Alex Stevens ’14 credits Millikin’s Performance Learning program with leading him into the world of lighting design and pushing him to develop both the work ethic and wide range of skills needed to excel there. Stevens says that Performance Learning was akin to “jumping in the deep end and hoping I could learn to swim” — a hands-on environment where choices had consequences and the real-world values of leadership, integrity and responsibility were learned while “working all day every day.”
Since his time at MU, his design work has been seen in a number of productions — from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” (for which he received strong reviews) to the highly experimental “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit,” whose improvisational structure invited a less-is-more approach to lighting. He was awarded top honors at Live Design International, the leading international tradeshow and conference for live design professions. Always collaborating, always trying to find a “cohesive design vocabulary,” Stevens approaches each production with an eye toward the sights and sounds that will best serve his audience.
Currently a master’s degree candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Stevens took the time to answer a few questions about his work.
Alex, as a lighting designer your work has graced stages across the country. How do you approach each new assignment?
I begin working on a new project by recalling the process of designing my first production, “Macbeth,” at Millikin. I was curious, a little confused, but invested and excited to create something new with a talented creative team. When I approach designing a production, I distance myself from my role as the lighting designer and simply read the play, listen to the musical or watch the dance. My first task is to put myself in the shoes of the prospective audience — the people we want to inspire, call to action or simply entertain. After really soaking up the play as an audience member, I look at the relationships between characters. Is there a power dynamic I want to help emphasize? Is there some overarching concept to this piece that requires a character always be lit in a specific way? It’s through this analysis that questions and conversations bubble up in design meetings. “Macbeth” has been produced hundreds of times, but what aspect of my lighting design, and our production, will set it apart? What will make this the production of “Macbeth” to see? These are questions that I look to answer when I’m starting a new project. Most importantly, I think of the overall world we are trying to create. Where does this play take place, and how should it make us feel? Lighting has got to flow with the other design areas, so I always prepare thoughts on specific moments and potential lighting looks. Based on those ideas, I can collaborate with the other designers to create a cohesive design vocabulary. When the design elements work together, and in tandem with the actor or musician, you feel the impact on the audience. Those moments keep me inspired by this career.
Reviewers have noted the “haunting effect” that your lighting choices have on the audience, as well as their “skillfully simple and effective” design. What philosophy drives your overall work?
My philosophy is to serve the needs of the production. I admit it’s a bit of a vanilla philosophy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to entice the creative team toward a production with a lot of visual contrast and dynamic choices. Sometimes a show just doesn’t need dramatic lighting. If I’m lighting a comedy and the audience can’t connect with a character because they can’t see their face, the jokes will flop. That’s doing the opposite of being a collaborative designer. While I appreciate the dark and brooding quality some reviewers find in my work, I wouldn’t stamp that as my overall style. Every show gets its own unique design, and with it, an individual aesthetic.
You’ve won top honors at Live Design International (Las Vegas), competing in High End Systems’ Hog Factor 4 National Collegiate Concert Lighting Design Competition. Talk a little about this competition and the work that goes into it.
A big part of the concert world is previsualization software. It lets you see what the lights are going to look like before the event happens. Beyoncé’s lighting designer doesn’t show up to the Super Bowl and wing it. It’s all meticulously programmed beforehand. Every university that enters the competition receives a trial version of High End’s specific brand of previz software, as well as a PC version of their lighting console software (Hog 4). Each team designs and programs one of three songs selected by the company and sends it in to High End Systems to be judged. The top three schools advance to the finals in Las Vegas. For the finals, each school designs the same song. We do it all on the computer using previz. You show up to the booth at the convention center with your show on a USB drive, plug it into the lighting console, fall to the ground and hope that what you created translates well into real life. You have 30 minutes to change whatever you want, and then you perform the piece in front of the judges later in the day. It’s terrifying. Thankfully, because we were able to see what worked well in real life last year, we’re much more prepared for the finals this year. Keep your fingers crossed!
What are the most memorable moments and/or proudest accomplishments in your career so far?
This career is full of moments when you look around and think, “How did I make it here?” That kind of adrenaline is addicting. One of those moments was after my interview at Carnegie Mellon University. As I walked into my hotel room after the interview, I got a call from the head of the department saying that I had already been accepted. I was pretty shocked because CMU was at the top of my list of graduate schools to attend. I started jumping on the hotel room bed and played some show tunes from “Sweet Smell of Success.” This was out of character because I normally despise show tunes. It felt appropriate at the time because “Sweet Smell of Success” was the first show I worked on at Millikin where I found myself thinking, “Hmm, maybe I actually do understand this lighting thing.” So listening to those songs created a bit of nostalgia and reminded me that all the hard work at Millikin was already paying off. When moments come around full circle like that, it’s a great feeling.
