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Designer Roundtable: Kevin Lawson & Gregory Cohen, UVLD

Kevin Lawson recently joined UVLD as a design partner. Live Design content director Marian Sandberg and UVLD president Gregory Cohen got the chance sit down with Lawson, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his role in NBC’s Hairspray Live!, about his illustrious past, his fascinating present, and his outstanding future. Check out his LDI2017 session here.

Marian Sandberg: Kevin, how did you get started in this circus? Did you study theatre? What was your first gig?

Kevin Lawson: I went to The Theatre School, De Paul University to become a stage manager. Took about half a year to realize that wasn’t for me. I always loved to call cues but had way more fun making them. So I switched majors to lighting design. After college, I went to Arena Stage as an Allen Lee Hughes lighting fellow and then to New York as an intern for Beverly Emmons at Lincoln Center Institute. I was able to design some shows on a lot of levels from Off-Broadway to way off-Broadway as well as regional. I assisted on a handful of Broadway shows as well.

Gregory Cohen: Kevin’s legit background is, well, legit. It’s funny: No one starts out and says, “Someday I want to light live television and staged corporate events,” but so many of us come from the theatre that we can all miss it together. It’s technically like Stockholm Syndrome, but it largely goes undiagnosed.

MS: Did you find the transition to television from theatre easy? What are the similarities?

KL: I crossed over to TV after assisting Allen Branton on a Broadway show. He liked having someone take notes and track plot changes, etc. Circumstances led to me running conventional lighting on a gig and then a handful of automated fixtures for key lights, which grew into a regular programming/lighting director gig. So my transition was very organic, which was great. Lighting is fundamentally about solving problems: How do we see this piece of scenery, how do we pull focus to this person, or show that it’s night time instead of day? I love the pace of multi-camera television. It is all about making decisions and solving those problems quickly. 

MS: It seems like you’ve always done a little corporate. Do you find it calls on more of your TV background or of your theatre background?

KL: Both. In TV and theatre, there’s a person or people who say or sing things that you want to look amazing. So we light that person with a spotlight or a special to direct your attention to that person, regardless of whether they are belting out a hit song or delivering a monologue. In corporate, that person is an executive or a software developer, and you have to be equally sensitive to making them look great and pull focus in their environment. 

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GC: We are always concerned in corporate about making the shot look great, but almost always what the people see in the room is more important that what goes on tape. Kevin’s background lets him see this instantly. He picks his battles. While he is happy to talk iris, color temperature, and footcandles with the best of them, when it comes down to it, we are making a live show for the audience in the house, so his theatrical sense is invaluable.

MS: Following not-a-few hipsters, you recently moved to Detroit. What prompted that move, and are you seeing any local work from it?

KL: Detroit is great! My wife is from the area, and after 23 years in the New York/New Jersey area, we were looking for a change of pace and lower taxes. Obviously, Detroit has taken some serious social and economic hits over the past couple of decades, but it is on a serious upswing now. Even friends who come once a year for something like the Auto Show can see how it’s getting better each visit. I’m hoping that its “renaissance” will bring more entertainment events here. We have the Auto Show and some festivals and some really beautiful venues that are primarily roadhouses. So we’ll see. It would be nice not to always commute by airplane.

GC: Needless to say, when I do get a gig in Detroit, I always call Kevin to confirm his inevitable lack of availability, but even when we can’t work together, I leverage his hometown knowledge to find some truly amazing in-town resources. And by that I mean restaurant recommendations and resolution of any Uber versus Lyft questions. 

MS: What are the biggest changes in the business you’ve seen in the course of your career?

KL: On the technology side, everything. Fixtures and consoles are almost like science fiction compared to where we were in 1992. When I started, we didn’t have email, very few cell phones, and industry people were just staring to use CAD. I think it should still be required learning for lighting students to hand-draw a plot, take it to get blue lines, FedEx it, and then, five minutes after it’s gone, get a call saying, “We’ve changed the set.” 

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MS: How long have you worked with UVLD?

KL: Since early 2013. They hired me to program a booth at the Chicago Auto Show. 

GC: Everyone who has met Kevin loves him. It’s rare to find someone so even-tempered who has been around so much screaming. John Ingram and I were thrilled to find a programmer with an outstanding eye who was also client-friendly. Kevin knows which battles to pick, and we knew that right from the start.

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MS: Why did you decide to team up with them?

KL: I’ve had the opportunity to work with most of the members of UVLD over the last four years. Every one of them is a strong professional, great guys and fellow foodies. In addition, their timing was excellent. Greg and John Ingram called me while I was standing in the taxi line at LaGuardia to talk about joining. So I had a lot of time to think about it, but seriously, I was honored to be asked and happy to be part of their collective. 

GC: It was a difficult time. The construction at LaGuardia has destroyed many a travel day. We had a lot to discuss with Kevin; I think it was the first time anyone was grateful for a long cab line.

MS: Moving forward, how do you see your portfolio changing? Will you still do as much TV and just add the corporate? Design or direct lighting more, program less?

KL: Ultimately, I hope to program less and LD more, but programming will always be a great tool to have in the toolkit. Also, it’s the best way to continue to learn from other designers. I love TV because of the pace and scale. I want to continue along that path while adding more corporate gigs to the schedule.

 

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GC: Kevin fits with us so well. His strength on the board and his unflappability allows him to LD and program smaller shows, but his ability as a designer allows him to step into the role of department head and make other programmers miserable. There really is no greater calling.

MS: What’s the funniest thing you’ve heard on headset?

KL: I was working on a Britney Spears performance years ago. It had a big jungle theme and a bunch of live animals. Britney was draped in a giant python with a live tiger in a cage behind her. We’d run the number a few times, and the director asked if the talent was up for one more. The stage manager, who was with the animal wrangler, responded over coms, “The python is okay, but the tiger is getting a bit cranky,” at which point the tiger let out a loud growl. “So, no. We should move on.”

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