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Aaron Copp: Structural Light

Posted on January 5, 2016
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Preparing to meet this New York designer, who serves as the lighting director of the Lincoln Center Festival, we couldn’t help but be struck by the impressive diversity of his portfolio. In addition to his work at Manhattan’s preeminent performing arts center, Copp has, for the past ten years, been the lighting director for Yo-Yo Ma and the cellist’s Silk Road Ensemble. He’s also toured with Natalie Merchant and Laurie Anderson, won a Bessie Award for his work lighting BIPED, one of the most notable dance productions in recent memory, and distinguished himself as a theatrical LD.

We expected this holder of a MFA degree from the Yale School of Drama to opine eloquently about the differences that distinguish the various genres of lighting design. Indeed Copp did, but what he became most animated about was the common core that unites all of his work. This nexus is something that he calls the “architecture of light,” a clearly defined illuminated space that either moves with mobile performers on stage, as is the case with dance, or moves around static artists in concert.

In both cases, this space combined with the movement creates a lighting structure that helps to define the performance, making it more convincing and engaging. Taking a break from his busy schedule, Copp shared some insights with us about the core structure of lighting design. Enjoy.

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You have extensive experience lighting theatre and dance. Can you describe how the two differ in terms of a lighting designer’s challenges? Is one more gratifying than the other?

“Variety is gratifying. More than the other design disciplines, lighting designers go back and forth all the time. Just in the past two months, I’ve lit concerts with Yo-Yo Ma, an off-Broadway play, a new full-evening music work with cellist Maya Beiser, a dance event with choreographer Jonah Bokaer in a 10,000-square-foot atrium, and a Chinese acrobatic and martial arts circus with director Chen Shi-Zheng. If I was only doing one of these things all the time I might get bored, but I never have that luxury.”

Does working in theatre help your work in dance and vice versa?

“Very much so. I’ve found ways of using front light in dance that I never would have found without doing theatre, and ways of using sidelight in theatre that I never would have discovered without doing dance. It’s also something that was very specifically talked about when I was at Yale with Jennifer Tipton – how all the work you do across disciplines informs your ideas about design.”

Photo: COMPMANY of Armitage Gone! Dance in "In This Dream That Dogs Me" Choreography by Karole Armitage; performance photographed Sunday, December 11, 2005; 7:00 PM at The Duke on42nd St., New York City. Photograph © 2005 Richard Termine PHOTO CREDIT--Richard Termine

Photo: COMPMANY of Armitage Gone! Dance in “In This Dream That Dogs Me” Choreography by Karole Armitage; performance photographed Sunday, December 11, 2005; 7:00 PM at The Duke on42nd St., New York City. Photograph © 2005 Richard Termine
PHOTO CREDIT–Richard Termine

What is the most important thing lighting should accomplish in theatrical design? Is it the same in dance?

“I think it’s a little different in one respect, which is that in dance you’re often providing the primary visual architecture, whereas in theatre you’re usually not. But besides that obvious point, the similarities are much greater than the differences – you have to know when to push out in front of the material, when to hang back, where to land. You have to have a healthy enough ego to feel that you have a place at the table and a voice in the process, but you have to have enough humility to understand when it’s not about you – which is the case most of the time.

“I feel that lighting wants to land with another discipline almost all the time. In a straight play, for example, with a realistic interior set, the lighting naturally lands with the set – you have to make decisions about what would naturally motivate the light in the room (the window, the chandelier, etc.). That’s sort of the most obvious example. In some of the more edgy modern dance pieces I’ve done I’m often deciding whether I’m allied with the music or with the dance.

“Sometimes the music is clearly demarcating chapters in a dance and a change of music is really meant to change the tone. In that case you’d really want to do something different with each new track, but sometimes you can get fooled – maybe the music is really just background and the dance actually has a throughline or an arc that is not changed with each different track starting.”

 

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

You’ve done impressive work for Natalie Merchant on her recent US tour; how does that compare to theatrical lighting?

