FTS Q&A: Don Holder

Don Holder is a multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway lighting designer; he’s designed for such renowned productions as ‘The Lion King,’ ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Movin’ Out,’ ‘Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark,’ and ‘Big Fish.’  Beyond that, he’s also done lighting for NBC’s hit, ‘Smash,’ and also does some really cool architectural lighting, as well.  Oh, and did I mention that – like all of our FTS Q&A; subjects – he’s a UMaine grad?  Well, that’s the case.  You’ll forgive me dorking out a little during the FTS Q&A; with UMaine’s own Don Holder.  It’s not every day we get amazing lighting design and a tuba shout-out in the same article as a reference to dendrology (which I absolutely had to look up.)  Here we go…

FTS: When did you graduate, if you don’t mind me asking?  What was your major?

Don Holder: I graduated in 1980 from the School of Forestry. BS in Forest Utilization

FTS: What dorm(s) did you live in?
Don: York Hall, all 4 years

FTS: How did you get into theatre and lighting design? 

Don: My parents took me to theatre, dance, and opera in New York from an early age, so I think I developed an interest from this exposure.  There are some particular Broadway productions that I still remember vividly; the most important was ‘A Chorus Line’, with its amazing and innovative lighting (by Tharon Musser), and its compelling message to follow one’s dreams, do what you love. Given that I was a senior in high school and struggling with what to do with my life, seeing ‘A Chorus Line’ at that particular time was a revelation.

FTS: Do you have a favorite UMaine memory that you’d care to share?
Don: I have so many great memories of my time at UMO.  Playing tuba with the Black Bear Marching Band at home football games, Dendrology class in the University Forest, late evenings (with plenty of food and beer) at Pat’s Pizza in Orono…

FTS: What was your first professional theatre gig?
Don: One of the first was designing the lighting for Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing’ at the Portland (Maine) Stage Company in 1987. I had just graduated from The Yale School of Drama, and this project led to several other opportunities that served as a springboard for my career

FTS: I remember seeing ‘The Lion King’ on Broadway when it first came out, and being overwhelmed with what theatre could look like – lighting, included, of course.  Why lighting instead of scenic or sound design or stage management/direction?
Don: I gravitated toward stage lighting in Junior High school, and began by lighting my school’s holiday music concerts and special events.  My High School Drama teacher recognized my ability and interest in stage lighting, and gave me the opportunity to design our fall plays and spring musicals.  I’ve been lighting shows in one form or another ever since. I recall that I had a fascination with light that went far beyond my work backstage.  As a Boy Scout, I was usually the guy who volunteered to build the campfires and to illuminate the trails for ‘The Order of the Arrow’ ceremonies. So when I look back, it’s clear that I had an affinity for light that somehow led me down this path I have chosen.

FTS: The set in ‘The Lion King’ is obviously very dynamic, as it is in ‘Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark.’  What sort of challenges do sets like those present, when lighting?  Is that an exciting challenge?
Don: Broadway productions today tend to push the limits of a theatre space.  It seems like most musicals are based on popular films (‘The Lion King’, ‘Spiderman’, ‘Kinky Boots’, ‘Big Fish’ to name a few). Their structure tends to be quite cinematic, with lots of short scenes and multiple locations. As a result, shows are getting larger and larger, but the available space in Broadway houses (most of which were built in the early part of the 20th century) is not increasing. This means that scenery and lighting often have to divide up what seems like an increasingly smaller footprint to accommodate productions that are growing exponentially in size and sophistication.  As a lighting designer, I have to use the available space as efficiently as possible, which means employing more and more multi-purpose automated and digital lighting. It’s been exciting to take on the challenges involved with these large and complex productions, and I think that exploring these new techniques helps to keep my work fresh. ‘ Spiderman Turn Off The Dark’ was certainly the most complicated project I’ve encountered- we used a vast array of LED’s to illuminate all the scenic elements from within, and some pretty unusual methods to light the flying sequences over the audience. ‘The Lion King’ was also quite innovative in its time (way back in 1996).   It’s been interesting and gratifying to see how the ideas we developed for that show have influenced the design of many other productions in the years that followed.

