Lighting the Way – Q&A with Theatrical Lighting Designer Erin Sparks

Erin SparksLighting of Scarlett James by Erin Sparks at the Orleans Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas. Photo by Orangeroads Photography in association with 21st Century Burlesque.

At the age of 3, Erin Sparks was thrown into the entertainment industry as a figure skater to keep him busy while his mother worked at an entertainment complex in Kansas City. At the same time, she introduced Erin to live theater — a summer stock performance featuring his cousin Nancy Opal, now an accomplished leading lady on Broadway and television. It was that single performance that drew Erin in to a journey through the industry working as a performer, designer, stage manager, and director.

Erin Sparks

Erin Sparks

Often while performing, Erin didn’t like the lighting that was being used during his performances, so he took it upon himself to learn as much as possible.  As luck would have it, the lighting technician got terminated, and Erin saw an opportunity. He was asked to step in and take over. This opportunity developed into a long and successful career – one in which he still pulls from his performance days when designing for a production.

Erin has been an integral part of many productions, cruise lines, magic shows, dance shows, and celebrity entertainers, including Wayne Newton, Air Supply, Kool & The Gang, Pia Zamora, The Smothers Brothers, and Rick Springfield to name a few. We interviewed Erin on his experience and insight into lending his talents to productions of all sizes and budgets.

Vegas Report: When starting on a new project, what’s the best way to work with producers?

Erin Sparks: I always like to meet with the producers to find out what their vision is and what direction they want to go. For example, I have worked with producers where there was a definite vision that they wanted conveyed and had real specific requests that needed to be followed. I’ve also worked for other producers where there was no clear vision. Those are the toughest gigs. Normally those producers have a limited technical background, and we have to design the same number four different ways before they decide which they like best. I find more times than not, with a little patience, their vision becomes clear through asking simple questions.

Erin Sparks Air Suppy

Lighting Air Supply World Tour in Canada.

Vegas Report: And how do you approach working with producers new to working with lighting designers?

Erin Sparks: Producers new to working with lighting designers can be both good and bad. I always think it is best to arrange time with the new-to-the-scene producers. This gives us a chance to get a clear understanding of the amount of time needed for a project or parts of the project, in order to stay on production schedule and still be productive. When producers are open to and want to learn and understand the lighting side of productions, I find it very rewarding. It’s helpful to briefly explain the what, why, and how “looks” are made so they see the complexity of designing. Plus they remember you for being so helpful.

Vegas Report: What’s the most challenging part of lighting a new show?

Erin Sparks: The most challenging part of lighting a new show is doing so when the equipment has not arrived. It’s tough to program without the lights in place. Along the same lines, when the schedule does not permit for any dress tech rehearsals and the operator has to fly by the seat of your pants, that tends to be a hugely stressful situation for all involved.

Programming lights with his favorite board of choice from Avolite.

Programming lights with his favorite board of choice from Avolite.

Vegas Report: How do you work with a producer with limited funds? What do you usually suggest when funds are limited?

Erin Sparks: I, unfortunately, have been doing a lot of gigs with limited funds. It makes you reach deep inside to pull out alternatives to the pricier items that are in no way in the budget. There are a few companies that deal in a more professional line of lights that are not made under the guise of “DJ club lighting”. With that being said, it is extremely important that the producers and directors are aware that the lesser priced equipment do have their limitations. This is probably the most important thing to get across to those in charge.

Vegas Report: What advice do you give to producers and directors looking to hire a lighting designer?

Erin Sparks: A clear concise vision of the show needs to be in place so the prospective designer knows the vision. Make sure the lighting designer is aware of the amount of time available to complete all designs, programming, and rehearsals. Look at past projects to make sure they are hiring the right person for the job. Some designers specialize in certain styles and are quicker than a designer who has not had much experience in the style of the project at hand.

Vegas Report: Vegas seems to always need the best, the biggest, the brightest—does lighting a show always have to be grand and over the top? Can simplicity play well to an audience today?

Erin Sparks: Lighting does not always need to be over the top. Simple little vignettes, isolated moments, and less is more can be more effective at times then a flashy in your face light show. For designers faced with smaller more intimate settings, they should approach it as just that…simple and intimate, yet effective. There is no need to go out and get the newest, biggest, best fixture when it would only be overkill.

Vegas Report: In this era of show automation, is there value in having a full-time lighting operator at the show each night? Or can it run on auto pilot?

Erin Sparks: For anyone thinking about using time code to run a production, there is a big need for a full time lighting operator. In unpredictable circumstances, I have seen shows crash and burn by not utilizing a full time lighting tech to keep the show running when timecode had stopped responding. In fact that has happened a few times during shows I was operating. Thankfully it was my design and I knew the cues backwards and forwards and was able to keep the show running until the issue was fixed. Without a full time lighting tech, the show might have had to shutdown or pause to repair then continue. Both a nightmare if that happens.

Roxie D'Lite

Lighting Miss Exotic World 2010 Roxi D’Lite.
Lighting by Erin Sparks, photo by Allen Lee

Vegas Report: With the addition of video walls, how does that play into a lighting designer’s creative work?

Erin Sparks: With the addition of video walls, the lighting designer is now becoming a video person too. You’ve got to consider what clip or graphic would enhance a performance or if it is needed at all. I love how scenery and backdrops are video elements now for so many productions.Consoles are allowing the lighting designers a vast wealth of possibilities by allowing the video to be programmed directly from the lighting console. I still value the video techs and welcome almost any input from them during the design process. I have learned a lot from previous video personnel I have worked alongside.


Vegas Report: Where do you find inspiration in creating lighting for a production?

Erin Sparks: I find inspiration in just about anything. I see it in nature when deciding on colors, architecture when thinking about shadowing or where I can hide a fixture, or textures when deciding on gobos. Inspiration is everywhere you look whether it be in a mood, a moment in time, or a location. These all can tie the threads of a message together and appear with very minimal thought. Remember lighting is subjective. Not everyone will understand, like, feel, or appreciate what a designer has created and goes through to get to the final outcome they are seeing.

Vegas Report: What is the future for lighting a production?

Erin Sparks: I am super excited to see the new bigger and better instruments available to designers like myself, not to mention the quality and advancement in the LED fixtures being manufactured today. Having worked aboard some luxury ships ships early in my career, I was impressed with the amount of thought and production that went into the shows onboard. There are robotic arms that hold large video elements that are just amazing. On a side note, I had a similar idea using them as a base to attach moving lights to, in order to get even more WOW out of a design by manipulating the moving lights as part of the scenery too.

Vegas Report: Who/what was your favorite show to light?

Erin Sparks: I have been lucky enough to have worked with some powerhouse celebrity entertainers, as well as, some great production shows, tours, and high profile classical musicians and I have a hard time picking a favorite. Each is a labor of love and have elements from past experiences. If I was to have to pick one show, it would have to be Air Supply World Tour. I was able to work a very wide spectrum of venues and different equipment thus making me a stronger designer. Plus they treated the crew very very well.

I am finding, however, more and more that I am designing for magicians, burlesque shows, and celebrity entertainers. All three so diverse and challenging, yet extremely rewarding. But above all else, I have made so many meaningful and important friends through being a designer that I can’t imagine doing anything else in life. A former professor gave me two pieces of advise. When the passion dies, so dies the artist. Follow your passion and be rewarded with a wealth of experience and knowledge. Now step into your light.

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