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This week’s interview features Mission resident Allen Willner whose lighting design can be seen in two current Bay area theater productions.

Mission Loc@l: You’ve got two shows running simultaneously this week: “God’s Ear” at Ashby Stage and “The Crazy Cloud Collection” at Z Space. How do the aesthetics in lighting design differ between these?

“The Crazy Cloud Collection” by inkBoat and Ko Murobushi premieres at Z Space May 27-30. Lighting design by Allen Willner. Photo by Pak Han.

Allen Willner: Very different shows. Couldn’t be more different. “God’s Ear” is a play essentially, albeit a unique and abstract one. “Crazy Cloud” is a butoh dance performance, a theatrical presentation in a dream landscape.

It’s interesting that for these two shows I have done something that I have not done before in all my years of lighting design. And that is using white light.  In the lighting world this is pretty standard. There are the certain gels that are tinted ever so slightly blue, and in return give off a purely white light. I’ve always shied away from this – I guess the unnatural white light just bored me. (I got into lighting design because of color, because of imagination, because of beauty of a sunset, because of the sun. I like things that look beautiful – stark, bold images that latch onto your brain and won’t let go.)

So I never liked bland colors, or no colors for that matter. That being said, these two shows have similar stark landscapes. “God’s Ear” takes place on a set of ice and snow, and “Crazy Cloud” on a barren plain of sorts.  Although I do use color in these shows, I thought it would be interesting to set up the use of color with no color. Kind of like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy lands in Oz and all is black and white, and then she opens her front door and… whoosh… Technicolor!

Shotgun Players present “God’s Ear” at Ashby Stage, May 19 – June 20. Lighting design by Willner.

ML: How did you start working as a lighting director?

AW: I actually got my start and training as a sound engineer and performer. I went to NYU for sound engineering.  Through a long course of events I moved to California and found myself working in theater as a composer, sound engineer and performer.  The theater groups I was working with needed lighting…  so I looked up and thought hmmmm, interesting… I can do that. Then it became a lot of fun creatively.

At that time I was also running a lot of shows at theater spaces like Theater Artaud.  I started paying a lot of attention to what the lighting designers were doing and how they were doing it.  Because this was all new to me, I just started to try things that I probably never would have tried had I been sitting in a classroom studying lighting design.

I really feel very lucky to have had the hands-on theater education I’ve had. It was the best theater arts education I could imagine, and I don’t owe any student loans! Of course I don’t have a lighting degree per se, but ask yourself, does one really need a degree to paint a beautiful picture?

ML: What type of productions do you like working on?

AW: I really like it varied. I love dance, musicals, plays… I guess what I like best is when productions can blend it all and aren’t constrained to one genre.

“Sunday Will Come” by Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project and Campo Santo. Lighting design by Willner. Photo by Pak Han.

ML: Who are some of your favorite people to work with?

AW: I’ve been very lucky to work with some amazing people over the years.  Of course the directors I’m working with now: Shinichi Iova-Koga who I’ve worked with for ten years now; Erika Chong Shuch, my wife, who I’ve collaborated with on four shows now.  Great Bay area composers and musicians Carla Kihlsedt, Mattias Bossi, Nils Frykdahl, Dan Rathbun and Dawn McCarthy. Also Elaine Buckholtz, my favorite lighting designer and someone I’ve learned the most from.

ML: After establishing a career here, you moved back to Brooklyn for a while.  What differences did you observe in your field of work?

AW: Yes, I think it was necessary to move back to New York so I could remember why I moved out to California in the first place. What I found was that I had so many great working relationships in the Bay Area. I also found that NY was just overflowing with lighting designers, many of them just out of NYU and willing to work for nothing. I found the creative environment in NY like NY itself, claustrophobic and kind of toxic. That combined with the high cost of living in NYC and a low quality of life.

