, and if they are, this error is far less likely.
For my third choice I think I have to pick God. I’m not actually all that religious. I don’t really care how you may perceive the idea of God; my personal preference is something akin to the Wiccan “sacredness in all things.” The point is that one way or another we have this planet, and the lighting on it is quite extraordinary. One of the things I really love about being a lighting designer is that inspiration and example is around us at all times, every day. One can go outside (or not) and view the natural wonders of light that the earth and mother nature provide. Sometimes it’s the glitter of sunlight on a small stream, or the natural texture of that same sunlight filtering through the trees nearby. Sometimes it’s the hazy diffusion of a foggy afternoon. Sometimes it’s the majestic rainbows I am now in a favored position to witness frequently. Whatever the case, God (or whoever) is an amazing lighting designer, and we can only hope to approach his (her/it/them) sense of style.
You are indeed in a great location for rainbows! Just the quality of light on O’ahu is inspiring; or any of the Hawai’ian islands for that matter. Alright, you mentioned earlier that you were in the middle of your favorite part of the process. What’s your not-so-favorite part?
I think my least favorite part might be the hang and focus. I’ve already gone through the process of deciding which light goes where, color, angle, quality…etc. The actual act of putting those things in place is just a necessary step so I can sit at the board and start writing cues. I’m also nervous during a focus… afraid that I’ll make errors and have to go back. I want to be efficient and I usually am, but the anxiety remains until I start to see the systems come together.
Yeah, focus can be a time of nervous anxiety. It’s one thing to deal with the math on the paper, but there’s inevitably a certain amount of finger-crossing until you see that everything is going to work out. I’m going to circle back to your youth. What were you like as a kid?
I was actually quite the pain in the butt for my teachers in elementary school. I rebelled, refused to do homework, I talked back. I spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office beginning in around 3rd grade and lasting through 5th. I had regular conferences where my parents were called in to discuss the situation. I never really thought about how that time might relate to what I do now but in a strange way I think it does. I was generally getting in trouble because I couldn’t abide “busy work,” nor adults who seemed less bright than I telling me what to do. In some small way I still have these traits. I don’t mind working hard, but I can’t stand working inefficiently. As long as there’s a purpose and a need to do the work, I don’t mind, but if it seems repetitive or pointless, I have a great deal of difficulty. This plays into my teaching as well. I try to make sure I’m NOT assigning pointless work to people. I try to make every assignment relevant and productive in some way – an interesting connection that I’ve never made before.
And when you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
The truth is that I never really thought about it. In high school, I never thought beyond high school, except that I knew my parents would insist on college. In college, I never really thought about a career, I just took classes that seemed interesting to me. My early career was really just a series of happenstance. I don’t regret a minute of it. I’m quite proud of the various experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and I don’t think that would have been possible if I had more of a “direction.”
Your parents insisted on college? Were they supportive of your career choices?
I’ve been lucky in my parents in that they’ve always been supportive, if vaguely. Neither was at all excited about my choice to go into lighting as a career. Though they frequently expressed their concerns, they never really tried to stand in my way, and eventually they’ve come around.
What about before that? How did you get into theatre?
In high school I took great joy in music. I played trombone and would seek any opportunity to perform that came available. I was in the concert band, brass choir, marching band, pep band, concert orchestra, jazz band, Dixie combo, and probably a few more. The most relevant to this point though, was the musical pit orchestra. I especially loved the musicals; the preparation, the process, and the performances were all a great thrill to me. My emergence from the pit (if you’ll excuse the obvious pun) was an interesting story.
It was my senior year in high school, hence destined to be my last musical. On the day of the auditions I woke with a 102 fever, dizzy, nauseous. Determined to push through anyway, I went to auditions that day and did not tell the music director. As you may guess, I played quite horribly. I was not chosen for the pit; my first time being “rejected” from a music opportunity. Word spread and my concert band conductor learned the cause, he wanted to go to the music director and get me a “retest”. I refused. It was partly embarrassment, partly a weird sense of honor. It didn’t seem fair to push out the freshman trombone player who otherwise would not likely have made the pit that year. In truth, though, I felt a bit devastated.
