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Jeff Croiter: Storytelling in Light

Posted on October 6, 2015

When Tony Award winning lighting designer Jeff Croiter is given a script to read for an upcoming theatrical production, his mind doesn’t instantly go to light plots, scenic elements and other tools of the trade. There will plenty of time for that later, believes the native New Yorker. Instead, in the initial reading his focus is on enjoying the play and connecting to it on an emotional level. Establishing this connection is important to Croiter who views the principal role of theatrical lighting as contributing to the telling of a story.

Croiter has excelled at conveying stories with light as evidenced by his 2012 Tony Award for Peter and the Starcatcher as well as numerous other honors including the Hewes and Bass awards. His body of work covers a wide range of productions and includes credits like Newsies, Next Fall, Mothers and Sons, Jekyll & Hyde, The Pee-wee Herman Show, Penn & Teller on Broadway and the current Something Rotten!.

Throughout his 20-year career, Croiter has won widespread respect in the New York theatrical community and beyond not only for his technical talents, which are formidable, but also for his skills as a listener, which has led to some incredibly close collaborations with directors, writers and others involved in telling a story on stage. We’re grateful that this gifted designer took time from his busy schedule to share his insights on these topics with us. Enjoy.

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You’ve done outstanding work on stage in dance, opera and drama. Your work includes musical comedies like Something Rotten! and musical dramas like Jekyll & Hyde. Do you approach different genres differently from a design perspective?
“The approach is remarkably similar but always specific to the piece. My dance light plot for Jennifer Muller is very different than the plot for Penn and Teller but the bones are the same. The biggest difference is type of equipment and the color. Of course, budget will also determine how I approach a project.”

You mentioned the current hit Penn & Teller on Broadway — did you have to design differently because that show involved magic?
“One nice thing about Penn and Teller is that they are very open about their magic; therefore I didn’t have to hide very much. The lighting had to be super specific at certain times and the whole show wanted an intimate feel (in a 1,600 seat house) but that’s how I like to work and what I enjoy. So no — I did not have to design differently. I just had to do what I like to do.”

When you get a new project and you read the script what are you looking for? Do you just read through the script first as a ‘regular person’ and then go back over it, or is your mind always going to lighting?
“When I read a new script the first thing I’m looking for is to be entertained. I read a lot of scripts and I prefer to enjoy what I’m reading and hopefully understand it — and if I’m really lucky, connect to it in some way. I read as a ‘regular person’ but lighting is always in the back of my mind. It’s usually not specific at first, but I see my version of the scene as I read. The first read always happens prior to my speaking with the director or set designer, so I don’t have all the necessary information to visualize a fully designed show.”

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What things do you take into consideration when beginning your design?
“This can be answered from many perspectives. When the time comes to create the light plot, I look at the scenic elements and begin to figure out the lighting needs. I’m not into equipment yet; at this point it’s about angles, sources, compositions, etc. Then I go through the scenery drawings in detail to determine what’s achievable and start putting lights in from there. Prior to laying out the equipment there are many conceptual discussions with the director and other designers.”

What do you design in?
“I spent years on my soap box maintaining that the first pass at a design had to be on paper. I argued that starting on the computer made it impossible to see the big picture. Then very slowly I started using Vectorworks a little. Now it’s all Vectorworks and Lightwright. I have issues with Vectorworks but it seems to be the ‘industry standard.’ Plus Lightwright and Vectorworks work well together. I still have the scenery drawings printed out, but as I place lights it’s all directly to the computer. As for console, my very strong preference is ETC EOS.”

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What are the most important things a theatrical lighting design should do?
“I would rather the audience not notice the lighting and enjoy the show than be blown away by the design and hate what they saw. Of course, the goal is both: for the audience to enjoy the show and the design. I have had conversations with other designers who say that making bold statements with light is the most important aspect of what they do and sometimes, when I see a design like that, I just want them to turn on the lights so I can see the play.

