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Illuminating the Careers of Disabled Lighting Designers

Annie Wiegand is the first, and maybe the only, professional Deaf lighting designer in the theatre industry in the United States. She has been working as a freelance designer in New York City for a decade and is also a professor in the theatre and dance program at Gallaudet University, the only university in the world for Deaf students. Michael Maag is a lighting and projection designer who acquired his disability in a car versus bicycle accident in 2003 and became a T-9 paraplegic. He is the resident lighting designer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a founding member of Kinetic Light, a disability arts ensemble.

Michael Maag: Disability is often thought about in a few different ways. The religious model says my disability is an outward mark of divine disfavor or of spiritual transcendence. The medical model says I have a disability because of my spinal cord injury and paralysis. The social model says I have an impairment but I am disabled by the built environment.

Is there an equivalent thought process in the Deaf community?

Annie Wiegand: Absolutely. There are different levels of hearing loss: late-deafened, older folks losing their hearing, hard of hearing—maybe they can hear enough to use the phone. Then there’s total Deafness, total hearing loss, which is someone like me; I was born Deaf. All those different levels of hearing loss come with a different set of expectations, different ways of experiencing the world.

For most of us with profound deafness, we find ourselves part of Deaf culture, where we find belonging within our shared experiences. There’s a sense of pride, identity; we have our own language, American Sign Language (ASL). What you said about the social model concept resonates with me: society is telling us we’re the disabled ones. We’re fine with not being able to hear, but society tells us it’s not fine. Everyone embraces their hearing loss differently.

Michael: There are as many definitions of disability as there are people. How we internalize and externalize our disabilities as individuals is equally diverse.

The backstage area of a theatre, with a red curtain on a raised platform. There are random props and items strewn about. A woman in a 1940s outfit is standing at stage left. Down on the lower level is a ghost light. The entire stage is covered in textured, selective lighting.

Alabama Shakespeare Festival's April 2019 production of Into The Breeches, directed by Shana Gozansky. Scenic design by Scott Neale. Costume design by Oliveria Gajic. Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand. Sound design by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca. Stage Manager Rebecca Monroe. Photo courtesy of ASF.

Annie: We also have to look at intersectionality between different identities. For me, I’m a woman. I’m queer. I’m Deaf. So, I have three different identities that intersect.

As theatre artists, we all have our own identities. We have to remember that we need to look at things with a larger lens. As disabled people, we are already more intuitive, and so perhaps many of us are more open to people of different varieties.

Michael: I believe that disability, like gender, race, or sexuality, is a cultural construct. To best support our rights as disabled artists in the theatre we need to have unconditional support for the rights of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, people of color, and those in the LGBTQ+ community. Fighting for any of us is fighting for all of us.

What are your challenges working as a lighting designer?

Annie: Designers are always continuously learning. I’m mid-career right now, but I’m still learning and honing my craft. Due to the way that theatre is structured, it is more challenging for underrepresented young designers to learn, grow, and move up the proverbial career ladder.

Many designers have privileges that allow them to advance their careers. For example, a young lighting designer typically advances by assisting more seasoned lighting designers. Due to the majority of communication during tech rehearsals being done on headsets, I can’t traditionally assist. Professional union work, such as USA 829, is also harder to attain—disability inclusiveness doesn’t seem to be at the forefront. So how do I move up? That journey is still something I’m trying to figure out. I’m the first Deaf professional lighting designer, so there are no solutions laid out before me, and I’ve had to constantly figure out what works.

Design work has never been consistent. If I could hear, I would have been in a completely different position than I’m in now.

Due to the way that theatre is structured, it is more challenging for underrepresented young designers to learn, grow, and move up the proverbial career ladder.

Michael: I was established in the industry before I acquired my disability. Once I was able to come back to work I had the privilege of amazing support from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Together we redefined our vision of what it meant to be a lighting designer. Physical changes were made to allow for wheelchair access: threshold ramps, automatic doors, and an elevator were installed. We changed the job description to remove unrelated requirements like “must climb ladders.” The lighting crew was amazing, quick to adapt our work and communication.

