It seems as if lighting designer Aaron Porter, the recipient of the ninth annual Rising Star Award, was born to the task. As a young child in Valparaiso, Indiana—40 miles east of Chicago—he turned his bedroom into a theatre, hanging sheets as curtains, and selling tickets for his shows. By third grade, he was already a veteran performer in elementary school productions, admitting he was “bitten by the bug.” Segue to fifth grade, when he did not get cast in Tom Sawyer (all the other kids were taller, he recalls) and instead went to the director, “and asked if there was something else I could do,” he says.
The director referred him to Marcia Burbage, who was the resident lighting designer at Valparaiso’sChicago Street Theatre. “She told me to go home and read the script, and circle anything that had to do with light, and for each scene, note the time of day and what emotions we should feel,” Porter says. “She took me through the entire design process, and we sort of designed that show together. It was an incredible experience.”
Porter went on to work at his hometown’s Memorial Opera House during high school, designing “as many as one show a week,” he admits. “I always thought I would do theatre, the question was performance or design.” That was settled at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY, when Porter realized he didn’t want to go pro as an actor but would need the formal education of a designer. Along the way, he would do summer internships at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Santa Fe Opera, and spend a semester in London along with a summer at the Bush Theatre there, also observing tech at The National and doing some electrics work at theRoyal Court.
Now at the age of 23, with his degree from Ithaca College, Porter’s freelance career is underway, assisting Peter Kaczorowsk at Manhattan Theatre Club, Philip Rosenberg at theOld Globe in San Diego, Jim Ingalls at BAM and The Roundabout, and Don Holder on the Broadway-bound production of Big Fish. “All of the pieces of the Porter puzzle are fitting together nicely,” he admits.
Working with various designers helps Porter with his own design process. “I am always interested to see which light the designers turn on first, and I try to see what they are seeing,” he says. “That helps me make informed choices in my own shows. I am also interested in how each designer communicates with the director and how they interact. I try to absorb as much as possible. This year, I have been fortunate to have a balance between the shows where I’ve assisted and the smaller fringe shows I have designed, putting what I am learning into use.”
The Rising Star Award, presented at USITT and sponsored by Live Design and LDI, recognizes excellence and artistic achievement in the areas of scenic, lighting, sound, and projection design, or the convergence of these design disciplines. The award is given at the beginning of a career to a young designer in the first four years of professional (non-academic) work, following the completion of his or her highest degree.