Winning the concert design competition last year is definitely something I will always remember. My friend and I named our team “Piggy Whisperers” as a joke (for context, the lighting console is called a Hog) because I had neither designed nor programmed concert lighting. We had no idea what we were doing. The project was a testament to jumping in the deep end and hoping I could learn to swim, a routine task as far as I have experienced. To present our design on a real concert rig in front of professional concert designers, and win, was absolutely crazy. My mom screamed on the phone. My dad cried on the phone, and in my 24 years of life, I can’t remember ever hearing or seeing him cry.
You’ve worked on a wide range of theater and opera productions — where do you feel the most creatively fulfilled?
That’s what I’m still trying to figure out! There are so many possible directions to go in lighting: architecture, theatre, concert design, film and TV, etc. That’s what makes all of this so exciting. For me, anything involving a live audience will be the most fulfilling. The most important thing is being able to feel and manipulate the energy in the room during the performance. For anyone who’s been to a particularly lively concert or nerve-racking play, I’m sure you’ve felt how linked your emotions can be to those of the audience members around you. I’m an entertainer, and helping get people invested in the art they’re watching is what I care about. I’ll say yes to any project as long as I know I’ll be working with good-natured people. With that being said, I really do love live theatre. Making an audience member sob or cackle while surrounded by complete strangers is a very difficult, but rewarding, task.
How important is it to stay on top of technical innovations in the field?
It is second only to being someone who other designers/directors enjoy being around. It’s also a massively daunting task. A good designer, and especially a good assistant, has to have a masterful grasp on drafting, lighting console syntax, rendering software and the newest offerings in fixture technology. Just as in other fields, staying on top of the tools of the trade is a constant battle. In computer-aided drafting alone, a new version of the software, complete with expansive features, gadgets and even bugs, is released every year. Our lighting consoles are able to trigger sound cues, projection cues and even specific automation cues through the use of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) signals, and if you ever find yourself in a situation where you don’t know something, you better learn quickly. It’s a lot of technology to keep up with, but surrounding yourself with smart and intuitive friends is a great way to keep all your bases covered. It’s why it’s so important to keep the equipment and software accessible to students up to date. Having those skills at graduation provides a huge leap over the competition when searching for jobs.
How did your time at Millikin prepare you for what you’re doing today? Were there particular professors or administrators who made a special impact on your education?
If I had gone to one of the other schools on my short list, I might not be in lighting design at all. The School of Theatre and Dance taught me the fundamental qualities that students must have to succeed in this tough, tough business. Working all day every day at Millikin is a great opportunity to find out whether or not you’ll survive the real world, because the schedule doesn’t change. I spoke earlier of diving in the deep end and either sinking or swimming. That is exactly what the philosophy of Performance Learning develops. As a student, you can learn the fundamentals of any design area in the classroom, but ultimately, you must realize a design to put context and meaning behind the teachings. Actors, designers, technicians — we learn by doing and by making mistakes. Millikin provides opportunities for realized successes and failures in an environment that cultivates trust, so the important failures are moments of learning, not moments of grief. While I learned many skills from my numerous professors, there was one staff member who made the longest-lasting impression on me. His name is Dan Derrick, and he was the scene shop foreman for many years. When I worked in the scene shop, I learned how important it was to self-invest in anything I was doing. “There’s no point in doing anything if you won’t give it your best shot.” Building something with your own two hands is one of fastest ways to teach responsibility and integrity, and that’s especially true when the product will be hanging over the heads of the actors. We learned how to gracefully accept our mistakes, as well as how to motivate ourselves to learn from and fix those mistakes. At the core of it, we simply learned what it meant to be good people and good leaders. That’s what gets you hired again and again.
What is the best career advice you’ve received?
“He puts his pants on just like everybody else; one leg at a time.” Meaning, don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or where they’re going. Keep working, stay humble, and you’ll surpass your own expectations. These words are true for every student working in the arts.
You’re currently completing a master’s degree in lighting design at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) — what are your plans after graduation?
I’m going to go with Carnegie Mellon to NYC and LA design showcases and see what offers come my way. I’ve worked very hard creating parallel networks during school and have had to turn down different offers ranging from Broadway to touring gigs. All I can be sure of is that I’m moving to a bigger city than Pittsburgh, and that I’m ready to be able to say yes to opportunity.