BWW Interview: Tyler Micoleau: Bringing Broadway to Brunswick and Back
Tyler Micoleau wanders among the cast portraits at Maine State Music Theatre's 22 Elm Street offices and studios, murmuring in quiet amazement, as he surveys the years with their colorful productions leading up to the present. He wonders aloud about how is it possible to mount such large-scale productions on the Pickard stage? For the Tony award-winning lighting designer of The Band's Visit, this is a special homecoming for it was in Brunswick at Bowdoin College and Maine State Music Theatre that his theatre career began.
The Portland native is home for the July 4th holiday to visit his parents with whom he makes the trip to Brunswick to attend a performance of Beauty and the Beast and visit some of his old haunts. Though he has stayed in touch with Maine theatre friends and, of course, his family over the years and seen a few MSMT performances, Micoleau who has been New York based for twenty-four years, remains amazed at the growth and change he sees in the company which gave him his first professional gig.
A self-designed theatre major at Bowdoin College, Micoleau spent the years from 1987-1992 studying liberal arts, working actively with Masque and Gown, and shaping the design vocation that would become his life's work. "I came to Bowdoin rather than to a conservatory because I wanted a liberal arts education. I like to say that Bowdoin College is about learning how to learn, and you can apply that skill to so many things. I studied art history, music, English literature in addition to my theatre classes. It is all those other disciplines which make us interesting as artists. They give us a context and framework to create."
He recalls that "Masque and Gown afforded me many opportunities to work on productions. At the time we did two musicals, quite a few straight plays, and some student-written works. Bowdoin's technical director Michael Roderick became my mentor and with his background in lighting, he colored my decision to pursue that field.
Two other experiences during those years helped Micoleau solidify his decision to pursue a theatrical career. In the summer of 1989 he was hired by Bowdoin College as production facilities caretaker. "The job required me to be the lighting console programmer for the season, and I worked very closely with the MSMT production staff all that summer. It was an amazing exposure to musical theatre for me. We did Brigadoon, The King and I, Music Man, Anything Goes, and Nunsense. It was Victoria Crandall's last summer, and I remember she would always sit in the last row of the theatre right near me in the lighting booth. She had the presence of a grand lady of the theatre."
Immediately following the summer of 1989, Micoleau took a leave of absence from Bowdoin to travel out West where he spent time with my uncle who was a painter. "I formed a real connection with him, and my four months there opened my eyes to what the life of an artist could be. Also during that leave of absence, he worked as a freelance stagehand in Portland, Maine, before returning to Bowdoin in the fall of 1990."
In his remaining two years at the college, Micoleau designed his own curriculum and his theatre major with a concentration in design. He also began to build his resume. In the summer of 1991 he worked at MSMT as the Assistant Master Electrician, and in 1992, after graduating from Bowdoin, the theatre hired him in his first professional contract to design the lighting and scenery for Baby. He reminisces how this opportunity came about. "My mentor at Bowdoin, Mike Roderick, had a close relationship with MSMT's Managing Director Billings La Pierre, and he proposed to Billings the idea that I might design one show. Billings introduced me to Chuck Abbot, who had taken over the artistic reigns after Vicki's death in 1990. Chuck was directing Baby, and he entrusted me with both the set and the lights - crazy perhaps, but exciting!"
For the next two years Micoleau worked as a lighting designer in New England, first in Portland at Portland Stage and Mad Horse Theatre and then at the Berkshire Festival. One of his connections from these experiences was Scott Zelinski, who invited Micoleau to come to New York City in 1994 and work as his assistant lighting designer at The Public Theatre. From that point on Micoleau built a career that has taken him to leading regional theatres, off Broadway, and Broadway where his work has been showcased in a wide variety of media from drama to musicals to outdoor theatre to opera to dance and even to art installations. " At the time I came to New York I was still debating whether to get an MFA or to apprentice to established lighting designers. Scott's invitation helped me make that decision. Once in New York I met more and more designers, and I also worked as an electrician to make ends meet."
Micoleau feels it is important for any creative artist to diversify early on and to work in many stage media. Of the many lighting designs he has created over the last twenty-four years, he finds something special in each undertaking and feels each demands a different skill. "Dance is difficult," he says because the constant motion is different from lighting actors in a play; you have to focus on revealing the form of the bodies. Opera is exciting because you are focusing in one or two grand gestures rather than the fast moving choreography or the pulsating number of cues in a rock musical. Touring is fun, but demanding because you have to be able to adapt at short notice."
