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Light In The Darkness

Lighting designer Steve Woods makes sure North Texas stages shine bright.

by Hady Mawajdeh 27 Oct 2016
Steve Woods

When Steve Woods does his best work, you may not even notice it. That's right. The SMU Head of Stage Design and longtime lighting designer's work is all done behind the scenes. But the way he lights a performance can determine whether you pay attention to the action on stage. That's why he's won honors like the Lucille Lortel Award for his production of "Henry V" and is hired by companies like the José Limón Dance Company. In North Texas, you can most often see Woods' work at the Undermain Theater

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Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.

  • Steve Woods in the theater. Photos: Hady Mawajdeh

When Professor Steve Woods is working, the music of artists like Kanye West, The B-52’s and even opera fill the hallways of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts.

“My colleagues will tell you that when I start drafting a show, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘what is going on in his office?’, because I’m rocking out when I’m drafting,” says Woods. “I’m sitting here and music is just going.”

Woods says that the music is soothing and that it is helpful because he is usually nervous when he’s drafting.

“So my ritual, I guess, is this gigantic worrying process of how can I possibly meet the needs of the playwright and the director?” says Woods. “I’m always worried about failing.”

Woods has been a lighting designer for nearly four decades. He spends his time shaping, bending and coloring lights. And you may not think about it when you’re watching a play, but he’s controlling what you pay attention to on stage. Even how you’ll feel about it.

“In the theater or concert world, even dance and opera, we have to help the audience make decisions about where they’re going to look at that moment in time. You know we’re helping the director tell the story.”

Woods has lit up every medium – TV, theater, dance and concerts – in more than 30 countries. The New York Times and Washington Post have praised his work. Yet he worries about letting down his colleagues.

Katherine Owens is artistic director of Dallas’ Undermain Theater and a longtime collaborator. She says it’s never just a job for him.

“It’s never good enough,” says Owens. “Good enough is not what he came to do. I mean sometimes we all have to say, ‘Well, we just have to let it go” but for Steve he’s always like, ‘I know I’ve got another idea. I’m gonna come in there and fix something.”

That’s why Owens loves to work with Woods. She says he works until he gets things done right, “It’s important to him that there’s a buy in from the people he works with, so makes sure that he takes people’s thoughts and perspectives when working.”

Owens says he a natural teacher too. “He’s really fantastic. He’s got a point of view and he’s able to bring stuff out of people. He’s also been great to work with because he’s taught me so much. He’s given me so many evaluative tools that I can use to ensure I have great stage and lighting designs our shows.”

  • Abraham Zobell's Home Movies, Final Reel - Len Jenkin

Owens is not alone in praising Woods’ ability though, Costume Designer and former SMU professor Giva Taylor has so many wonderful things to say about Woods’ work.

“Steve makes it possible for everyone to see all of our work,” says Taylor. “Nobody’s work would be seen without Steve and he’s so good at what he does.”

Taylor says Woods is aware of colors which is very important to her work. She says his mindfulness has made her job so much easier.

“He banned the [lighting] color burnt amber and I am so grateful for that, because the “bastard” amber can ruin any color I put into my costumes,” says Taylor.

Woods’ passion for storytelling drives his work and he says that that passion came from both of his grandmothers. His maternal grandmother was a professional storyteller, so she would go to people’s home to read to them and he says something about that really stuck with him.

“I just like storytelling,” says Woods. “You see the human being. You hear them breathing and sweating. There’s a rhythm to the act. It’s what happens on stage.”

Woods says his paternal grandmother also ingrained a love for storytelling by bringing him lots of books to read.

“She used to work at a paper recycling plant and they would let her bring home books,” says Woods. “Sometimes she would bring me three grocery bags worth of books!”

Woods says that’s how he was introduced to plays. “One of the books that she gave me when I was eight years old was the complete works of William Shakespeare. I just thought that was the wildest thing I had ever seen in my life. I would read those plays and you know I just kind of fell in love.”

In high school, he found theater but it was financial need that steered him back to the stage during college.

“I needed a job and the only work study job open was in the theater,” says Woods. ” It must have been fate, because I was just around it seven days a week, 24 hours a day and by the time I was a junior I was hooked.”

Woods liked the timing and rhythm of working with lights. Even today, he relishes the exacting nature of the work. The adjusting and readjusting of lights. And the challenge of capturing of one’s eye and directing it toward the action.

“Film folk have it easy,” says Woods. “They have a lens and it forces you to look at one thing or another. In theater, the stage is huge! That’s why if a light bulb needs to be turned on and I think I can make it better, then I am going to be there to try and do that.”

The 60 year-old lighting designer is flexible though. He’s not trying to make actors, directors or playwrights fit into what he thinks is the right thing to do. He works with them to find the best thing for everyone.

“He will sit in a rehearsal for days trying to find the right lighting for a scene or an actor,” says Giva Taylor.

“I guess it just my way,” says Woods. “I like the suggestion of light. And I like the idea that people are moving in and out of light. I want them to be able to choose to be really well lit or they choose to be half lit.”

Woods has lived in Texas for 18 years, but before he moved here he never could have imagined calling Texas home.

“When my friends used to say, ‘You need to move to Texas.’ I would go, ‘Oh! Give me a break. I’m never going to move to Texas. That’s like tumbleweeds and prairie dogs,” says Woods.

Now he’s telling people to skip Chicago and New York and come to Texas.

“People say ‘what coast should I live on?’” says Woods. “Well maybe you should live on the Gulf Coast. Maybe Dallas is alright?

 Its midsize companies like Amphibian Stage Productions, Kitchen Dog Theater and especially the Undermain Theater that Woods believes make North Texas special.

He says, “These are important theaters doing important experimental works.”

