Finding the Light: An Interview with an Award-Winning Lighting Designer

Award-Winning Lighting Designer Andrew Schmedake

Interview with Andrew Schmedake

You may have noticed from my bio that I have a background in theater. My experience is predominantly on the boards, but I’ve had the opportunity to work with dozens of talented people whose job it is to make me look good. One such individual is Andrew Schmedake. We worked together on a play several years ago called 33 Variations. It’s a production that went on to win multiple Ovation Awards (LAs version of the Tonys) including Best Production in an Intimate Theater and Best Lighting Design (for which Andrew was the recipient). I recently got a chance to reconnect with him and talk with him about his career in lighting design and what he’s learned through it.

Hey, Andrew! How have you been? Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy.

Hey, Brandon. Good. Yeah, things have been going non-stop. I just booked a gig that’s going to fly me out to New York in a few weeks.

Nice. Thank you for taking the time to sit and chat with me. I write about lighting among other things and I wanted to get a personal perspective from someone who’s work I admire.

That sounds great. Let’s get started.

Perfect. To start off, where are you located and what are you doing?

I’m based out of Los Angeles doing a lot of work still between theater and live events for lighting design as well as technical direction for live streaming where I oversee camera lighting and audio departments for broadcasts.

How long have you been a lighting designer?

Professionally, since I graduated from grad school back in 2015. But I’ve been working with lighting since I was a sophomore in highschool back in 2006. So, it’s been about 16 years I’ve been doing this.

What interested you in pursuing a career in lighting? 

I got into it in my undergrad. I was undeclared. I had done theater in high school for 3 years, sophomore to senior year, and I figured okay, let’s see what else there is to offer and I was up at UC Santa Barbara for school and I found myself within the first year just sort of volunteering to be backstage again and I realized if I’m going to be doing this in my spare time, something that I find compelling, an art form where I am able to communicate something with lighting whereas I am not quite as skilled as a fine artist with a pen. I found it so rewarding to keep on working in that artform as a way to help facilitate storytelling even in my spare time. I thought “Oh, I’m having fun with this. Why not just make this my career?”

I found it so rewarding to keep on working in that artform as a way to help facilitate storytelling

Have you always been more tech savvy in your artistic endeavors?

I have, yeah. I came up with a bit of a nerdy background. I find that being tech-savvy helps you realize your own artistry better than anyone else can help you. I mean, you’re always, as artists, your own best advocate. So, I find that being able to build systems and engineer them to realize what you’re envisioning is the best way to show the product you want to put on stage.

How would you describe the role and responsibility of a lighting designer?

In my mind, it’s someone who thinks through how each moment in a production is revealed and commented on aesthetically, altered or supported through lighting; how the shape and form of a subject, a set, or a speaker is revealed. Then think about how you can help facilitate the emotional undertones of what’s happening in their performance with how you’re able to sculpt their form with lighting and give them color and depth and form and all those other fun, artistic sensibilities.

Where did you study?

I was at UC Santa Barbara for undergrad and Carnegie Mellon for grad school.

How did you get your start in the business?

I realized in my last year at Carnegie Mellon I wanted to build a foundation for my career someplace close to the friends and family I’d grown up with. I’m California bred and born. So I decided I was going to try and make my way to Los Angeles and land here and I moved out with a fellow grad student and friend of mine who had the same desire and we just settled into emailing everyone around town who had recently won an Ovation Award or had an article written about them in the industry. There were about three months in the summer where I was just getting coffee non-stop every week with everyone in town saying, “Hey, can you tell me about the industry? Who are the players? How can I get started? Is there some way I can assist you or learn about this? Can we have a cup of coffee and get to know each other as collaborators in the business?” And that’s how I started to build my network.

What was your first professional job?

The first one out of school was at the Malibu Playhouse.  I lit a one-man show of the Frank Capra film “It’s a Wonderful Life”

If you were to go back to your old self just getting started, what would you say?

The two big things are to always be mindful that you are a collaborator. So being able to voice your support for not only your art but also how it’s going to affect other people. Being aware of the repercussions of how the lighting might affect projections or costumes or scenery. Being aware that you’re a part of a team that’s creating that. As well as just fundamentally lighting the set, treating the set as its own subject separate from the people. Making sure that you’re able to treat each individual subject or structure on stage, be they actors moving around or scenic elements or costumes as their own distinct elements that will take light and need their own individual treatments.

What kinds of productions do you typically work on?

Typically, I bill myself as a lighting designer for live events. It’s not limited to photography or film or long-form drama. It’s really any sort of live event that can use lighting to help tell its narrative. I think of most of these events as narrative-driven, be it an after-party for a broadcast or a show that’s more hospitality-driven or a theatrical piece. They’re still telling a story overall with the narrative lighting for whatever live event you’re working on. By and large, I work in theater and then in the past few years as theater has come to unfortunately close, I’ve been doing more work with live streams as both a lighting designer and technical director where I’m working predominantly with a company called Little Cinema to create narrative experiences tied into the worlds in between actual licensed material. For instance, we worked with Blumhouse Pictures [Eli Roth’s production company] releases this year to tell live streaming virtual events tied into the narratives akin to what the latest slate of Blumhouse movies are. We’ve got a director who’s an old friend of mine who writes narratives that are meant to be immersive and live in the cartilage between the actual stories told in those movies so you can have an actual add-on immersive experience tied into the release for them virtually.

