The First-Person Project

G. Benjamin Swope ’99

New York City

Freelance Theatrical Lighting Designer

Major: Theatre Arts

I definitely was bitten at a young age with interest in theatre, particularly theatre production – technical stuff. I grew up in northwestern Connecticut, in a town called New Hartford. My parents were both teachers – my mother taught math and my father taught music. My father was very active as an actor with the local community theatre company. He would bring me along to rehearsals when they couldn’t find a babysitter. I was completely entranced with what was going on onstage, and even more interested in what was going on backstage. He passed away in 1990, when I was 13. From that day I continued to push my theatre interest. We had music in our lives, too. I took piano from a young age, and then my father he got me into the trombone. I took up the tuba later of my own accord. I got more and more involved in theatre in high school. I did a little acting, but it wasn’t my favorite thing. I mostly stuck to backstage.

Theatre was my passion, so I was looking for a college with a theatre program. Part of me was skeptical: I honestly didn’t know there was a career in it, because my experience had all been community, and high school productions. I knew about Broadway, but I didn’t really understand the connection between the two parts. Also, I wasn’t the greatest student and I didn’t want to go to school in the city. So BU was out, NYU was out. Keene became my first choice fairly quickly. I visited, I met the theatre faculty, I fell in love with the theatre space at the Redfern Arts Center. It felt comfortable and I felt like I could probably do well in the theatre program and also in general education.

“I fell in love with lighting. Really, I sometimes tell people that I started at three. I had my first flashlight at three, and was completely fascinated by what a beam of light could do, and the way it could change.”

I had a good experieRedfern Arts Center. Then I found my way to the Student Center one Friday night for an event I don’t remember, but hung around after to see if I could get access to the lighting and sound systems. It turned out they were still coming to understand the systems they had in the brand new building – and the next night they were hosting Ani DiFranco. I grabbed the opportunity to pitch in and ended up lighting an awesome musician whom at that point I knew nothing about. I was hired and became something of the boss of the production stuff. I worked or oversaw practically every event that went on in the Mabel Brown Room or the Night Owl Café that required a sound or lighting system for all four years. Academically, it was a good, solid time for me. I did better as a student in college because I was doing things that I liked. I followed the path, I followed the requirements, I took the sociology and psychology courses, which I have to say have been useful ever since. The Earth Science class I took was fun. It was a good four years of living on my own, three of those in the dorms, one off-campus.

But I still hadn’t figured out that I could have a career in theatre. To be honest, some great things happened in my junior and senior year. I had designed the production of Waiting for Godot presented in the Studio Theatre, and my design was shown at the American College Theatre Festival’s regional competition, winning the honor to be presented at the national level. So in my senior year, I found my way to the Kennedy Center and presented my work to the lighting designer Don Holder, who had just won a Tony for his work on The Lion King. I was in awe.

Then I got back to Keene, and I thought about the summer after graduation, and people suggested, Maybe you could do summer stock. I looked at some of the smaller theatres, stuff up in Maine, and then I looked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. It’s the most prestigious summer theatre, but I didn’t know that. The guy in charge called me in April and tried to convince me to pay $500 to have an internship at this thing called Williamstown. Lighting comes in from New York, famous actors, blah, blah, blah. He talked me into it. So I got to Williamstown and met a whole mess of great new people who came out of Boston and from big schools and other small schools. My mind was completely blown. The first show was this huge production, El Camino Real. The designers were two guys who’d just worked on Broadway, and the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was onstage. Later in the summer, the little old lady from that TV show Wings showed up, and I’m like, I watch your show every day! David Schwimmer from Friends showed up, and the pièce de résistance was Gwyneth Paltrow, there to do a Shakespeare play on the heels of winning her Oscar for the movie Shakespeare in Love.

That summer was amazing. The people there convinced me to apply for a job at the Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University. I got the job. Graduated, did summer stock, immediately got this professional job. I was what they called the production electrician. I was responsible for taking the lighting designers’ paperwork, their light plot and their drawings, and turning it into the real thing. I would program the lighting board and I would sit there through every show and do what we call “run the show.” It was great experience. Three years later, it was time to move on. I applied to a few graduate schools and landed a spot in the MFA theatre design program at NYU.

Since then I’ve been working in the industry, more or less. It’s a broad industry; I try to throw my net as wide as I can to capture every part of it. There’s theater design, which is exciting, which includes dance and opera. Last night I was on top of a ladder until 10 o’clock, taking down lighting in the Barney’s retail window store on Madison Avenue. I just got back from Vietnam, where I was lighting dance for a cultural outreach program. Three weeks in Vietnam, two programs, four performances at four different venues. All of those experiences come from this entire experience, from growing up in the community theatre through Keene State and Redfern Arts Center and the Student Center, and the experience at the Huntington, and then grad school.

I fell in love with lighting. Really, I sometimes tell people that I started at three. I had my first flashlight at three, and was completely fascinated by what a beam of light could do, the way it could change. So I think that attracted me, and the technology of lighting was fascinating. Onstage, light has character; it helps to define mood and environment. All of these elements of lighting – intensity, color, the direction the light is coming from, how it shapes the dimensional components on the stage, the actor, the scenery, or whatever – all of that together is a character in a way, one that helps us understand what we’re looking at. Hopefully the lighting is pulling your attention in the right direction, so that you’re following the story.

I’ve worked as an assistant on three Broadway shows, Fela!, a musical about the Nigerian-born musician Fela Kuti, who created a musical genre known as Afrobeat; Ann, a one-woman show about Ann Richards, who was governor of Texas; and The Realistic Joneses, a play by Will Eno.

I occasionally get jobs outside the theatre industry, like doing the lighting for huge corporate meetings. Recently, I was one of the lighting programmers for a new fish-themed carousel in Battery Park, in downtown Manhattan. Each fish has color-changing LED lighting, which allows the fish change colors as the five-minute ride spins each rider around and up and down, all complemented by the architectural lighting of the conical ceiling. Check it out if you happen to be in New York City.

My next project takes me to Hollins University, where I’m lighting a number of dance pieces. Then I come back to New York briefly, just to repack and see friends, then I turn around and I go to Providence, where I’m working with Providence College on a similar project. The winter and spring hold great potential for more work with new people.

For all the joy of the work, the lifestyle can be a struggle. With the amount of travel I find it difficult to have a fulfilling personal life at times, so I have to work really hard to find one. I’ve considered finding a teaching job, but now that I’m experiencing the professional life, I realize that in order for me to both be happy and successful, it needs to be a job that’s near New York City, that I can get to easily, and that is incredibly flexible. Or in my fantasy I have met the woman of my dreams and she is going to need to go to Alaska, and I’m going to start teaching lighting design at Alaska University or something. Still, living in New York is very exciting, and being that it’s the center of everything, I would love to have a tiny apartment here and a country home. So right now I’m just plugging away.