From Lincoln Center in New York City to the San Francisco Opera, Leigh Brown ’04 has had an amazing journey since graduating from Centre with a dramatic arts degree. Brown was back on campus recently as guest lighting designer for the April 18-21 DramaCentre production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
She is currently designing lighting for a theme park owned by a Jordanian company in Los Angeles.
“We’re designing a park that’s theoretically going to exist in Aqaba, Jordan, on the Red Sea just a couple of miles over the border from Israel, and it’s supposed to exist in 2014,” Brown says. “When the King of Jordan decided he wanted to have a theme park there, he found a Jordanian company with offices in America. It was mostly an animation firm.
“My job is to design all the lighting for six attractions,” she says, “everything from the architectural lights in the lobby spaces and the retail spaces, to the colorful little LED’s that are changing colors in the children’s museum and the exotic slipper lanterns in a space that has an ‘Indiana Jones’ sort of feel.”
If everything goes according to plan, in two years Brown will be in Aqaba, programming the lighting and making sure that her designs look and feel right in real life. And there are major differences between architectural design and the theater design she’s more experienced with.
“Right now it only exists on paper,” she says. “In the theater, if we try something tonight and it doesn’t work, I can go up tomorrow and make some changes and fix it to make it better for tomorrow. We can’t do that with a theme park. It’s all built-in permanently. So by the time I find out whether or not something works it will be two years from now and I can’t go back and change anything. And I haven’t had any experience to base it on, so it’s a little nerve-wracking.
“Another difference is in theater it’s all about telling the story,” she continues. “The canvas, visually, is fairly contained so you learn a particular set of rules and they’ll probably always work. Architectural lighting is a completely different way of looking at things, because you’re not looking at lighting people, you’re looking at lighting the way a space feels. If you bounce light off a wall, how is that different from bouncing it off the floor? If there’s a window, how does that affect the ambiance of the whole room, and how does it affect it at different points throughout the day and how do you adjust to that? How do you choose your fixtures, and where do they go, and how do you program them so that throughout the day they respond to the needs of the people passing through that space so that everybody has the most positive experience possible?”
Exciting and challenging as Brown’s current work might be, it’s not the first run she’s had with lighting amazing venues.
After earning an MFA in lighting design from the University of Tennessee, she was selected as the Gilbert V. Hemsley Lighting Intern with Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.
“I was amazingly lucky to get to be the Hemsley Lighting Intern,” Brown says. “Every year Lincoln Center interviews a bunch of young lighting designers who presumably are just coming out of grad school, then they pick the top five or six for interviews, then they pick one to do this nine-month internship. A few of the shows I got to work with were the New York City Ballet, the Lincoln Center Festival and the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.”
And that internship led Brown to her next job as the lighting assistant for the San Francisco Opera.
“The Hemsley Intern would usually do three months working with the New York City Opera, but the opera wasn’t having a regular season that year so they sent me to San Francisco for that portion of the internship,” she says. “Once again, I got really lucky because they asked me if I wanted to work for them once my internship was done. So the entire time I was there for the internship they were teaching me the skills I would need when I came back.”
But, Brown says, it was Centre that served as the springboard for her career.
“Really, it all started at Centre,” she says. “The year I was a prospective student, which was my junior year of high school, I helped strike the show ‘Blithe Spirit,’ and I met Jeff Meyer ’99 who was a senior here at the time. He came back as a visiting designer when I was a student here, and he had me do my first lighting design. He liked what I did and asked me to light ‘The Laramie Project.’ Then Jeff went to UT and introduced me to some of the professors there.”