The following interview appears in our Buyer & Cellar issue of PlayNotes. Education Intern, Chip Morris, interviewed Lighting Designer Andrew Hungerford about his process as a designer, his history, and just what went into his design for Buyer & Cellar.
PlayNotes: When it comes to creating a lighting design for a show, where do you start? How do you get the gears turning?
Andrew Hungerford: I always start from the text of the play. Step one is the reality of the lighting as described in the text, and step two is exploring any imagery or metaphor in the play that might be interesting to explore through light. From there I tend to jump to visual research, a lot of photography and some fine art, to build the visual world in my head. All of that initial conception on my part is there as a framework to inform a first conversation with the director, which can then take the journey of the lighting in a very different direction. Every process is unique: some journeys have a dozen steps, others a thousand.
PN: When did you first kindle an interest for lighting design? Are there other theatrical design fields that you have explored?
AH: My first real exposure to lighting design was my freshman year of college (20 years ago!) at Michigan State, when I was assistant to our Theater department’s lighting and scenic design professor for a year. I didn’t really start designing myself until my junior year. I discovered I really had a passion for lighting, both in terms of the artistry and the physics of it, and I ran with it.
After I finished my undergraduate degree I spent a year studying in a scenography program, and then studied scenic and sound design as concentrations when I finished my MFA in lighting at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. So now I frequently design scenery and lighting together (I’ve been resident scenic and lighting designer at Know Theatre of Cincinnati for a decade, and spent six years as scenic and lighting designer for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company). And I’ll occasionally do a sound design, when it fits into my schedule.
PN: Barbra’s basement is described constantly as being perfect because it reflects Barbra’s passion be just that; perfect. How do you plan on using lights to emphasize that perfection?
AH: One of the interesting questions for me concerns Alex’s relationship to the light when he’s working in the basement. The light may be “perfect,” but after hours of working underground, alone, in this environment, how does that unchanging ambience feel? And does the feel of the light change when Barbra’s actually in the room? With that in mind, the lighting has some of the qualities of a glittering display case, while also featuring a mix of colors and angles that will temper that as the emotions, and locations, shift through the play.
PN: Do you feel like you’ll approach this design differently because it is a one-person show? Will the actor transitioning into different characters affect the mood of the lighting? Why or why not?
AH: One-person shows allow the lighting to be quite fluid. In a lot of ways, lighting is dramaturgy: the designer guides the audience toward what on stage is important at any given time.
When there’s only one actor, there can be an opportunity to take more liberties with reality in a text, and underscore the emotion of the piece in a more significant way, without the concern of accidentally throwing other cast members into shadow. That said, while it can feel like a lighting playground, one also doesn’t want to distract from the actor who is up there doing all the work.
In this piece, the lighting will shift in mood as different characters “enter” the space, but those shifts may largely be quite subtle. They’re there to underscore the actor’s performance, not to overwhelm it.
PN: What has been your favorite show to design so far and what do you look for in shows that you design? Is there a dream show of yours that you wish you could work on?
AH: The favorite design question is so complicated! At this point in my career, I’ve designed nearly 250 shows, and it can be hard to pick favorites.
That said, another one-person show which I loved working on is An Iliad, for which I did lighting and sound design at the, now regrettably defunct, Performance Network in Ann Arbor, MI. Another favorite was These 7 Sicknesses, a theatrical marathon of all seven of Sophocles surviving plays, which I designed at The Flea in NYC.
I love designing shows that take advantage of theatrical magic. At Portland Stage, I’ve gotten to design both My Name is Asher Lev and Wittenberg, which fall into that category for me. In shows like these, the lighting can be a necessary part of the storytelling.
One of the advantages of my position as Artistic Director of Know Theatre, is that every season I get to pick out dream design shows and put them in our season. So my next show at the Know is Heavier Than… by Steve Yockey, a dark comedy about the minotaur in the labyrinth that I’ve been wanting to design since 2011. But in a more succinct answer: I’d really like to design Sunday in the Park with George. I’m waiting by the phone for a call from Jake Gyllenhaal, but it’s probably a little late.
PN: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced before as a lighting designer?
AH: There are all variety of technical challenges I’ve faced: designing a full opera outdoors with a handful of lights; designing shows at an outdoor theater that kept getting struck by lightning; designing a big musical in a theater with a manual dimmer board from the early 20th century, where light cues can only be as fast as Phil, the operator… I seem to have accumulated more than my share of horror stories.
I once simultaneously designed productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Grapes of Wrath at theatre that were about a 10-minute walk from each other. I split my time between the two during technical rehearsals, running back and forth as we put the shows together.
This past January I had only a few hours to write hundreds of light cues for a rock and roll musical at the Under the Radar Festival in NYC. These often stick in the mind more firmly than strictly artistic hurdles. And one of the biggest challenges even less related to the art, is the simple task of making a living as a freelance designer. At my busiest in my early 30’s, I was designing 20+ shows a year (set & lights for about half of them). At an average of 3 full work weeks per show; that meant I was doing 60+ weeks of work per year in order to get by. That’s just not sustainable.
PN: Considering the political environment facing this country today, why do you think theater (particularly shows like Buyer & Cellar) is important?
AH: Theater is a vital place for people of all backgrounds to come together and breathe in a story together. It reminds of us our shared humanity refracted through our different experiences. And it’s a place to explore both the best and worst of human behavior, to subsume oneself in beauty, and to find some space to laugh during fraught times.