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BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Allen Lee Hughes

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Allen Lee Hughes
Allen Lee Hughes

Today's subject, Allen Lee Hughes, is currently living his theater life as lighting designer for Arthur Miller's The Price - his 70th production at Arena Stage. The production runs through November 12th in the Kogod Cradle. Mr. Hughes also lit the show the last time Arena Stage produced it back in 1994.

For those of you who are regular patrons of Arena Stage, you might recall Allen's work on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, You Can't Take it With You K2, Stick Fly, A Delicate Balance, and countless other productions. Locally, he was also the lighting designer for the August Wilson Twentieth Century plays at the Kennedy Center and has also worked at Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Select Broadway credits include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Clybourne Park, Having Our Say, Mule Bone, Once on This Island, K2, Strange Interlude, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, and Quilters. His work has also been seen regionally at Seattle Repertory, The Public's Shakespeare in the Park, Guthrie Theater, Goodman, and Lincoln Center.

Allen is the recipient of the 1997 Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration. He also has two Helen Hayes Awards and three Tony Award nominations.

When not designing for the stage, he can be found teaching the next generation at NYU. The Arena Stage fellows program is named in his honor.

Technicians constantly say to performers "If we can't hear or see you, it doesn't matter what you are doing onstage." Allen Lee Hughes has been making sure that we see the actors onstage for many years now. When you go to see a production, you don't necessarily notice the lighting, particularly if the changes are subtle. That is the sign of a really good lighting designer.

With The Price, Allen returns to his local theatrical home for his 70th production and I'd say there is no better way for you to celebrate the work of this artist then to purchase tickets to this show. The company, headed by Hal Linden and directed by Seema Sueko, is top notch and it features a milestone lighting design by one of the best in the business, Allen Lee Hughes.

Did you ever consider working in another area of theater or did you always know that lighting design was going to it?

Between summer stock, school and other experiences, I have done every job in theater except for producing and costume design. I even tried acting in my youth. My portrayal of the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz at age ten is still remembered, at least by me.

Who were some of your mentors when you first started designing for the theater? Vincent Reed, who was a counselor in my junior high school, was responsible for my start in lighting when he asked for followspot operators. The lighting designers Arden Fingerhut and John Gleason and Jennifer Tipton were all valuable mentors.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Allen Lee Hughes
The Price at Arena Stage then and now. L- Stanley Anderson and Robert Prosky in the 1994 production. Photo by Carol Pratt. R- Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and Hal Linden in the current production. Photo by Colin Hovde. Lighting design for both productions by Allen Lee Hughes.

The Price is your 70th production at Arena Stage. What is it about this venue that makes it a perennial favorite of yours, and how did you come to it in the first place?

I really respect the quality of the work and the dedication of the staff at Arena. I came to Arena Stage when a connection from summer stock asked me to do a show at The Washington Theater Club. It was at that theater where I met William Eggleston, who was the resident lighting designer at Arena. He invited me to participate in changeovers from one show to another at Arena Stage. I jumped at the chance and worked sporadically at the theater while I was in college. After school, I worked at the theater for four years before going off to graduate school. After school, I thought it would be years before I was invited back to design, but Doug Wager invited me to design a show.

From first meeting to opening, can you please take us through the process of creating a theatrical lighting design? How long it usually takes etc.

Before the first meeting, there is script reading and making scene breakdowns. We then have the first meeting and hopefully subsequent meetings to narrow down the set and design approach. After the set and costumes are designed, I do a light plot. This part of the process takes about seven days. It includes picking lighting positions, drafting the drawing (light plot) that tells the electricians what lights to hang and where to hang them. It also includes making a document called a hookup that designates how to plug the show and making color choices for the lighting. This process usually happens before or close to the first rehearsal for the actors. The lighting designer, whenever possible, goes to the first rehearsal of the play.

The next time I see the play is the designer run-thru. This happens right before "focus." The next day I focus the lights by telling the electricians where to point the lights and what scenery to cut off of. The next step is the "light-over" in which I get a pass at lighting the show for two days while the actors do their regular rehearsal. The director, actors and stage manager ignore the lighting pretty much at this point. We then do a process called "teching the show" in which we concentrate on all the technical elements of the show including costumes, lighting, sound, scenery and props. After tech, we proceed to previews, opening and then the run of the show. I leave the morning after opening and by that time I've spent about fifteen days in town. The entire design process takes about 25 days to a month spread out over several months.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Allen Lee Hughes
The 1979 Arena Stage production of You Can't Take it With You. This was the first Allen Lee Hughes lighting design seen there. Photo courtesy of Arena Stage.

Arena Stage is unique for a designer because you can be designing proscenium for one show and then in the round for the next. Do you find it more challenging designing in the round or does it give you more possibilities because of the lack of walls?

This theater is unique because of the three different spaces. I have worked in all three spaces at Arena Stage and each presents different advantages and challenges. The Fichandler stage is probably the most difficult because there are no sidelight positions and each audience member gets a unique picture. While there are no walls in the Fichandler, set designers often hang scenery in the air that can block the lighting positions.

BWW Interview: Theatre Life with Allen Lee Hughes
K2 at Arena Stage in 1982. The production later transferred to Broadway. The Tony Award winning set was designed by Ming Cho Lee and garnered Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations for Allen Lee Hughes' lighting. Photo by George de Vincent.

You designed a show on Broadway called K2 which had an incredible set by Ming Cho Lee. What do you remember the most about working on that production?

I remember the incredible collaboration we had at Arena with the director, actors and designers. It felt like you were on a mountain. I also remember being called upon to do a three minute sunrise to "Night in Jungle Land". It was eventually cut back to ninety seconds to Japanese flute music, but that is still a long time for just sound and light to have the stage.

Nowadays, lighting designers have more toys (moving lights, LEDs etc.) to play with than they did when you first started. Do you find the designers today don't have to work as hard as you did to create theatrical lighting, say 30 years ago, or does all this new technology actually make things more complicated during the tech process?

We prefer to think of them as tools rather than toys, but you are correct that we have more at our disposal. The new technology means that there is some delay in making decisions until we get into the theater. Years ago, you had to decide color, angle, and other visuals before you even plugged the board in. A lighting designer had to decide how the show was going to be run because the electricians only had two hands and two feet to execute the moves. A computer board does not care what you command it to do as long as you do the correct keystrokes. For a while computer boards sped up the tech process, however now the new technology has taken time usage back to the days when we had to wait for the operators to write down the cues.

Of all the productions you've designed for Arena Stage, what are a few of your favorites? Please explain your choices.

My favorite show is always the one that I am currently working on. There are some, however, that I am most proud of. Working with the brilliant Zelda Fichandler on The Crucible was a treat. I have great memories of the 1983 production of Candide, and On the Town directed by Doug Wager. Molly Smith's South Pacific was entertaining as well as significant. I have a fondness for A Community Carol, directed by Bill Rauch, in which amateurs, professionals, and semi-professionals came together to create a wonderful mess. Joe Dowling blew everyone away with his first U.S. production of Juno and the Paycock. Six Characters in Search of an Author and A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Liviu Ciulei were both stunning productions, which brought me Helen Hayes Awards. There are many more as you can imagine.

Special thanks to Arena Stage's Media Relations consultant Deb Fiscella and Arena stage's publicist Lauren Alexander for their assistance in coordinating this interview and for digging into the Arena Stage archives for the vintage photos.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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