On Wednesday October 23, I attended a talk with Jennifer Tipton at the Modlin Center. Jennifer Tipton is an acclaimed lighting designer for dance and theatre whose work has earned her a prestigious MacArthur award as well as two Tony awards. As I am currently working as assistant lighting designer for our theatre department’s main stage production, I was excited to attend and hear about her experiences and wisdom in the field. The talk was moderated and put together by Anne Van Gelder, director of dance at UR, and Maja E. White, faculty in the theatre department, lighting and sound designer, and my mentor. When Maja was young, Jennifer Tipton was one of her mentors, so it was interesting to hear from the mentor of my mentor and to see how the influence has trickled down to me.
She had quite a lot to say about how her experience has shaped but little to say in terms of specific advice. She talked about how being a performer (a dancer) made it easy to approach a piece from a performer’s point of view and that she only fell in love with lighting when she literally stepped back to look at the big picture. That was her first broad piece of advice. The second was to be rough on yourself. She didn’t really elaborate but I got the sense that she meant it’s okay to be your own worst critic because that’s how we improve.
Something interesting that came up was that Anne asked Jennifer if she had some commentary on how she felt being a woman in, what some might call, a male-dominated profession (lighting design or even just technical theatre in general). The interesting thing is that Jennifer didn’t really seem inclined to entertain that train of thought. She is of the older generation and the stereotype I have of that is that they say “that’s just how it was/is” or “I was discriminated against for being a woman” even if they actually were. And sure enough, what she said was that you get hired for your art. And maybe there were plenty of times that she wasn’t hired because she was a woman, but she could do nothing else but assume it was because of her art. I found a strange sort of comfort in those words. Kind of thinking about how I could either be bitter and assume I wasn’t hired because I’m a woman or I can assume they just weren’t looking for what I was offering and that somewhere else, they would be looking for it.
The last thing I’ll throw in is that I really related to a little anecdote she had that I found quite relatable. She talked about how when she moved from lighting dance to lighting theatre, the whole script analysis thing was very difficult for her. She didn’t understand the ins and outs of analyzing a script like a director would. So much so that for her first Broadway show… she didn’t even read the play.