“Someone may read this and call me a hypocrite; I like darkness as much as the next designer. But there’s a time and place for it and “bold choices” do not apply to every production. Choices, on the other hand, apply all the time. To help make those choices one can go back to Lighting 101 class: selected visibility, revelation of form, mood/atmosphere, and composition. They are basic principles, but in my opinion they’re also the building blocks that lead to better story telling. Part of what I love about lighting is that it’s yet another tool which helps convey something to an audience. Defining space is also one of the most important and interesting aspects of lighting design.”

Is there an ideal stage for your lighting in terms of structure, size, scenic elements or other characteristics?
“I love it when an electrician tells me that I can put a light just about any place – because that’s what I will do. Conversely, I get frustrated when I’m told that I can’t do something, especially when I know it’s possible. If someone reasons that they can’t do something just because they’ve never done it before, I say: Live a little. I like stage hands who are excited to try new things. In terms of size and structure, a flexible space is ideal but beyond that I have no preference. I enjoy working in large and small venues and in all sorts of configurations.”

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On the subject of working with people – you’re known for really working well with directors; what is the key to a good lighting designer-director relationship?
“It is important to know that, ultimately, it is the director’s vision that you are attempting to bring to fruition. It’s not that I don’t push my ideas, but at the end of the day, directors get what they want. I’m lucky in that I often work with directors who respect the design process. I like it when a director speaks to me in ideas, moods and emotion instead of saying ‘Make this scene blue.’ Of course, sometimes a director just knows that they want it blue and that’s fine. I always like to know why, because color is subjective. I hear ‘blue’ and I ask myself: What kind of blue? What angle? Is it motivated by a source? Are we lighting the actors with blue or the background. So many questions have to be answered.”

How about working with writers? When you’re designing for an original script do the writers ever get involved in making suggestions about lighting design?
“I love when writers get involved and I welcome their participation. As previously mentioned, I like to help tell the story and that means conveying the intent of the writer. If I have it wrong I like to know. Maybe it’s wrong for the right reasons; maybe something I’m doing is confusing the audience. At the very it least sparks conversation.”

You’ve done such a wide variety of productions: do you have to like a show on a personal level to design well for it?
“My tastes are eclectic, so that helps. Plus, my favorite kind of project tends to be the project I’m working on. Maybe it’s because I have to, but I always find something about a show to enjoy. Probably because I like theatre. I will say my tolerance for bad theatre is significantly higher for a show that I’m working on. As an audience member I tend to get more frustrated when I’m watching something not so great.”

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What are your thoughts about using LED fixtures as theatrical lighting? What role do you see them playing?
“If you asked me this question a year ago, I would have said ‘background and backlight only.’ Not suitable for lighting people. I’ve recently done a few shows with LED fixtures and have been impressed. I’m not quite ready to go all LED, but for me they will become a scroller alterative. That is if I can get them. They are not cheap and the rental companies don’t have a large inventory – at least not yet.”

In recent years, it seems that set designs have become more elaborate; how does this influence your work as a lighting designer?
“Scenery, large or small, has an enormous effect on lighting. Elaborate scenery has a large impact but sometimes a minimal set means the lighting has to do more work. Scenery is involved in almost every decision I make.”

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We know that you were exposed to theater at an early age as your mom was in plays and your dad got involved in building sets and lighting; but we’ve read that at the time you were more interested in becoming a musician. What instrument did you play?
“When I was young I took piano and violin lessons. In fourth grade students were allowed to sign up for band. I remember wanting to be a drummer but since everybody wanted to be a drummer they made you wait until fifth grade. I didn’t want to wait (clearly what they were counting on) so I chose trombone. Not long after, I started guitar lessons and became good enough to play in a few bands through high school. Incidentally, my brother did wait the year and is still a professional drummer.”