Some things were not possible: I can’t get to the booth or a tech table in the middle of a row. In most theatres my tech table ends up in access seating off to the side. It has forced me to rethink, reconfigure, and hack how I work with my collaborators including the crew. Having a house job at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has allowed me to fail, to learn, and to do it better. Certainly the freelance designer does not have that same luxury. Hopefully my experience lays the groundwork for others.

Headsets are an assumed communication tool for the lighting team. How do you deal with this intrinsically audist practice?

Annie: Before I went for my master’s degree in lighting design at Boston University, I didn’t realize how much of the industry relied on headset communication. I’m actually kind of grateful for that ignorance going in.

ASL interpreters are utilized to assist in communications—they interpret what is being said to me through the headset. Not only do I have to use a headset, I have to use my voice and speak into it. While I am comfortable using my voice, the next Deaf lighting designer might not be as comfortable. With voice recognition experimentation, I hope to eventually find a way for future Deaf designers to be less reliant on ASL interpreters and more independent in tech.

As the sky transitions from gold to amber to red, green and blue, Alice Sheppard, a light-skinned multiracial Black woman, slides in a spider position on her stomach down the shiny ramp. Her bent elbows, her wheelchair and the bottoms of her bare feet point upward as she stares down the Ramp. The shadow of her wheelchair is visible beneath her short curly hair glows in the light.

Descent. Choreography and Performance by Alice Sheppard, in collaboration with Laurel Lawson. Photo by MANCC / Chris Cameron.

Also, my theatre and lighting design vernacular might not appear as strong as the next lighting designer, because I’m not able to pick up different words. I’m not able to hear the different vocabulary usage on the job, so that’s something I have to figure out along the way. It took me years to figure out what a cube tap—a three-way Edison plug—was. It’s the small things like that that most people take for granted, things I had to learn and pick up through trial and error. There’s also the fear of being perceived as stupid when you don’t know the vernacular.

So yes, the headset thing does bother me. Of course, using headsets saves a lot of time in the communication process in tech rehearsals and shows. I do wonder: When theatres open up post-pandemic, are we still going to have that ten-out-of-twelve rehearsal day? Or will our typical workday length change? Maybe that kind of change will help people like us, and it will give us the time we need to work and design.

Michael: When we get back to making theatre, post pandemic, we will be trying to do it with tighter budgets, fewer people, and less time. We’re going to be in a situation in which it is even more difficult to fight for social justice issues like access for disabled designers.

Annie: Budgets are always a big concern when it comes to people like us. I am forever educating theatre companies how to hire and work with ASL interpreters. I also have to move forward with the fear and uncertainty that I wasn’t hired because it was too expensive, or because my design skills weren’t good enough. I always have those questions in the back of my head, and it doesn’t help my confidence as a designer.

One of my first gigs out of graduate school, the company’s managing director emailed me saying they were paying the interpreters more than they were paying me as a designer. That was definitely an eye-opener. Since then I’ve been trying to find a balance between finding work and my access needs. I have to try to navigate that and walk that fine line.

Everyone benefits from universal design.

Michael: For a wheelchair user, getting from the house to the stage might involve going outside, around to the loading dock or wherever the ramp is, then through the typical backstage maze of elevators, hallways, and narrow doors. Once you get on stage the platform where the actors perform is a number of steps up! It would be comical if it wasn’t so frustrating.

When lighting for folks who can stand, I must position myself to focus the lights from a seated position so that the hot spot is at eye level to the taller folks. Sometimes I can’t get to a place to indicate shutter cuts—to control the shape of the beam of light—with my arms, so I use a laser pointer.

Folks with disabilities are fantastic in the theatre; we have to be creative, innovative, and adaptable just to get through the day. We are not living in an equitable world.