Asked about how he approaches the creative process, Micoleau says that his first priority "is to honor what the writer is intending. In Shakespeare or the classics or older operatic works, I have conversations with the director. When I do new works, I love having the living playwright or composer in the room and listening to what their vision is. Visually, I begin by thinking about the architecture and space and how light will change the volume of the stage and the scenery; then the next layer of my thinking is about color, and I have more specific conversations with the set and costume designers."
Micoleau's work has won him an array of awards over the years including two off-Broadway Lucille Lortel awards and two Village Voice OBIES, as well as the American Theatre Wing Henry Hews Design Award, and countless other nominations. But none of these honors prepared Micoleau for the surprise and thrill of garnering the 2018 Tony for his lighting design of The Band's Visit. "I had been with the show since its first stage production. It just doesn't jump out at you as a big commercial production. We were all thrilled at the positive off-Broadway reception; we were elated when it went to Broadway and opened to great reviews. And then there was this buzz and then the Tony nominations and then..."
Micoleau attributes the success of The Band's Visit to several factors. "It is a musical for adults; it deals with dramatic situations. None of its characters is played by a celebrity actor, but its message has resonance: it says that countries and their leaderships can fight, but when you get ordinary people in a room together, they will figure out a way to get along. Then, there is the added dimension of powerful, moving music with its Middle Eastern, Arabic roots."
Micoleau is also excited about his upcoming work on a new off-Broadway musical, Be More Chill, which has become a social media sensation since its initial production at Red Bank's Two River Theatre in 2015 and the subsequent release of the cast album. "Who knows," he says, "where it will go? We are hopeful."
Turning the conversation back to Maine, I ask Micoleau what technical changes he has experienced over the years in his profession as a lighting designer and specifically what he recalls about lighting at the Pickard Theater. "Then it was all about massive numbers of incandescent light resources taking up every nook and cranny of the Pickard. We definitely maxed out the power situation. Today everything has shifted to LED; it is a different power structure, and you can do a lot more with fewer things or you can simply add more effects."
I am curious as to what impressions Tyler Micoleau will take away form MSMT's Beauty and the Beast, which is the largest and arguably one of the most lavish productions in the company's sixty-year history. I ask him if he would be kind enough to send me his thoughts after he attends the evening show. Graciously, he does.
"It was great to be on campus and in the Pickard Theater again! Even though I graduated prior to the renovation and the campus itself has seen a fair amount of change since 1992, I still get nostalgic for these places where I spent so much of my time developing my interests in theatre and design."
Admitting that while the Disney classic is not "my favorite kind of musical, it was a real treat to see another MSMT musical on the Pickard stage. It's such a tight, clean proscenium: not too tall, with a very plain surround. It's always breathtaking to see that frame filled with such a richness of color and textures from the lights, the painted scenery and the costumes. I recalled how taken I was by that impression when I saw my first Maine State production in 1989. Nothing we ever did production-wise at Bowdoin ever attempted that scale of production."
"It was exciting to see the technological improvements in production that Maine State has adopted since I worked there. I've never seen video projectors used in Pickard, and it was fantastic to see them employed to such great effect in Beauty - really nice blending of the video with the physical scenic elements. Jeff Kroger, the lighting designer of Beauty (for whom I focused lights for at MSMT in 1991 and 1992!), made terrific use of high-powered moving lights that we never dreamed of having available to us in the early 90's in Pickard. Now, these moving lights have become the lighting designer's bread-and-butter, the foundation of any professional contemporary theatre lighting package. The presence of this lighting and projection technology speaks to the commitment MSMT has made to bringing a Broadway-level theatre experience to Maine summer audiences."
Tyler Micoleau's words echo Maine State Music Theatre's catchphrase. Indeed, in this 60th anniversary season, MSMT has every reason to be proud of its ability "to bring Broadway to Brunswick." But if the warm, enthusiastic welcome the Pickard Theater audience gave Tyler Micoleau at last evening's performance is any indicator, MSMT can also be proud of having sent to Broadway, in the person and creative force that is Tyler Micoleau, a little bit of the best of Brunswick.
Photo courtesy MSMT, Mary Catherine Frantz, photographer, and tylermicoleau.com