A week or so later, I was called to the office of the head of the drama department. This was something of a terrifying experience. I didn’t recall doing anything wrong recently. The head of the drama department was always the director of the school shows, and to me (and many of my peers) had a supernatural quality about him. I had no idea what to expect, but what actually happened could not have been predicted in my silliest fantasies. He asked me to sit and said (some apologies for the nature of memory, but this is as close to quote as I can recall…)
“I’m going to ask you a question. Your first response will be ‘why me?’ your second will be ‘shouldn’t someone else be doing this?’”
“Ok” I said.
“I’d like you to stage manage the musical this year. And more than that, I want you to be my assistant director as well.” Somewhat stunned, I decided to use the script he offered…
“Why me? Shouldn’t someone else be doing this?”
He explained. It seems that he knew far more about me than I would have ever possibly guessed. He knew that I was quite diligent in my private rehearsal of the musical music. He went on to explain that he thought my “work ethic” was appropriate for stage management and he was lacking any options he considered trustworthy.
“But I’ve never even been on crew.” We can teach you that part, he insisted.
“What about this directing thing?”
He explained that his “student director” appointment was political, and he didn’t really trust this person to do the job. So in addition to stage management, he would ask me to run rehearsals, give blocking notes and be in one place when he was in another (such as me attending a choreography session while he was in the music room with the singers).
Well, to finally get to the point – until that moment I had never thought of myself as a leadership type. I had never stepped up to that role, preferring to remain in the anonymous background. This was a turning point in my love for theatre, but in truth for my life as a whole. Somehow this guy whom I had feared and respected saw a potential in me that I hadn’t sought nor expected. I honestly think that I may never have done so if not for this opportunity. Interestingly, it was really the start of a long career of leadership, often in surprising or unexpected circumstances: Officerships in college organizations, management of a waterpark, rapid advancement in the ranks of Red Cross instructors, becoming the youngest synagogue executive director in the country, and others… up to and including my previous position with Disney. But through all of that, I never lost the connection to the fact that theatre had provided my first, and perhaps most significant opportunity to change how I saw myself.
And how did things grow from there?
My theatre career developed over time slowly and piecemeal. For the most part I was learning “on the job” without any real formal education. I didn’t, in those years, think of myself as an artist, merely as a practitioner. When choosing a graduate school, I had the opportunity to meet my later Mentor, Craig Wolf. Sitting in his home-like comfortable office in San Diego, he mentioned that he’d been thinking about designing a whole show with no color whatsoever. We spent the next 2 or 3 hours theorizing on how that would work, using angles, intensity, and amber shifts to change tone, mood, etc. It was astonishing to me; not the idea, but the simple fact of being able to sit and talk about lighting in this way. I think that was the beginning of my thinking of myself as an artist. I was certainly the moment when I fell in love with lighting as a practice and an art. I got an MFA in Lighting Design from San Diego State. More than the institution, though, I really feel like I got my degree from Craig Wolf. His mentorship was chock full of ups and downs, but he demonstrated a passion for our craft that was contagious. Interpersonally, we had quite a few challenges. What I gained most from him is the ability to actively critique my own work, and fight to make it better. Certain habits I learned from him creep into my own teaching, and I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing.
It’s amazing to me how those moments of sadness or disappointment can turn on a dime and take life in a completely different direction. The best teachers can see the future of the student even if the student can’t. Did you enjoy school?
Yes and no. I appreciate that I went to grad school with a focus. Many students I think go into grad school sort of by momentum from undergrad. My path was different. I knew what I wanted out of an MFA program and I was able to actively seek it out. Mostly I appreciated the personalities and talents of my professors. Ralph Funicello, an active Broadway designer, gave me an excellent perspective on the industry as a whole. His artistry, also, is unquestionable. A compliment from him was rarely attained, and especially appreciated because of that. Our costume professor, Holly Poe-Durbin, helped me face and overcome my fear of rendering (sketching/drawing) in a way that I don’t think just any personality would have been able to accomplish. I find that to this day I can still draw on the strength she helped me acquire in that process. I’m not overstating things when I say I had a fear of rendering (I still do actually) but she really helped. I haven’t overcome the fear, but I’ve been able to put it aside and do the work. I now can take enjoyment from rendering, as long as no one else needs to ever see it. She helped largely just by her demeanor and her presence. There’s no “moment”, but rather an ongoing encouragement and support of my work, even when I thought I was a failure.
It sounds like you had some excellent mentors early on.