“I think the main differences have to do with the treatment of space and the creation of motion. Most band members are static, although Natalie’s in a followspot so she can go wherever she wants. Because of this static nature, washes aren’t important for the same reason they are in dance or theatre, which is to create the sense of unified space that performers can move through in a way that’s convincing – do you believe that the actor DSR is in the same room in the same light as the actor USL? So you’re still layering things that create architecture with things that light people, but without the need to have people move through space.

“So if Gabe, the guitar player, is always on his stool, six lights can create a whole world of angles for him, whereas six lights on a modern dance plot is enough to get you one convincing wash from one angle. And of course the kinetic aspects of music design tend to be much greater – you’re really trying to create visual excitement in a different way so you really need to have things that are just providing motion. In a dance piece it’s usually the dancers making that happen – they’re in motion – but with a seated band you have to move things around for them.”

 

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Your use of saturated colors on the Silk Road Ensemble was quite impressive, especially when contrasted with how you focused white light on the artists. How did you approach that project from a design standpoint?

“Working in the hybrid concert world is interesting. When I do tours for Natalie Merchant, for example, it’s clear that it’s in the pop/rock world and people expect a certain amount of lighting and no one questions it. When I work with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, they are fighting a lot of cultural baggage that comes with playing ‘classical’ instruments.”

Can you elaborate on that?

“I’ve been lighting them for about 10 years now and we (and others) have definitely moved the bar in terms of people’s expectations of what is an ‘acceptable’ production level to a largely classical music audience. Kronos Quartet was doing this years before, but they positioned themselves deliberately off to one side of the classical genre and straddled into the pop world a little more. I lit Kronos on the road for a little while in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and they were definitely doing more dramatic lighting than anyone else playing so-called ‘chamber music,’ but they were also playing Jimi Hendrix tunes.

“At the beginning of Silk Road some people would react really negatively to the fact that the musicians were amplified and that there was color in the lighting. Now, not only has the audience for so-called ‘classical’ music changed, but the halls and orchestras have changed with it. What the New York Philharmonic does with production values under Alan Gilbert would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And a lot of halls are now installing permanent lighting rigs so that you can either just do the straight concert down lighting or, if you want, they’re totally ready to do some cueing and some more interesting stuff.”

How does lighting contribute to the unfolding of a story in a theatrical design?

“I’ll use an example from the show I just lit off – Broadway – Hard Love, by Motti Lerner, which was produced by TACT (The Actor’s Company Theatre) at Theatre Row, directed by Scott Alan Evans. It’s a two-character play that deals with themes of faith, repression, desire, and self-determination.

“The show is in two acts. The first is in the kitchen of a home in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, and the second takes place in the living room of the male character, who lives a very secular life in Tel Aviv. The feeling Scott and I shared is that the first act should feel very tight and restricting and the second act should feel more open, with a little bit of a sense of relief.

“The plots are necessarily small on Theatre Row – The Beckett is physically a small theatre, and given that it’s a limited budge,t economy is important. The backlight and sidelight positions and the color choices aided the storytelling. The backlight for Act I is really toplight – it’s straight down, in L201. The backlight for Act II is fewer lights, just 3 50° in open white, wide open from all the way upstage center. So it’s a very airy feel compared to Act I. The cool toplight gives you some shadows in the eye sockets, a slightly ominous feeling, and the warm backlight gets it off their faces and just gives you that nice halo around people from behind.

‘The sidelight does a similar thing; for Act I it’s much more straight in from the sides, and for Act II it’s all coming from a few feet downstage of the actors – just a little change in angle from 3 o’clock to about 4:30 relative to the actor if you’re looking at it in plain view. It was a really subtle effect – just a little more shadowy for Act I – but I thought it worked very well. The color scheme also lightens in Act II – we go from an L201/L202 kind of world to an L203/NC kind of world. It’s a design choice that’s working within a very narrow range, really, but I thought it was an effective way to help the storytelling by subtly changing the feel of the light.”

When you are first presented with a theatrical project, how do you begin the design process?

“I want to read, see or hear the piece first. I try to react like an audience member, which can be really helpful to a director if I’m the first person to see it. Sometimes me not getting it is the way we move forward together – it’s important for the director to know that I didn’t understand the thrust of it and that can lead them to clarify certain things or to ask my help in doing so through design. These initial conversations usually generate a list of ideas about the show that gradually get expanded to a hookup.”

