QolorTOPIX Light Conversations by City Theatrical

QolorTOPIX Podcast Episode 2: Brandon Stirling Baker

April 24, 2023 Al Crawford / Brandon Stirling Baker Season 1 Episode 2
QolorTOPIX Light Conversations by City Theatrical
QolorTOPIX Podcast Episode 2: Brandon Stirling Baker
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We have an amazing guest for our second episode of QolorTOPIX Light Conversations podcast: Brandon Stirling Baker!

Brandon Stirling Baker is an award-winning lighting designer working internationally in the areas of theatre, opera, and dance. His work can be seen on stages throughout the United States and abroad including Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Australian Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Opera Philadelphia, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Miami City Ballet, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, Philadelphia Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Semperoper Dresden, Staatsballett Berlin, and many others.

Baker is best known for his extensive collaborations with director and choreographer Justin Peck where they have collaborated on over 30 premieres world-wide since 2010. Baker’s recent collaborations include new works by Savion Glover, William Forsythe, Sufjan Stevens, Jamar Roberts, Michelle Dorrance, Pam Tanowitz, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Lauren Lovette, Tiler Peck, Shepard Fairey, Daniel Buren, Eva LeWitt, Marcel Dzama, Stephen Powers, Shantell Martin, and Benjamin Millepied.

In 2019, Baker was featured at the Guggenheim Museum Works & Process in a program dedicated to his work titled “The Choreography of Light”. He was appointed Lighting Director of the Boston Ballet in 2018, and is the recipient of the Knight of Illumination Award and Lotos Foundation Prize.

Mr.Baker studied at the California Institute of the Arts, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, Scotland and the Yale School of Drama as a Special Research Fellow in design. 

QolorTOPIX Light Conversations podcast is hosted by City Theatrical General Manager Al Crawford. Learn more at www.citytheatrical.com/qolortopix

QolorTOPIX is hosted by City Theatrical General Manager Al Crawford. The podcast series will explore the lives of amazing practitioners of light, with the goal of discussing their careers, projects, favorite tools, and vision for the future of the lighting industry.

Intro: Hello and welcome. QolorTOPIX is City Theatrical's new podcast series, featuring some of the most unique lighting professionals in the entertainment lighting business, ranging from every sector of light from film, television theatre, dance, music, themed entertainment, art and architecture. Hosted by city theatrical General Manager al Crawford. The QolorTOPIX light conversations podcast series, explores the lives of amazing practitioners of light with a goal of discussing their careers, projects, favorite tools, and vision for the future of the lighting industry. 


Al Crawford (AC): All right, welcome, everyone. We have an amazing guest today on QolorTOPIX. Brandon Sterling Baker is an award-winning lighting designer working internationally in the areas of theater, opera and dance. His work can be seen on stages throughout the United States and abroad, including Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Australian ballet, Hong Kong ballet, American Ballet Theatre, opera Philadelphia, good food there. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I know those folks. Miami City Ballet Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Houston Valley Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Philadelphia ballet, Dutch National Ballet, simple opera dressed in stops ballet, Berlin, and many others. While I'm tired already. That's a lot of dance. Mr. Baker is best known for his extensive collaborations with director and choreographer Justin Peck, where they have collaborated on over 30 premieres worldwide since 2010. Baker's recent collaborations include new works by Savion Glover, William Forsyth, Soufiane Stevens, Jamar Roberts, Michelle Dorrance, Pam tanowitz Anthony Roth castonzo Lauren love it Tyler Peck Shepard Fairey Daniel Buren, Eva LeWitt, Marcel Zama, Steven powers Chantal Martin and Benjamin millipede. In 2018, Baker was featured at the Guggenheim Museum works in progress. In a program dedicated to his work titled The choreography of light. He was appointed lighting director of The Boston Ballet in 2018. and is the recipient, a fellow recipient of the night of illumination award, and Lotus Foundation Prize. Mr. Baker studied at the California Institute of the Arts, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, Scotland, and the Yale School of Drama as a special research fellow in design. Please welcome my friend and colleague, Brandon Sterling Baker. 

Brandon Sterling Baker (BSB): Hi. I'm tired too.

AC: That's a lot of work. And you're a young man, you still have all your hair.

BSB: For now. It's great. It's turning gray, but it's here. 

