Lighting design is an essential and intangible element within a theatrical production. For the most part, it needs to function unobtrusively, yet there are times when the audience’s attention is deliberately drawn to a specific lighting effect. The results can be dazzling. Above all, the illumination of the story unfolding on the stage is frequently employed to guide and manipulate the audience’s gaze.
Two acclaimed lighting designers (LDs) who have consistently conceived remarkable designs that not only enhance a production but often transport it to a higher artistic level are Jeremy Pivnick and Ken Booth. Each has been nominated for Ovation awards numerous times over the past decade. Pivnick has won three awards while Booth has yet to receive a statue.
This year Pivnick is nominated in the lighting design/large theater category forÂ Troubadour Theater’s A Wither’s Tale. at the Falcon Theatre.Â Booth is a double nominee in the lighting design/intimate theater category for two Fountain Theatre shows –Â A House Not Meant To Stand and The Train Driver.
Pivnick is a freelance designer based in New York and Los Angeles.Â He graduated with a BA in theaterÂ from USC. He has designed more than 250 productions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and beyond, at such theaters as South Coast Rep, Laguna Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse. Recently, his work was seen at New York’s Westside Theatre in the hit Off-Broadway musical The Marvelous Wonderettes, which ran there for 18 months.
Pivnick has been honored with numerous awards and nominations, including the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Angstrom Award for career achievement in lighting, three Ovation Awards (from 19 nominations), and four Backstage West Garland Awards (including two awards for Outstanding Year in Lighting Design).
For someone with a record like this, it’s surprising to meet a young-looking man with a shy but broad smile and an endearingly squirmy demeanor. Clearly this is a fellow who prefers to linger in the shadows.
Pivnick rattles off an impressive list of shows he is working on at present: I Love Lucy at Greenway Theatre; in tech for The Dinosaur Within at Boston Court; pre-production on Peace in Our Time at Antaeus and The Maiden’s Prayer at Atwater Village Theatre.
As for how he got started, it “sounds accidental,” he laughs. Pivnick auditioned to act in a play while in high school, at Chaminade in West Hills, and when he was turned down, ended up doing tech work instead. “When I graduated from high school, I didn’t know what else I wanted to do.”
He enrolled at USC starting with a BFA design major. But halfway through, once he had completed all the lighting design classes, he switched to a BA. Shortly before he graduated in 2001, Pivnick designed the lighting for two shows back to back with professional directors, Jessica Kubzansky and Steve Tietsort, both of whom invited him to work with them the following summer. His first professional gig was with Kubzansky at the Met Theatre, in its downstairs basement space, on a one-woman show called Appearances.
“It was very fortunate. It just kind of happened pretty quickly,” says Pivnick, who has been working as a professional lighting designer ever since. “It did take a couple of years to get going full-time,” he adds.
He says his approach to lighting naturally varies from theater to theater, as they have different sizes and scales, as well as varying inventory and resources. “If you’re in a smaller space that doesn’t have a lot of stuff, you often have to be more creative because you have to make your limited amount of resources work for everything. If you’re in a big space with tons of toys, sometimes it’s a lot easier to do whatever you can imagine.”
Working with different directors.
Pivnick’s easygoing demeanor indicates he has little trouble dealing with the demands of different directors. “There are some that come in and know almost exactly what they want and are clear about their intentions and what they are trying to achieve with the show. Then there are some who just say “˜Here’s what I think this show’s about ““ go for it.’” He says it depends on the project as to how much direction he’d like. “I think I do better when I have more freedom. I like a director who knows what they are looking for, so I don’t do something completely different and then we get into tech and they say, “˜What is this?! This makes no sense!’ A good mix is great.”
His work with the Troubadour Theater Company goes back about 10 years, as long as that troupe has been playing shows annually at the Falcon Theatre. Last year the Troubies mashed up Shakespeare’sÂ play A Winter’s Tale with the hit pop songs of Bill Withers. A Wither’s Tale was an especially soulful show — including a showstopping moment when Troubies director (and one of the show’s stars) Matt Walker performed Withers’ most recognizable hit tune “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
A central scene such as this must be a LD’s dream. Pivnick agrees, “It definitely was a great one to light. I’ve done tons of shows with the Troubadour Theater Company, and when I started with them, they hadn’t really done a lot with lighting.” Pivnick designed the first Troubies show that used a full lighting rig. Referring to Walker and his company, Pivnick recalls, “It was interesting for both of us to figure out how to work with each other, because their style is very fluid and improv-based and they don’t always stand in the same place twice,” he laughs. “Me ““ I have a ‘special’Â [a special purpose light] here, and so you need to stand there.”