Annie: Yes, we’re not there yet; we need different kinds of adaptations. I have my hacks with focusing the lights too. Most of us in the lighting field feel like naturally we want to yell at each other during a focus session and we don’t have to do that. I typically ask electricians to either flag the light—wave their hand in front of the light beam—or pull the shutters in and out to let me know that the instrument is locked. Another workaround is when I intentionally skip certain words on the headset due to my accent—for instance, my accent makes specific numbers like the fifties and sixties harder to decipher. This way, I can work with my light board programmer more efficiently.

Michael: Often the responsibility does fall to us to point out the problem and find the solution.

Annie: Yes! As a Deaf designer, I always dislike it when a design run and focus or tech rehearsal are scheduled on the same day. All the information I receive is through my eyes. I don’t have the ability to filter information through my ears like hearing designers, so the design run is already tiring for me because I’m trying to document everything and remember all the details. And then I have to go and focus for eight hours after that, or start a tech rehearsal. So I’m just completely worn out at the end of the day.

Michael: An 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. focus, followed by a 7 p.m. to midnight first tech is a devastating day for anybody, and especially for someone with a disability. Another thing that bothers me is that Equity breaks are only ten minutes. It is not enough time to get to wherever the accessible restroom is, to deal with catheters and what all. Here is another way we can adjust our working methods to be more inclusive and humane.

Three Black women are standing on a raised circular platform. The floor has sand and dirt on it, there are tree trunks upstage of the platform, with a wall further upstage. There is a clothesline with clothes hung on it. The wall is lit with texture, the trees are side light with warm light, and the warm light continues on the platform and the actors.

Milwaukee Repertory Theatre March 2020 (ended early due to Covid-19 Pandemic) production of Eclipsed, directed by May Adrales. Scenic design by Colette Pollard. Costume design by Kara Harmon. Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand. Sound design by Fan Zhang. Stage management by Kimberly Carolus. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Annie: This goes back to the idea of universal design and how we can change not just the physical space but the processes and methods of how we do theatre to accommodate people of different abilities.

Michael: Universal design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood, and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability.

Everyone benefits from universal design. Curb cuts for example are great if you’re pushing a stroller or towing wheeled luggage. We can retrofit the entire built world. It is not permanent. It can be edited, improved, and universal.

Touring with Kinetic Light, in which most folks have a mobility impairment, can be challenging, we have to be clear in our rider about our access needs. We require our hosts to realign their thinking about seating because they are not prepared for a show in which the first two rows will be occupied by wheelchair users.

As disabled artists we often have to answer the question: “Why should we include you?” So Annie, what is it that we bring to the table as disabled designers?

Annie: I am very visual based, very reliant on my eyes; they’re clearly my strongest tool. With this unique toolset, I’m able to bring a different perspective on things to the table.

For instance, maybe there’s a part in a show that’s conveyed through sound only, and I always question whether a sound component can be supported visually. I would offer that perspective to the director. Changes might be made to make something more visual, as opposed to only audio.

Most directors like strong designers with a strong background with a strong range of tastes and abilities. As intersectional people with many identities, we bring all of that to the table as well.

Folks with disabilities are fantastic in the theatre; we have to be creative, innovative, and adaptable just to get through the day.

Michael: From down here in the seated position I see the world with a slightly different perspective. What if I bring that sense of misplaced verticality to the show by where I place and focus the lights or how I tilt the projections? Does that lend anything to the story we are trying to tell? Yes. Theatre does not take place in a vacuum. Disability is the human story. Look at disability in Shakespeare for example, not just the obvious, like Richard III, but what can the disability lens bring to Juliet?

Attitudes around disability are often fear based. I can use that—with the right lighting and projections I can confront audiences with their worst fears about mortality as manifest in the disabled body. On the other hand, lighting can be used to reveal the inherent beauty and poetry in the disabled body, to allow people to see beauty where they could not see it before. The disabled designer will bring something to productions that will not be found elsewhere.