AC: You have done a lot in a short amount of time. And I know you and I know that you there's plenty more voice inside of you plenty more to show and say and express. And so you know, I am very, very honored to have this chat with you. In many ways, you and I have sort of fallen each other's careers in a unique way. I first met you just to give our audience some context. I first met you as an intern with the Gilbert Hemsley, lighting programs. And you came as an intern to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where you were embraced and loved and, and did a great job working with the Ailey company there and assisting me. But then, throughout the next many years, following your career blossoming as you went, it's been a joy to watch it grow and continue and see your voice on so many different kinds of projects. 

BSB: Thank you. No, this is like full circle and talking to you. It always feels like home. 

AC: I really appreciate it. I am in a new home now as you know, City Theatrical is my home. Now for over a year, it's been a dream to have a podcast, a conversation on lighting that talks about technology. It talks about, the artists talks about how we use the technology, what the future might look like. So I hope we can touch on some of those things during our chat. So we told the world a little bit about yourself. Maybe just tell us a little bit about your journey, how you came to come into working in light and a number of years of experience. Obviously, we've seen from your bio, you've worked on lots of things, but just give a little bit a bit a little background about you.

BSB: I grew up as a musician originally like so first and foremost, I sort of identify as a musician and while I was in school, I discovered that this world Music and the world of visual art has a lot to do with light. And I think for me, as a lighting designer lighting can bridge the gap between these two worlds. And so I've always really connected through lighting from a non-technical sort of point of view. However, I'm, of course, I'm very interested in on how we can use these tools to evolve our work. But where I began, or how I began, had nothing to do with technology, and also ironically, had nothing really to do with light it had to do with collaboration and just being a visual artists who happens to work with light is sort of the way I have come to terms with it lately. And another way, I was just speaking to a friend earlier today, someone they just said to me that, as a choreographer, it's kind of like dreaming with your eyes open. And I think it's the same as a lighting designer that we have to we sort of are always in this dream state, that we're dreaming with our eyes open all the time. And I think that, to me, is has a lot to do with the way I think I'm constantly dreaming and for better or for worse, but that's just how, how I think. I guess I like to think of myself a little bit as an outsider in this, in this art form as lighting, like, I didn't really come to the, to this medium in the same way that most but I'm proud of that too. Like, I think it's not something that I'm, I'm scared to talk about.

AC: Absolutely, having worked in lighting education in my career, and seen lots of different students of light, I think you encompass the word lighting artist, much more than lighting designer, you know, and that is a very gray area category, I think everyone would look at those. And, and it's almost, it almost cannot be described or categorized, officially. But in my eyes, a lighting artist is someone who crafts light to tell stories, and comes at it purely from a emotional and an art perspective. Whereas lighting designer may use different approaches and crafted in a different way and comes from a different perspective, that neither are more important than the other. I see you is in that category of artists, as some of my colleagues that I love and love to follow their work. When did you ultimately decide that dance was something that was interesting to you?

BSB: Not far from the time I met you, honestly, I before moving to New York, I was studying at a school called Cal Arts, which is was not really a dance driven school. It was more of a visual arts program. Most of my closest friends were animators and puppets. Here's like, I wasn't really around dance so much. Prior to moving to New York, and I moved to New York in 2010 to be an intern with the Hemsley program, and I really, as soon as I entered the world of New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey, I immediately fell in love with this medium that was all about the feeling. It was in a lot of ways, I kind of felt like lighting designers in dance. We're all like just going off of our gut. We're all inspired by this feeling like and like another way, I guess I like to think of it is as lighting designers, like you can't really touch light, you have to sort of just feel it. And I think that there's something kind of amazing in the world of dance that we're constantly surrounded by that, that idea that what's the feeling, what's the, what's the space we're trying to create. And so there's something very honest about that. And so I saw dance itself. It also I should just mentioned, dance, like I found that there was when I first moved to New York, there was this amazing young generation of choreographers and composers that were really eager to make a difference. And they were all around my age. And so it just happened to me that I was like, sort of embraced by this world of dance where I had worked in theater, I worked on Broadway as an assistant, I had worked in many other areas of light, but I didn't really have the same community vibe, my talk is, is agreeing with me. But, um, but yeah, so above all community, but also the types of people I'm very much attracted to finding that type of collaborator and it happened to be that dance really gave me that home.

AC: A lot of people in dance are very genuine. Right? They tend to leave their heart on the table, because it's what they do. I believe this is lighting designers’ role, and I see this in your work often. It's hard to hide behind the light. 