Pivnick says that over the course of that show he and the Troubies managed to develop a working relationship. “Matt might have certain specific ideas but always a general feel for what he wants the show to be like. This one was more of a darker show than some of their other more upbeat comedies, so Matt wanted it to be shadowy and less bright and cheery.”
For the showstopping song, Pivnick used a gobo effect and lit Walker from behind as he sang and performed harmonica for “Ain’t No Sunshine”. He says he devised some other effects. “Matt wanted the low fog at a couple of points in the show, and that scene was one of them. There was also the element of the passing of time, so I came up with projection of a clock face and a rotating light on the floor to suggest a sundial and tie the two images together.” Pivnick smilingly refuses to divulge his technique, coyly calling it “theater magic.”
A Director weighs in.
Kubzansky, one of the founding artistic directors of the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, has worked with Pivnick on numerous productions there, as well on Theater 150’s production of Jennifer Haley’s Breadcrumbs in Ojai this past summer.
Even in their first collaboration, Appearances, recalls Kubzansky, “Jeremy made magic with 10 instruments. It was kind of brilliant. When he started he was actually very shy, but I loved how conceptually he talked about light. That was very exciting to me, as I am a very theatrical director myself. So I love working with artists who are very interested in creating the “˜rules of the world’ in every element. Jeremy is one of those people who genuinely thinks conceptually. I don’t know if people are aware just how easily a play can be destroyed by bad lighting.”
Kubzansky goes on to chart their years of working together on a variety of theatrical productions. “We’ve done so many shows together”¦ Unfinished American Highwayscape was a great one. Jeremy managed to find some kind of light language that really helped to communicate the themes of the play. We created “˜cen-cars’ where actors were half human, half vehicle. He used very powerful maglights and we had lane markers that lit up when people were traveling.
“We did Mother Courage at Boston Court, which was really extraordinary. We choreographed a war between every scene and that was kind of crazy. One of the reasons I love working with Jeremy is that he’s great at collaborating with other elements as well. Jeremy did a production of Gilgamesh and that was extraordinary as well. When a space has to become many things, Jeremy is really brilliant at creating looks and gobo patterns and washes that are able to land us in a particular place and create mystery.
“Jeremy makes light beautiful and essential, and when it wants to be flashy, he makes it so. He has this ability to enhance the storytelling with a powerful sense of light and a gorgeous use of color. But he also knows how to be minimal. His designs are always evocative and they do exactly what the play needs, from naturalism to hugely theatrical texts.”
Kubzansky recalls Boston Court’s 2004 production of Jean-Claude van Itallie’s play Light, about a love triangle between Voltaire, the King of Prussia and a promiscuous scientist marquise. “With Light half the play had these people sending each other letters, which we chose to depict with shafts of light shooting across the stage. That whole play was about the lighting design, in many ways.”
Pivnick remembers the beauty of that play. “They communicated with a lot of letters between each other, and we used light to symbolize the letters traveling between them and their connections. We used a lot of haze,” he laughs. In one instance where an effect was needed, he rigged a feather duster in front of a light and the stage manager pulled a string to make the shadow play across. “It took a lot of trial and error to figure out what we were going to do with that,” Pivnick recalls. “It came out pretty cool.”
Booth is a double nominee in lighting design/intimate theater for two Fountain Theatre shows — A House Not Meant To Stand and The Train Driver. He spoke via phone about his lengthy career as a theater LD and a lighting tech in the TV industry.
After studying English literature at UCLA and graduating, Booth discovered his interest in theater. He became a volunteer at a small theater and eventually began lighting small theater productions “through trial and error,” Booth says.Â “I never really pursued it as a career and instead made my living working in the entertainment industry (in lighting as well).Â Though I have designed well over 100 productions in Los Angeles, I have not applied myself fully in grasping for the brass ring of New York, the Taper, or any other major theater.” The designer has made A Noise Within (ANW) his home since 1998, as well as working at other, smaller theaters such as the Fountain, the Tiffany (now no more) and Deaf West.Â Booth has yet to win an Ovation Award, but this year he received his ninth and tenth nominations since 1993.
On the varying challenges to his job, Booth observes that the small theaters are very different from one another. It all depends on what kind of equipment each theater has, how many lights and dimmers, and so on. Those factors can dictate the extent of the design, as can the size of the stage and the set. The Fountain Theatre has such a small stage and such a low ceiling, he notes, that it creates built-in limitations.Â In those cases, he has to accept those limitations and stretch what he can do as far as possible. “You’re not going to be able to do all the tricks you might do in a larger space; you just do the best with what you can. I like to try to think outside the box and ask myself, “˜What haven’t I done before with this space?’ Every space is a challenge.”
A Noise Within.
