Seeing the light


Don Holder, UMaine class of 1980 and a two-time Tony award winner for lighting design on Broadway talks about his craft and what led him to spend his life pursuing his passion for lighting. He also talks about his experiences with the Maine Masque theatre program at UMaine and his unique career path from forestry major to the theatre world.


Don Holder:
I don’t know why I was fascinated with light, I just always was. I was always drawn to it. I remember the lighting from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was the first show I saw, and I remember feeling the light change and how it made me feel.

It’s amazing to be here. The last time was 38 years ago. The memories are quite vivid. I just remember Maine Masque theater parties on this stage, and all the friends I had, and all the hours I spent here and all the joyous times.

I think that the greatest thing that came out of my experience at Maine Masque was understanding that making theater was about being part of a community. It’s the community aspect of theater‑making that has always been what has attracted me more than anything else. It was really here where I learned that in a profound way.

The first show I worked on here was a lighting operator for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” I remember it vividly. My experience here was quite extraordinary. When I think back, it was a self‑designed liberal arts education. I was a forestry major, but turns out that my lighting mentor, Al Cyrus, was also a forestry major at the University of West Virginia before he studied theater.

He was interested in mentoring me and nurturing my interest in lighting, which was always a big interest of mine since I was 13. I had huge opportunities here in the theater program, and I was equally passionate about making music.

People were intrigued by the fact that I was a forestry major, and that it separated me from the crowd, from all the other Maine graduates with a B.A. in theater or a B.F.A. in theater. I was the one person in the pile of resumes who had a very different background.

A lighting designer reveals the world of the play. We’re responsible for what you see and how you feel about what you’re seeing. We, as human beings, respond chemically to the quality of light, the intensity of light, the color of light. The lighting, when it’s most powerful, is invisible. The audience is unaware what it’s doing, but it’s doing things that are very powerful and potent.

I’ve been involved with some amazing productions on Broadway. There have been so many. “The Lion King” is special in my heart, because it was my first Broadway musical. At that point in my life, I was starting to think I’d never get to design a musical on Broadway, which was my big dream.

It’s the most unified production, in terms of design, that I’ve ever seen, and the most satisfying experience in terms of making a piece of theater. Just the fact that it’s endured for over 20 years, all around the world, is incredible.

It’s an amazing place to work. There’s a unique energy about Broadway that I love, but it’s not the only place to do great work, hardly.

For kids who are interested in the technical side of theater, if they’re interested in design, study art history and study history, and politics, and philosophy, and psychology, anything that can feed your brain and make you understand the human condition in a more profound way, because what designers do is, we essentially crystallize work into something very precise, that speaks profoundly to the human condition.

In terms of what I want to do, what’s on my bucket list, that’s a hard one. I feel like I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve done the things that I’ve always wanted to do — work at the Metropolitan Opera, travel the world, light my first Broadway musical. I feel very fortunate about that.

What I’d like to keep doing is wonderful collaborations, challenging work, things that push me and take me outside of my comfort zone. It feels great to come back to where it began.

If you would ask me when I was 18 years old, a scared freshman, working on “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” if I would come back here 38 years later and be talking to you right now, there’s just no way I could even conceive of it. It’s thrilling.

I wanted to be a lighting designer when I was 13 years old. I sensed that that’s what I wanted to do. It took a while to get there, but I feel like every day I’m living the dream. To come back and revisit where it all began for me is very special and very exciting.