The spotlight is on lighting designer Gordon W. Olson.
Imagine if your best work went entirely unnoticed on a regular basis. Imagine if that was the point.
A professional lighting designer and lake resident whose work spans genres and stages from Broadway to Minneapolis, Gordon W. Olson’s creative successes are defined in large part by how well he masters subtlety.
“My work affects how the audience experiences a show on a subconscious level,” Olson says.
And there is great art in remaining sub-conscious.
Unlike the work of an actor, director, composer, set, or costume designer, whose contributions to a production are overt Olson’s work is meant to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. His art creates atmosphere, enhances narrative, and highlights the work of every other artist involved, yet it remains hard to detect—unless you know what you’re looking for.
“Lighting is hard for people to judge because, when done right, it is next to impossible for people to visualize as a whole unless they’re aware of what parts to look for,” Olson says. “Good lighting doesn’t take you out of a show—it keeps you in.”
Olson’s tools are vast, and their effects are huge. Whether for an opera, dance, or theater production, he is brought into the creative process early, often meeting with the director and production team well before the first rehearsal to learn the vision for the show and initial plans for the space. For each project he plans and orchestrates technology, equipment, color, narrative, and timing, all framed by the director’s vision and displayed on every available surface, from every angle of a given space.
“Everything to me is fair game,” he says. “Anything that evokes a response.”
Take, for example, Olson’s design for Florida Grand Opera’s 2009 production of “Madame Butterfly,” one of his favorite projects to date: The scenic elements included a Japanese home with a roof and paper walls, as well as steps, tree branches, and a cyc backdrop (like a big, white sheet), all of which provided opportunities for compelling light and color work.
“There was so much canvas to work with—the house front, ceiling and sides, the tree out front—I used it all,” he says, and he garnered much critical praise for it.
From the Band to the Biz
Olson’s foray into the theater world came with some hesitance; he was a self-proclaimed band geek in Sierra Vista, Ariz. reluctantly recruited as a freshman for his high school production of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
“I was content believing that no one knew who I was at the time,” he says, so the limelight didn’t draw him. But he learned the ropes and performed with aplomb.
While he enjoyed the experience, it didn’t convince him to pursue more on stage. But through it he found a home in the theater. He started learning the technical aspects of scene building and lighting, and lit musicals for the duration of high school.
He went on to earn a BFA in theatrical design from the University of Arizona and an MFA in theatrical design from the University of Texas at Austin. He has since been involved with lighting more than 95 productions, including the Broadway productions of “Good People” (world premiere) and “Jerusalem,” which received a Tony Award nomination for best lighting design in 2011. Other career highlights include a world premiere production of “Hansel and Gretel” at Houston Grand Opera, where he served as lighting supervisor for two years; “Lucia di Lammermoor” at Florida Grand Opera, where he served as resident lighting designer for three years; and “Into the Woods” at the Renaissance Theatre, among many more.
Locally Olson has designed and directed lighting for plays, dance productions, and musicals with Davidson Community Players, and at UNC Charlotte, Hough High School, and Providence Day School. He also has designed and directed multiple projects for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and Theatre Charlotte, where his recent work on “Saturday Night Fever” won “Best Lighting Design of a Musical” from Broadwayworld.com.
Upcoming projects include three more shows at Theatre Charlotte as well as shows at UNC Charlotte and James Madison University in Virginia. He will return to the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville for the third year to work on design for “A Christmas Carol,” and he’s signed on to design “Madagascar” at Children’s Theatre in 2018.
He also lectures in lighting design at UNC Charlotte.
“I love design work, and I love sharing what I know and seeing students learn,” Olson says. “I take great pride in seeing a student who is interested succeed.”
His teaching covers everything from the nuts and bolts of lighting design (where you plug things in, where you point them), to the conceptual aspects of the art (how you determine what to highlight, when, and in what ways). For example, side light shows musculature and form and is ideal for dance performances. In opera, performance is big and gestural, and the environment allows for more stylized lighting work. Musicals present their own challenges, as they are fast-paced and beat-driven. And while certain aspects are consistent within each genre, the variables far outnumber the predictables, so Olson teaches his students to be flexible, collaborative, and masters of their craft, ready to change on the fly.
Successful lighting designers prepare extensively, know the scripts and shows in-depth, and above all, they find the moments, he says.
Moments in Light
The decision to employ a dramatic spotlight or pop of color, or to slowly fade in a subtle light over the course of minutes, is all dictated by the moments in a given piece, Olson says. His work starts by learning a script, front to back, and planning his design moment by moment.
Though Olson’s skill and work over the course of his career to date have earned him due time in the spotlight, he remains happiest behind it.
“I love the theater and I love what I do,” he says. “Where I feel my best and my most confident is sitting behind the table, turning lights on, honing in on crafting moments.”
Photos by Justin Driscoll