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If the World's a Stage, I Want Better Lighting

A conversation with EDT Production Director & Lighting Designer, Anastasia Markiw

If you’ve been to one of our performances, you’ve hopefully noticed our attention not only to exceptional choreography and dance performance, but also to putting on a high quality production with dynamic lighting and innovative technology that are custom-designed to enhance each piece.

Lighting is experienced by all, sometimes noticed by few, and often designed by one.

Viewing a performance is a highly sensory experience and can move viewers emotionally. As such, lighting is known to both influence emotion as well as add drama.

Take a moment and imagine key, memorable moments in musicals, plays, and dance performances you’ve been to. Many scenarios simply would lack impact (and in some cases, the audience’s understanding) without thoughtfully designed lighting to accompany the performance.

Anastasia Markiw, EDT’s Production Director since the company was founded in 2009, is at the helm of the unique visual elements that you see displayed at any one of our performances, planning and facilitating technical elements, including lighting, as well as coordinating efforts with the theatre we’re performing in.

Curious to learn more about how lighting complements dance in professional performances? Get to know Anastasia’s background, inspiration, process, and more via the Q&A below.

EDT Blog: Why did you choose to pursue lighting design and how long have you been involved in it, both for EDT and otherwise?

Anastasia Markiw (AM): I have been doing lighting design since I was in high school and have been doing lighting design for EDT since the company was created 10 years ago. EDT Executive Founding Director Katherine Mann and I have been best friends since high school. I still remember getting a text message from her during the summer of 2009 saying that she was going to create a dance company. I immediately called her and excitedly began discussing implementation. The rest is history!

I’ve always been drawn to the theatre but knew that being ON the stage wasn’t right for me. The technical side of theatre (set building and lighting design) always seemed in alignment with how my mind naturally works.

Simply put, the way lighting design informs a scene or dance excites me and is a feeling I can’t get enough of. 

EDT Blog: What other kinds of performances do you light, besides EDT?

AM: I design lighting for several groups. I still help at Chartiers Valley High School (my alma mater) with their dance showcases and musicals. I have also been part of the lighting team for the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham University, and Duquesne University Dance Theatre. 

EDT Blog: Do you have a favorite show/musical?

AM: I love the theatre – it’s a magical place. It transports viewers into the performance and provides the audience a reprieve from their daily lives. My favorite musical without question is Wicked.

EDT Blog: What moment in that musical stands out to you most, and why?

AM: The moment in ‘Defying Gravity’ where Elphaba flies and becomes so visually expansive that it gives me goosebumps every time where I once recently turned to my wife and said “I wish I could do this for a living.” To me, what makes this moment so impactful is the many moving multicolor lights that are used in order to back-light Elphaba (also hiding the rigging, fans, and fabric) which then move center for her final high note upon immediate blackout to intermission.

EDT Blog: Walk us through the process of how you design lighting for a particular dance.

AM: This is a pretty involved and multi-step process. As a point of reference, it takes about 30 minutes to program every 1 minute of any given dance. That said, it takes around 50 hours to program a full dance show.

  • Step 1: Analyze the music -- If there’s beat, my lights will find it! I pay close attention to the tempo or rhythm of the song. A softer song will be lit drastically differently, for example, from rock songs. After a few listens, I can pick up if there are patterns with the music.

I like my design to align closely with the song, unless something is going on in the dance that the choreographer wants to highlight. Verses will have one look and the chorus will have a different look.

I often revert back depending on the number of verses in a song to those original looks.

  • Step 2: Review videos of the dances and written intentions for each piece (from the choreographers) -- I watch the videos while taking notes on specific areas of the stage, any special spot lights needed, and where I need to highlight soloists (I prefer to give specific colors to different dancers).

  • Step 3: Consider costuming and show order -- I want to ensure that the lighting complements costuming and I also look at where any given dance falls in the order of the overall show in order to inform an overarching color palette. I do this so that lighting does not appear repetitive.

  • Step 4: Nail down specifics -- I then specify which fixtures should be on/ off for each cue, what color they appear as, how long the light is on or off, and how intense the light level is. Because our lights cue automatically based on music, I also have to identify the exact time code (minute, second, and fame) for each cue to be triggered.

  • Step 5: Program! -- All of the cues for each part of the music (for each dance) gets programmed into the light board to prepare for the performance weekend.

EDT Blog: Where do you draw your lighting design inspiration from?

AM: I usually go with my gut, if I feel a certain way about it – I’ll light it that way. If it feels like a drum beat or dramatic vocals, I may choose red or orange as the base color. If it feels mellow or sad, I will usually light it blue. If it’s a classical love song (Etta James), I’ll use pink or purple. Creepy or scary – green or purple.

EDT Blog: When attending other performances you are not lighting, what is the single biggest thing that is overlooked?

AM: I rarely go to shows I don’t work (I try to squeeze my way into working them). However, I think it’s fairly common for the dynamic nature of the light fixtures to be overlooked by the limitations of the programmers’ understanding of all the fixtures and what the light board can do. I certainly don’t know everything and have experienced my own limitations from time to time.

Design in and of itself is a subjective topic – everyone is a critic and it’s rather polarizing (you love it or hate it).

EDT Blog: What is the most challenging aspect of lighting dancers?

AM: The programming process is a bit challenging in the fact that I design and program all the lights before we begin rehearsing in the theatre. Once we’re in the theatre during tech week (week of the show), I download the files to the light board and see how what I’ve created works, or doesn’t work, with the live choreography.

Most misalignments come from perceived stage locations from watching the videos, when in reality, the dancers are a little up or down-stage. It then becomes a conversation with dancers, choreographers, and myself on whether the light or the dancer can move to the correct location. I always tell the dancers “Find your light!” I’m thankful that EDT dancers and choreographers are flexible with making adjustments and fine tuning. We make it work with adjustments along the way!

EDT Blog: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to try, but haven’t had the resources to execute?

AM: I’ve always wanted to do an entire piece that uses back lighting only - no front lighting. The abstract nature of watching shapes and forms move without an identity I think could be really interesting – isn’t that what dance ultimately boils down to? You could further add an element of silhouettes or shadows with the use of fabrics. However, everyone wants to see their favorite dancers on stage (strange concept, ha!) and audience members may become annoyed by not being able to distinguish dancers.

EDT Blog: What is your favorite piece you’ve ever lit for EDT and why?

AM: This a hard one... I don’t think I can list just one piece so I’ll go with moments from several. There was a Michael Buble opener that the moving lights bumped on in the audience and then moved center to hit the dancer. Next, a closing piece where the dancers were wearing white, as the song was building and the lights grew brighter, the way it all came together gave me goosebumps.

There was one dance where a dancer stood center and looked like they were hitting a bunch of buttons and the music was a series of beeps. I had the lighting change colors as if she was discovering what everything did as she pressed the buttons – that was a lot of fun!

Lastly there was one number that was just white light for the first half and the second half of the song, color was introduced and flooded the stage and dancers. The slowness of the color changes gave off a ‘lava lamp’ feel to the viewers.

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