Interviews with Fantastic People: Tess, Lighting Designer

Welcome to Interviews with Fantastic People!  How often have you heard of someone who’s having a great adventure or accomplishing an amazing task and thought, “Well, that’s great that they can do it, but I definitely can’t”?  Guess what – you can.  These interviews will give you a glimpse into how they did it and hopefully inspire you to chase down your own amazing accomplishments.

Long-time readers will be familiar with Tess, one of my bestest best friends from college and a frequent collaborator on Average Fantastic.  Tess is ridiculously organized, incredibly successful, creative, brave, and an all-around wonderful person.  Right after graduating college, she landed an internship, and ever since she’s been working in area theatres as a lighting designer and electrician.  Here’s her inside scoop!

1. When did you first get interested in theatre?
A very young age. Probably 5 or so. It was a combination of seeing “Annie” and other movies. I knew I wanted to be an actress. I can remember vividly envying Tina Majorino and Mara Wilson. I loved stories and make believe and I admit I loved the glory of it. I asked my parents for an agent for like 3 years straight every birthday and Christmas.

The lighting came later, in college. I guess it was a combination of my professor seeing that I had a knack for it and a need in the department. He kind of threw me in and I really fell in love. It’s forever mesmerizing and enchanting. It feels like I’m making magic.

2. What’s your favorite theatre-related moment?
It’s not a single moment but a recurring one. It’s one thing to read a play. It completely changes when you see it performed, and it transforms once again when you see it with an audience. I find the way people’s emotions build on each other fascinating. I’ll watch a show a dozen times as we tech it and enjoy it, but not understand. As soon as we get to first preview with our first audience, it’s like a different show. Parts that never even made me chuckle are hilarious. I remember one week I watched a mother and son listen as the father commits suicide, then break down onstage about 15 times and it never moved me. Then, on preview night with an audience there, I cried for the first time.

3. What was your favorite role, both on-stage and backstage?
Oooh, that’s tough. Onstage, definitely either Armande in “The Learned Ladies” by Moliere or maybe Myra in “Death Trap.” Probably Armande, though. I love working with classical text in period pieces. It heightens the sense of make believe, which I think is part of what drew me to theatre in the first place.

Backstage I obviously love designing and assisting. Assisting lets me exercise my anal-retentive tendencies. I also enjoy critiquing theatre. I love analyzing what works and what doesn’t; how all of the elements come together to tell the story.

4. Theatre can attract some, uh, colorful people. Without naming names, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever been a part of?
It’s interesting, the people who are so “colorful” they are uncomfortable to be around don’t always make it very far because theatre is so collaborative. I guess I do have a few fun stories, though. There was a director for a show I worked on last year who is very successful because he is a genius. He is a genius probably in large part because he is insane. He most likely has mild Asperger’s, but he can get work out of actors who would never believe. He’s a nightmare for stage managers, though. In the rehearsal hall they brought in little army men for him to play with because otherwise he would start shredding the stage manager’s script or emptying the dots out of the three-hole-punch. He was incredibly OCD about the setting of props and would nitpick about it probably because he needed to feel control. There were times when the assistant stage manager would have photo of the set and he would be saying “no, that’s wrong. It’s never looked like that.”

I assisted for a designer once whose drink at Starbucks was a short-decaf-extra shot-breve-ristratto-mocha-cappuccino, with light whip. He once had me go get him a chamomile tea from Starbucks and then walk another block to get him a cookie because he didn’t like Starbuck’s cookies but he also didn’t like the other cafe’s brand of chamomile tea.

Audience members are crazy, too. We had a woman trimming her nails in a show once. There was a show I worked on that was a retelling of An Iliad and a woman stood up in the middle of the show and told the performer to stop, that he was putting negative energy into the world by discussing war and he needed to stop.

I think the strangest thing to me, though, are artists without compassion. So much of theatre is about an understanding of human emotion and psychology. It relies on being able to understand motivation and needs and desires and it baffles me when they can’t apply that offstage. How can you be sympathetic with Medea but lose your mind when someone makes a mistake? I definitely see that a lot: artists who immerse themselves in the nitty-gritty of human emotion, but can’t accept fire code or union rules.

5. What’s been the most rewarding part of pursuing a career in theatre?
I think for me it’s knowing that I am doing what I love – that I am doggedly pursuing my dream. It’s also the certainty that I made the right choice. I recently worked on a show where one actress in particular was a little whiny about the hours and how late they were at the theatre (which to me is kind of like a flight attendant complaining about how much they travel). Anyway, at the opening night party someone asked her “If you woke up tomorrow and it was last Saturday and you had to tech again, what would you do?” She said she would cry and quit the show. I’ve never felt that. I’ve cried. I’ve been pissed and frustrated, as my friends can attest. I’ve even worked on shows I’m not proud of. I don’t think I’ve ever not been willing to do it again. I don’t know many people who can say that about what they do.

6. What’s been the most challenging?
I think in general the most challenging thing is time and money. It takes a while to build a
reputation and get to the point where you can actually make a living in theatre. Schools all over the country are churning out theatre artists. The supply is vastly higher than the demand. You either have to be very good at what you do or outlast everyone else. I had a conversation with a coworker once about how you rarely see theatre professionals who don’t come from upper middle class families because it’s hard to do if you can’t get support from your family during the first few years. My family is definitely helping me indirectly. I don’t pay for my health insurance or car insurance, and their financial planning and working with me to set up my own finances means I have resources I can pull from when I have a slow month.

However, for me personally, the hardest part has been much more personal. I’ve always been somewhat meek or at least not very commanding, which is not something that can happen in my line of work. I am almost always the youngest person on the production team and I will be facilitating work calls with burly, middle aged men who have been doing this since before I was born. There’s no question they know more than I do, but they have to trust me. If they don’t, it just makes more work for them. I take notes, and organize, and plan so all they have to do is execute, but if I’m unsure of myself, they’ll be second guessing and everything will take twice as long. My commanding presence is something I’ve had to work on a lot and I have a hard time shaking it once I get there. I find I’m not as silly. I don’t flirt. I don’t relax. I have a huge fear of showing vulnerability. I’m still working out the balance.

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