BSB: You either take it out of your heart and lay it out there in the show in the world, or you don't. The best work is when you just you. You put it all out on the table and light is such. It's such a medium of psychology, that you almost can't not put your emotion and your heart into it. It just doesn't work. 

AC: You've got lots of collaborations coming up. After I'm sure many years of projects lined up and back to back. Anything that you want to let us know about that? Anything that is super exciting to you?

BSB: My home company is the Boston Ballet where I've been the lighting director for almost five years now. And so half of my life is in Boston, half of it is in New York. But what's kind of amazing about Boston is the work we do is kind of larger than life, we do a lot of works that not, can't necessarily tore, so to speak. They're kind of almost like installation pieces, you might say. So we're able to really try things that can't really be done elsewhere. And we're sort of encouraged by our artistic director, Miko Neeson into really go big or go home. And so it was what I think is really unique about that job. For me as a lighting director. I'm also the resident designer for the company. So I sort of live a double life within that company, and I'm able to really explore new ways of designing for dance. And so I'm very excited about that constantly. And I love the community there. But in addition to that, separate from my life in Boston, I work a lot with Justin Peck, and we're in the middle of two massive premieres right now. One of them's in Houston Ballet that's opening next month, it's a new piece with Philip Glass. That's an old, it's an old score, but being rewritten for the company. And the name of the score is called the photographer. And what's interesting about it is it was recorded but never written down. And so, Philip Glass. 

AC: Yeah, is he playing it?

BSB: No, I wish he's involved, though, for sure, because it has to be transcribed. But in but in a way, it's very new also, because he's making some changes. And so it's going to be a pretty exciting new work. And there's also the sort of the backbone of the piece is this giant sculpture. So this entire ballet of like 30 Dancers plus a large white sculpture going to be really exciting. So that's happening. And then Justin and I are working on our first musical together, called Illinois, which is a sci fi and Stevens inspired musical that is going to have its premiere at Bard Fisher center this summer, followed by a huge world tour next year. So that's taking up a lot of my life right now, which I'm super excited about. And it's been a long time coming in the works. And, and I know you have a long history with Soufiane, too. 

AC: He and I were buddies when we were 14 years old. But yes, it's amazing to see great artists and collaborators all grown up and working together. So you, and Justin and Soufiane, creating this, this ongoing conversation of work is just so exciting to watch. Really amazing.

BSB: Thank you. It's cool.

AC: The thing that I find really interesting about the Houston Valley piece is you have a lot of history also doing nontraditional installation type work as well. It's something that I've seen a few that is influences your dance work, you tell me a little bit about, outside of dance, the kind of things that inspire you. And when you're not doing dance, what kind of work in light do you also like to do?

BSB: I want to start by like seeing the artists that have inspired me to become a lighting designer to begin with. Many are light artists who had nothing to do with theater. So one of one of them, which many people know is James Terrell, I'm a huge, huge fan of his work. And what I love about his work, it has nothing to do with the source of the light. It has everything to do with what the light does to a room or a space. In the recent years, I've been hired through William Forsythe, the choreographer, and his close friend, Spencer Finch to create these light installations and galleries really all over the world. And so we're working together to create these sort of dark void spaces where it takes your it takes some time for your eyes to adjust. But it's sort of a new medium for me. And although art is in dance, it is like an interesting exercise in how we perceive light, how we understand light in the darkest of conditions. But the recent installation we did was inspired by the iceberg of the Titanic, and we created in our own way, the lighting conditions of what it might have been like, around midnight 1912 In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and so it was, it was a unique experience. And very dark. James Cameron would be impressed. Or annoyed. 

AC: I think that's the light James Cameron gave us, was probably too bright.

BSB: I'll say yes. I dabble a little bit in installation work but dance MSA is really my home.

AC: Absolutely. With all these different mediums, obviously your tools are different depending on what you're doing, whether it's an installation or a mix, piece installation or something that's driven by music. I know you're very much an artist and not so connected with the technology. But are there things that drive what you're dreaming about? That you can't do? Do you have a vision for what's out there in the future of light that you wish you could do? Are there are there paint brushes that you are dreaming about that you your creative mind hasn't quite been able to obtain?

