Supporting creative work by women
Works by Women just attended a performance of The Mint Theater Company‘s production of MARY BROOME (pictured left), and we are thrilled to interview the lighting designer, Nicole Pearce, from that production. Our group has seen four productions Nicole has designed over the past few years — THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS at Cherry Lane Theatre, EDGEWISE produced by The Play Company, and WIFE TO JAMES WHELAN also at The Mint Theater Company. Her work is diverse, arresting and memorable. It’s a real treat to hear Nicole discuss her inspiration for becoming a lighting designer as well as the different approaches she took to two of the productions mentioned above.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Were you always drawn to lighting design? Did you ever practice any other theatre discipline?
NICOLE PEARCE: I started out as a musician and an actor when I was very young, playing the flute, piccolo, and tuba. These performance experiences shaped my relationship to light in many ways, for light speaks to the audience with the same vocabulary as music and performs with the same motivations as acting. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I found Lighting Design. I was working on a stage crew and my boss was asked to create a “light show” to cover a quick change. The show began with 4 lekos hung waist high above the stage floor, with each lamp slowly turning on and off. I remember thinking: “This is lame.” Until I looked up. The ceiling of the auditorium was filled with giant green and blue buildings 100 feet long that morphed in time with the music. I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and dedicated myself to lighting on the spot.
WBW: Who or what were you biggest influences for lighting design?
NICOLE: Trish Hendy, my boss at Lakewood High School, who created that original “light show.” James F Ingalls, Jennifer Tipton, and the light that surrounds us in our everyday lives.
WBW: Where do you seek inspiration?
NICOLE: Any place I can find it. Static images found anywhere from online to magazines or books of photography, museums, other live performances, movies, physical exercise, any form of light that I witness on a daily basis. And of course the play, music, or dance itself.
WBW: Does it vary from project to project?
NICOLE: Absolutely, as no two projects are the same. A play set in 1912 England with a naturalistic set will inspire a completely different approach than that of a play set in a fast food restaurant during a post-apocalyptic war.
WBW: And is it different if you are working on a theatre versus a dance project?
NICOLE: Regardless of the project, inspiration comes from the same gut responses to visual research–either in images or everyday life.
WBW: Works by Women has seen three shows you’ve previously designed. How differently did you approach EDGEWISE than THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS?
NICOLE: This is an excellent question, for these two plays took me in completely opposite directions. EDGEWISE is a relentless plunge into the darkest parts of humanity that flirts with the line between self defense and insanity. How would we convey these emotions and delineate a separation of space onstage?
My approach was based on stark black and white imagery. I then played with the variation between warm and cool hues of white light and practicals to execute these ideas. (Practicals are household lamps or fluorescent lights that you see in everyday life. When they are used on stage we call them practicals to delineate between stage lights and household units.)
The main portion of the stage is a fast food restaurant. We used fluorescent light fixtures and cool stage lights to support this portion of the performance area. The storage closet, where the darkest moments of the play happen, was illuminated by a single light bulb hanging limply from the ceiling, and warm stage lights provided gentle support.
We wanted to create the feeling that neither space was safe regardless of your first impressions. This was best achieved in the beginning of the play with a GIANT explosion. Bart Fasbender, our sound designer, created an explosion that shook every seat in the theater. I in turn hung as many high powered lights as possible and aimed them directly into the audience’s eyes. When we first explored this moment, the audience blast lasted for several seconds during the sound cue. Over time it became clear that the blast should be a fast in and out to create the highest sense of unease for the audience. After the explosion we were left waiting for the other nuclear shoe to drop. We capitalized on this tension by illuminating transitions with electric green light from unusual locations onstage, thus continuing the feeling of nuclear energy invading the world of the play. It was these nuclear moments that never let us forget that anything could happen at any moment.
THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS is a deep contrast to the extremes of EDGEWISE. We are spending the evening with the charming Anne Landers in her living room. She invites us in as if we, the audience, have arrived for a dinner party and we stay through the night. My approach for this piece was deeply rooted in naturalism. How would her apartment look at night? How would the sources in the room illuminate her journey? How would we articulate the difference between early evening and very late at night. Then there’s the sunrise at the end which breathes life into the resolution, the completion of the article she has labored over the whole night through. I spent hours researching images of her apartment, but to be honest a large part of my inspiration was based on my own apartment. I meditated on how different lamps in our rooms revealed the space at different times of the evening, and the pivotal sunrise was as close to home as possible. My husband saw the show and was tickled at the end to see our apartment onstage. I took that to be the highest compliment on my work.
WBW: What can audiences expect to see in MARY BROOME? How does lighting contribute to the storytelling?
NICOLE: I hate to give anything away. I will say that our team had a satisfying collaboration together and, I think, the production reflects the generosity and grace we shared during the collaborative process. I hope the audience agrees that we complemented each other nicely.
WBW: What are the challenges facing women in American theatre?
NICOLE: I would take this question to a global level across all fields of live performance. We need more women out there working and creating. For example, I have worked outside of the country for over 10 years, and it is rare to find women on my crew. This is also true at home. The number of men in the Local 1 stage hands union far outweighs the number of women. The men of the world dominate the industry and hire other men. Our challenge is to encourage women to participate in the live arts and hopefully we’ll reach a tipping point where gender won’t be a consideration. The arts should be flooded with female producers, writers, directors, actors, designers, choreographers, composers, dramaturges, and stage hands. My good friend and collaborator Aszure Barton likes to say: “When it comes to making art I think… GO TO TOWN! What do you have to lose?!” It is a man’s world, but there is power in numbers.
WBW: What gives you hope for women in American theatre?
NICOLE: The women I work with every day who are out there doing it and making art happen. Keep it up girls! I enjoy every minute of your creativity and energy.