At one point during spring 2019, the theatrical lighting design work of Donald Holder was featured in five Broadway shows, including My Fair Lady, Kiss Me, Kate, and Tootsie (which is running at the Marquis Theatre). Despite the busy pace, Holder maintained his schedule as chair of and professor in the lighting design program at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Holder got his big break in 1996 when he was chosen to work on The Lion King, for which he won his first of two Tony Awards. Hardly one to rest on his laurels, he has since been the lighting director for more than 50 Broadway shows, in addition to Off-Broadway, television, and film productions. His retiring manner and self-effacement belie an artist in high demand and at the top of his craft.

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What is the role of the lighting designer in a theatrical production?

DONALD HOLDER: Lighting designers have been called the glue that holds it all together. We provide the lens through which you experience a theatrical event, revealing the world of the play. We have a profound effect on what you see—and how you feel about what you are seeing. What is the palette of the costumes? What does the scenery look like? What is the story we are trying to tell? All of these things are considered carefully. Sometimes, I am asked to take a principal storytelling role; other times, it’s a supporting role.

I was trained to be a chameleon, to be able to adapt my style to a particular production and not have a signature look. I suppose I have my tendencies; you would have to ask somebody else. We all see things differently because we are all different people, and it comes out on the work onstage. Everybody has a different heart, a different soul, a different way of seeing. Lighting design is a means of creative self-expression.


Don Holder

View a video of Holder describing his love of lighting.

View a video of Holder explaining lighting techniques.



RM: Describe what you do.

DH: The lights are constantly shifting throughout the course of a play, based on movement, music, shift in mood, a shift in time of day—whatever the storytelling requirements are. What that translates into is that the lighting team has to make a series of cues, or “stage pictures,” which typically come in five-second intervals. I explain very specifically to the computer programmer as the play is in rehearsal what each light does and when. It all gets figured out and recorded as a cue, and you move from one lighting event to the next over the course of the play. For a musical, such as Tootsie, it gets quite complicated, with 800 lighting events. A play may have 50.

RM: You have been the lighting designer for more than 50 Broadway shows, not to mention your work Off-Broadway and in television and film. You got off to a grand start on Broadway by being asked to do the lights for the original production of The Lion King, which ran at the New Amsterdam Theatre. How did that come to pass?

DH: Getting that job—my first Broadway musical—changed my life. It was a classic case of being at the right place at the right time. Of course, you have to take advantage of your opportunities. This is what I tell my students: be prepared.

It wasn’t like I was offered The Lion King out of the blue. There was a series of events that led to the appointment. I had been very interested in the work of Julie Taymor, who would eventually direct The Lion King. I had wanted to work with her and had sent her my resume and tried to get in touch with her, but there was never any response. Then, I got a call from the producer of her 1994 production of Titus Andronicus, which had lost its lighting designer and needed somebody immediately. That was the beginning of a collaboration that has been going on for more than 20 years. My lighting design has appeared in all productions of The Lion King worldwide since 1996.

RM: You are considered one of the top practitioners in your chosen field of theatrical lighting design. You ALSO make it a point to teach.

DH: It’s very important. I am the product of a fantastic mentor, Jennifer Tipton, and I wouldn’t be where I am without her. Forty years later, Jennifer is still teaching lighting and design at the Yale School of Drama, from which I graduated in 1986. That’s what it is all about.

RM: What’s your approach to teaching lighting design?

DH: We teach our students that lighting design is a process, from the day you get hired for a show: how to collaborate and communicate; how to conceptualize and come up with your lighting ideas; and how to talk about them and translate them to technical documents; how to create the light in a theater space.

RM: Since Rutgers is so close to New York City, do you have your students visit you while you are working on a Broadway production?

DH: I invite my students to visit all my productions, where they get to meet the people whom I work with. They are all great role models and very accessible to answer questions. The experience also makes entering the field not such a foreign, scary proposition. All of these people are not that much older than they are, and students get a sense of what skills they will need and how they have to prepare. So, they see that it is not impossible to be in this place.

RM: How has the industry changed?

DH: It’s been a steady series of changes over the last 32 years that I have been doing this profession. Computerized controls were in their infancy when I started. Where they did exist, I didn’t use it because my productions couldn’t afford the technology. People were still using desktop computers. There was no fax, no FedEx, no internet. There have been huge advances in control technology and lighting technology in general, evolving from the way we control lights to the kinds of lights we use.

RM: It must be challenging to stay abreast.

DH: I have to keep up with it. I went from hand drafting, and learning that craft, to now handling it digitally. Today, you have to know computer-assisted design. You either change or you get left behind.

RM: You have done some work for television (Smash) and film (Oceans 8). How do those experiences stack up to your theater work.

DH: Working in television and film, because of the pace of them, helped my work overall by forcing me to make decisions quickly. The work made me appreciate working in theater even more. Theater is immediate, and I am involved in every minute of it; the other mediums are fragmented. The sense of collaboration, the sense of community in theater is so much more compelling and satisfying. The creative conversation is much deeper and richer because you are all in one room. •