As a theater lighting designer, Greg Starbird does a lot of planning. He analyzes the show's script. He meets with the show's director and other designers to determine a communal approach. He creates a light plot of his initial ideas and tweaks it as he goes along. "In smaller theaters, such as Mildred's Umbrella, I typically work alone to hang, cable, and focus the lights," he tells us. "This can be a long process depending on how involved the plot is, who was in the space last, and how much troubleshooting and repair work needs to be done to get the necessary lights operable."
Planning, he's found, decreases but doesn't eliminate problems in production. "No amount of preparation can ever make tech go perfectly, so I have to be ready to improvise quickly, effectively, and efficiently to satisfy the director and design team without compromising my own aesthetic."
And then there's the question of getting it "right," not just being glitch-free but enhancing the show's impact and deepening the audience's experience.
"Every play has at least one moment of near-crippling self-doubt and at least one moment of self-validation," he says, "and if I'm lucky, they come in that order and the latter outnumbers the former."
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What he does: "As a lighting designer, I help to set the mood, time, and location of each scene in a play. I collaborate with the director and the other members of the design team [including] set, costume, sound, sometimes projections."
Starbird says the majority of his work is done during tech week, that is when the actors rehearse with the finished set, sound, lighting and costumes. "It's typically the first time the director and other designers have seen my product, which inevitably leads to tweaks and fixes and sometimes refocusing."
Why he likes it: "I'm never sure if it's the art I'm doing or the people I'm collaborating with that I like more," Starbird tells us. "I know I love the problem-solving aspect of my job, as well as the physical labor of hanging and focusing the lights, but whether that's because of the actual process of each aspect or because of the sense of accomplishment that comes from revealing the final product is up for debate.
"I know that I love how ephemeral the product is, that its lifespan is fleeting, that each performance is unique and once the show is struck it can never be reproduced in the exact same manner. I love that my job is always changing, and each play brings its own set of challenges--either within the script or with the personalities I'm working with--and no two problems I encounter are ever quite the same. There's always something new."
What inspires him: "Inspiration, for me at least, is an odd thing. Since I'm not party to the selection of the play I'm designing for, the play itself serves as the initial inspiration. This is followed by discussions with the director and design team, where pretty much anything anyone says can serve as inspiration. Beyond that, simple things like how the light filters through the trees, or reflects off glass or plastic can inspire me. I see something interesting and I take a picture, come back to it later and think about how I could reproduce the effect or what I might use it for, or how it makes me feel and why."
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If not this, then what: "When I was growing up here in Houston, I wanted to be a slew of random things from archeologist - a dream which died when I realized it didn't come with a whip and revolver - to a police officer to a lawyer to a wilderness guide. At one point I even wanted to grow up to be MacGyver; the jobs always dealt with a degree of adventure or travel, collaboration with others and problem-solving.
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"I want to teach at some point, and went to grad school at the University of Houston so I'd have the possibility of doing so in the future."
If not here, then where: "I've thought about moving back to San Antonio, where I went to college, but don't want to move without better job prospects than just freelancing. I've traveled there a few times for work (one recent show, and a few times to give high school students a crash course in lighting), but as long as I'm just freelancing, I'd rather stay here in Houston and travel out to jobs elsewhere when they're available. I like cities where I have a chance to get outdoors and out into the country. I love Texas and would prefer to stay here, but other areas I'd be interested in are Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, maybe Washington State or Vancouver, Canada."
What's next: In October, Starbird was lighting designer for Red Death at Mildred's Umbrella. A couple of high school productions got his attention next - Titus Andronicus at Episcopal High School and Catch Me If You Can at Westbury Christian School. Starbird has plans to visit New York City this month, where he'll see several plays.
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