Chris Wood, 2015 USITT Rising Star Winner

Lighting design, sound design: Chris Wood, the 2015 winner of the Rising Star Award sponsored by Live Design/LDI and presented annually at USITT, likes working in both disciplines. “Basically, this happened in undergrad where I wanted to do lighting design, and they stuck me in the sound booth,” he recalls of his days at the University of Nebraska Omaha, his native city. He then went on to grad school at Indiana University in Bloomington, earning his MFA in lighting design. Now a freelancer based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Wood figures he’s doing 75% lighting and 25% sound.

“I started doing tech when I was in high school, and the band director asked me to help set up the lighting for an event,” he recounts about his debut in the business. “And I got hooked. I was interested in science and music, so it was a natural lead-in to sound design and lighting, and nice to learn to use these tools to tell stories in musicals. I enjoy creating a unique style that is exciting and supportive of the production.”

When designing lighting, Wood leans more toward musicals and opera. “That goes back to my interest in music,” he notes. “I connect really well with the emotion and the swells of the music, more than with straight plays, although I still like doing them.” Yet his sound design projects tend to be plays, for which he “enjoys creating full surround soundscapes, but I do not write music. I defer to a composer if they need original music.”

Spring Awakening at University of Northern Iowa. Photo by Jessica Kray.

Wood recently designed a production of Carson Kreitzer’s play, Freak Show. “It has very interesting storytelling, with challenges lighting-wise, such as a woman who is meant to be legless and armless, and needed to be lit so you could never see her arms, even when actors were standing right next to her,” he notes, adding that the legs were hidden. “You have to pay very close attention to shutter cuts and color to hide certain things and expose others.” The play also features a human salamander in a 2,500-lb polycarbonate container of water that had to be lit, along with three little tents the characters lived in and moved in and out of when it was their turn to tell their story.

Wood also designed two different productions of Spring Awakening, just eight months apart, first at Millikin University, where he has done some teaching, in Decatur, IL, and then at the University of Northern Iowa, where he was brought in as a guest designer. “They were extremely different productions, in the way the directors wanted to tell the story,” he says. “For the second production, we went with projections for a lot of the scenic elements, and they brought in a projection designer, Carsten Earl. It was a good collaboration, but since there was limited lighting instrumentation at FOH, he adjusted his intensity to not wash out the lighting.” Scenic designer Mark Parrott worked closely with Wood to incorporate 2,780 RGB LEDs into the set, creating some dynamic staging and providing the vivid electric feel required for the production’s songs.

Working in a rep situation, balancing the needs of four directors, four costume designers, four scenic designers, and dividing the lighting budget for each show, is another challenge Wood encounters at the Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, “but I enjoy that challenge,” he counters, noting he is heading toward his third season there in the summer of 2015.

Les Misérables. Photo by Waldron Creative.

Last year in Utah, one of the challenges was a production of Les Misérables with what Wood calls “really incredible scenic designs by Patrick Larsen. The set was an 18'-tall by 30'-wide bridge with sections that came out to become other scenic elements, always changing and morphing, very challenging in the rep plot situation. Our fantastic electricians were continually moving things around and plugging things in as needed.”

New technology? Wood is eager to use the Philips Vari-Lite VL4000. “At Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, we do two operas and two musicals in rep over the summer,” he explains. “We depend heavily on the moving light rig as there are about 90 minutes between curtain down of the matinee performance and house open for the evening show. This leaves very little time to refocus during the changeovers. I am eagerly waiting for someone to develop a moving light with an LED source, shutter module, gobo wheel, and an animation wheel.”

Misti Bradford, costume designer/assistant professor, University of Wisconsin-Parkside wrote in a letter of recommendation for Wood, “He understands how to clearly and artistically show change of mood, environment, and location, not just with color but also with his use of texture. He has an amazing ability to create space out of nothing, truly taking the audience to a different place emotionally and physically.”