How would you describe your musical taste at the time?
“I was all over the map. My parents listened to folk music, The Beatles, and show tunes. As a guitar-playing teenager in the ‘80s, my tastes predictably skewed towards the big arena rock/metal bands, from Rush to Van Halen to Metallica. So really, I wanted to be a rock star more than a musician. In college I lived with a couple of jazz musicians who exposed me to a world of great music that I had listened to but never with much frequency or appreciation. Those roommates could play like no one I’d ever met. When I would jam with them it was very clear why I wasn’t going to choose a career in music.”

Given this early interest in music, have you ever done concert lighting?
“My experience with concert lighting has been limited. In college and for a few years after, I would design an outdoor concert event here and there, but never a real tour with a fancy rig. There have been several theatre shows that were rock concert oriented; also many with rock lighting elements within a musical envelope.”

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Who were the big influences in your lighting career?
“Billy Mintzer: taught me how to read a play and talk about light. Brian MacDevitt taught me a lot about composition and light – things like how to look at the stage; how to see the big picture; and how important research can be. As a side note, Brian often downplays the impact he’s had on my career, but he should not. He was incredibly inspirational to me as a young designer. There’s also Jeff Davis who taught me how to organize it all – 20 years have passed and I still use so many of the tools I learned from Jeff. And of course, Ken Posner reinforced all of the above. He was a great role model – always the consummate professional. Ken invited me to be an intern at the Berkshire Theatre Festival way back when and that summer changed my life.”

What thoughts ran through your head when you won the Tony Award for Peter and the Starcatcher?
“OK, in order to answer this one properly I will go back a little. That year the Tony’s were presenting design awards during the commercial breaks. I knew this going in, but did not know the order of the awards. Each design element had two categories: play and musical. Eight design awards in total. Each time they got to a category they did play first, then musical. ‘Starcatcher’ won for sound, costumes, and scenery so I begin to get very nervous for two reasons: I didn’t want to be the only designer from ‘Starcatcher’ who didn’t win; but if I did win it would mean I’d have to speak in front of 2000 people, which I had never done before.

“Finally, hours into the show, it was time for the lighting category and my heart was racing, but then…they flipped the order and announced musical first. The following twenty minutes were a blur; I have no idea what happened. Then, the next commercial break. There was no other design category left. Words and names were said and then I heard: The award goes to…

“Now to answer your question, the first thought that ran through my head was: move fast. During the pre-Tony events, the producers made it clear that once a name is called the winner would have a certain amount of time to get to the stage, say his/her piece and get off. This was especially true for the designers. Knowing this I wanted to get to the stage quickly, so as soon as I heard my name I immediately starting running. About halfway down the aisle I realized that I hadn’t even kissed my wife. Before I reached the stage, the first people I saw with recognition were Alex Timbers, Rick Elice and Roger Rees. I tackled Rick and Roger as I ran by. The rest is a little fuzzy. There is a video on YouTube of the whole thing, but I have not watched it. I will someday.”

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Looking back on your career, are there any shows that standout as being key moments?
“So many! I’ll start with my first show with director David Warren: Larry King Really Live (yes, an autobiographical play written by and starring Larry King). It was supposed to tour around and come to NY but Larry got married and had a heart attack – I’m not sure in which order, so he had to stay in Washington.

“It’s not a show, but a thing that stands out is my twenty-plus year collaboration with choreographer Jennifer Muller. I learn, grow and am inspired every time we work together.

“As I answer this question, I realize that there are too many shows to mention so I’ll skip ahead a little. The big one was Peter and the Starcatcher, but not for the obvious reason of winning a Tony. Before winning the Tony, my involvement in the workshop of Starcatcher led to being hired for Newsies and a lasting relationship with Disney Theatrical in New York – plus it lead to many enduring friendships with some very talented people including one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – the late and great Roger Rees. Then there was Cam Jansen and the Curse of the Emerald Elephant: The show where I met Kate Wetherhead, my wife.”