The main thing though that brought me back to the Bay Area was the quality of the work itself. In the end, after you strip away all the NY attitude, the work itself is less creative than what happens in the Bay Area.  Or should I say that most of the really exciting work comes from outside of NYC.

ML: How does being a musician inform your work as a lighting designer? The songs from your self-titled CD have qualities I’ve seen in your theater work: surreal, folksy, cinematic…

AW: Lighting and music/sound have always been deeply linked. One informs the other; together they work to make the environment happen. I directed a show a few years back called “Heaven’s Radio” where I wrote some of the sound track and also directed and designed. It was wonderful to be creating scenes all at once with all the elements together. It enabled me to keep all the scenes on the same theatrical page without having to convince three different designers of what I was thinking.

ML: “Heaven’s Radio” was well-received [4 Izzie nominations and Isadora Duncan Dance Award for Lighting and Stage Design].  Any plans to direct more plays in the future?

AW: Yes, when the time is right I’ll direct again. In fact I intend on finishing a play I’ve been working on for quite a while. When it’s done, I’ll direct and design it.

ML: What are some your influences?

AW: So many influences: Don Delillo and Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, Edward Albee, Robert Wilson, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Patti Smith, X, Stanley Kubrick…. The list goes on and on and includes so many of the people I work with today. Hopefully we all influence one another, I guess that’s what it’s all about.

Some of Willner’s lighting design work with inkBoat (click to expand)

ML: I think most audience members are unaware of the technical and artistic aspects of stage lighting design, yet we really feel it — it’s emotional, it affects pacing and nerves, it can conjure a night in a forest or an interrogation room, it sculpts space, relationships, script, etc.  Can you tell us about a spot around here where you find the lighting interesting?

AW: Well that’s easy.  It’s the place that I really first discovered light and sound for that matter. It was the bunkers up in the Marin Headlands just up over the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I first came to California in 1993, I was a sound engineer over at the Plant Recording Studios in Sausalito. I was really not enjoying it very much. The atmosphere of a recording studio can be sterile to say the least. So I bought a Sony portable DAT recorder and drove up to the Headlands to record some guitar in the bunkers up there.

Now there are hundreds of them in the hills overlooking the ocean, each of a different size and reverberant quality.  I would sit and record, and then the late day would come and the sun would go down over the bunkers, and the light would just stream in. I’d never seen such beautiful light in my life.  Ambers, blues, reds, pinks all blending all goin’ down. The clouds would diffuse the light and blend the colors. That’s where I studied, that’s where I learned about light.

That’s where it all comes from. The sun. Even the light of the moon, the blue aura of the moon, it’s just a reflection of the source.

ML: Are lighting directors unsung heroes? If so, are you okay with that?

AW: Heroes and artists, that changes all the time.  One day rock stars are heroes, the next filmmakers, then writers.  Light will always be here and so will lighting designers, so inevitably they’ll have their day.

by inkBoat & Ko Murobushi
Lighting Director: Allen Willner
The life of 15th century Buddhist monk and poet Ikkyu Sojun meets modern humanity, and questions arise that provoke and prod the order of our lives.
May 27-30, 2010
Z Space @ Theater Artaud
450 Alabama Street (between 17th & Mariposa)
World Premiere at San Francisco International Arts Festival
Thursday May 27 – Saturday May 29 at 8pm, Sunday May 30 at 5pm
Tickets $16-$20
Presented by inkBoat, US/Japan Cultural Trade Network and San Francisco International Arts Festival in association with Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreograhy.

Shotgun Players present
by Jenny Schwartz
directed by Erika Chong Shuch
Lighting Director: Allen Willner
Some people say there are five stages to grief. But there are also living rooms, airport lounges and loose teeth to contend with. Once a couple is shattered by sudden tragedy, exquisite bravery, far-flung business trips, and fantastical figures are all things that come between love, loss and healing.
May 19 – June 20, 2010
Ashby Stage, Berkeley
1901 Ashby Avenue (at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way)
Tickets $15-$28


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