And after 38 years in the profession, Woods is all about new and experimental works. “These days, as I’m entering the twilight of my life, I try to only work on new works,” says Woods.

 Why? Well, Woods says there’s too much terrific talent out there.

“There’s lots of great dead playwrights, but I’d rather work with one that’s alive,” says Woods. “So I pick projects that I really enjoy and really want to do.”

 And with only a handful of weeks left in the year, Woods has got a whole lot of projects in the pipeline. But if he’s doing his job correctly, you wont even know he’s there.

 

How does being in North Texas affect your art?

For years, my friends used to say ‘You need to move to Texas.’ And I would say to them, ‘Yea. Give me a break. I’m never going to move to Texas.’ I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, Tumbleweeds and prairie dogs.’ But I came to Dallas 18 years ago and man, I fell in love with Dallas.

It is so exciting being here. Just look at the arts scene in our Metroplex community. Just in Dallas and Fort Worth there are probably 50 to 60 theater producing companies of different sizes and budgets. There’s an opera company in Dallas. And there’s an opera company in Fort Worth. There are dance companies in Dallas. And there are dance companies in Fort Worth.

There is so much going on here that it is very difficult to see everything. I can’t see everything. I have to limit where I go and what I watch, but the arts, the arts district, the light rail – the weather, I love the weather. I actually am very very happy about being here. I mean there are two airports. I can get anywhere in the world really fast. I like the community. I like everything about it.

  • Psalm - Limon Dance Company

So I guess you love North Texas. But does being here affect your art? I know you’ve said that you prefer to design for “new works.”

Absolutely. I mean you have theaters like Amphibian Stage Productions, Kitchen Dog Theater and the Undermain Theatre and these are important theaters doing interesting and experimental works. You’re just not going to see that in many other places. People always say, “Oh. Maybe I should go to Chicago to study theater.” And I say, “Why?” We have more theaters in Dallas than Chicago has. We have a lot more opportunity than Chicago has. So maybe people thinking about which coast that they should live on should move to the Gulf Coast. You know, maybe Dallas is all right?

When did you make lighting design your full-time job?

Okay. I know this is going to sound odd, but the University of Tennessee was on a quarter system. Once I started working outside of the classroom, I quickly realized that I could go to school for a couple quarters and then take a couple quarters off and work within the “real” world. So I really did start making my living in lighting in 1978.

I was at the Barter Theatre. From the Barter, I went to a theater in Nashville called Advent Theatre (close in 1981). Then I joined the Hartford Ballet Company and from the Hartford Ballet I became the production manager for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville.

After that, I formed my own company with a friend. We did all sorts of concert touring and television work. So I’ve really been doing this and I’ve never really had a “day job.” Although when I was actually in college, as an undergraduate, I would get up at 3:30 am and I would go to McDonalds where I would work the morning shift. I would work from 4:00 am until about 11:00 am. After work, I would go to school and after school I would do theater. After theater, I would go home around midnight and I would start all over again. You can do that when you’re young and stupid.

Well you aren’t as young or as dumb these days, but your life is consumed with work. You’re the chair of the Stage Design Program at SMU, you’re designing for companies in North Texas and you’re designing for companies around the world. How do you maintain balance when you’re so busy working?

Boy, that’s a good question. (sigh) As far the arts, pretty much the only stuff that I go to are shows that my students are designing. I’m a big fan of the Dallas Opera, so I go to everything that they do. But as for the rest of the stuff? Well, I want to spend time with my family. Otherwise I would be at theater or working in the theater seven days a week, all year long. I’m not going to do anything in the spring except recruit for SMU.

When did you begin to call yourself an artist?

Well, I was naïve enough to start calling myself a designer when I was about 18 years old. I probably became a designer at age 30. As far as artist? My daughter calls me an artist. She had me go to her elementary school on career day and called me an artist. But it’s hard to call yourself an artist. It’s hard to give yourself permission to call yourself an artist, because of how society treats us. Also, we don’t want people to think that we’re putting on airs or bragging. It’s a hard one.

In my heart, I’m an artist. (laughs) I just don’t know if I say it out loud a whole lot. I am certainly a designer though.

Are you creatively satisfied?

Absolutely. The people I work with – I think if you’re a theater person that you need a tribe and Undermain is the tribe that I am part of, so their commitment to new work and the people – YES! I am always doing new works or meeting new playwrights, so even on a bad day at Undermain, it’s a good day.

What have you had to sacrifice to pursue your career?

Honestly I don’t think I’ve given anything up. I’ve been doing this since I was 18. I don’t know anything else. I have a home. I have a loving family. I have a career. I have health insurance!

You know in 1984 or 1985, I was having a hard time finding a job and it felt like no one was going to hire me and I was getting desperate and I thought, ‘Heck. I’ll just go take the LSAT and I’ll go to Vanderbilt and attend law school.’ But that lasted about one day. I just stopped feeling sorry for myself and started looking for a job again. So what have I given up? Nothing. I’ve given nothing up.

What makes you different or sets you apart from others in your field?

First of all, the thing that sets me apart from [a lot of] other lighting designers is that I was never interested in doing one thing. I never woke up and said, “I better do theater no matter what.” I was interested in lighting design and everything that that entailed.

So for me, I’ve had a foot in the theater community but I have probably had a bigger foot in the dance world. I’ve also worked in television, film, architecture and many other fields, so I have looked at what a career in lighting can be rather than saying something like, “I’m going to be the lighting designer for the Rolling Stones and if I can’t do that then I can’t do anything else.”

I look at lighting design as a complete and total immersive art form. I really mean that. I’ve worked with photographers. I’ve worked at trade shows. I’ve done a lot. If a lightbulb needs to be turned on and I think that I can make it better, then I am there trying to do that.

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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