FTS: Maybe an obtuse question, here, but bear with me for a second, if you would.  You seem like a guy who likes the outdoors. Forestry major, etc.  Does this make you see and design light in a certain way?

Don: I’m fascinated by light in all its forms, particularly the light we encounter in nature: sunlight, moonlight, starlight, etc.  I’m constantly observing the infinite ways that light reveals our world and more importantly how the quality of light affects mood and perception.  All of these observations stay with me, and there’s no doubt that they feed and enrich my work in the theatre.

FTS: How has technology changed the lighting industry in the last 5… 10… 25 years?
Don: The industry and the world have changed dramatically in the last 20-25 years. When I first started out as a lighting designer, most technical drawings were created by hand, copied on a blueprint machine and delivered by the US Post Office. Cellular telephone, the Internet, and FedEx didn’t exist.  Lighting control (at least in the small off-off Broadway spaces where I was working) was manually controlled. In today’s theatres, lighting fixtures and dimmers are all linked together via a sophisticated digital network and controlled via very powerful computer control systems.

Today’s theatrical electricians require substantial IT skills to maintain and install lighting systems.
Hand-drafting has become a thing of the past- all lighting drawings and paperwork are created and transmitted digitally.  And the tools of the trade are substantially brighter, more versatile and energy efficient. New technology seems to be emerging every day.  It’s an exciting time to be working as a lighting designer.

FTS: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?  A favorite place to light?

Don: There have been many great projects I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of.  I would say my three favorites would be ‘The Lion King’ (directed by Julie Taymor, a collaborator and friend for almost 20 years), ‘Movin’ Out’ (the Twyla Tharp- Billy Joel collaboration about living and growing up in the Vietnam War era), and the 2008 Broadway Revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’ .  ‘South Pacific’ was produced in the Vivien Beaumont Theatre by the Lincoln Center Theatre Company. This is by far my favorite place to work.

FTS: What are you working on right now?
Don: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, directed by Julie Taymor for Theatre For A New Audience (in their new Brooklyn home), and ‘Two Boys’ at The Metropolitan Opera. I just finished work on the Broadway musical ‘Big Fish’, and will be lighting two new musicals on Broadway later this season: ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ and ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

FTS: With your work on the very popular NBC show, ‘Smash,’ what are the big difference between stage and screen lighting? 
Don: In television you’re lighting for the camera and not the human eye.   Color saturation, angle, intensity of light, and the overall level of contrast have to be considered differently when working in television.  As the Theatrical Lighting Designer for ‘Smash’, I was given the freedom to light the musical numbers exactly as I would approach them on a Broadway stage. The director of photography would initially film each number with a wide shot and the lighting would be unaltered. After this ‘master shot’ was complete, the camera would move in closer (and sometimes onstage), and I would adjust the lighting to accommodate.

FTS: What about the differences in lighting actors versus architectural lighting, which you also do – illuminating buildings or spaces instead of people? 

Don: Architects typically ask me to participate on projects where the light is intended to tell a story or create a particular visual context.  I think about revealing space in architectural lighting the same way I consider it in theatre.  Obviously the tools of the trade are different, and the design process is not quite the same.  When designing for the theatre, I must always be cognizant of the director’s vision for the play or musical.  In architecture it’s equally important that I understand the intentions of the architect and the needs and expectations of the owner.

FTS: What’s the one thing you’d like to do, if you were back at UMaine right now?
Don: Take a walk along the Stillwater River 

FTS: What are you filling your steins with these days?

Don: I would prefer to fill my stein with a good Belgian beer, like Stella Artois. But if the stein isn’t available, I would opt for an Argentinian Malbec.

I’ll tell you what: there’s always a stein here for Mr. Holder to fill it with whatever he’d like.  Many, many thanks for your time and contribution to the UMaine alumni community!  Cheers!

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