I have a very strong respect for the mentorship process. The original mentor was, and still is, my father. In every major career I’ve become involved in, I’ve sought (and generally attained) a mentor. Various mentors serve various purposes, so my relationship tends to be very different with each. Craig Wolf, as I mentioned, was not someone I could go to with personal concerns or discomfort. He was, and is, a very warm and caring person, that’s not the problem. It’s just that we don’t have that kind of relationship. However, when it comes to the practice and aesthetic of lighting design, it’s fair to say he somewhat created the mold that I used to shape my early career.
Mentors are, after all, only human. I suppose it’s not surprising that relationships with each of them are so contextual. And it’s incredibly helpful to have that sounding board; to provide guidance and insight in good times and challenging times. I mean, we all make mistakes, right? Would you mind sharing any mistakes from your professional career and how you might have learned from it?
Here’s an example that I still find somewhat painful to think on, but it’s representative, and has certainly taught me a certain kind of caution. I was hired to stage manage a production of Wizard of Oz. Very early on I began to lose respect for the director. He had a good reputation, so I can only assume that he was distracted and “phoning it in” on this particular work. He was inattentive frequently during rehearsals, arriving late, providing little or no constructive feedback. He tended to be condescending to the cast, treating the adult professionals in the cast similarly to the children (munchkins) who were mostly volunteers. A good chunk of the cast began to look more to me for support than to him. I worked very hard to maintain a level of professionalism with him, but it was clear that he resented my connection with some of the cast. I say all of this not to excuse my actions, but to provide some context as to his reaction to the situation. On opening night, a good friend of mine was in the audience. She’s been in the theatre industry enough to have a quite educated opinion, but perhaps not enough to learn all of the politics. Her husband was my assistant stage manager, so she had a personal stake in this production. Following the show, we were standing in the lobby for the opening night reception. This friend started commenting on the production she had just seen. In hindsight, I should have squashed that quickly, it was not the time nor the place for such a conversation. Instead, I uncomfortably participated in the feedback, responding to some of her points. As you might guess, the director overheard this, and was quite rightfully angry. Though I fully accept blame for the nature of this conversation, and acknowledge his righteous anger, I do have to say that his reaction was perhaps a bit over the top. He started yelling at me, there in the lobby, in front of the cast, crew, audience, and all. Our already uncomfortable relationship took a definitive nose-dive at that point.
What was my lesson? I have a tendency to be overly honest at times. It’s often hard for me to provide the socially correct responses that are expected. I do think I’ve gotten much better at holding my tongue at least (if you can’t say something nice…). For one thing, I’ve become hyperconscious of my assigned role in any given production. If I’m the designer, I work very hard to not comment on the directing. When I’m in a show, I keep my mouth shut about the design. If directing a show, I try to be careful not to tell the TD how to build the set, Etc…
That’s a powerful lesson; and one that many people never learn – That wonderful combination of knowing your place and holding your tongue! What other qualities should someone possess to be successful in your line of work?
I think recent experiences have underscored the need to stay calm in crisis, and to be able to take a heap of work during “crunch time” and just keep pushing till you’re through it. Last semester I had 2 students have “nervous breakdowns” of sorts, one requiring hospitalization. That’s kind of nuts. As a lighting designer, we have to know that the bulk of our work and stress will come in the last two weeks before a show opens. If you’re not prepared for that onslaught you shouldn’t be in this game. Keeping calm and patient is crucial. Being able to work long hours is crucial. Being able to persist through to the end regardless of the unexpected stumbles along the way, just as crucial.
I’d say the other primary necessary quality is vision. It’s vital for a lighting designer to be able to see in their head what the final product could and should look like. Scenic and costume designers have much greater opportunity for sketches, scale models, fabric swatches, etc. A lighting designer will not see his work until the stage is built, the actors are on it in costume, and the play is about to open. Every bit of work done before that time is based on a vision only. Many directors are incapable of this kind of vision, they are dependent on the lighting designer to see in advance what things need to happen for the show to look right.
True enough. It sounds like you’ve had a wide variety of interesting experiences thus far; and have accomplished quite a bit. Out of your career achievements thus far, which ones stand out?
