A Singular Light

As one of the country’s only professional Deaf lighting designers, Annie Wiegand is pushing artistic boundaries and working to increase industry diversity and access

Lighting a stage show is complex: actors are constantly moving; scenes, seasons, and moods shift; music and sound effects crash, swoop, and dip. The lights have to follow everything, reflecting it all.

And if lighting one show is hard work, Annie Wiegand once had to figure out a way to light two—at the same time, on the same stage. In Playwrights Horizons’ 2018 Off Broadway production of I Was Most Alive With You, two casts—one hearing, one Deaf—performed the play simultaneously on a stage split into two levels. Wiegand’s challenge was to make sure all actors, from the players projecting their voices on the lower stage to those signing on a balcony above, were bathed in light.

“It was really hard to light them appropriately—just the architecture of that was challenging,” says Wiegand (’10), a lighting designer who’s worked on Broadway and beyond, including with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Dallas Theater Center, Huntington Theatre, and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She’s also an assistant professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., teaching theater and dance program students in its school of arts and humanities.

One budget-priced solution she and her assistant, Gifford Williams (’18), hit upon for I Was Most Alive With You: strips of LED lighting on the balcony railing. They “helped to fill in the actors’ faces a little bit more,” capturing the nuance of the Deaf performers’ work as equally as that of their colleagues treading the main boards below.

It’s an episode that helps illuminate Wiegand’s career in theater: pushing boundaries, trying creative new ways to light shows, and fighting to improve arts access for the Deaf community.

Wiegand is one of the only—and was probably the first—Deaf lighting designers in the country.

“There was no precedent for me,” says Wiegand, speaking through an American Sign Language interpreter. “In the last 10 years I’ve been working as a professional lighting designer just trying to make my way through—and I’m still trying to figure it out today.”

Seeing in a Different Way

As the summer heat picked up, Wiegand was emerging from a pandemic bubble. With 15 of her students and three guest artists, she’d been cloistered on the Gallaudet campus for a production of Deafenstein, a new play by Anna Wood-Jacobowitz. The entire cast and crew had quarantined for two weeks before pushing through production in three. As a faculty advisor to the play, Wiegand was a production manager, lighting designer, and COVID safety lead. She says it was exhausting—and emotional.

“After almost a year and a half of being distanced, suddenly coming together for a very short time and this kind of project, there were a lot of emotions in that room,” she says. Deafenstein tells the story of two Deaf sisters producing a film version of Frankenstein with a Deaf monster. “It was really exciting. The script had a lot of valuable themes, and themes that are important to the Deaf community.” The filmed stage performance was a coproduction with the National Theatre of the Deaf.

Wiegand has been teaching at Gallaudet since 2014—and full-time since 2019—and says one of the reasons she went into education is to help “open up the field, technical theater, to Deaf individuals.” Despite some progress toward diversity in recent years, white men still hold a significant majority of lighting designer positions—as they do most offstage roles in theater. Very few of them have a disability, and Wiegand remains one of a small number of Deaf people in any backstage job. “There’s an entire field of work—and an entire field of possibilities—for Deaf individuals,” she says.

In Playwrights Horizons’ 2018 production of I Was Most Alive With You, one hearing and one Deaf cast simultaneously performed the play on a stage split into two levels. Wiegand’s challenge was to make sure actors on both levels had proper lighting. Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Playwrights Horizons

Many theaters, large and small, have a long way to go to improve accessibility for Deaf cast, crew, and audiences.

Take the obligatory headset. Most backstage crew have one, orders and cues flying from ear to ear to keep the show rolling. It’s practically useless for Wiegand. She can talk into it, but requires an American Sign Language interpreter to relay any responses.

“Any technical theater artist relies on a headset, and that’s something I’m still trying to figure out because not every Deaf individual can speak and use their own voice,” she says. Headsets are so embedded in theater culture that imagining a world without them requires “a large systemic change if we’re going to talk about communicating in a different way.”

“I more strongly rely on my eyes and relate to the world visually, so I think that gives me an advantage sometimes—I see things in a different way than hearing designers do.”

Whenever Wiegand starts on a new show, she lets everyone know what she’ll need: an interpreter and more frequent team meetings. “Hearing artists can have their head down, do their work, and their ears are still open to picking up those sorts of things that I don’t have access to.” With more regular meetings, she can also join in with the little jokes and throwaway comments that pull a team together—and spark creative ideas.

She recognizes that improving accessibility can be a challenge, especially when so many arts organizations are battling tight budgets. But, she says, there are grants and sponsorships targeted to theaters aiming to hire diverse artists. And having a more diverse staff leads to a better, more creatively exciting end product.

“I more strongly rely on my eyes and relate to the world visually, so I think that gives me an advantage sometimes—I see things in a different way than hearing designers do,” says Wiegand. She gives the example of making lighting adjustments during a production: most hearing designers will wait for an actor to speak a line to cue the change. “I always cue on visual elements—such as an actor’s movement onstage or a scenic change—sometimes that changes things for a stage manager. It’s just one example of how my work is different.”

Elevated with Light

Wiegand’s path to BU started in Des Moines, Iowa. She grew up a couple of miles from a large community theater in the state capital, where she started taking dance and mime classes at around age five. The dramatic arts were “infused in me since a very young age,” she says. She also studied theater at school, then at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. After graduation, she tried her hand at just about every backstage job: electrician, stagehand, costume stitcher, lighting designer. The last one stuck.

“Lighting is the glue for a production,” she says. “We have beautiful set designs, costumes, amazing actors, but it doesn’t exactly come to life until you add the light in. The light gives you the layers you need to tell a story: it helps you know who to focus on, where to focus on the stage; it helps you with emotional undertones and cues; it tells you about the time of day. Everything feels more elevated with light.”

One of the things that pulled Wiegand into CFA’s lighting design program was the promise of accessibility. “I felt like with other schools and programs, I needed to fight a little bit harder to gain the access that I needed.”

At BU, she studied with Mark Stanley, an associate professor and resident lighting designer for New York City Ballet.

“The first thing I noticed about Annie’s work was her sense of color: Her portfolio for MFA admission showed a heightened awareness of color and how to use it effectively in telling stories,” says Stanley. “Her designs have always built on that sensitivity. Annie is also very aware of the text in a play. She has a unique understanding of the perspective of the playwright and can zero in on the mood and dramatic intent that is behind the words.”

Before the pandemic, Wiegand was finally starting to get some industry recognition. After years of being offered fewer shows than her hearing peers, she was beginning to match them. She hopes that continues—or perhaps even picks up a bit. And she’d love to work on more musicals. “Because why not?” she says. “I can, it’s totally possible.”

And with more organizations getting serious about diversity, equity, and representation, more paths are emerging for other Deaf people looking to break into the theater business. There wasn’t a precedent for Wiegand, but she’s making sure there will be for those who follow her.

“Be stubborn. Be stubborn for what you’re passionate about—and what you want to do—and find a way.”

American Sign Language interpretation provided by Cara Schwartz with support from BU Disability & Access Services.