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Unsung Heroes: Michael James Clark

 

Michael on vacation with his husband in Tahoe (2019)
Feature Image: Michael and his now-husband working together on
La bohème at Santa Fe Opera (2011)

 

HGO Lighting Supervisor Michael James Clark, who designs and helps others realize their lighting and projection dreams here at the Opera, is one of the longest-serving members of our technical team. In addition, he is acknowledged as one of the finest opera lighting supervisors in the nation. I talked to him recently about his opera journey and about how he ended up here in Texas lighting productions on the Wortham stage.

PERRYN LEECH: Tell me a bit about where you were born and how you grew up.

MICHAEL: I was born in Goleta, California, just north of Santa Barbara. When I was about three or four, we moved to Thousand Oaks in the northwestern part of Los Angeles. I was an only child and went through public school there.

Were your parents involved in theater?

My father worked in the film industry as a grip. My mom had done some performing when she was in school. She never pursued anything professionally but was always a patron. We regularly attended musicals and plays locally and occasionally went down to LA to see shows at the Ahmanson.

Is that how you became interested in theater?

I was initially more interested in music than in theater. From the end of grade school through my first year of college, I was primarily focused on being a percussionist. I played in the orchestra, the pit for school musicals, and in the marching band’s drumline. My first experience working in the theater was in the orchestra pit. I loved Stephen Sondheim musicals. For a percussionist, his shows were the most fun to play. In high school, we did a lot of the staples of musical theater like Guys and Dolls and South Pacific.

A lot of my extended family play instruments, so that was a big part of holiday celebrations. My grandmother had an organ in her house, and we would sing hymns during the holidays.

What did you do after high school?

I attended Moorpark College near home for three years. I studied music there for about a year. The training there was meant for someone who wanted to be a studio musician, and it quickly became clear that it wasn’t for me. I remembered having such good times playing in pit orchestras in high school, and when I decided not to pursue music, I went to check out the theater program. I took every class they offered.

So, were you performing?

Not really. I took costume design, scenic design, and worked in the scene shop. I wasn’t a very good carpenter, and the instructor running that program suggested that I try lighting. I started running follow spot and hanging and focusing lighting instruments. I really loved that in theatrical lighting, you can keep one foot firmly planted in aesthetics and the other in the nuts and bolts of technical theater. That spoke to my personality. I attended Moorpark for three years and ended up lighting a couple of productions there. 

In terms of your personality, I see the artistic side, but you don’t come across as a performer.

I was also working at a movie theater during this time, too. I really enjoyed working there and did a lot of work with Warner Brothers for their promotions. I was also really into photography and was getting into visual expression and painting.

What came after Moorpark and the movie theater?

A few of my teachers there told me I was pretty good at lighting design and suggested that I further my training. I did an online search for good theater schools and I came across University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). I applied and they reached out to schedule an interview. They asked me to bring a portfolio, which I didn’t have, so I panicked for about a month and took photos of projects I had done and put them into a comically large portfolio. I was the last interview of the day with Norman Coates, who was running the lighting program at that time. We talked and walked around the design and production facilities. When we got back to his office he said, “We’ll see you in the fall!”

What did you study at North Carolina?

Lighting design. There are two tracks at UNCSA: stage electrics and lighting design. In the first two years, everyone takes all the same courses, and after the second year, you split off into your separate tracks. Because I transferred in, I only did three years there and after my first year I chose the design track. They don’t have a graduate program for lighting, so undergraduates are lighting productions their whole time there. You hit the ground running and are thrown into full-on productions, which is great. My first real experience with opera was there. I assisted on a few operas and lighted one before I graduated. The production I designed was Idomeneo.

Is this what prompted your love of opera?

Yes, being involved in the operas started to get me hooked. At UNCSA, the operas are performed in the largest venue and have the largest budgets, so I was starting to grasp working on a larger scale and was learning that opera is a different beast. Originally, I was assigned to work on operas because I could read music, so I could follow the score and track spots.

I had been spending my summers at home in Los Angeles doing some gigs and internships at small theater companies there. I made it a point to always do student rush tickets at LA Opera whenever I was home. I fell in love with the scale and aesthetic of opera.

So what happened after school?

I had gotten to know Pam Knourek, one of the costumes professors at UNCSA, who at the time was the head of costumes at Santa Fe Opera. Many professional companies come out to UNCSA for job fairs each year and Pam connected me with Santa Fe staff. I ended up getting into the Santa Fe Apprenticeship program for lighting. It was summer of 2006 and it was their 50th anniversary season. They do a presentation of apprentice scenes at the end of the summer, so I ended up being the lighting supervisor for that project. This was only a few years after I decided I didn’t want to be a musician!

Was that a daunting thing?

I really enjoyed it. I was terrified, but it was a good kind of scary. Scary and exciting.

After the summer was over, I headed back to LA and started to pick up jobs running follow spots and doing load ins. I was starting to get noticed and then had a serious setback when I broke my leg while I was roller skating. This was right before I was meant to start a gig with Celebrity Cruises, but I had to pull out of the contract. It was definitely a low moment.

I bet—there is nothing worse when you are a freelancer and need a healthy body to be able to work. So what did you do?

I was on bedrest for about 3 months. I then got a call to go back to Santa Fe as a lighting supervisor for the next summer, so all wasn’t lost.

And after that summer you were recruited to HGO to join our lighting team?

Yes—and I remember the first time that we talked and coming off the phone not quite believing that a person who was still pretty green was being recruited to such an established company. 

So what were the differences?

Santa Fe is an amazing energy and there is a huge army of apprentices, so the focus and lighting sessions are very loud and lots of things are going on at once. It’s an organized chaos. When I got to HGO, I was working with a union workforce as a supervisor for the first time and things were much slower and methodical. The electrics team were very seasoned and took their time to do things that were much quicker in Santa Fe. Both companies have extraordinary artists as visiting lighting designers, but at HGO I was able to support their vision in a better way. And working with great designers helped me grow in that area as well.

Do you prefer to design or make other people’s work possible?

The great thing about my HGO position is that I get to do both! I am now lighting a show or sometimes two each season, but I am also getting the opportunity to continue learning from other masters in the field. I love having that variety, and each year I get to do great projects both at HGO and in other theaters around the world. I am lucky that I have been working with Philip Alfano now for a long time and we have a shorthand and a very good way of working quickly and efficiently. Video projection is also part of my department’s remit, and as that plays a larger part in the designs of shows now, that has been another truly interesting growth in my skill set and knowledge.

It has been quite the journey, but we are thrilled to have you here and delighted that we have a designer of such quality on our team. Thank you!