Annie: People like us, we’re able to recognize details on a show that other people might not think of. On a show I designed, there was a moment where an actor had to storm off and then a door would slam offstage. The sound cue didn’t have a strong slam. After much team contention, I asked if a foley—live—sound was an option. Sure enough, the theatre had a small foley door that we put offstage to make slam. And it was the perfect slam. How funny was it that the Deaf designer helped solve a sound cue.

Alice Sheppard, a light-skinned Black woman, and Laurel Lawson, a white woman, push up the hill of the ramp, backs to the viewer. White lines of projected Rodin sculptures run from the deck of the ramp across their backs.

Descent. Choreography and Performance by Alice Sheppard, in collaboration with Laurel Lawson. Photo by MANCC / Chris Cameron.

Michael: Fantastic. You are focused on sound in a way that other people are not. In your way you are more aware of what is missing.

I’m interested in your perspective on the disability aesthetic. A disability aesthetic might be a way to summarize what it is that you and I can bring to the production. Disability studies advocate Tobin Siebers wrote:

Disability aesthetics prizes physical and mental difference as a significant value in itself. It does not embrace an aesthetic taste that defines harmony, bodily integrity, and health as standards of beauty. Nor does it support the aversion to disability required by traditional conceptions of human or social perfection. Rather, it drives forward the appreciation of disability found throughout modern art by raising an objection to aesthetic standards and tastes that exclude people with disabilities.

Annie: The disability aesthetic prizes our differences. These differences can help tell the story better. How you design from a lower perspective, how I design more visually—these are traits of strength.

Michael: I don’t want to be tokenized or given a job because it gets someone some funding. I want to be hired because I’m an artist. I’m not sure the gatekeepers know what good art is from the perspective of a disabled artist.

Annie: Designers in general are often overlooked in live entertainment and theatre. The gatekeepers need to be aware of the undeniable value of our work and what we are able to bring to the table. They also need to keep in mind that we have different identities and abilities. Specifically, people like you and me and what we’re able to bring as disabled designers and Deaf designers.

Full production credits for Descent photos:

Choreography and Performance by Alice Sheppard, in collaboration with Laurel Lawson. Lighting, Projection, and Video design by Michael Maag. Costume and Makeup design by Laurel Lawson. Artistic Director Alice Sheppard. Producing Director Lisa Niedermeyer. Managing Director Candace L. Feldman. Production Stage Manager Tiffany Schrepferman. Lighting Supervisor Tim Smith. Additional video by Eric Brucker and Ryan Jenkins. Dramaturg Melanie George. Music Editor Dan Wool. Production Manager Joseph Futral. Ramp Coordinator Stephanie Byrnes Harrell.

RAMP Design Team: Sara Hendren, Yevgeniya Zastavker, and Katie Butler, Daniel Daugherty, Duncan Hall, Andrew Holmes, Erica Lee, Scott Mackinlay, Apurva Raman, March Saper, Alexander Scott, Kimberly Winter, Rachel Yang, Jingyi Xu, with support from Olin College. Ramp Engineering and Fabrication by Rooster Productions LLC, a small employee-owned scene shop located in Martinez, California.

Music Score Composer and Cello Player: Joan Jeanrenaud, from the album Visual Music, with performers PC Muñoz and William Winant on Deconet Records, 2016. With the kind permission of the composer. JJCello.com. Additional Music: “Songs of Songs” by Karen Tanaka, used by arrangement with G. Schirmer Inc. publisher and copyright owner. “Empty Infinity” by composer and violinist Cornelius Dufallo from the album Journaling on Innova Recordings, 2012. With the kind permission of the composer.

Photo by MANCC / Chris Cameron.

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Thoughts from the curators

What would it mean to have a culture of justice in theatrical design? This week, we are uplifting the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This series aims to build a deeper understanding of what work is being done and engage in discussions around the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. There’s a lot to cover. We’re not going to get to everything or everyone this time around. Luckily, this is only the beginning.

Design (in a Time of Reckoning)


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