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Career Day

Career Day: The Lighting Designer

By Jenni Gritters

Emily Leong designs lighting schemes for musical theatre, burlesque, cabaret, solo performances, stand-up comedy, and drag shows in and around Seattle.

Why does lighting design matter?
It helps manipulate emotions. You can be watching a scene and feeling comfortable, but then the emotional stakes heighten. A lighting designer will change the setting from something warm and homey to something cooler, to help guide the audience through that experience. It’s invisible magic.

Lighting can also help transport people to new places. I recently worked on a show called “Dragon Lady,” which takes place in faraway locations like a nightclub in the Philippines. My job was to help the audience travel to these new scenes using lights.

What skills do you need for your job?
Attention to detail — you have to be able to notice a 3 percent intensity change in light. An understanding and appreciation of color, and strong communication skills. Most of my job is being able to visualize something in my brain and then communicate that to my fellow designers, the director, and the audience.

Whenever I see my friends taking Instagram photos, I can’t help but stage them!

What is your schedule typically like?
As a freelance lighting designer, I stack my schedule with a bunch of projects. After I read a script, I develop a lighting plan in collaboration with the rest of the design team and the director. Then, I’m typically loading in one show during the day, which involves bringing all the lights and parts to the set. If I want to be crazy and have 16-hour days, I’ll also work with tech rehearsals for another show in the evening. My work for the shows usually ends on opening night, when the team has my lighting script and knows how to execute my vision on their own.

What’s the best thing you’re working on right now?
I’m working on a play called “The Witching Hour;” it’s an immersive dinner theater experience that involves the audience. The show takes place in the back room of a forgotten museum. I want it to feel dusty and warm, and I’m using amber tones. I also put a lot of practical lighting into the room, like lanterns and wall sconces, to ground the space. Halfway through the show, the scenes start to flip into a magical world, which means I need to change the tone of the room entirely. Then it’s a lot of bright, pale blue lights with a variety of colors.

How does lighting design show up in your daily life?
My husband and I were buying a condo a few years ago and we looked at a ground floor unit. I couldn’t do it! It was so dark. We ended up buying the third floor place, which had tons of natural light and windows. When I’m home, even when it’s cloudy in Seattle, I keep all the lights turned off and let the natural light come in.

Any lighting tips for amateur photographers?
Whenever I see my friends taking Instagram photos, I can’t help but stage them! The other day my friend baked three gorgeous tarts for a dinner party and she wanted to take a photo of them. There was overhead light and she was right next to the tarts, casting her shadow on them. I moved her around the table so she could get a photo without the shadow, and put her closer to the window.

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.


Illustration by Verónica Grech

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