Meet lighting designer Christopher Akerlind

Wexford Festival Opera's Tracy Ryan chats with American lighting designer Christopher Akerlind (lighting designer for Herculanum, Vanessa and Maria de Rudenz) about broadway, volcanos, lucky breaks and Donald Trump.

Previous Wexford Festival Opera engagements for Christopher include Lighting Designer (Hubička, The Golden Ticket, Virginia).

What are the main differences between working on a broadway show and working on a Wexford show?

Maria De Rudenz for instance is big like a Broadway show but without the budget and the time. We are doing some things so fast that on a Broadway show we would take days to do. For instance the tech team for Waitress worked 6 days a week for 5 weeks before we had an audience. 10/11 hours of work every day all on one show for 5 weeks. 

Does this make you nervous?

No never, I’ve done this too much. This is something like my 650th show. After crossing the 500th show threshold you stop being nervous. There is the child in me that always gets nervous because this is such a beautiful, fragile thing that we are dealing with. The opportunity to work on these rare operas not seen very often is a great responsibility, the idea that you could have a part in them having some sort of revival in the general culture is very exciting.

It is great to hear the music. Vanessa is interesting, I think it is a 20th century masterpiece and the director Rodula is great, she has a great can-do spirit.

The Italians are fabulous. I’m having great fun with them. They’re down to earth and there is a playful quality about the work. They are attempting something enormous and they’re very chill. I only learned today that the director Fabio used to be a stage manager. I think the fact that he had a background in making it happen from a management stand point really helps him understand that things take time. There are some that aren’t patient and they want it all to happen right now. 

It’s interesting because I think there’s a funny effect with the spectators that come to the theatre. They come in, sit down and something magical happens in front of them. It’s almost as if it’s created by magic and that a huge amount of work hasn’t gone into it. There’s huge amount of work, organisation and planning that go into these things but to the spectator it’s as if it is happening by magic and yet the problem of that is that we don’t always understand what it takes, how much money it takes to make something like this. They don’t see the effort, it’s sort of a double edged sword in a way.

I’m thrilled to be in the presence of music as I have honed my career. Where I went to grad school had a professional theatre attached, and it happened to be producing all the premiers of August Wilsons play at the time. I was assigned to The Piano Lesson and the work was appreciated, so I went with the show all throughout the country and finally to broadway only 2 years after graduating.  It was a huge break for me. I was 29.

I did a lot off broadway also and then I had a huge break at Opera Theatre Saint Louis. I had gone there right after grad school as an assistant. After a year the person I was working for and the Artistic Director agreed that they weren’t on the same page together so the management asked me to step into the roll. I’ve done it for about 25 seasons for the last 30 years. That was a huge break for me too. I did 30 or so productions with Colm Graham who use to run the English National Opera. These days I do half the year opera, and half the year theatre, usually musical theatre or Shakespeare. I’m a little impatient these days, not to say that a great production of a Harold Pinter or a Tennessee Williams play isn’t a good thing to be doing; the scale is a little small and I’m sort of use to doing big scale productions.

Could you tell me about your creative process from when you began to where you are now?

We were all talking about how we were going to light up Jamie Vartan’s mountain, the backstory is that we all thought there would be more non-video lighting involved. We’re still not quite there and it’s a little unnerving but we’re having a new piece of equipment coming in that will make the lava flows brighter. It’s a tricky thing, I wasn’t involved in the initial planning of the projection design. I would have known that the idea we started with which was using 3 projectors of smaller wattage all packed together wasn’t going to work, we needed one powerhouse piece of equipment and I think that David Stuttard figured out a way for us to actually have this new and better piece of equipment. We thought there might be smoke but then the problem with mixing smoke which occupies 3D space is that you start to see the projection caught in the smoke as opposed to just landing on the mountain. So we’re not going to have too much smoke.

