Faculty Focus: Lighting up the Stage
- ©Teresa Castracane 2016
- VanderVeen Photographers
- Paul Gillespie
- Igor Dmitry
- Paul Gillespie
- Paul W. Gillespie 2014
- Paul W. Gillespie 2014
- Yi Zhao
For theatrical lighting designer Laura J. Eckelman, her freelance work around the country draws her students that much closer into professional theater circles.
Laura Eckelman is the granddaughter of engineers and the daughter of therapists, with the analytical mind to prove it. She can just as easily install banks of LED fixtures as she can direct a fundraising campaign, mentor a college student, or handle every aspect of production management for Washington College’s Department of Theatre and Dance. But when it comes to lighting design, it’s all about the story.
“Design is dramaturgy. Design is directing. It’s a very short hop among the three,” she says. “We are all doing the same thing, just using different tools. Every choice you make tells a story, even the things that feel as though they are unintentional.”
As a designer, Eckelman focuses first and foremost on the play’s structure. “What moments in this play are in or out of reality? How can I convey a sense of the setting, place, time, or weather? Is this scene in a dreamscape? How can we create contrast between interior and exterior scenes? For me, the story dictates the design.”
The best theatrical designers are considered “infinitely adaptable,” she says, but of course each brings her own sensibilities to any given production. And even more important than the résumé—hers includes an undergraduate degree from Middlebury, a master’s of fine arts from the Yale School of Drama, and gigs everywhere from New Haven, San Antonio, and Greenboro, North Carolina, to Philadelphia and Washington—is who you know and who knows your work.
That’s how Eckelman landed the job as lighting designer for Stephen Spotswood’s award-winning play, Girl in the Red Corner. She first met the Washington College alumnus a couple of years ago when he was co-teaching a class, Devising the Environment, with biology professor Martin Connaughton and drama professor Dale Daigle. In 2016, Spotswood was part of the new crop of The Welders, a playwrighting collective in D.C. that also counts among its members fellow Middlebury alumna, Deb Sivigny.
“That’s how it happens. That’s how lighting designers get work,” Eckelman says. “It’s a web of community. And it has everything to do with how people like to work and what they are like as collaborators in the room. As Beverly Emmons once said to me about choosing an assistant: ‘Do I want to eat lunch with this person every day for two weeks?’”
Amber Paige McGinnis, who directed Spotswood’s Girl in the Red Corner, could easily commit to a month-long series of lunches. She has invited Eckelman to do the lighting design for Top Girls, a British feminist play she’ll direct this fall at the Keegan Theatre in northwest Washington. And Eckelman will be lunching with Spotswood and fight choreographer Cliff Williams—both of whom won Helen Hayes awards for Girl in the Red Corner. Spotswood will be teaching a course in playwriting at Washington College this fall, and Williams will consult on the theatre department’s fall production of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara.
“I’m trying to get more involved in Philly and DC because they’re so close and I like the work that’s happening there a lot,” says Eckelman. “Even better, students can come and see the work that I’m doing outside the classroom, and we can talk about how it relates to our classes and productions here on campus.”
Eckelman can open students’ eyes to new possibilities, she can teach them to be trust their instincts, to read texts closely, and to communicate effectively using visual tools, but the only way students can truly learn to design is by designing.
“It’s not like other academic disciplines that have more content; design is all about craft. I compare my design classes to workshops in creative writing. I teach students to pay attention to the world— to see how light hits a tree, the geometry of a dress, the furniture in a room—and to use those observations to help tell a story onstage. Designers are different from dramaturgs and directors in that they are hypersensitive to the world around them. I write an Aristotle quote on my whiteboard at the beginning of every semester: ‘I cannot teach anyone anything. I can only teach them to think.’ I feel like that’s what I do for my students: push them to think rigorously and creatively about theatrical space and time.”