Spotlight On Student Lighting Designer Ashley Pittman
It’s unusual for an undergraduate student to get the opportunity to be part of the design team for a main stage production, and clearly Ashley Pittman, a senior Theatre/Media Arts double major, has the talent to be that rare exception. "Our Town" (Longstreet Theatre, November 14-22, 2014) marks Ashley’s second main stage lighting design.
Senior Theatre/Media Arts Double Major Ashley Pittman
Ashley previously did the lighting for The 39 Steps at Longstreet in February, 2014. She has also creating the lighting plots for the Lab Theatre productions Yellowman and How I Learned to Drive.
Design Professor Jim Hunter says Ashley has what it takes to excel in the field.
“Achievement in theatrical lighting design requires that rare person who is both analytical and creative,” he says. “You must love and understand storytelling, composition, color – be a musical composer but in light – and you must be a detailed oriented technologically savvy computer programmer, among other things. Ashley is just such an emerging lighting artist, one with great potential and the ambition to excel across all these fields.”
He adds, “She has worked hard to secure her two opportunities to design on the main stage here at Carolina, rare for an undergraduate, and it’s just something we had to do – after all, that’s why we’re here, to encourage the next generation of theatre practitioners.”
Ashley took time out of her busy pre-opening-night schedule for Our Town to answer a few questions about her design, her process, and how her artistry has developed over the last few years.
Would you describe the overall lighting design concept for Our Town? Has the show’s minimal scenic design affected your lighting design?
For Our Town it was very important that the lighting be beautiful, fairly realistic, and fairly subtle. With the minimal scenic design, it fell to me as the lighting designer to create a strong sense of place for the show.
Also, one of the main themes in the play is the passing of time, how it's inevitable, unstoppable, and always going. So, time of day is a very important part of the concept, and I decided the movement of the lighting should be like that of a clock, or at least our perception of it. Sometimes the light changes slowly, imperceptibly, and sometimes it moves quickly, but it is always in motion. My favorite line in the show is when the Stage Manager says “... the day is running down like a tired clock.” It just created a wonderful image in my mind of the way the time was passing and how it should look, and it was an image I felt really applied to my approach to the whole play.
Give us a sense of the process of being a lighting designer on this show. What were the major steps, from concept to the final production design?
My process as a lighting designer is very similar from show to show. For Our Town I started back in August, with reading the script and conversations with Steve [Pearson] about how he was approaching the show and what he wanted from the lighting. From there I started looking for research images, I looked for examples that showed the lighting at different times of day and times of year in New England, for pictures of small towns around the turn of the twentieth century, and at art that seemed to represent the zeitgeist of the era, particularly Andrew Wyeth and Norman Rockwell.
From there, I went to the production phase in early October. That's the part where a lot more people get brought in, the really technical decisions are made, and the pace and intensity of the work starts speeding up and only keeps building up to tech.
Finally, we get to technical rehearsals the last week before the show opens. That's when the lighting designer's job gets most intense, it's the time when everything is in the air and working, and it all falls to me to create the looks for the show. Then I relentlessly keep polishing them up to opening night, to make the show as beautiful as possible.
You’ve really made a name for yourself as a lighting designer at Theatre SC, and you’re the rare case of an undergraduate student getting the chance to design for the main stage. What is it about lighting design that excites you?
There are a lot of things I love about lighting, and they change, sometimes from day to day. But, always at the core of it I have a love for light and shadow. I love light's power to conceal and reveal, to sculpt or flatten, to completely change the viewer's perception of what they see. It's wonderful and mysterious (and sometimes frustrating). As a lighting designer, my entire job is to manipulate those qualities to create something beautiful onstage while also adding to the overall story and atmosphere. That's a challenge, and oh, so much fun.
That's all the artistic part but on the flip side, lighting design is also a highly technical field. There's a lot to know about lenses and beam angles and all sorts of other complicated things. I love that part too. I love the challenge posed by the equipment, that moment when you say “Ok, I've got this idea in my head, so now how do I make it real?”
The 39 Steps, February 2014, Longstreet Theatre
Lighting Design by Ashley Pittman
Comparing your artistic self now to when you were a freshman, can you give us some idea of how you’ve grown as an artist in your time at USC? Have there been any specific experiences or people who have helped that growth along, and, if so, how?
I've grown in so many ways, both as an artist and a person, in my four years here. As a designer, every time I've done a show I've learned many things about working with people, what works, what doesn't, and particularly about myself. I have a much better idea now who I am as an artist. For example, I know now that color and texture are the things I gravitate towards in my designs. I also have pretty strong opinions now about things (like LEDS and projections), that as a freshman I was only vaguely aware of.
There have been so many people and experiences that have impacted me, I learn something from everything I do, but there are a few that stand out the most. As far as people, Jim Hunter and Christine Jacky have both been major figures in my life for the past four years. They're not just my professor and my boss, they're my mentors. I've learned so much from both of them, and it shows in my designs. Christine is one of the few people I see pretty much everyday here and is my mentor in more than just design. It's been great to have an older woman to look up to, because in reality, lighting is still a male dominated field.
In some ways, I'm a lot like Jim as a designer but there are a lot of ways I'm different too, because I've pulled ideas and techniques from every lighting designer I've worked with, including a few who had big influences on me back in high school.
As for experiences, there are two that I should mention. First, fall of my sophomore year we had a guest designer, Charley Pogue, come for The Importance of Being Earnest. He's an alum of the graduate lighting program and has now been working for Disney for over ten years. I adored Charley, the people I work with still tease me about it, but that show came at a time when I was really questioning what I was doing and where I was headed. Charley was a blast to work with, and working with him made me remember what I loved about lighting to begin with. I also loved his use of color and texture, it's something I still hope to be able to equal one day.
The other experience for me was designing The 39 Steps back in February. That was my first main stage, and the biggest, longest, and most complex show I've ever designed, combined with the fact that we ended up very behind because of the snow storm right before tech. As a result, it was hugely stressful, but I learned so much more from that show and I surprised even myself with how good it looked in the end.
Ashley with professional Disney Lighting Designer
(and UofSC MFA Lighting Design Alum) Charley Pogue in 2013
Do you have any plans at this stage for your professional life post-college? Where would you like to end up after graduating?
My plans are still a little up in the air right now. I plan on pursuing lighting design professionally in some capacity, not necessarily exclusively in live theatre because there's a lot more out there for a lighting designer to explore. I'd like to take a year or two off and work, then go on to grad school somewhere.
That's about as specific as I can get right now, but I do know I'm not interested in taking what would be a conventional path for a freelance designer of moving to New York or L.A., and working your way up as someone's assistant with hopes of working on Broadway. I have nothing against being an assistant, it can be pretty fun, I just have no interest in living in New York or the stress and pressure that come with Broadway.
So, we'll see where life takes me, it's sure to be a wild and interesting journey.
What would you say to encourage people to come see Our Town?
I would say you shouldn't miss it, because it's a beautiful and moving show. The acting is excellent, as are the costumes, and I hear the lighting is beautiful too.