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May 20, 2010


Broadway Brain: Kevin Adams lights rock stars of Broadway

by Jesse North

What do Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal all have in common? Lighting designer Kevin Adams. Widely regarded as contributing factors to the evolution of the American musical, these shows all have creative teams that have collaborated on subsequent projects, but Adams is the only one to have worked on all three. The Tony-winning lighting designer brought revolutionary looks to these acclaimed productions with his use of bare light bulbs and fluorescent tubes—what he calls “electric objects.” Now Adams is nominated for his fifth Tony award (he won for Spring Awakening and The 39 Steps) for his work on American Idiot, which blends the creative teams of all three rock musicals.

Yet Adams, just shy of 48, says lighting was never a thought in his mind during his education. With an MFA in set design, Adams began working as a set designer in Los Angeles, when he was asked to do his own lighting. Local artists who had seen his work began asking him to light their pieces in galleries. A self-taught lighting designer, Adams then moved to New York to focus solely on that work. “I can’t believe I’m still doing this,” Adams said. “After I do a Broadway show, I think, ‘This will surely be the last one I ever do. No one’s going to come up with another Broadway show that suits what I do.’ But then American Idiot came along.”

The Tony winner (who keeps his two awards at his parents’ houses, claiming they make him nervous) invited Stage Rush into his Manhattan apartment to discuss Tony nominations, his style departure on American Idiot, and what happened when he first met Green Day in a cramped dressing room at Saturday Night Live.

This is your fifth Tony nomination and you’ve won twice. Is it still exciting to get nominated?
It is very exciting. It was exciting to be nominated twice last year. It’s exciting to be nominated for American Idiot. That first time [being nominated], you’re so excited to win and then once you win, then you feel you have to win again. You feel like, “I want to win!”

So you feel pressure to win?
I don’t feel pressure; it’s just that you become much more grotesquely competitive about it. [laughs] And I know other people who have won that agree and say, “Yeah, I’ve felt that way too!” It’s not that it’s competitive, it’s just that the first time you’re nominated, you’re like, “It would be cool to win,” and then the next time, you’re like, “I’ve got to win!”

How would you describe your responsibilities as a show’s lighting designer?
To get through it. [laughs] I try to make something that brings the project to life that people can respond to. I’ve been doing these rock/pop musicals the past few years. There’s a desire to make that a very contemporary event that people can relate the look of the show to something they’re seeing outside of the theater.

Adams' Tony-nominated lighting design for American Idiot. Photo: Stephen Joseph

How have tighter budgets affected your work?
For scenery, lumber costs so much, and those kinds of materials become more and more limited. More often I hear more [from the creative team], “We want the lighting to do all the work.” So even though it is limiting for my collaborators, it has become more freeing for me, because the productions have become more dependent on me.

How was American Idiot pitched to you? Was it Michael Mayer who presented it?
Christine Jones [Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and Everyday Rapture set designer] and I were working on Spring Awakening in her studio. We were working on the tour or the London production—we had already done the New York part. Michael Mayer [Spring Awakening, American Idiot director] walked in and said, “Hey, there’s this band, and this album, and they’re going to meet with me. And it’s American Idiot and it’s Green Day! And we might do something with it!” Christine and I looked at each other and we were like, “Cool!” It just took off. Weeks later we were in a workshop, and it was like, bang.

Adams' Tony-winning lighting design for Spring Awakening. Photo: Doug Hamilton

You’ve worked with Michael Mayer since 1993. What were your early collaborations like?
Some of the things we worked on pointed the way to Spring Awakening. We did this play called Stupid Kids, about these four kids in high school, and it was very much like Spring Awakening. We were in rehearsals for American Idiot, and Michael would be trying out a new direction, and I’d come over and say to him, “That is so Stupid Kids.” [laughs]

What did you set out to convey with your designs for American Idiot?
Going into it, I lobbied for some rules for the show. I said to Michael Mayer and Christine Jones that I cannot do any light bulbs and fluorescent tubes. Let’s just throw those out the window. If I use that stuff again for a pop/rock show, people are going to catch on and it’s not going to be good. Spring Awakening was so precisely focused and calibrated. I wanted to make something that was the opposite, that was big, busy, and multi-focused.

I said we need to empty out the house, where the audience sits. It shouldbe like attending a rock show at the Metropolitan Opera House, not like when you go to Madison Square Garden and see all the busy rigs. All the energy of the show should be behind a simple, red curtain, like at the opera. We should use the conventions of an opera, coming in and out of the show—with the curtain revealing this world. All the energy of the rock show comes at you from the proscenium and not from around the house. All the equipment is tight to the proscenium or inside the proscenium. When the audience comes in and takes their seats, I wanted them to notice that there was a big read curtain and not a lot of stuff. I wanted that to take people off guard, and then that curtain rises and this big rock show appears. That seems like a very simple thing, but I was hoping that it would ultimately distinguish is from Rock of Ages, Spring Awakening, and especially from Spider-Man, which we thought would be running now.

