Q&A: Paulie Jenkins


Life is quite literally a parade for lighting designer Paulie Jenkins. The principal of Long Beach, CA-based Light Design Associates, Jenkins has amassed 475 credits in the field since starting out in 1976, in a range of arenas: theatre (in 1991 she received the Angstrom Award for career achievement from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle), industrials, film premieres, benefits, and special events. Festive parades at theme parks are a particular specialty. For the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, Jenkins designed the lighting for Walt Disney's Parade of Dreams, a dazzling display that incorporates more than 100 performers, 20'-tall floats, confetti blasts, and a variety of lighting technologies, including LEDs. In a conversation with Entertainment Design the designer talked about being the “light” of the party, revealed her extracurricular project, and shed some illumination on her marriage to Ted Carlsson, the director of technical production at Disney Creative Entertainment.

ED: Describe working on one of these shows. They're big jobs.

PJ: I'm really busy with those little twinkle lights (laughs). I've done four parades for Disney, one for Six Flags Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, one each for Lotteworld and Everland in Korea, and some floats for a theme park in Germany. This one took about two years. Budget-wise, Disney figures to run each one for five years, but especially popular ones, like Lion King Celebration, run till the floats start to break down (laughs).

Parade of Dreams is a big departure for us, as most of the lights this time are LEDs. There was some hit-and-miss; we found some stuff that worked better than we thought it would and found other products that weren't nearly as good as we hoped. We used quite a bit of Color Kinetics, LED, Inc., and LEDtronics. On The Little Mermaid float, Ariel sits atop a three-tiered fountain, which contains pearls that light up. We had to find something that would last for the run of the parade, so that we could leave the light source within them alone; obviously, anything with a filament will jiggle down the route of the parade and have a shorter lifespan. From the standpoints of maintenance and budget, I think they're going to be great.

ED: What are other innovations distinguish this parade, which like most of these parades runs in the daytime as well as night?

PJ: There's a company in Colchester, CT, Nova Electronics, which specializes in highway emergency strobes. We wanted something that would really have an impact in the daytime, and a pencil or a star strobe wouldn't do it. They demoed their strobe and reworked it for us, and now it's being used on other Disney attractions as well. They're very excited to go from highways to Disney (laughs).

ED: Compare and contrast your work in theme parks with your work in theatre.

PJ: It's all theatre, true, but theme park support allows me to do research at a level that you can't do in theatre. With the Disney name behind you everyone's happy to bring their new gear in for shootouts. And parades are completely different from other kinds of theme park lighting — everything's low-voltage, or has to have an inverter. As to how I approach lighting, it's all a gut reaction to light and shadow, whether it's Disney or a theatre show, and I'm constantly inspired by the work set designers do.

ED: How has your relationship with Disney evolved?

PJ: Very nicely. The very first thing I did for them was the lighting of a Beauty and the Beast stage show in the early 1990s, which ultimately led to projects like the Eureka! parade, which opened California Adventure, and the Mystic Rhythms parade, which opened Tokyo DisneySea — both at the same time, so I was doing a lot of commuting. From 2000 to now I've always had a big project going for them. In between, I did 25-30 plays and, oh, yes, I wrote a novel.

ED: About lighting, perhaps?

PJ: No, it's a historical novel that starts during the Civil War and ends up in the American West in 1865. I'm from Wyoming, and as I was doing the research (which I loved) it turns out that the house I grew up in as a small child is the spot where the Indians gathered to attack before the battle of Platte Bridge Station in Casper. It took me about four-and-a-half years to write, mostly when I was in Tokyo, and before I got immersed in Parade of Dreams, which opened in May, last year. I'm looking for an agent.

ED: Growing up in the West, did you have an interest in lighting?

PJ: I worked in my high school's theatre program, first as a stage manager. By my senior year I was designing and building all the scenery. I did scenery and lighting for my little community theatre but it wasn't until I went off to the University of Wyoming that I really became involved in lighting. [The university's School of Arts and Sciences named Jenkins an exemplary alumnus in 1993.]

ED: Were there many women in the lighting profession at that time?

PJ: Tharon (Musser), of course. Jean Rosenthal. A few. When I was starting out there were a few times I got lip from IA electricians because I was a woman. But it was never a hindrance.

ED: Given that your name is Paulie, was there ever some expectation going into a project that you were a man?

PJ: (Laughs). Yes, actually. I have this one funny story. Years ago when I was working at the LA Actors Theater, there was this one critic who gave me nothing but raves. One day I was introduced to him and his face just…fell. After that I didn't get those effusive reviews anymore.

ED: What advice do you have for someone going into the field?

PJ: It's not glamorous, and it's really hard work if you're going to make a go of it. Don't go into theatre for the money. It's all kind of trite, but it's true. And yet, when you get onto a project like this parade, it's fabulous; we saw so many things that we applied differently than they'd been applied before, like the Nova strobes. If you can't enjoy the work and you can't enjoy the people, there's no point to working in the theatre. If you're not going to make money, you should at least have fun.

ED: Do you bounce ideas off your husband, or are you very separate in what you do in the field?

PJ: Except for “hi” and “bye” as we pass each other in a hallway we're really mostly separate, given what we do. We have worked together on Disney projects like Tokyo, but even there we're wrapped up in what we have to do individually.

He's come a long way since I hired him as a carpenter in 1978, when I was the TD/resident lighting designer at the LA Actors Theatre and he used to go on and on about lumber and nails (laughs) — now it's steel and hydraulics, but the same theme. We'll be married 25 years next April. When we were about to celebrate our 20th anniversary, which was when we were in Tokyo, a friend said, “but you've only ever seen each other, what, two years of that?” I laughed, and told Ted that. And he became really indignant. “What do you mean?” he said. “We've seen each other at least five years of that!” (laughs)

Robert Cashill writes on arts and entertainment from New York.

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