by Doug Holder
When we were kids, my brother Don (or Donnie, as I still call him) was always involved in a frenzy of activity. In high school, in Rockville Centre, N.Y., he was like a hyperactive Mickey Rooney, running from one project to the next. And now at 46, he hasn’t changed.
Since graduating from Yale Drama School in the mid 80’s, Don has been lighting stages for a slew of Broadway and off-Broadway productions. My kid brother, the one whom I pulled countless pranks on—and with—is now a Tony Award-winning lighting designer of “The Lion King,” and winner of the Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle Awards. “The Lion King” will be in Boston this month, so I figured I’d speak to “Donnie” about his creative life, and perhaps give him a well-deserved noogie.
Doug Holder: You were always involved with a lot of activities as a kid, theater only being one of them. How did you wind up as a lighting designer?
Don Holder: As you know, Mom and Dad exposed us to the performance arts from an early age, which I think certainly initiated my interest. Somehow, I gravitated to working on the stage crew, and, immediately, I was fascinated by everything associated with stage lighting. I remember building crude lighting instruments to augment the school’s lighting inventory when it was time for a Christmas concert, or a special event in the junior high auditorium. My interest in lighting even extended to my summer work at Boy Scout’s camp, where I was always volunteering to be the ceremonial chairman, or the guy in charge of building bonfires and lighting the dark trails with “pot fires” [a burning wick in a large soup can filled with kerosene].
A pivotal moment was seeing “Chorus Line” on Broadway when I was in high school. I’ll always remember the legendary Tharon Musser’s lighting for that production. It really opened my eyes to the creative possibilities of lighting in the theater. I saw, for the first time, that lighting had the potential to be a powerful and emotional voice that could make a profound contribution to the theatrical experience.
Although I lived through many moments of uncertainty about what I wanted to do with my life, I always seemed to gravitate back to theatrical lighting. Eventually [a year out of undergraduate school at the University of Maine], I decided to take the leap and pursue the profession seriously.
Doug: You told me that Jennifer Tipton, your lighting professor at Yale, advised you to go into another field. Ironically, you went on to win the Tony Award for lighting. Any thoughts about this?
Don: Jennifer’s comments dealt a devastating blow to my self-confidence. However, I was determined to change her mind and never allowed myself to believe that I didn’t have the talent or aptitude to be a lighting designer. As I look back on those events today, I realized that Jennifer based her comments on what she knew of me at the time, which wasn’t much. She hadn’t seen my work first-hand, and her judgment was drawn exclusively from my performance in the classroom. I had no formal training prior to admission to Yale—my degree was in forestry. This didn’t prepare me to dive right into intensive study that emphasized a conceptual approach to design. As a result, it took my entire first year to relearn the design process, which up to this point had been based entirely on instinct.
Eventually, the ideas that Jennifer had been preaching began to sink in, and, in my second year, I was given the chance to design a series of new plays at The Yale Rep. Once she had the opportunity to see an actual production that I designed, Jennifer’s opinion of me, and my work, changed completely.
Doug: Was “The Lion King” the most challenging project you have done? What were the special challenges?
Don: I’d say “The Lion King” was indeed the most challenging production I’ve done, and one of the most rewarding. One of the many challenges was how to give the audience a real sense of the vast visas of the Serengeti: How could we create an unending, luminous sky scape that fluidly changed color and tone as the day progressed, or the emotional temperature changed? Finding a solution to this was crucial, as it was decided that this magical African sky would be the central visual metaphor for the piece.
Through research and mock-ups, we developed an unusual alternative to traditional theatrical “masking.” Black legs that are typically used to hide the backstage spaces to the left and right of the stage were reconceived for “The Lion King” as sophisticated light boxes. These light box legs mirrored and continued the skycaps that we saw in many scenes, giving us the desired sense of an unending stage picture, without sharply defined boundaries.
For the movie version, the challenge was to retain the essence of “The Lion King,” yet give it a new visual framework that allowed the audience to experience it from a totally different perspective.
Doug: Lighting is a very technical field. How much “art” is involved?
Don: Lighting designers are considered collaborative visual artists today, in the same way one considers scenic and costume designers. The medium, the technique and the tools are just very different. Lighting designers require tools and must develop technique the same way a painter or sculptor does.
Doug: Tell me about working with Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp on the musical “Movin’ Out.”
Don: “Movin’ Out” was an incredible experience. I found working with Tharp truly inspiring. I never met an artist with her strength, will, determination, vision and talent. Twyla was very supportive and encouraged me to think outside the box. Billy Joel was more or less hands-off. He trusted Tharp completely. Billy was very enthusiastic about the piece. Other than an introduction or two, we had no interaction.
I felt that my design should be a seamless hybrid between dance lighting and a high-energy, state-of-the-art rock concert. I tried to find an appropriate middle ground where the dancers and musicians can coexist, and where the lighting subtly draws the eye to the important moments. Every night there is a crowd of Billy Joel lovers, and there is a contingent of folks who are there for the story and dancing. Hopefully, everybody leaves the theater happy.
Doug: Any new projects?
Don: I’m working on a production of “The Magic Flute,” directed by Julie Taymor, and also August Wilson’s new play due at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, “The Gem of the Ocean.” This article originally appeared in "The Somerville News."