State Theatre New Jersey

Scene Notes

Interview with Donald Holder, Lighting Designer for The King and I

Not only is Donald Holder the lighting designer for the national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, but he is also a faculty member right here in New Brunswick at Mason Gross School of the Arts! Check out our discussion with him and get excited to see his award-winning work live on December 14 and 15!

How did you get into lighting design?

I grew up in Rockville Centre, NY—a rather large village on Long Island, approximately 30 miles from New York City. My parents really enjoyed the performing arts, particularly theater, opera, ballet, classical music. I attended many performances in the city starting at an early age, including Broadway plays and musicals, young people’s concerts with the NY Philharmonic, The Nutcracker at NYC Ballet, etc. I remember noticing and taking an interest in stage lighting quite early, while in middle school (age 13 or 14). Although I was a musician from age six through graduate school (played string bass and tuba), and I was asked to act in character roles on occasion (during my stints at a Shakespeare Theatre in Maine), I’ve always considered myself to be a lighting designer, and never had any interest in pursuing a different discipline in the theatre.

What was the first show you ever worked on? How was that experience different in comparison to the shows you work on now?

Although the memory of my "first show" is a bit vague, I believe it was a middle school production of Arsenic and Old Lace. I was 13 years old, a stage manager and stagehand, and I recall having a lot of fun operating what seemed to me like a huge array of resistance dimmers backstage. This was where my formal interest in stage lighting began, but it wasn’t until sometime right after my college graduation that I finally made the decision to seriously pursue lighting design as a career. The world has changed enormously since my days at Southside Junior High School, and it’s difficult to make the comparison between Arsenic and Old Lace which probably used a handful of lights operated by manually controlled dimmers, versus the state of the art digital lighting technology that is employed on a production like The King and I national tour today.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of lighting a show?

My favorite part is when I finally have the chance sit down at the lighting desk and begin to reveal and paint the stage space with light, support the storytelling and respond to the music, energy and emotional temperature of a scene. The process of revealing the play in real time with all the actors and my fellow collaborators in the room can be the most stressful part of the process, but also the most creative and exhilarating.

My least favorite part is going through the tedious (but absolutely essential) process of photometric calculations, creating the lighting drawings and corresponding paperwork. Despite the difficulty and long hours associated with these tasks, many creative ideas are born as a result, and the key to success in almost any pursuit is preparation: this is especially true in the field of lighting design.

If you could choose to design lights for any show, what show would it be? Why?

I feel very fortunate because I’ve had the opportunity to design the lighting for several of my all-time favorite shows. Fiddler On The Roof  is a good example: I designed the Broadway Revival in 2016, but distinctly remember seeing the original production as a very young child. I can still recall how moved and transfixed I was (at the tender age of three our four) by some of the darkest moments of the second act, particularly "Far From The Home I Love" and "Anatevka." These memories have stayed with me my entire life, and when I was given the opportunity to design the lighting for the Broadway Revival it really was a dream come true.

So you are head of lighting design at Mason Gross, what made you want to get into teaching?

I’ve taught intermittently during my professional career, both at the New School University in New York, at CalArts in Valencia, CA and now at Rutgers-Mason Gross. CalArts was my first opportunity to teach graduate students on a regular basis, and I found this to be challenging, at times difficult, but always uplifting.

In my opinion there’s nothing more important one can do as a professional than to mentor the next generation of emerging artists. They are our future and will be guiding our way into the decades ahead. My personal trajectory was very much influenced by the powerful voice of an extraordinary teacher and mentor (Jennifer Tipton), and I hope I can do the same with the students who have chosen to study with us at Rutgers.

How did you get involved in the creative process of the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I?

I’m a frequent collaborator with the Director (Bartlett Sher) and the three other designers who contributed their work to The King and I: Michael Yeargen (sets), Cathy Zuber (costumes) and Scott Lehrer (sound). As a team we previously designed the critically acclaimed revival of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. So I guess we were the natural choice for this production.   The producers and director were quite keen on sticking with the South Pacific team for this production of The King and I, and what a thrill it was to have the chance to design for such a beautiful, moving, thought provoking, and impeccably crafted work.

Where did you look for inspiration when working on The King and I?

We studied a lot of actual research images and illustrations from the period to gain a more intimate sense of life in the palace and in 19th century Siam.

What has been the biggest challenge to designing the lights for this particular show?

The biggest challenge was attempting to translate and reconfigure the design from its original home in the vast thrust space of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre to the much smaller proscenium stages we have encountered in theatres across the country. How could we retain the sense of depth, mystery, and clarity of storytelling in these much shallower spaces? And how could we maintain the integrity and beauty of the original design while accommodating the rigors of touring a first class production like The King and I around the country?   

From a lighting perspective, what was your favorite scene in this show to light? 

The prologue: "Whistle A Happy Tune," when we are asked to transform the empty stage space to the Bangkok River at sunset, revealing Anna’s steamer emerging from the fog as it arrives at its final destination. And from there, move fluidly yet again to the vast confines of the King’s Throne room. An immense challenge, but also a fun puzzle to crack.

What makes The King and I stand out from other Rodgers & Hammerstein's shows? 

The King and I takes place in an exotic, almost mythical setting, and looks well into the past, set almost a century earlier than the date of the show’s premiere. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s other works feel more contemporary to the times in which they were written. All were in their own way groundbreaking and unconventional.

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