Interview with VCU Arts Student Light Designer Joe Thompson

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I initially met Joe Thompson in my Introduction to Dramatic Literature: Part I class that I took at VCU Arts my first semester in Richmond. He immediately stood out to me because he was, if I recall correctly, the only light designer in the whole class. All the other theatre majors focused on Performance, while the non-majors, like me, ranged from Humanities to Science-based disciplines. It was therefore interesting to hear Thompson’s perspective on creating atmosphere through light. Here are Thompson’s thoughts on theatre and the techie life:

*Tell me a little about yourself, personally and creatively/professionally.

I come from a single parent family. I’ve always considered myself very creative  (usually it might be in a writing format or a picture.) I’ve just always had trouble finding the medium to express it. I’m not gifted with drawing or painting and I have terrible grammar.

*How would you describe your artistic education?

I’ve taken a basic drawing class and am currently enrolled in a color theory class, and took Art History 104 last semester!

*What first got you interested in theatre? Why didn’t you choose another form of visual art instead?

Well, my story starts off as I didn’t know my place and in high school my freshmen year a good friend of mine recommend me do run crew for our school play Crucible. One thing led to another I got highly involved in performance, and tech. Long story short tech came out on top, my first lighting design was the spring of my sophomore year when I designed “Seussical.”

*Where do you hope to see yourself in ten years?

Designing in NYC, hopefully Broadway.

*What are the elements of a well-designed lighting plot?

Poetry, Plays start off words, your designs must read like poetry to the audience, with out being too in your face. I guess the thing about lighting is it’s the perfect puzzle. There will never be the right answer, every show calls for something different, but I consider a design that can really read with an audience. Lighting helps influence an audience and enhance a show or mood. It’s a lot more than throwing pretty color on stage, which I unfortunately see it happen.

*How long have you practiced lighting design?

I taught myself basically I know, until I reached the college level. Now I’m learning the mechanics of light, the study of electrical getting a great technical background of the craft. And I’m trying to do some work in Shaffer to apply these methods I’m learning to hone my skill.

*What advice do you have for other young lighting designers?

This is an art form. Don’t try to force your ideas down an audience’s throat. And this takes a long time to realize or get out of the habit of doing (I say this because I was guilty and still find myself falling into the habit of) but making the attention go to the lights. Theatre is a composition of many talents. You just happen to be one of them.

*Who are you favorite lighting designers? Do you ever try to emulate their work?

The concept of lighting is still new to me in this sense, and you can’t really Google lighting designs, and get the results you want. Lights constantly change in a show, so unless you film the entire show you’ll always be missing some aspect. As far as emulating their work, I’m going to say no.

*What do you consider anytime you study lights?

When I see a show I really try not to analyze the lights unless they are meant to be obvious because I don’t want to make it mechanical theatre and lose the magic.

*What do you consider your major inspirations (they don’t have to directly related to art)?

Literature, as far as designing goes. Have a poetic sense of what needs to happen. I’m painting a picture with moving subjects, and like an actor everything I need is in the script.

*What advice do you have for anyone interested in attending the same school as you?

Theatre is not a major, at least here. Theatre tech is definitely not a major it is a life style. You better live, breathe, eat theatre because its all you’ll have time for. After working both main stages this semester and taking 18 credits, my ass has been kicked. And I loved every minute of it.

*What are some of your favorite lighting styles? Why?

Simplistic, I love simplistic lighting because I grew up learning less is more, and I feel in some situations the more you add the muddier the effect becomes. Its like painting a picture, and you look at it later and realize well maybe that color is what I want there, so you add to it. And realize something else is wrong so you add more, and after awhile the original intent of the piece is missing, so with simplistic lighting, you’re sticking what is necessary to keep your piece powerful and have meaning.

*What are some of your favorite materials to work with?

Source 4’s! Source 4’s are a type of lighting instrument, they usually cast a nice crisp beam. They are also really easy to adjust so changing them makes my life a lot easier. Oh I love going through our gel swatch book ( a little book of colored plastic used to add color to a light), I like to look at all the pretty colors.

*What sort of ambiance do you usually create while working? Do you play music, for instance?

Oh music is HUGE!! Just like when I’m writing, music can set an emotion, and really help drive what I want to get across, especially with my self diagnosed ADD. I have to stay focused.

*How would you define your signature artistic style?

Silhouette, I simply love them. Too bad most directors don’t!

*How often do you design lights?

Usually one Shaffer St. Show a semester. I hope to try to work around the city next semester.

*Where can readers find out more about your art?

Go see a play, and look at the lights!


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