BSB: Well, like I said, before, half my life has LED lighting director for the Boston Ballet. And so a lot of that job is maintaining the works of other designers that have come in within our company. And in addition to that, a lot of my I've been very blessed and to work with many, many companies all over the world. And the one challenge I have constantly is recreating color from company to company, fixture to fixture, source to source. And so I wish there was a way for us as lighting designers to really accurately measure and Document Color in a fast efficient way. Because as lighting designers, especially in dance, we're given very little time to document our work. And I'm constantly looking at, or searching for ways without just using an Excel sheet of just measuring cm y values. But something else that could help us more accurately recreate ideas from company to company. And so I don't know what that means just yet. But I think it maybe It's only us dance designers that care about it, which maybe is okay, but that's something that I constantly am working with. And as I recreate work from company to company, I'm always thinking about it. And I'm lucky that I'm able to go to many of these places. But there have been instances where I can't travel to these companies. And so I have to translate these ideas on paper. 

AC: That’s interesting. For our listeners who don't know, I had a few years working in contemporary dance as a lighting director. And so part of my job for the first half of my adult life was as an archivist, as a lighting director for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, I'd have to say that the challenge that you are speaking of has gotten harder. During that two and a half decades of, of doing that role, and tracking color and trying to describe it or document it in a way, because of the period of time I was doing it. Ultimately, we had a standard of fixture, which I think we would all agree would be the source for an HP l 575. And in general, from the late 90s to maybe a few years ago, that's what we were all basing our data on that plus gel. Right? And we could all quantify what a fixture with that lamp and gel meant. And we could document that and do it again. Right. And I think that that is now it's all kind of up in the air because of the LED revolution, or evolution, as we might say. It's a particular challenge now, because so many people are making different kinds of fixtures. And so I do believe it's a chase to try to understand it, I believe we're going to be in murky waters for a while in that front. But who knows what someone will dream up?

BSB: Yes. Another thing that's interesting about this is, let's just say if you're doing a brand new musical writing, or even or anything, any type of show, and you're touring, in this case, in my case, to seven different cities and seven different countries, the gear is going to be drastically different from city to city. And so it's like I want to find a way to not have to reinvent the wheel every time. So that's, that's something that I'm up against at the moment. And I'm finding ways around it, but it's just I think it's just the evolution of what we do. Yeah, for sure.

AC: I think at the same time, there's something to be said about a work of Broadway show a dance work, when it opens. That's what it is. And we've we walk away from it as as lighting professionals and say, we put it on a shelf and say, this is this is it, we've completed it, we finished it. And we don't want it to change every time we want it to be the same, right? And that's becoming harder and harder because of that. The advances in technology. I know that you've worked on a variety of things. Tell me a little bit about what you believe the now this this new technology that we are, we are all embracing how are you embracing led in terms of its capabilities are what are some of the challenges that you've found? Considering the LED is part of our everyday lives now.

BSB: I will admit, I'm leaning into LEDs more and more, I'm not afraid of them. And so although the technology is changing, I'm all about it. And I'm actually in the process, like I have many works with, let's say, Boston Ballet and New York City Ballet. And especially at New York City Ballet, I have works that have been running now for over 10 years, which is pretty wild to say. But the technology has changed for those works in the past 10 years. And so I'm seeing a lot of my work being recreated year after year. And so for me, I'm actually more leaning into not just New York City Ballet, but a few other companies to encourage them to make the switch sooner than later. So that way, I know what it looks like. So I have a sense of what it looks like. And I think I've gained this confidence or this excitement because I've had to recreate these works in so many companies elsewhere with new technology that it actually was pretty great. And it looked really good. And I think so I don't I'm actually not scared at all. I think it's just I think it's more about inviting our fellow colleagues and the community say, hey, let's lean into this. And let's, let's take the ride together. But the challenge, of course, is time. Actually, I must say it's not about the gear so much that a lot of these companies are it's like a like a fast moving factory or train. And it's hard to squeeze the time into to adapt the new gear. And I know, in Boston Ballet, we're up against this right now by switching our plot in a big way. And I know other companies are feeling the same. So it's more about also teaching our companies that we work with that this is an important aspect of what we do. So I'm all about it. So I say Bring on the LEDs, let's do it. But we have to teach our fellow colleagues to do the same.

AC: it's interesting to think this next generation of lighting professionals, this is all they know, because they have not had the opportunity to light a show with 300 conventionals. Or to seen preset, or, a panel board or whatever it has been whatever that that technology from the past that experience and what you know, our current colleagues know and are using or transitioning into this new newer technology, all they know is the LED. Right. And I think that that, that also is interesting, because how they reference color, how they, what they call a color, what we think of when we think about colors and its relationship to the gels. I know for myself, I find myself, still referencing gel books, right? Just because it's it is the standard for what I know, we have the opportunity to actually create a new language in some ways. Is there is this a moment in time to actually create new names for color? Interesting, right. New Words we've never heard before. Right? Who's stopping us? Right? Why is it gotta be blue? I think you and I could talk about this for hours.

