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As one of the nation’s foremost lighting designers, Christopher Akerlind follows a simple edict when it comes to approaching a new project, be it opera, ballet, or Broadway play or musical: “I like to do projects that transport all—theater makers, spectators—in some vivid way. I’m a theater-goer,” he says. “I long to be moved. I like working on projects that soar beyond expectations.”
And for Akerlind (CFA’85), a veteran of nearly two dozen Broadway productions, it’s not about ego, but about serving the material and the actors. “I like to think of myself as a lighting designer whose work allows the performance to happen, without intruding on the dramatic experience of the show,” he says. “I’m deeply reverential of performers speaking and singing writers’ words and music. I’ve always thought that spectacle is a little overrated, as it tends to overwhelm what is more difficult to absorb: the humanity of character, the journey of a plot.”
That philosophy has worked well for Akerlind, who routinely works on 12 to 18 projects a year, many for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where he is resident lighting designer, with more than 74 productions under his belt.
Someone who prefers being behind the scenes, Akerlind finds himself, somewhat reluctantly, in the spotlight this weekend: he is nominated for a Tony Award—Broadway’s highest honor—for Best Lighting Design of a Play, for his work on Indecent, a new play by Pulitzer Prize–winner Paula Vogel. He won in 2005 for A Light in the Piazza and was nominated for Seven Guitars (1996), Awake and Sing! (2006), 110 in the Shade (2007), The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (2012), and Rocky (2014).
“I’m slightly ambivalent about the kind of attention that a Tony nomination brings,” he says. “Though I feel pride in knowing that I’ve accomplished something that many have responded positively to, I’m simultaneously anxious for it all to be over.”
Indecent, cocreated by Vogel and director Rebecca Taichmann, marks Vogel’s long-overdue arrival on Broadway. A play-about-a-play, it chronicles the mounting of the real-life 1922 Yiddish play God of Vengeance, famous for featuring the first kiss between two women on the Great White Way. The original play’s story is about a brothel owner’s daughter who falls in love with one of his prostitutes. That seminal kiss scene was cut when the play moved from Greenwich Village to Broadway, but the play was still considered so morally reprehensible that it was shut down by police six weeks after it opened, the cast and producer arrested and jailed on charges of obscenity.
Vogel’s play is nonlinear, cutting back and forth in time, moving fluidly between the play’s creation in Poland in 1906 to a poignant production staged by Jews in the Lodz ghetto during the German occupation of Poland, and recounting the life of its playwright, Sholem Asch.
The use of projections helps cue audiences about changes in time as the play skips ahead and back, and Akerlind’s lighting design has been credited with aiding in these key transitions. His scenes are “artfully lighted,” according to the New York Times. And about Indecent’s haunting opening, where a troupe of sleeping Yiddish actors rise from chairs to begin playing their parts as ashes fall from above, Variety theater critic Marilyn Stasio writes: “Credit Christopher Akerlind for the eerie lighting design that has this phantom troupe suspended somewhere between time and space.”
Vogel’s play, a collaboration among director Taichmann, the show’s designers and cast, and the author, was first produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre before moving to La Jolla Playhouse in California and the Vineyard Theatre off Broadway. It transferred to Broadway’s Cort Theater in mid-April.
Akerlind, a frequent collaborator with Taichmann, says he was drawn to the project because he’s interested in “plays about plays told without need for literal representation of time and place, plays about philosophy, plays describing the beauty of the human spirit.” And although a play with a nonlinear structure presents challenges, time changes are the most exciting kind of work for a lighting designer, he says, “light being such a powerful illustrator of time.” The bigger challenges “were questions of style, book scenes as it were, as opposed to the musical numbers that illustrate an emotional or transitional idea.” He used followspots and footlights (“two light ideas that are intrinsically theatrical,” he notes) for helping to ease the slide from storytelling scene to stylized scene.
Preparing for any project, Akerlind says, he first reads the play or listens to the opera he’s working on “to glean as much of its dramaturgy as possible: how does the thing work?” By doing that work first, “the light comes easily if I’m working to propel the drama without overwhelming it.”
As for the initial tools needed to pursue his career, the designer cites BU faculty for teaching them. “Both lighting design professors, Sid Bennett and Roger Meeker, I think recognized some initial talent in me and helped me greatly in developing it,” he says.
“All of Don Beaman’s classes in set design, drawing, and scene painting helped me develop a sense of composition and style. And the proximity of the BU design and production classrooms to the Huntington Theatre Company allowed for important observation of professionals working. I met designers and directors there that I’m still in touch with, and in some cases, working with.”
Other BU alums nominated for a 2017 Tony Award are: for best play, producers James Nederlander (CGS’80), Diana Roesch Dimenna (COM’85), and Sue Wagner (CFA’97) for A Doll’s House Part 2; for best musical, Lauren B. Stevens (CFA’75) for Come from Away, Kenneth J. Feld (Questrom ’70), BU Board of Trustees chair, and Bonnie T. Feld (CAS’73) for Dear Evan Hansen, and Dimenna for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812; and for best revival of a musical, Wagner for Hello, Dolly!
The 71st annual Tony Awards will be broadcast live Sunday, June 11, on CBS at 8 p.m. EDT. Find a full list of this year’s nominees here.