How about with dance lighting — how do you start?

“When I get to the point of starting to figure out the plot, I lay out the stage first. I always start with drops if there are any. If there are big expanses of scenery like that and I can’t light them effectively, I may as well go home. In a dance piece if there’s a cyc, I need to start the layout with the bounce all the way upstage, get a good three feet between it and the seamless, get a black scrim in there, etc. Then see what’s left and how many wing openings I can get out of it… then see how it masks and whether I have an opening that’s too wide… and back and forth until the choreographer and I have reached a happy compromise.

“On a musical, I start with the scenic drops and make sure I can light them. I claim the real estate that I need for that and see if I need to ask the set designer to shift things a little bit. I’m working on a new musical now for next year and the set designer, Carey Wong, and I are playing around with whether certain drops should be front lit or backlit, etc. It makes a big difference – if there’s only room for one overhead electric in wing 4 and I have to use it to frontlight drops, then I have no ability to get anything from overhead onto the actors in a pretty big expanse of space – so the drop lighting has a huge ripple effect through the show.”

 

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You are the lighting director for The Lincoln Center Festival – what does that entail?

“The Festival’s production department is run by Production Manager Paul King; I work directly under him along with Audio Supervisor David Meschter. In a nutshell, we make shows from around the world work in Lincoln Center’s venues, and we make it possible to achieve it on a load in schedule that won’t break the bank.

“A lot of the work has to do with being a go-between. If a show is coming from, say, Japan, or Germany, or the UK, they generally have no problem coming over here. Their style of production documentation and prep meshes well with ours. Shows coming from places like the former or current Communist bloc tend to do things a little differently. This is not a value judgment – there was scenic craft in the National Ballet Of China’s production of “The Red Detachment Of Women” or the Bolshoi’s “Swan Lake” that was extraordinary, but those big institutional companies from those cultures operate in a very decentralized way. In addition to all the drafting and planning, you also have to make the show mesh with Local One work rules. The house crews in the Lincoln Center halls are awesome and really work hard for us, but they operate in a certain style and that’s not going to change – so the onus is really on us to make sure we’re bringing a show in in a way that makes sense by New York standards.”

Do you use house gear at Lincoln Center?

“We tend to shop-prep everything like a Broadway show and bring it in, rather than use house gear, because it’s faster and therefore less expensive. We have a long-term relationship with PRG for lighting rental, and they give us an enormous amount of flexibility – for shows coming from cultures where they make it up on the spot more than they plan it out, that’s really necessary. They also have the depth of inventory we need.

“I usually have between three and five design associates on the Festival and one or two interns. Neil McShane is our overall festival production electrician, and he brings in talent from all around the theatre district to head up each individual hall for the summer. Neil and his team really map out how a show will lay out in the theatre – they’re basically all geniuses and I couldn’t do the festival without them. The prep gang works for almost a month at the shop before our first load-in.”

In addition to Lincoln Center, you’ve also designed projects at the Kennedy Center, and other acclaimed theaters. What makes an ideal theatre setting from a lighting designer’s perspective?

“This question is appropriate today as I’m sitting at a load-in with my assistant trying to get onto Dropbox with bad Wi-Fi. So my ideal theatre has robust Wi-Fi available at the tech table. Period. Producers of the world – there’s no excuse. Please have Wi-Fi! End of sermon.”

Point well taken! What else besides Wi-Fi do you look for?

“For me the ideal nature of the theatre is really about staffing more than anything else, because good staffing takes care of most other problems. The Kennedy Center halls were very well-designed, of course, but they had AMAZING crews. Those guys from Local 22 working at the Kennedy Center were just fantastic and had basically done everything. You could simply not throw anything at them that they hadn’t seen. I feel the same way about the Local 4 crew at BAM or the Local 1 crew at City Center – it is literally impossible to make them even raise their eyebrows. They’ve seen it all.