Adams' lighting design for Passing Strange. Photo: Courtesy of Passing Strange

What played into your decision to not use your signature bare bulbs and fluorescent tubes that you used in Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal?
I resisted doing all these muscular, audience-blinding, strobe-type effects when I was designing Hair, knowing I could build those effects around American Idiot. I had to do that same calibration when I was doing Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal. I’d sometimes have to say, “No, I have to take those effects back, because I’ve pledged them to Spring Awakening.” I know people look at those three shows and say they all look alike, it’s the same kind of lighting. But they each have different rules, palettes, and details. For me, those three shows together are a contemporary light bulb trilogy. If you look closely, the shows use those elements in different ways.

Can you describe how you made those three shows different?
Christine Jones and I came up with this world where the lighting equipment wraps around the theater for Spring Awakening. I kept pushing for it to be 19th century stuff with 21st century light sculptures. A lot of the designs were explorations of a line. I started to think about all these things and putting them on one plane. When I was offered Passing Strange, I was into the piece, and I felt it was the perfect vehicle for that very idea I had been thinking about. I told Annie Dorsen, the director, that I’d really love to do the piece if I could go ahead with that big wall of lights, inspired by things that I had worked with in Spring Awakening. Going into Next to Normal, set designer Mark Wendland had seen my work in Passing Strange and asked me what I wanted to do with it. Now that I had put all that stuff on one plane, I’d like to take that one flat surface and break that up into a series of flat surfaces. I hope each show has its own vocabulary. Then when I got to Hair, I just wanted to light the show with just light—not use any of that crap.

Adams' lighting design for Next to Normal, for which he received a Tony nomination. Photo: Joan Marcus

I read in an interview that you said Spring Awakening had over 300 lighting cues, and 39 Steps had over 150. How many does American Idiot have? Where does it fall in the difficulty level of your recent shows?
It probably has about 500 cues. It has so much because it triggers video, and there are so many sequences that are dense with cues. It has a lot for a 90-minute show. I’ve done shows with more, but this one is dense. I know the stage manager is rarely able to look up—he’s quite busy calling the cues.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is coming back to Broadway. Give us a preview of what we can expect. How will it differ from its original off-Broadway production?
We’ve been on and off many times in the past. We seem to still be on. It’s one of my favorite shows. John Cameron Mitchell, whom I’ve also known for a thousand years, has some smart ideas about coming up with a new kind of show. I think I’m the only person from the original production that’s coming back to the show. That helps me make the show look different. I don’t think it’s a projection show anymore. John has some ideas about how to make this a different experience than it was, not only from the original production, but the movie as well.

Will we see a return to your electric objects in Hedwig?
When I moved to New York, I had used incandescent light bulbs in every way I knew how to use them. After the millennium, I felt there was this new century and new technology. I got tired of using light bulbs; they just looked so dated. And then we did Spring Awakening and these fluorescent bulbs started to be manufactured in colors. I explored all these new light bulbs for years, and over them for a while. I think people want me to take a little break from them too. When I feel I can find a new way to use them, I will haul them back in.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Linda
    May 20 2010

    Great interview. What I love about Kevin Adams is that he can do all that thrilling neon light stuff, but he’s just as successful when he takes a more natural approach like in Hair.

    • May 20 2010

      Thank you! Yes, I totally agree. If you strip him of his “electric objects,” his unique tools, he’s still fantastic. Look at the way he washes the AMERICAN IDIOT stage in color!

  2. Kym
    May 21 2010

    I just want to say that this was my favorite Stage Rush piece as of yet. Jesse knows why :)

    Fantastic interview! Really informative, and also really easy for non-techies to understand. Being that I’ve already heard all of the techie things that can be said about Spring Awakening, it was nice to hear a little more about the artistic side of lighting that show and the others.

    Oh, and Passing Strange is still the most tremendously underrated show ever.

  3. Carlos Alvarado
    May 26 2010

    That was pretty amazing. He seems like laid back, yet completely in tune. Great interview. I look forward to Hedwig!

  4. Jordan
    Aug 22 2010

    I have seen Next to Normal I the lighting was amazing, it was so inspiring I decided to write my Extended Essay(it’s a big paper for IB, only the insane do it, I’m crazier than Natalie, lol) on it. I have learned so much in the process of trying to figure out how he created the effects he did.


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