There is a little haze in the early part of the production but the problem of mixing projection and smoke is that the smoke diffuses the projection. The projected image passes through the haze or smoke, but some fragment of the light hits the particles of the smoke/haze (we don’t think of smoke having particles but it’s actually a volume of particles in the air, like a cloud is a volume of water particles) so there is a loss of efficiency of the light if it's projecting through smoke and is redirected elsewhere as what we’d call bounce or reflected light. You’re also projecting the shadow of the smoke so if the smoke in front of the volcano is in motion you’re going to get some of that motion in the projection. So we decided we couldn’t use smoke. That ties into Stephen Medcalf's vision that the chorus has kind of emerged from an ash state in their grey costumes. They’re in grey the whole time, the idea that this city has come back to life from the ashes, the lava flows had to be the most important visual part of the event.

What other genres have you worked in over the span of your career?

I did a Broadway musical that never made it to Broadway by Randy Newman called Faust, we did 2 productions of it in Chicago and San Diego. They brought in David Mamet to help rewrite the book a tiny bit as Randy had written the book and the music, the book was just a little soft but he wouldn’t change it and so the producers decided not to carry through and bring it to New York. I worked with Sara Bareilles too and she is a pretty serious pop star.I consider myself a storyteller and I like to be in a context where there’s a story being told. There are interesting artists for example David Bowie who actually thought of a concert as a story, his concerts had a beginning, middle and end. I’ve lit some concert events but more in the classical music world, it is interesting too as the music is more like light in that it is abstract, it has no text. It has musical text but it doesn’t have lyrics and I think the interesting thing about light and music is that they’re very similar because you can’t touch them and we use a lot of the same adjectives to talk about them. 

What are you feelings on Trump and the election at the moment?

I’m a Hilary Clinton supporter and I just have to say at 54 years old the American political scene never seems to amaze me! When you thought you’ve seen everything how did we end up with this character? 30 million people think he’s the right choice. To me all his indiscretions are part of the show, the real point to me is he has never said anything about what he’s going to do and 30 million people will vote for not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s terrifying! 

The change to information economy in the 90’s has caused this I think, all the people in the economic context haven’t caught up with adapting to that transition from manufacturing to information and services and digital economy. We still have people who haven’t transitioned and these are the angry people. They have the right to be angry, I wish they would express their anger for instance I think the support that Bernie Sanders got was fantastic, I thought he brought Clinton to the left in a really good way but I think to actually be angry and then just vote for the angry guy?

There was previously 44 white male presidents and suddenly Barack Obama. I still think they’re still angry about Barack Obama and then you add on top of it a white guy isn’t replacing him but a white woman! It’s a sense they’re losing control. All you have to do is be aware of the history of  England, Ireland, Pakistan, India and any country that had female leaders and nothing happens except that you’ve broadened the ability of a country to be governed by all types of people as oppose to just white men. One of Iceland’s recent presidents was a gay woman. America is so big and so diverse it’s hard to reconcile, might be too big to be governable. It’s interesting because the European experiment is to join a broader community.

Living in the North East and working in the culture I work in I feel I have more in common with Irish folk than I do with somebody from Alabama or Texas because they’re as far away and the value systems are just very different, but the middle where most of the population are don’t have the same education and cultural experiences to broaden their perspectives and that’s the problem it’s a little stuck. In the United States the human experience is slightly centered right. Not to over generalise but so that when we have progressive moments usually in response to some problem. If you have a problem you need a progressive solution to solve it. The Trump thing I'm mystified by and exhausted by, I’m very happy to be here for the last 4/5 weeks. I’m going to visit some friends in Rome when I’m finished so I don’t actually get back until November which is still five days short of the election. I’m attentive to it, the last debate I set my alarm and got up at 2 o’ clock in the morning. I had to watch the debate because they’re still entertaining and strange but I can’t wait until it’s over.

What is your daily routine in Wexford? 

I stop at Costa Coffee. I’m always interested in seeking out the non-chain cafes but then there’s something dependable about the chains. Then I’m usually in here doing set up work, notes and some light queuing. In the afternoon and evening it’s usually rehearsals. It’s an all-day affair. We have the must needed day off on Saturday. Usually my instinct when travelling is to get out and see some part of the world but I’ve been so tired I’ve just chilled. 

Herculanum, Maria de Rudenz and Vanessa runs at the National Opera House 26 October to 6 November. Book tickets here by emailing or calling 1850 4 OPERA/+353 53 912 2144.