What do you like best about what you do?

I think it’s that I’m always doing something new. I cannot imagine myself doing back-to-back straight plays or back-to-back operas, but with lighting design for live events all together you’re always facing new challenges, working with new collaborators. There’s always something new to learn that will inform the next time you come back to something. Like I might work on a live event, say, for Blumhouse and then swing back into intimate theater for a musical and be informed by what I just learned and have that change how I treat my approach to lighting for that musical. That way I’m not being stale doing the same thing every time.

What typically excites you when considering new projects?

Really, it’s the things that scare me. I think when you take on any project you gotta find the thing that’ll make you wonder, “can I really do this?” Otherwise, you’re never really gonna want to rise to the occasion to try and overcome those new obstacles. Once you complete a challenge you got to look for the next one to take on.

I think when you take on any project you gotta find the thing that’ll make you wonder, “can I really do this?” Otherwise you’re never really gonna want to rise to the occasion to try and overcome those new obstacles.

What’s the most challenging part of your line of work? Rewarding?

Mostly I think it’s just being able to deliver something that’s consistently of quality on a deadline. There’s never enough time on any project that I work on, even in theater or opera where you got months of lead time, to really feel like you’ve totally delved in and mined the creative juices of what you’re trying to work on. But being able to turn something around and making sure it’s of a solid quality and that you’re happy and proud of your work in whatever timeline you’re working on is always the biggest challenge. 

What would you consider most rewarding?

Really, I think it’s the moment after the show when you’re able to look across everything you’ve built with your whole creative team- the acting team, the creatives, the design team- and go “Hey, we built this. This opened and it’s going to live in almost an ethereal, effervescent quality. It’ll be there almost like a carbonated beverage where it’s bubbling until it’s gone forever. And that’s nice just to have something that you’ve created that’s there just in a moment. 

It’ll be there almost like a carbonated beverage where it’s bubbling until it’s gone forever. And that’s nice just to have something that you’ve created that’s there just in a moment. 

Almost like those mandalas that the Tibetan Buddhists create?

Exactly.

What’s your favorite piece of equipment to work with?

Usually, it’s the lighting console itself and the networking capabilities it can offer. I’ve worked with a range of consoles, but really what gets me excited is being able to network them with other playback devices. So having a unified cue list across lighting, audio, and video. Or working with timecode to have everything be really synced up and really tight. Some of the best moments are when you’re able to have different departments be able to interact at the exact same moment, like frame perfect. I like to really geek out on engineering those systems. 

Do you have a preferred brand?

MA2 for when I have an outside programmer for outside shows or larger shows and if I’m the one behind the desk I know the Eos (by ETC) best.

What is a common misconception about what you do?

I suppose it’s the idea that a lighting designer is limited to just one discipline. Like, so often we work with people in this industry who are like “Oh, I’m a lighting designer for theater” or “I’m a lighting designer for opera.” And I think that what I’ve mentioned a lot in this conversation so far is that lighting design transcends those things. You’re still working with the same medium of light to illuminate and tell a story and you don’t need to feel limited to just one discipline. That’s the biggest misconception I recognize especially in my own field and my collaborators.

What was one of the most challenging obstacles you’ve had to create a solution for?

I think found spaces are the biggest challenge. They’re also the most rewarding. It’s those situations where you need to think about lighting design not just in terms of you working with a sandbox of proscenium space or a blackbox space, but you’re going into a venue, a warehouse, a field, what have you, and you have to go in and engineer an entire theater in order to actually tell the story you want to tell just with lighting. You gotta think about the infrastructure of what a theater consists of in order to help facilitate your specific task of just lighting that narrative.  

It’ll be there almost like a carbonated beverage where it’s bubbling until it’s gone forever. And that’s nice just to have something that you’ve created that’s there just in a moment. 

What is the most important thing a beginning lighting designer should know?

Research. The biggest thing that you can do is realize that even experienced lighting designers don’t know everything and so researching every part of what you’re going to work on, the background of who you’re working with and how they might want to collaborate with you, as well as just the narrative you’re working on. If you’re working on a straight play, for instance, get into the dramaturgy of it and know the background of the story you’re telling. That way you can best support it with what you’re trying to say.

What are you currently working on?

I’m under an NDA right now, so I’m not able to disclose. 

(Laughs)Fair. Can you tell me about the most recent project you worked on?

Yeah. We just did a broadcast celebrating the reboot of The Proud Family with Louder and Prouder. We were at a stage over in Hollywood and that was a combination of lighting design/ technical direction where we brought the entire cast together to have both a variety show and interview set celebrating the return after 20 years.

One last question. What kind of project do you hope to do in the future? Do you have a dream project?

At some point, I’m just hoping that someone’s going to call me to come out to Broadway and design something out there. But I’ll keep on working everywhere that hires me in the meantime.

Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time and speaking with me. I really enjoyed getting to know a little more about what you do.

Of course. I appreciate you taking the interest and the time.

You can follow Andrew on his Instagram at @schmedakelightingdesign. He also has an excellent series of video tutorials focused on lighting your home studio which you can find here.

Author pictured on the right in 33 Variations, lighting design by Andrew Schmedake Photo credit: Lindsay Schnebly

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