Live Design: Please talk a little about your path to becoming a lighting designer.
Elizabeth Harper: My early years are pretty ordinary… theatre nerd becomes professional theatre nerd. I think what’s surprising is how I wound up working on the type of shows I get to work on. One of the things I heard in grad school was that I should have a point of view—that I would be pigeonholed eventually so I might as well have a say in it. At the time, I basically thought that was a nice thing to think about for designers who were already rich so I was pretty aggressively mercenary in the jobs I took—parties, corporate events, architecture, theme parks, plays, musicals…even backyard parties for lesser members of royal families. All of that paid the rent but I pretty much shelved the idea of being any kind of artist. And then I took a trip to Italy.
I grew up in an Italian-Catholic family, and I realized that a lot of the stories about obscure saints and folk traditions I knew about either weren’t published or were hidden in academic journals. They definitely weren’t accessible to your average tourist. So I started putting together photo essays that dealt with the art and theatrical ritual of Catholicism. I started putting stuff out on Tumblr but I realized pretty quickly there was an appetite for my weird little stories, and I loved telling them. So I started publishing in literary magazines and on general interests sites like Slate, and eventually I started doing lectures. It was wild to me that people at universities wanted a lighting designer to come talk about this stuff.
That was when I realized I had something to say and a point of view and oh no, it was happening. I wasn’t a gun-for-hire. I wanted to tell stories, and it seemed like a thing I was actually good at. So I got really into designing new plays and found myself working with directors who value and shape new work in a really collaborative, visual way— people like May Adrales, Yuval Sharon, Neel Keller. I am so lucky in that regard. And I continue telling my own stories as a way to stay in touch with that process in a more concrete way. Recently, I gave a talk on incorrupt saints at the Denver Theatre Center (in a real worlds-collide moment) and had a photo published in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body” catalogue.