Booth has worked with Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, co-artistic director at ANW, on 17 productions in the company’s former Glendale home. How does his approach to lighting a show vary from director to director? “Julia Rodriguez-Elliott is actually the easiest because she pretty much lets me go. I don’t really get a lot of notes from her until the second or third preview where she’s looking at the big picture. I feel pretty spoiled working with her because we’ve worked on so many plays together. I know exactly what kind of blocking and staging she’s gonna do and what kind of tricks she’s gonna want from the lighting. When you keep working the same space over and over again, it does get a little easier.”
In the 1999-2000 season,Â A Noise Within was in residence at the 1,100-seat Luckman Theatre on the Cal State LA campus, although the company used only a few hundred of the orchestra-level seats.Â “I found the lighting positions were much more traditional, and it was very nice to work like that,” Booth says. “Then again, some traditional theaters have no flexibility. Sometimes in smaller theaters you can put lights where nobody ever thought of putting a light, whereas in larger spaces there’s only certain places you can place an instrument because that’s the way the theater was designed.”
He claims the new ANW theater in Pasadena has more limitations than the old space, even though it is a much wider arena. “We have a catwalk with pipes and that’s pretty much it. The old space was just small enough that if you needed a light somewhere you could just hang a pipe and make it work. Here at the new space we’re probably gonna keep everything as clean as possible because that is what people are expecting.”
But Booth says he’s thrilled to be moving into the new theater. “Although some of us are getting a little anxious about the clock ticking, with many elements of the building not yet ready, we all agree this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be part of a theater being created from the ground up.Â I will miss the homey feeling of the old space, but look forward to some new comforts we never had before.”
Booth says he enjoys a similar free rein when working with director Stephen Sachs. “I’ve worked with him often enough, and he’s very easygoing and not that specific at times. I feel like he just trusts me and tells me if he doesn’t like something. Simon Levy [A House Not Meant To Stand] does give me a lot of specifics, even before the first rehearsal. He tells me exactly what he is looking for, which is not bad either. Sometimes he speaks in more metaphysical terms, like “˜This is what I’d love to see.’ But sometimes I know in the back of my mind I’m not going to be able to do that; we don’t have the budget or the space. I’m sure no director wants to hear, “˜I’m sorry ““ we can’t do that!’ You have to keep that to yourself.”
The Train Driver proved a particularly challenging production for Booth to light. “There was a shack that was created with scrim and had to be lit from inside where there was hardly any space to do that. It worked out better than anybody thought.” Booth explains the shack needed to disappear when it wasn’t being used. “But when the actors would walk into the shack, all the lights within would light up and it looked magical.”
That set was designed by Jeff McLaughlin, who is also nominated for the same two plays as Booth, in addition to a third nomination for scenic design for Bakersfield Mist.
Booth explains how he worked with another set dominated by a scrim on the Gothic tragicomedy, A House Not Meant To Stand. “We had… a dining room with a scrim in front of it. The director [Levy] wanted it to disappear whenever possible and reappear whenever the main character was in there, in her own little dream world.” Booth says he wanted to isolate her using a different quality of light to represent her private moments.Â “This is the third Tennessee Williams play that I’ve received an Ovation nomination for,” he notes. “He seems to be a good luck charm.”
Another tricky element was a lighting effect to complement ghostly projections of children, created by Keith Skretch. Recalls Booth, “The guy who did the projections did an incredible job with scaling them to match the dining area perfectly. But whenever we would have the projections of the kids on the scrim, I had to take out as much light as possible while still keeping the main characters lit at the same time. We spent a whole night of rehearsal just on those cues alone so we could get the levels right.”
Another Director comments.
Booth worked with director Deborah LaVine at the Tiffany Theaters on Kindertransport and also at Deaf West with her on A Streetcar Named Desire. For each of these, Booth received an Ovation nomination. LaVine says, “Bottom line, he is a remarkably talented designer and dedicated theater artist. Ken possesses tremendous script analysis and understands the intention of the play from basic plot line to greater contextual meaning.Â HeÂ commands aÂ very strong visual language mixed with vast technical knowledge.”
As for his noteworthy talents, she adds, “Ken is dedicated, hard working and willing to put in whatever time is necessary to make the work come alive.Â He does this work from a place of passion.Â It is not simply a job. He always surpassed my expectations.Â As a collaborator he takes myÂ ideas and adds dimension that allowsÂ initial conceptsÂ to reach higher levels with his artistry.”
LaVine says she is constantly impressed by how Booth’s work is always exactly right for the story.Â “It can be beautiful, or brutal, depending on the story’s needs.Â But even more outstanding ““Â I have often been amazed at how he can make magic in spaces that aren’t conducive to good lighting because the ceiling is too low, or the angles of the room are off, or the equipment is little more than a few tin cans.Â Ken isÂ a magician.”