I think there are a number of shows that I can look back on with pride. Often it’s because the final look was a work of art that I can appreciate. I also have some shows which maybe weren’t the most glamorous results, but the work succeeded in meeting my vision; that’s something to appreciate regardless of the level of difficulty, or recognition involved. My thesis show of so many years ago is still one of those. The result was successful, and if I may say so, quite beautiful. The process was a bit nightmare-ish at times, but in the end result, I have more good things to say about that show than bad. And I still take pride in showing those production shots as part of my portfolio. I’m also quite happy with my recent work at the Chance Theater. My favorite was probably “Boy in the Bathroom”. An odd show, with some interesting lighting challenges, but I think the end result was lovely. Not big and flashy, not likely to impress anyone or get any recognition. But that show turned out the way I hoped it would, and I think there was a beauty to that effectiveness. “Boy” also provided me with what I think is the best comment I’ve ever received from a theatre critic. I don’t have the exact quote handy at the moment, but he basically said that the lighting provided a “mood-ring” for the main characters. I can’t think of a nicer recognition of my design intent, nor a more clear explanation of my goals on that piece.
Ah critics… I wish more of them knew how to critically review design elements as well as acting, singing, dancing, and directing. Speaking of recognition, how do you feel about awards in the arts?
I hate the awards, even the ones I have received. I feel like they’re given for the wrong reasons, by people who don’t really understand what I do anyway. I got several “named” awards for my production of “Bat Boy”. I am quite proud of my work on that show. It was long and exhausting and almost literally put me in the hospital (I did pass out on the sidewalk) but the end result was absolutely stunning. Not just my work, but the set, lights, costumes and acting all came together in a wonderful production that I think we can all be proud of. So you might think I’m proud of those awards… but kind of not. The show was big and splashy with lots of moving light effects and deep saturated color; these things all fit the story and were appropriate for the design but I can’t help feeling that the critics were choosing me for the wrong reasons.
I feel similarly. I mean, sure, it’s nice to be recognized but the concept of competition just feels weird in the arts; mostly because they are so subjective. They playing field is so uneven. How can one be acclaimed “best actor” unless all the nominees perform the same part under the same direction in the same circumstances, you know?
How about outside of work? What do you look forward to doing when you’re not inside a darkened theater?
One thing I love is hiking and other spending time outside. I try to swim at least 2-3 days a week. As I mentioned before, I frequently draw inspiration from the natural light in the world around us, so I guess these activities are somewhat relevant. I also very much enjoy museums, so again, somewhat related in that I draw inspiration from the artworks I find there. I read a lot, which is probably not really useful for my career at all except when I read plays, but it’s rare for me to pick a play that’s not directly work related.
And you live in such a great place for hiking! Pillbox Trail in Lanikai, Mariner’s Ridge; even the hike up to Manoa Falls is right in your area. So, how about your next project? Tell me a bit about it, if you can.
My next non-school project is a lighting design for a local semi-professional production of “Rent”. I’m pretty psyched because I love that show, a bit less psyched because it’s going to be in a fairly small space, with not much gear to work with. Sigh.
I’m right there with you. That show is on my bucket list. I hope to design it in the future. Speaking of the future, our field has undergone so many changes in the last decade and it seems that even more change is on the way. How do you see it changing how you create?
Truthfully, I think the changes coming are going to be huge, and they’re starting already. LEDs are going to dominate the industry. On one hand, that may not seem like much of a big deal, but right now, LED manufacturers are going out of their way to make the instruments “familiar” to traditional designers. There are LED PARs, LED Fresnels, LED Source4s etc. At some point, those things will become less necessary, and we’ll have to develop a whole new vocabulary to discuss lighting, and a whole new schema for teaching it. What is an ERS really if there are no reflectors? Or a PAR? Instead of using ERS and PAR, will we just define instruments as “wash” vs. “spot”? Today they still make LED PARs with an oval dispersion, so it can be used like a traditional PAR; but at some point that’s going to just seem silly. The new generation of lighting designers aren’t going to understand lenses and reflectors in the same way we do. They won’t understand channeling and circuiting, and patching. The bank of dimmer racks will become obsolete and the new reality will be distributed networking. I think that over time this will also change our aesthetic. I don’t know how for sure, but I feel like it’s got to have an impact somehow. Maybe it will be something to do with color saturation, or maybe a dramatic shift in white-points that seem “natural.” Maybe “natural” will itself become less of an important factor in our lighting aesthetic. I don’t know, but I think big changes are on the horizon.
Thanks to Brian so much for taking the time to share his thoughts as a designer and educator!