BSB: I love this. 10 hours later.

AC: People are people are suddenly fast forwarding through our podcast. 

So! I have a quick little fun thing that I want to do with you. It's a quick fire. Right? It's kind of a rapid questions. You have not heard these questions before, but they're best if you just answer them get away with short. Not even a full sentence. 

LA or New York?

BSB: Oh, New York. Easy. 

AC: You're from LA!

BSB: I'm from LA but New York is my home. 

AC: Cool. LEDs or incandescent?

BSB: Oh, LED. I'm going in. 

AC: I like it. Digital or analog?

BSB: I'm gonna get in trouble. But I'm gonna say digital. I'm leaning in.

AC: Shorts or pants? 

BSB: Shorts. Yes, we're wearing shorts around Sydney today. It's getting warm out here. 

AC: Sushi or pizza? 

BSB: Oh, sushi all the way.

AC: PC or Mac? 

BSB: Mac.

AC: QolorFLEX or the other stuff?

BSB: QolorFLEX. And I must say I'm making my QolorFLEX debut this summer on, on the Illinois musical, we're going to be using a ton of it. So fantastic. 

AC: That's great. We will be along for the ride. We like to say we are an extension of your production team. That's super exciting. Can you shout out anybody you want to reference as someone who helped you along the way? Perhaps people who you know that were part of developing your career, people who you're excited to work with in the future? Anybody that's inspiring you?

BSB: I really want to say that I think that we're all sort of like a product of the people that we're surrounded by, you know, I think that the people we surround ourselves with can make a great influence on the way we approach life. And so the people that really changed my life in a big way were yourself, Al Crawford, Mark Stanley, Ken Billington, these are three people that really changed the way I view this world. And in very different ways for each for each person. So I'm very grateful for you three and but also just, you know, like I said, before, it's all about finding your people, and I wouldn't be anywhere without, you know, in this case, my wife, Libby, who has been a huge part of the any form of success in my life. She’s also an incredible artist as well.

AC: All brilliant artists. 

BSB: And then of course, all my collaborators are a huge part of my daily life. And so for me, I don't really separate work from home life. It's all the same. It's all my life. They're all my all my family. So it's a great thing. And Greta, you have to love our little Furbabies! 

AC: I think everybody on this podcast knows that I'm a big dog dad, too. Anytime they can be around me, they are.

BSB: Yeah. Amen. 

AC: Are you enjoying this career, Brandon Sterling Baker?

BSB: Oh, I love it, I wouldn't change it for anything. And I, in the past two years, I've been teaching at Vassar College, and I it's a temporary position. So it's not something I'm going to do much longer. But it's been really life changing to really share the things that I love about this this life. And I'm not one that has ever really been jaded. And I think you know me for this. And I think when you when anyone begins any career anywhere, I think that we're introduced at times, sometimes to people who are jaded or see the world in a certain way or aren't happy. I've never just subscribed to that. That's never been the way I think. And so I'm constantly looking for people who are, who enjoy what we do. And because I really do love it like I wouldn't, I can't imagine my life any other way. And I grew up with nothing. And I have very low standards. And so for me, it's just all been about, about the art itself. And so and I know it sounds very cheesy, but I truly mean it. Like I with every part of my body. I just love what we do. And and it's

AC: I believe you. You can see it and you can see it in the work, Brandon. Yeah, no regulations.

BSB: Thank you.

AC: Thank you. I want to say thank you for your time today. I am super proud of you in so many ways. And it's an honor to be able to have you on our podcast. And we hope that everyone who's listening takes a part of our conversation away and is inspired. So Brandon, thank you so much.

BSB: Thank you, happy Spring!

AC: Thank you for joining us for this episode of QolorTOPIX. Please join us next month for another exciting conversation with one of our customers or collaborators. Have a great day.

Welcome, Brandon!
Feels like home
How did you start working in light?
Can you tell us about lighting work outside of dance that inspires you?
Are there things that you've dreamed about being available to you as a lighting artist?
How are you embracing LED? Are there challenges?
Naming Light Color vs Gel
Quick Fire Questions
QolorFLEX or the other stuff?
Shout outs?
Are you enjoying this career?
Thank you!