“From a physical theatre design point of view, I think having flexible rigging and an appropriate amount of distributed circuitry and data is important. If you have to add a light during a notes call, it’s one thing to already have a pipe there, but if your closest circuit and data is 200 feet away, suddenly adding that light is not a 20-minute project for one person, it’s a 4-hour project for two people.”

 

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What was it like working with Yo-Yo Ma? Did he have any input into your design?

“Yo-Yo has a ton of experience with all sorts of different forms – theatre, film, TV, you name it. So he’s definitely aware of what’s going on. That said, on the Silk Road gigs he has so much responsibility for not only playing, but constant press interviews, fundraising, long term planning, etc. He comes out during sound check when he’s not playing, but I have only ever gotten a very few notes from him in ten years. There are staff people on his side who are more involved with the production elements, so I hear from them more often than I hear from Yo-Yo.

“The exception is when we’ve done longer-form pieces with more theatrical elements, of which we’ve only done three or four over the years. We did a piece based on the story of Layla and Majnun, which is kind of the Arabic world’s version of Romeo and Juliet. There are two amazing Azeri ‘Mugham’ singers who brought this piece to us and sang the leads. We did something kind of interesting for that piece – we did an RFP, just like for an architectural project, and asked different artists and designers for proposals for the stage design. We ended up selecting a fantastic young RISD grad named Henrik Soderstrom, who did an incredibly beautiful sort of graphic animation for the piece. Yo-Yo was very involved in that process, and in selecting Henrik.”

On that topic, what do you regard as some of the key milestones in your distinguished career?

“It’s funny to use the word distinguished – it makes me sound so old. But OK, let’s go with that. I would say that my involvement with the choreographer Merce Cunningham was absolutely pivotal in my life. I got to design roughly 12 or 15 new pieces for Merce, and over the time we worked together he gave me more and more leeway and input. One of the last pieces we did together, BIPED, is still regarded by many as one of the great dance productions of the last two decades (the choreography, score, décor and costumes have all been praised as much as the lighting), and I was very, very lucky to be involved with it from start to finish. I was very proud of the design ideas in that piece, and some of the recognition that piece received opened other doors for me.

“Lighting Homeland for Laurie Anderson was a very big deal for me – I co-designed that piece with Willie Williams, who I admire greatly. I had been on the verge of quitting the business – the slog was really getting to me. I took the Foreign Service exam the year before I met Laurie and thought I would go work for the State Department. My work with Laurie sort of revitalized my interest in being in the business, and my brief period of working with Willie was really inspirational. The work I did with Laurie kicked off a period of doing a lot of music; between Laurie and Yo-Yo and Natalie Merchant I’ve designed quite a few concerts now, and that work is so freeing.

“After a couple of years of doing almost nothing but music I felt that I was losing my connection with legitimate theatre, and at that point I got an offer to design a production of The King & I at the Village Theatre in Seattle. Village is known for musicals – they did the first full productions of shows like Million Dollar Quartet and Next To Normal. I’ve now done more than ten shows there, and it’s totally reconnected me with musical theatre, which was my first love as a kid. My mother founded a theatre company in upstate New York when I was little and they also did mostly musicals – so for me that world is really a home base.”

Who were your big influencers?

“Among the artists I’ve worked with, I would say that Merce remains head and shoulders above the rest in terms of his influence on my temperament as a theatre person. He took joy in adversity in a way that is all too rare. We’d get to a theatre on tour and would discover that some key thing or another didn’t work… and he would simply turn around and say, ‘Well, we can’t do THAT, but what CAN we do?’ And that’s an enormously powerful and joyful way of looking at your work. There are a few designers that have helped me a great deal – Robert Wierzel, Jennifer Tipton, Steve Strawbridge, Howell Binkley… I think they’re all amazing and there are pieces of them in most of what I do. “

Is there any historical figure from theatre, dance or music who you wish was alive today so you could light his or her performance?

“I wish I could have worked with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes with Picasso, Léon Bakst, Henri Matisse, etc. doing sets. On the other hand it might have been terrible – who knows? But I’m sure they had amazing parties.”

How would you like to be remembered as a lighting designer?

“I would like it said someday that I helped both artists and younger designers to succeed.”