Benny Kirkham’s singing and dancing career ended before it even began. It was 1986, and he was auditioning for the Dallas Musical Theatre Conservatory’s production of Evita, the first collegiate performance of the Tony Award-winning musical. Since his acting skills were lacking—“I was pretty horrible,” Kirkham admits—choreographer J. Hall wondered if the student might have any talent at lighting. Hall explained how to focus the lights and why one might choose one color over another, teaching Kirkham on an old Electronic Theatre Controls console. “I found that my head wrapped around this really well,” he says. “I kept coming up with more questions, and I found a fascination with it that I just never would have realized existed.”
In the end, Kirkham did not operate the console for Evita, running a followspot instead, but he continued to learn on an old GAM Access console, complete with hand-soldered joints. Reading the manual and discussing design principles with Hall, Kirkham acquired enough lighting knowledge to secure a job at Six Flags Over Texas in the David Blackburn Southern Palace Theatre, working six shows a day and earning $4.25 an hour.
As it turned out, Six Flags Over Texas was an incubator for recognizable names in the industry today. Kirkham ran a Kliegl Performer One for two shows and then a carbon-arc Super Trouper followspot for another two shows alongside George Masek, now vice president of automated lighting for A.C.T Lighting, the exclusive distributor for Clay Paky and MA Lighting in North America. Others, he says, working for less than $5 an hour at the theme park’s theatre included “John Grubbs, who was Willie Nelson’s monitor engineer for years, and now he’s director of operations for Desert Entertainment in Las Vegas; David Grogan, who now works for Cirque du Soleil in Vegas; Stewart Bennett, who was the master of the Yamaha PM1000 in that theatre, and now he’s the best FOH engineer in audio; Colin D. Ford, a cameraman for ABC; Scott Green, who worked at InLight Gobos and Vari-Lite; and James Stiebing, who was the Vari-Lite head of tech support for years.” Working on a lighting console so old that it backed up onto a cassette tape and was branded by just one Kliegl brother, the tech gurus of the future “were all in the same theatre at the same time,” Kirkham reminisces. “It was great to have such an intelligent, dynamic group of people, who were all really passionate about the work that we did.”
Working in Dallas on local productions for several years afterwards, Kirkham declares that his big break was landing a job at Vari-Lite—now Philips Vari-Lite—in 1990. Hired by Jim Waits, Tom Littrell, and Larry Sizemore—“three legendary moving light programmers,” he states—to do rehearsals for Prince, Kirkham was trained on the Vari-Lite system. “Working for Vari-Lite was tremendous,” he proclaims, “not only because the company was the cutting-edge of technology, but they also had the best clients.” He stayed with Vari-Lite for almost a decade, working with artists such as Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne, Def Leppard, and Boyz II Men.
One of the most invaluable aspects of his time with Vari-Lite was the networking. Working alongside experienced professionals and learning their techniques, Kirkham met the people who would one day hire him as a freelancer: Butch Allen, Stan Crocker, Peter Morse, and Allen Branton, to name a few. The connections he made there “made all the difference in the world,” Kirkham says. “I don’t think I could have ever achieved anything that I have since, if I hadn’t had that time at Vari-Lite.” Kirkham left Vari-Lite in 1999 to start his own freelance company, Overnight Production, which provides drafting, design, and programming of lighting, video, and effects.
From Six Flags To Ultra Japan
After Vari-Lite, Kirkham toured with Aerosmith for eight years, working as a lighting director with designer Jim Chapman, and also spent 10 years working for Brad Paisley alongside designer Dean Spurlock. Other productions to his credit include Criss Angel Believe with lighting designer Jeanette Farmer, Nickelback’s Dark Horse Tour with Allen, Shania Twain’s Still The One with Morse, Eminem and Rihanna’s The Monster Tour with Bruce Rodgers and Dan Boland, and more. While he has many favorites, Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson ONE affected him especially since he and others on that 2013 production team had worked together for Jackson back in the ‘90s. Working with lighting designer David Finn, Kirkham and team worked the show into a 13,000-cue monstrosity over the course of five months. “I go back and watch the show now,” he says, “and I’m hard-pressed to find a lot of problems with it because we really had the time to polish the show that you never get.”
Another favorite was Hedwig And The Angry Inch, for which lighting designer Kevin Adams won a 2014 Tony Award. Hedwig was a rush for Kirkham, not only because of the awesome soundtrack and the show itself, but also because Adams gave him a lot of latitude to help create the looks of some of the rock scenes, which is unusual in a theatre setting. In Kirkham’s experience, many lighting designers in the music industry will request a certain feel for a song, allowing the programmer to play a more creative role in the design, while Broadway designers are more linear, defining the show in more granular detail. For Hedwig, creativity was a collaborative process, and “everyone supported each other a lot, from the director to the costume designer to the sound designer,” the programmer says. “There was a really strong energy in that room.”
An American In Paris was his most challenging production because it essentially has no scenery. Scenic designer Bob Crowley worked with projection designer Ben Pearcy of 59 Productions to create the 2015 Tony Award-winning set. Performers roll flats and scenic pieces onto the stage, and then they are projection-mapped. Despite the countless spike marks that cover the stage, indicating different scenic placements for each scene, the incredible cast nails it every night. With the multifaceted relationship between the lighting, scenic, and projection designs, “programming with those levels of complexity was a real challenge,” Kirkham admits. He felt honored to work with five-time Tony Award-winner Natasha Katz, who won her fifth Tony this year for her lighting design for An American In Paris.
Kirkham recently returned from Ultra Music Festival Japan, which was his first time working with lighting designer Steve Lieberman. Upcoming projects include an America’s Got Talent showcase, video game convention BlizzCon 2015, and the Latin Grammy Awards with Lee Rose, who designs the Latin Grammys Person of the Year presentation. Kirkham recently spoke at the Las Vegas Master Classes for Lighting with programmer Aron Altmark on October 21 at LDI. The session provided “different views of how you can approach a show and still have great results,” says Kirkham. “It really comes down to tailoring your workflow to the needs of the production and being flexible on that because there’s a lot of different ways to get something done.”
While he loves the world of programming, Kirkham delights in coming home to his wife and six-year-old daughter at their new house in Las Vegas.